Sign In Forgot Password

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vayechi                            January 7, 2023 - 14 Tevet 5783

01/06/2023 09:22:18 AM


The Blesssing of Ephraim and Menashe

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Shoftim                      September 3, 2022 - 7 Elul, 5782

09/02/2022 09:11:21 AM


What makes a good leader?  Is it just about their proposed policies?  Or is it also their relatability and trustworthiness?  To what extent should it matter to us to choose a leader who is kind?  Or just?  Or wise?  Today, we might even argue that some of these qualities may actually be detrimental to a leader.  A kind leader might be viewed by his adversaries as weak, a just leader may be outmaneuvered by someone more unscrupulous, and a wise leader… who’s to say what wisdom even is these days when truth seems to matter so little.

In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, the Torah tells us what kind of a king should be appointed over Israel.  The Israelite king, says the Torah, shall not acquire too many horses, nor shall he marry too many wives which was normal a couple thousand years ago.  Nor shall the king amass too much wealth in silver and gold, says the Torah.  And when he ascends his throne, he shall write two copies of the Torah in its entirety so that he may carry a Torah scroll with him wherever he goes. 

If you read carefully, the text says something rather funny.  Other than the commandment for the king to write two Torah scrolls, it’s easy not to notice that in that whole section about wealth and horses and wives, the Torah doesn’t actually “command” anything of the king, rather, the commandment is directed to us, the Israelites, who we are to APPOINT as king -- keeping in mind that the title of king is usually either inherited from a relative or won in battle, but not usually appointed.  What’s funny is that by putting the responsibility of the commandment on the Israelites, the Torah becomes uniquely relevant to Jewish people today living under democratic governments which give us the opportunity to fulfill that mitzvah every few years by choosing who we vote for.  And perhaps today it’s unlikely we’ll find anyone on a ballot who has a thousand wives, or a legion of horses, but just in case, the Torah tells us why it’s so important.

The king will be one who reads the Torah every day so that he will learn to fear God, perform mitzvot, and embody all of the lessons of the Torah, “l’vilti room l’vavo me’echav, ulvilti soor min hamitzvah yamin usmol” – “in order that he should not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandments either to the right or left”.

Most of the Israelite kings of old certainly did not live up to the Torah’s expectations, and the Tanach is rife with the suffering of the Israelites’, often as a direct result of the corruption in the monarchy.  Even the wise King Solomon, himself, had a thousand wives.  But what might we achieve if the world were so blessed that each and every one of its leaders were thoughtful, wise, humble, generous, principled and well-intentioned people?  The Torah doesn’t say what would happen, and perhaps we will never know.  But can you just imagine?  The choice is ours.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Eikev                                        August 20, 2022 - 23 Av, 5782

08/19/2022 09:38:15 AM


What is “greatness”?  In the Torah and in Jewish prayer, we invoke all kinds of ways to describe God as “great”, exaulted, lauded, glorified.  And so too, the same kind of language is present in both Christian and Muslim prayer, like the Arabic phrase Allah hu Akbar, “God is Greatest”.  But what do we really mean when we use these kinds of words?  Do we mean big?  How big?  Or is size a word that doesn’t really make sense when talking about God?  Perhaps we are talking about deeds or conquests?  Many human leaders were known as “Great” for their deeds and conquests… there’s Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Catherine the Great, and Charlemagne really just means Charles the Great.  These were leaders known not only for their conquests, but their despotism, their ruthlessness, their military cunning and their great wealth.  Is this what greatness means when we use it to describe God?  

The whole book of Deuteronomy, the Book of D’varim is made up of the last speeches of Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu, before Moshe dies and the Israelites cross the Jordan river into the land destined to become the land of Israel.  In these final speeches, our greatest teachings, and most fundamental principles can be found collected together and spelled out for us in the most direct terms that the Torah offers.  In this week’s parsha, Eikev, we have the second paragraph of the Shma, the part that commands us to love God with all our heart, all our might, and all our soul.  We also learn the phrase, v’achalta, v’savata, uveirachta et Hashem Elokeicha, and you shall eat, and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord your God, from which we derive the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing of gratitude that we recite after a meal.  But embedded right in the middle of our parsha is a most profound teaching that doesn’t usually get much attention because it really is just a summary of the meaning of Jewish faith, nothing very new considering we’re pretty close to the end of the Torah by now… that is except for an odd pairing of two concepts that although we’ve seen them before, we haven’t really seen them paired together like this.  D’varim chapter 10 verses 17 and 18 read as follows: “Ki Adonai Eloheichem hu Elohei HaElohim v’Adonei ha’Adonim, haEl haGadol haGibor v’haNorah asher lo yissa fanim v’lo yikach shochad, oseh mishpat yatom v’almanah, v’ohev ger latet lo lechem v’simlah.” – “For Adonai Your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing”.

In Judaism, greatness is not defined by size, nor conquest.  It is not dependent on wealth, popularity or influence, or pretty much anything that it seems our modern society describes as great.  So what is Jewish great?  Strangely enough, it’s not dependent on how much Torah we know, or even how many mitzvot we keep, but simply, greatness is to be fair, just and incorruptible, and to be compassionate and care for those in need.  That’s the kind of true greatness that is fit for God, and the kind of greatness we must aspire to embody.

Shabbat Shalom,



Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vayakhel                          February 26, 2022 - 25 Adar 1, 5782

02/25/2022 11:12:24 AM


In parshat Vayakhel, the actual construction of the Tabernacle is described. It begins with an overview of the materials involved, a brief tangent into the observance of Shabbat, but then we begin with the construction of the tapestries, wall panels, sockets, curtains. This is followed by the construction of the menorah, and the incense altar, the outer altar and the washing station, the mesh curtains which surrounded the Tabernacle courtyard, and the various beams and hooks that anchored them into the ground. All in all, it’s a rather dry parsha. Typically, parshat Vayakhel is paired most years with a second parsha, Pekudei, read on the same Shabbat, and is only split into two separate weeks on leap years, such as we have this year, so as to make enough parshiot to fill out the entire year. The double-parsha is something of a blessing for rabbis (and cantors as the case may be) for the process of developing sermons, because it can be a bit challenging to find topics and themes in the text that congregations will find both interesting and relevant to modern times. And when we do have a leap year, and we only have parshat Vayakhel to work with, you can almost be guaranteed that the topic for a sermon will be about the part that discusses how the Israelites were so willing to donate their riches to the building project that Moses actually had to tell them to stop. This is followed by the tongue-in-cheek bemoaning of how hard it is to raise funds for essential shul maintenance and programming today. But the fact remains that sometimes, albeit very rarely, we can go searching for something deep and meaningful in the Torah, something relevant and pertinent to what is going on in our lives today, and actually come up somewhat empty handed.

So what do we do when the Torah is silent? What happens when sometimes we desperately need an answer to a burning question, guidance in a time of need and our tradition has nothing to say? What happens when our situation seems to fall into a dark crack between Jewish law, when the blade has found a soft spot between the plates of our armor? I wish that I knew. All I can think to do is shine as much light as possible in the darkness, and see if the answers reveal themselves. So, Let There Be Light.

I was always terrified to become a dad. Having taught classrooms of almost every age group, I’m confident around children, but I am essentially ignorant when it comes to babies. I have no idea what to do with them, and I find they usually don’t know what to do with me. But Jamie is a baby whisperer, a diaper juggler, and a degreed expert in early childhood education. The fear stemming from my lack of confidence melted away (admittedly not entirely) the day she became my wife. But for two whole years we tried, sought medical help as our hopes and dreams cycled through worries and fears until God’s miraculous universe finally coalesced for us. It was a Friday evening after zoom davening when the stick said something it had never said before. We thought it had to be a mistake and tried several more test kits, they all said the same thing and still we had a hard time believing it. Most couples tend to have at least a few moments to themselves to absorb the news, but at the very same time, my parents appeared on our doorstep dropping off a freshly baked challah for us. The news was plastered onto our faces, and they could see it immediately. There was joy, there was panic, and plenty of crying.

The joy stayed with us, even as the morning sickness began complicating life, but began to fade when morning then became all day and all night. Further complications had us in and out of the hospital on a regular basis. We were fortunate though, to have a family of doctors which included specialists in obstetrics to guide us, answer our questions, and help keep our anxieties in check. “The first trimester is the worst”, they told us. It kept us hopeful that pretty soon we could breathe a small sigh of relief and actually enjoy our miracle, if only we could hang on a bit longer. And although we were already several weeks into the second trimester, eventually the worst symptoms subsided, or at least we’re not as omnipresent as they had been, and we did get to enjoy our miracle for a short time. But that was, of course, until a fateful Wednesday morning when during a routine checkup, Jamie asked specifically to see an ultrasound again because she “just had a feeling”. Due to COVID protocols, I was on speakerphone in the room while I sat in the car in an alley behind Mount Sinai hospital. Typically when there is something wrong, the ultrasound technician won’t give the news, but will bring in the doctor. But even through the surgical mask, Jamie could see it on the technician’s face and called her out. “You can’t find the heartbeat”.

We were at 18 weeks. The technician paused, knowing that the secret was already out and confirmed that she was having trouble finding it. Some technicians at smaller clinics can have difficulties with their equipment, others are just less experienced, but an ultrasound technician at Mount Sinai hospital does not make these kinds of mistakes. The doctor was called, the hallway outside the room was asked to be cleared, and we already knew.

Induction was scheduled for Friday morning, two days later, and we arrived at Mount Sinai with a suitcase, extra blankets and pillows, and a Shabbat food package from Bikur Cholim that came complete with electric candles sticks. They didn’t actually work in the end, but the sentiment was nice.

Not all miscarriages are the same. We could have scheduled the procedure for a week and a half later, and it would have been classified as stillbirth. The labour lasted 14 hours, but the pain medication stopped being effective after the first 6 or so. An epidural was ordered and we were transferred to the delivery room. I could hear babies crying in the rooms we passed by as we rolled down the hallway on the gurney. Thankfully, Jamie was far too distracted to hear them. The needle was seconds away, but too late. And minutes later it was over. He arrived and left us in the same moment. Noah Menachem ben Yirmiyahu Lev v’Chaya Bracha z’l.

Jewish tradition has very little to say about situations like this, much like the people around us who understandably struggle to find the right words, themselves. I certainly don’t know. Jamie held him and said goodbye, but I couldn’t. She told me he had her almond shaped eyes, my thin lipped wide mouth, and a clubbed foot just like Jamie had also been born with, but on the other side. But yet our tradition teaches that Noah wasn’t a baby. Though we feel pain and anguish, we are not in mourning. Though we had a casket that I held in my arms, sang to and covered with earth, there was no funeral. Though we sit at home, remembering, sharing stories, receiving the most beautiful messages of comfort and consolation from our friends, family and community, there is no shiva.

We know that our feelings are acknowledged and supported by all those around us, and for that we are so blessed. But the gaping hole in our religious teachings is an emotional pit that is hard not to fall into, and begs questions that I’m not certain that I want to know the answers to. Did Noah have a neshama, a soul? Where is it now? Am I a dad, or am I not? And of course we can have our own opinions, our own imaginings and theories as we plumb the depths of Jewish knowledge, searching for a source that we can use for some small bit of guidance. But, sometimes a parsha just doesn’t quite have what we need. Sometimes, on a leap year, while a new war rages, an ongoing pandemic keeps us apart, rising antisemitism heightens our fears, sometimes the parsha is Vayakhel. And as is the case, all we can do is resort to the only sermon Vayakhel offers us. But unlike Moses, we will not ask for your contributions to stop. Your thoughts and messages are what continues to sustain us through this difficult time in our lives, and we thank you all from the bottom of our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Ki Tisa                            February 19, 2022 - 18 Adar I 5782

02/18/2022 08:58:40 AM


The Sin of the Golden Calf represents the lowest and darkest point for the Israelite people in the Torah narrative.  It strikes us as completely baffling.  How could the Israelites commit such a grievous sin against God?  No less, the 10 commandments had been given by God Himself only days earlier.  Why would they?  How could they?  How could we?

Like airing dirty laundry, the story of the Golden Calf is not one that we, as Jews, want to talk about.  It makes us feel ashamed to think how badly we failed to live up to our commitment to be a holy people, a people of law, justice, mercy, equality and sanctity.  And even though we know that things in the Torah manage to work out in the end for the Israelites, we are still left in the moment wondering how we can possibly explain the actions of our ancestors.

The explanation from our sages is given with a sigh.  Our ancestors were slaves, worth nothing more than the strength of our backs to Pharoah in Egypt.  Robbed of humanity, believing that they had been abandoned by God, the Hebrew slaves understood ‘holiness’ to be nothing more than an empty word.  Suddenly, it appeared that God had not forgotten them after all.  God worked miracles beyond human comprehension, God became the sword and shield that leapt to the Israelites’ defense, and overnight the Israelites were free…to be a nation sanctified with laws and statutes, a history, an inheritance, a culture.  God offered more still; a relationship, spirituality, divine purpose… in a word, ‘holiness’.  Our great rabbis teach that the reason for our catastrophic fall was that we came too far, too quickly.  We lacked the maturity to moderate ourselves, the humility to keep our ambitions in check, and the experience of tradition and wisdom to balance out our newly rekindled spirit.  And so we craved a God that was not ethereal and elusive, but physical, tangible and close—an objectifiable God to which we could easily orient our devotion and gratitude as it boiled over; a God of material, of instinct, of raw unbridled emotion, a God of no demand, expectation or accountability, a God in whom we could lose ourselves, and lose ourselves we did.

To be mortal is to be breakable.  Each one of us, capable of the deepest insights, the noblest integrity, or the most generous heart, we can all break when pushed to our limits.  Over the last two years, our community has suffered its share of heartbreaking bereavements, and mourners have been unable to grieve in the traditional way that the Jewish people have always sought solace.  And yet, I am inspired by the way that each and every time we have needed it, we have refused to give in, seeking every avenue we can dream of to come together in spirit if not in person, continuing to share the burden of grief among our community, bringing new light wherever we find a flame that has gone out.  Each of us alone may be mortal.  Each of us alone may be breakable.  The wisdom of the 3500 years since the Golden Calf has taught us, however, that wherever we have family, friends and community, we are never truly alone.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jewish Food for Thought-Parshat Beshalach/Shabbat Shira  January 15, 2022 - 13 Shevat 5782

01/14/2022 09:15:44 AM


Shabbat Shalom and welcome to a brand new season of a YouTube series we are calling Kosher Food For Thought, that will include fresh takes on topics of Jewish interest, reflections on the weekly Torah portion, factoids from Jewish history, and conversation starters to use around the Shabbat dinner table.  That brand new opening sequence is in honour of this week being Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, so named because this week’s parsha contains the Song of the Sea.  A beautiful piece of ancient Hebrew prose in the Torah which is the song that the children of Israel sang when the walls of the Sea of Reeds came crashing down behind them, destroying the Egyptian army.  Free at last after 200 years of slavery, the Torah records how the Israelites, overcome with emotion, burst into spontaneous song.

While the words of the song can be found in the Torah, we honestly don’t have any idea what the song actually sounded like.  The text tells us, “vatikach Miriam hanevi’ah achot aharon et hataf b’yadah vatetzenah kol hanashim achareha batupim uvamachalot”, - “And Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Aharon, took a timbral into her hand and led the women in drumming and dancing” – the timbral was an ancient drum.  The text paints us a bit of a picture, but still, what did the song SOUND like?  The truth is… we don’t know!  Most of the traditional synagogue music that stands out in our minds today was written during the last couple of centuries.  There are some melodies that are older such as the prayer modes, but we really can’t much trace their usage further back than a few more hundred years.  Even the melodies we use to read Torah are only relatively modern interpretations of trope symbols that have only been around a thousand years.  It’s weird… a thousand years doesn’t get you too far back when you’re Jewish.  Except though, when we read the Song of the Sea in shul, it is customary for the Torah reader to switch into a different melody, just for that section.  “Ashira L’adonai, ki ga’o ga’ah, soos verochvo rama vayam”.  We have no idea where that melody came from or how long we’ve been using it.  But the melody is actually quite interesting because while Western music is based on a 12 tone series – that’s all the letter-named notes and sharps and flats that make up pretty much all the music we know and love, the melody we use for this spot in the Torah, known as the Shira melody, only has 5 tones.  The 5 note scale, also called a pentatonic scale is the oldest known musical mode that we know about, a musical mode that ancient musical instruments were often built in a number of civilizations around the world, including the middle east.  In fact, it is reasonably likely that whatever the original Song of the Sea sounded like, there’s a good chance it was sung in a pentatonic mode.  So who knows?  Perhaps the melody you hear in shul this Shabbat really is the very same song the Israelites once sang three and a half thousand years ago, on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. 

Just some kosher food for thought.  
                                                             Shabbat Shalom!
                                                                                           Chaz J

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Toldot                                November 6, 2021 - 2 Kislev, 5782

11/05/2021 09:36:32 AM


Angels, demons, miracles… traditional Jewish belief incorporates a number of things that, in the eyes of many, strain credulity because they ask us ignore what most of our experience has taught us about the world, nature and science.  What gives us the right, as Jews, to scoff at or mock some of the beliefs that are out there in the world today that we might call silly or ridiculous?  This week, hundreds of followers of the insane Qanon cult showed up at the Grassy Knoll in Dallas,  because, apparently, Q said that John F Kennedy would be rising from the dead on Tuesday and heading over there to greet them.  Technically, the raising of the dead is a concept that Judaism believes in too, in Hebrew, t’chiat hameitim.  It’s supposed to happen when the mashiach arrives, ushering in new era of peace and holiness for a troubled world.  So why is the Q resurrection of JFK stupid, while the Jewish belief in mashiach is accepted as mainstream?  To help answer this question, we’re going to talk about aliens…  hang on tight, this is going to be a mind-bendingly fun one. 

Do you believe in aliens?  Don’t answer just yet.  When we ask the question that way, what immediately comes to mind for most people is UFOs and little green spacemen that we’re used to from movies and tv, which seems pretty silly.  But consider what the likelihood really is that there may be another planet out there with life on it like ours.  Our planet earth orbits the sun, which is just one star in our Milky Way galaxy, made up of some 100 billion other stars.  Our galaxy is just one of trillions of other galaxies.  Scientists tell us that based on the statistical probability alone, it is almost certain that there must be life somewhere else out there.  Humanity has only been around a very short while compared to cosmic time, and if there really is life out there in the universe, chances are that they will have been around far longer than we have.  Perhaps they’ve already cracked the mysteries of existence, figured out sustainable environmentally friendly living, defeated social problems like poverty and prejudice, and eliminated disease?  Despite the almost instinctive urge we feel to dismiss the possibility of life on other worlds as ridiculous, imagine what humanity could gain if it turns out to be true.  This is exactly why scientists invest their time and expertise, along with millions of tax dollars into programs like SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.  As bizarre as it sounds, believing in aliens is not as crazy a thing as we might have thought, and we are all, to some degree, invested in it.  And we explore that possibility not out of zealous fervor, but analytically and thoughtfully.  By contrast, we see more and more people today, like the Qanon followers, who are entirely divorced from reality.  From anti-vaxxers to stop-the-steal folks, from 5G alarmists to flat-earthers, we have learned that human beings are evolutionarily hardwired to find safety in groups, and will sometimes sacrifice their own sense of logic and reason in order to feel the security that comes with belonging to the group.

But we’re not quite done yet, because why not then consider Judaism merely a system of group-think?  What makes our ideology as Jews any more thoughtful or analytical than another established religion?  Nearly a thousand years ago, the great commentator and philosopher, Rambam, published his Guide to the Perplexed, the seminal work of Jewish rationalism, the idea that every concept in Judaism can be framed in a way that is based in both logic and reasoning, including the concept of Mashiach, which made its way into Rambam’s 13 principles of faith.  How did he do it?  Here’s a Maimonidean approach to the answer with a modern twist… 

For the sake of argument, let’s explore the seemingly more boring answer to our original question about believing in aliens.  What if we were to say that we don’t believe that aliens exist, and that we are alone in the universe?  That would mean that of all of the planets, circling all of the hundreds of billions of stars of our galaxy, our galaxy one among trillions of other galaxies in our possibly infinite universe… it’s just us.  It’s all ours.  Somehow, this is the one spot in the entire universe where things can move because something else had the intention to push them.  The entire concept of intention only exists here in this one place.  And not all life on earth possesses the extremely rare gift of intention.  A tree can’t do it, only those creatures with a degree of consciousness, which is something even more rare.  And of all the creatures on earth with consciousness, only one form of life, one species of animal takes consciousness one step further into sentience, the ability to be aware of one’s self, to be able to reason and gain new understanding.  And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last few thousand years, gaining knowledge and understanding, and more in recent years than hundreds of years ago.  Our learning is accelerating.  And where does all that learning and understanding reach its limit?  Humans today are only a few thousand years removed from a hunter-gatherer society.  Where will humanity be in another few thousand years?  Will we have solved for ourselves the problems of poverty, disease and bigotry that plague our world?  What will artificial intelligence look like in a thousand years?  Two thousand?  A hundred thousand?  And what about humanity itself?  What will our bodies look like?  Will we figure out how to defeat death and all live together forever inside a computer?  Unless we destroy ourselves, which admittedly seems like a possibility, the only alternative is that humanity continues to progress until one day when our reality will be unrecognizable from the reality we live in today when the worldly problems we know of today simply don’t exist anymore.  Judaism has a word for that… mashiach… the possibly inevitable end times, when the world is delivered into a state of peace and holiness. 

As you might imagine, this is not exactly a traditional teaching about the Jewish concept of Mashiach, but it true Rambam style, the rationale is not the point.  Rather, the point is that it CAN be rationalized with nothing more than a thought experiment.  The truth is that we don’t know how the Mashiach will actually manifest itself in our world, but we’re open to all kinds of different possibilities.  What we do know is that we, the Jewish people, need to be doing our part to bring it about. 

In this week’s parsha, Toldot, we are introduced to the rivalry between our forefather, Yaakov who is clever and thoughtful, and his twin brother, Esav who is large, brutish and physically strong.  In the Torah, and throughout Jewish history, the image of Yaakov verses Esav has always been a paradigm by which the Jewish people have seen the world—the spiritually focused, educated and thoughtful Jews facing a world that is focused more on materialism and superficiality.  Esav, being the first born should have been given his father’s blessing, but instead God determined that the promise to Abraham would need to be fulfilled by Yaakov, not Esav.  And ever since then, it has been the Jewish mission to be a Light Unto the Nations, to be the people who, in every generation, annoy the world with our incessant moralizing, to show by example what it looks like to think deeply and meaningfully, to force people to talk about what our obligations are to the world, instead of only about what we think we are rightfully entitled to, to sometimes be the only voice of reason that keeps nudging our species towards mashiach and away from our own destruction.  I personally believe that if humanity makes it to mashiach, it will be because the Jewish people got us all there with thoughtfulness, a strong sense of morality, and the ability to recognize how preciously rare life in the universe is… our holiness.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vayera                            October 23, 2021 - 17 Cheshvan 5782

10/22/2021 09:36:50 AM


The Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, is the biblical story in which God tests Abraham’s loyalty by commanding him to ritually sacrifice his son.  And even though Abraham is stopped at the last moment, this story is arguably the most disturbing story in the entire Torah, both for its narrative and what it appears to imply about traditional Jewish theology.

Are we really meant to glorify Abraham for his faith in God while ignoring something really dark?  Who is this God who we’re supposed to believe is infinite, mighty and fundamentally good that would ask such a terrible thing, even without intending to follow through?  Tough questions usually mean tough answers…

Parshat Vayera begins by demonstrating one of Abraham’s greatest strengths that the Jewish people continue to value greatly to this day: hospitality.  We’re only six chapters into learning about Abraham as the most recent main character in the Torah, and we’re paying particularly close attention to him because only since introducing Abraham is the Torah really talking about the Jewish people.  Before Abraham, the Torah is telling us the story of humanity as a whole with Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, and the tower of Babel.  Abraham is the first character we meet in the bible in whom we really want to see something of ourselves as Jews.  And so the parsha opens with Abraham welcoming three strangers into his home who turn out to be angles, and prophesize that even though Sarah has been barren her whole life and getting on in years, she will conceive and bear a son.  And as miraculous as that is, it’s hard for us to be too surprised, because God has a promise to keep with Abraham to turn him into a great and mighty nation, which would be pretty hard to do otherwise.  And yet, as we begin the final chapter of Vayera, the situation turns deadly serious. The entire story of the Binding of Isaac takes place over one single chapter of the Torah, just 24 verses long, but each word has a lot to say.

God calls out, “Abraham”, and Abraham answers, “hineini”, “Here I am”, a word that reminds us of Moses answering God’s call from the burning bush.  God says, “kach na et bincha, et yechidcha, asher havta, et Yitzchak, v’lech l’cha el eretz haMoriah, v’ha’aleyhu sham l’olah al echad heharim asher omar eilecha”.  “Take now, your son, your special one, the one you love, Isaac…”

In an only 24 sentence story, this is a lengthy way of getting around to Isaac.  Sure, there’s a dramatic effect doing it this way, but our sages imagine Abraham trying to pretend to God that he doesn’t understand.  God says take your son, Abraham says, “what do you mean, I have two sons?”… you forgot about Ishamel!  God says, “your special one”, Abraham says I know one of my sons was born rather miraculously but both are special to me.  “The one you love” says God.  “I have only one son of my beloved wife Sarah, but I love both of my sons”, replies Abraham.  “Isaac” says God.  “Yeah, well what about him?” we imagine Abraham saying.  “V’lech lecha el eretz HaMoriah”, “And go to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him to me as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will show you.  The Hebrew eerily echoes the very beginning of the story of Abraham where he is told to leave the land of his fathers and settle in Canaan, “a land that I will show you”.

Early the next morning Abraham gets ready to go.  The Torah specifically makes us understand that this was EARLY the next morning without further explanation.  We are left to wonder, where was Sarah?  Perhaps still sleeping?  Or perhaps Abraham felt so conflicted that he knew if he didn’t set off as soon as possible, he might never have the courage to go through with it?  The Torah also tells us Abraham brought with him two servants, and yet the next words are about him splitting wood.  Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for the servants to do it?  Our imagination paints a picture of Abraham insisting that he split the wood personally while quietly processing what he was being asked to do with it.

The next verse begins with the words “Bayom Hashlishi”, “on the third day they reached their destination.  What happened on the first two days, we don’t know.  What did they talk about?  Clearly Isaac is old enough to notice something’s wrong.  As Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain alone, Isaac asks, “hinei ha’esh, v’haeitzim, v’ayey haseh l’olah?”, “Here’s the flintstone, here’s the wood, but where is the sheep to sacrifice?”.

Abraham answers, “Elohim yir’eh lo haseh l’olah, b’ni” – “God will see to the sheep sacrifice, my son”.  This is how most translations read the text, but when we see the words in the Torah and remember that the original Hebrew has no vowels or grammar, a chill goes down our spine when we realize that that comma in the English translation is doing a lot of heavy lifting, and could just as easily be moved over one word.  The verse concludes, “vayelchu sh’neihem b’yachad”, and the two walk on together, which is an interesting phrase that will mean more in a moment…

They reach the summit, Abraham builds the altar and the Torah proceeds to describe each step as Isaac is bound and placed on the wood.  Abraham raises his knife over Isaac and at the last possible moment, an angel calls out to him to tell him that the test is over, and that the future generations that would come from Abraham’s line are assured.  When the Torah described Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain together, now upon their return, Isaac isn’t mentioned at all, leaving us only to wonder, how a son now regards his father.  More curiously, the Torah tells us that Abraham and his servants stayed in Beer-Sheva, again the Torah gives us no explicit reason, but they didn’t go home to see Sarah.  As this week’s parsha ends, Abraham receives reports of the goings on of his family from Beer-Sheva, and the Torah is not clear as to whether he ever sees Sarah again before her death, which begins next week’s reading.

In the sanitized Hebrew school version of this story, we glorify Abraham as a hero, the man whose faith was so strong he was even willing to give up his son.  But it is probably more appropriate to view Abraham as a tragic hero, one who lost his way in the end… and even though it will be some time before Abraham dies, this really is the end of his story.  It’s even bookended with the phrase “lech lecha”, a literary technique that we often find in ancient Hebrew, so that Abraham’s story both begins and ends with the theme of the journey.  

But how is any of this even possible?  Abraham was following God’s instruction… humans, even Biblical heroes, we can accept as fallible, but God?  How can we justify God’s actions?

It’s curious that it isn’t actually God who stops Abraham in the end, but rather an angel.  In fact, after commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God never speaks to Abraham directly again.  It is almost as if Abraham, in fact, failed the test.  And I think it’s ok to be at peace with that.  I imagine God waiting, generation after generation, for the right person to come along to begin elevating the human race to a greater purpose, to begin a civilization where people live ethically and in harmony with the universe, where they care for others as a matter of principle and not as means of leverage, a civilization that champions mercy.  And along comes Abraham with all of the best qualities that humanity has to offer, who believes in the sanctity of human life, who treats others with respect and dignity, who wants to embrace spirituality and living conscientiously .  Abraham has all of the right building blocks, but he doesn’t yet have the experience to understand God.  The people who would come to know God would have to be a stiff-necked people, not a compliant people.  They would need to champion knowledge and study, to learn to think and reason for themselves.  They would need to be people with chutzpah written into their DNA so that they could become, as the Torah would later call the Israelites, a nation of priests, each individual person born with the audacity to cultivate their own personal relationship with the Divine.

Abraham may have proven his faith and loyalty, but he also proved that his progeny would have to be carefully molded for generations to come, which is why even though Abraham’s story is over, the story of the Jewish people continues on.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Noach                                    October 9, 2021 - 3 Cheshvan 5782

10/08/2021 10:31:48 AM


Vegetarianism, veganism, plant-based meat alternatives, free-range eggs, free-range chicken, our options today for embracing a diet that is both kosher and conscientious can be found in every aisle of the grocery store, and humanity is better for it.  Who could deny that if we had to choose between two otherwise identical meals where one was sourced without causing suffering to another living creature… that that is an inherently better choice.  Don’t get me wrong, I like meat.  I eat meat.  But it bothers me when I go to my local Metro and see aisles of beautifully prepared and packaged meats that bare no real resemblance to the living animals that I know that they came from, because it means that I don’t have to think about it when I probably should.   Even my six-year-old niece insists that the chicken she eats for dinner is different from the live chicken she sees on a farm, and I’m not going to be the one who tells her otherwise.  This phenomenon is relatively new in our modern society since the industrialization of farming and produce which has distanced us from our food.  That distance has psychologically sanitized our food for us, so that we can conveniently avoid internalizing the connection between the chicken on the farm and the chicken at grocery store.  According to the Torah, the last time humanity did that, there was a big flood…

The story of Noah and the flood is perhaps the most universally recognized biblical story.  It is often one of the first stories from the Torah that we learn as children in Hebrew school, and why not?  Animals marching two by two, a terrifying storm, the return of the dove with the olive branch, and the meaning of the rainbow all come together in an exciting and entertaining narrative told by Donald Duck in Disney’s Fantasia 2000.  But like most biblical stories we learn at Hebrew school when we were little, there is a tendancy to leave out some of the more uncomfortable bits, such as the part about Noah getting drunk and passing out in the nude, or, when you take a quick second to think about it, the mass murder of all human beings on earth.  And then, there are the parts that we think we know pretty well about the story, like God’s promise never to wipe out all life on earth again, which turns out to be a lot more complicated and nuanced than we might have thought, with some shocking implications.

Bereishit 9:11 contains God’s formal declaration of the covenant, “v’hakimoti et briti itchem, v’lo yikaret kol basar od mimei hamabul, v’lo yihiyeh od mabul l’shachet ha’aretz” – “I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth”.  The statement seems straightforward enough, but it’s hard not to notice that God only rules out a flood as a means to destroy the earth, but says nothing about other means of destruction such as meteors, volcanos or nuclear war.  But it gets even more interesting when we include the other 18 verses that the Torah uses to more fully explain what this covenant involves, including this oddly placed rule for mankind:

כׇּל־רֶ֙מֶשׂ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוּא־חַ֔י לָכֶ֥ם יִהְיֶ֖ה לְאׇכְלָ֑ה כְּיֶ֣רֶק עֵ֔שֶׂב נָתַ֥תִּי לָכֶ֖ם אֶת־כֹּֽל׃

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat, as with the green of the fields, I give you all these. (9:3)

It begs the question… was man not permitted to eat meat before this new rule?  In the beginning, God created a perfect world, a literal Garden of Eden, and nowhere in the Torah does it say that a single creature died, let alone been killed, let alone been eaten.  One way to offer a modern spin on the traditional teaching from our sages would be to say that the Garden of Eden was like an all-inclusive 5-star resort, that, by the time of the flood, had devolved into Lord of the Flies, where life was no longer sacred, neither human nor animal life.  The free-for-all had to end, and the reset button had to be pushed, a creation do-over with new rules.  And this time, for the first time, it is spelled out in black and white that in this new world, mankind is officially allowed to kill a non-human creature to eat it, but there’s more.  When blood is spilled, says God, a reckoning is required.  If a human being should take the life of another human being, God will demand the perpetrator’s life in return.   If it is an animal, the blood cannot be eaten, but can only be used as an offering to God.  In this way, the life of the animal is acknowledged, and even honoured.  Life, therefore, is both respected and dignified.  As Jews, we know all too well what humanity is capable of when the world starts believing that life is cheap.  It is therefore all the more reason for us to stand up for the dignity and sanctity of all life, because as God promised, we’ve already had our do-over, and it’s up to humanity this time.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vayeilech                    September 11, 2021 - 5 Tishrei 5782

09/10/2021 08:53:59 AM


What makes a style of music, or a particular melody or song choice appropriate for use in prayer?  There’s no shortage of differing opinions on this question, as it pertains to many religious communities around the world.  Even within the same religion, the answer will continue to vary by religious denomination or sect, by individual synagogue, church, mosque or temple, and even within the same community at different periods in that community’s history.  If you joined us for Rosh Hashanah this year, you know that it’s certainly true for us at Beth Radom, which, by the way, if you haven’t seen this year’s Rosh Hashanah adon olam a cappella music videos, pause this video right now, head on over to the Beth Radom YouTube channel and check them out, the rest of this video will make a lot more sense after you do.  Let’s begin.


Shabbat shalom, shanah tovah and g’mar chatimah tova to everyone out there, I certainly hope your Rosh Hashanah celebrations for 5782 were happy, sweet and fulfilling, and if this is your first time checking out what the Beth Radom YouTube channel is all about, welcome.  We hope you enjoy this little d’var Torah where we’re about to pack in some Torah, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and popular Jewish culture all into about 10 minutes, so strap in, and if you like what we do, don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and keep in mind that there’s still time to give our office a call if you’d like to join us for virtual Yom Kippur services.

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

This week’s parsha, Vayelech, always falls during the Yamim Nora’im, or the Days of Awe.  These are the 10 days between the Holydays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The parsha takes us through the last day of Moses’ life, which also happens to be Moses 120th birthday.  This is the source of the traditional Jewish birthday blessing, “may you live to 120 years”, “ad me’ah v’esrim”.  After Moses formally passes his leadership role to Joshua, he composes a “shirah” which is a song or a poem, for the Israelites to learn by heart.  The song is about teshuvah, which is the Jewish concept of repentance, literally meaning ‘to return’ to God.  Knowing how irreverent the Israelites can be at times, Moses believes that making them study and learn this song about Teshuvah will one day be helpful in guiding the Israelite people back to a life of righteousness.  Even to this day, every educator knows that if you want to commit something important to memory, turn it into a song, or a rhyme. Personally, I still can’t remember which of the months have thirty days and which have thirty-one until reciting, “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November…”.

And so it was in ancient Israel that music and poetry was an essential part of Israelite religious culture, teaching theological principles, and of course, bringing beauty to the act of worship in the Temple.  

But throughout recorded history, it is clear that not all musical forms were deemed appropriate for worship.  For as long as Jewish prayer music has existed, so has secular music, which included tavern drinking songs, work songs, songs for dancing, songs of love and seduction, which we might assume were kept far removed from the Levitical Temple choir.  But then again, perhaps not.  

The book of Psalms contains 150 sacred poems, most of which begin with some kind of superscript, an introductory note with special instructions.  For example, the superscript for Psalm 8 reads, “Lamnatze’ach bin’ginot al Hashminit, Mizmor L’David”, meaning “to the director, for playing upon the 8-stringed harp, a song of David”.  Or the superscript for psalm 84 which reads “Lamnatze’ach al hagigit livnei korach mizmor”, meaning “to the director, for playing on the gigit, a song for the children of Korach”, the gigit being some mysterious untranslatable name for a musical instrument that has been lost to time.  But a few of the psalms have superscripts that seem particularly curious.  Psalm 22 begins with the superscript, “Lamnatze’ach, al ayelet hashachar, mizmor L’david”, meaning “To the director, according to the deer of the dawn, a song of David”.  The phrase, ‘deer of the dawn’ seems a strange phrase as an instruction to the director.  As are the superscripts for psalms 45 and 69, which both read, “Lamnatze’ach al shoshanim“, a message to the director suggesting the psalm should be performed according to “lilies”.  Scholars agree that Lilies and Deer of the Dawn were likely names of popular secular songs at the time, indicating that the psalm should be sung to the melody of the popular tune, which means, singing sacred texts to popular secular melodies has been a Jewish custom for at least two and a half thousand years!

Of course, if we import secular music into our prayers, it should be done with care.  As we just discussed, songs are mnemonic devices, and when we bring a secular song into our modern prayer service, it comes along with whatever it may have been associated with previously, including the song’s original lyrics, it’s themes, and even the reputation of the composer.  So of course, there are songs to avoid bringing into shul with us, not that we can’t otherwise enjoy them, but only because singing them in shul would take away from our prayer service more than they would add.  And that’s really what it boils down to – does singing a religious text to the melody of a particular secular song bring beauty, meaning, and dare I even say “fun” to prayer?  You be the judge.

Shabbat Shalom, have a happy, healthy and sweet new year, and an easy fast.

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Re'eh                                  August 7, 2021 - 29 Av 5781

08/06/2021 01:59:56 PM


Look, we’ve all got to get vaccinated.  Of course, there are those that for medical reasons can’t get the shot, and perhaps there are others who may also have various legitimate reasons.  But any excuse that involves the words “freedom”, “safety”, or “microchips” are not legitimate reasons.  We are often very careful to avoid framing anything in black and white terms, as most of us understand that real life operates in shades of grey.  But sometimes, we’re simply given a binary choice, turn left or right, because those are the only ways the road goes.  Once in a while, life gives us what should be an easy choice between right and wrong, life and death, blessing or curse, and that’s just how our parsha this week opens.  Re’eh, look,

 אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם

 הַיּ֑וֹם בְּרָכָ֖ה וּקְלָלָֽה׃

This day, I set before you a blessing and a curse.

In parshat Re’eh, we start really feeling how close we are to the end of the Torah.  The first word, Re’eh, means ‘see’, as in ‘see here’.  It’s like saying ‘here’s the bottom line’.  And Moses gives the people of Israel a simple choice – either commit to the principles of the Torah, which promises a life of meaning, devotion, holiness, wisdom and decency, or don’t, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Oddly, rather than fleshing out this message further, Moses switches gears almost immediately and proclaims that all altars may no longer be used to offer sacrifices, except for one, the one place that will be established for the entire Israelite nation to which all sacrifices must be brought.  That place, of course, would eventually become The Temple.  But it’s a rather odd segue after announcing such an ominous choice between a blessing and a curse, that is until we remember that Moses is not addressing us individually, but as a people.  We know this from parshat Bechukotai, way back in the book of Vayikra, where Moses teaches the Israelites that if they faithfully observe all of God’s commandments, that the rains will fall in their seasons, the land will provide for us, and we’ll all live in peace and security, and then we get a whole bunch of collective curses if the Israelites choose not to abide by the commandments.  This distinction between whether we are being addressed as individuals or as a people makes all the difference because Moses realizes that once we cross the Jordan river, once we conquer and settle the land of Israel and go our separate ways and lead our peaceful lives, how will we be held accountable to each other?  It makes me think of a bunch of college buddies who have just come home from an exciting month long road trip filled with all kinds of experiences that they shared together, and now, at the end of their adventure, they are about to go their separate ways.  One of them says to the group, let’s make sure we never forget each other and what we experienced together and make a pledge to get together once a year to reminisce over a couple of beers.  They begin a tradition, getting back together each year, keeping their friendship alive.  Through the years, as they get married their spouses join the club, then their children and grandchildren, gathering together in order to reflect and simply be in each other’s lives.  By abolishing all other altars, Moses is forcing the Israelites to remain committed at least to each other, if not the Torah.  That at least, on the three pilgrimage festivals the Israelites will gather once again as a people, just like they were once all gathered before Moses on the banks of the Jordan.

If we return once more to Moses’ opening statement, “look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse”, we see that Moses is saying, yes, the choice is a simple one, but I never said it would be easy.  It will involve rigor, setting aside your pride, putting others ahead of your own needs and aspirations—not easy things to do.  And so to help you out, we’re going to establish an institution that will help remind you that you are part of a bigger picture, a community that you can rely on, just as they rely on you.

The High Holidays are once again just on the horizon.  We don’t have a Temple anymore, and because of the pandemic, our shul, our Mikdash M’at, our own miniature Temple is a strangely empty building.  And that is exactly why we’re working so hard to build our virtual community, because even though we can’t be with one another in the same physical space, the fact is that as long as we continue to support one another, as long as we continue to rely on each other, we continue to be a community.  Rosh Hashanah is our big annual gathering, where bubbies and zadies, parents, children and grandchildren will come together to remember the ties we share as members of the Jewish people, and because we’ll be doing it from home again this year, we’ve got whatever kind of beer you like most.

Shabbat Shalom, and please, make sure that you and all of your loved ones are vaccinated.

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vaetchanan                              July 24, 2021 - 15 Av 5781

07/23/2021 09:06:13 AM


“Ideological and political intolerance, even with the best and most sincere intentions, produces results that are the direct opposite of those intended."
                                                                                         --Mikhail Gorbachev

This past Sunday, in a shocking display of the darkest of ironies, young members of Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community were bussed to the Kotel in the Old City, the Western Wall, not to pray, not to take in the beauty and majesty of the kotel in the main plaza, but to go directly to the out-of-the-way south side of the kotel, a place that for some years has had a tradition of providing limited access to egalitarian worshippers, a family space where men and  women, boys and girls from the Conservative, Masorti, Reform and other non-orthodox Jewish movements, so they could pray together in peace.  The youths targeted the egalitarian worshippers, throwing dirty diapers, spitting at them, and drowning out their prayers and harassing them with loud cursing and taunting.  The irony is that the incident took place on Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and prayer in Judaism in memory the destruction of the Temple, the once central focus of Jewish existence, which is now only a wall, the kotel.  According to Jewish tradition, it was a catastrophe which was brought about because of toxic sectarianism… Jewish hatred of other Jews. 

It has been a tumultuous week.  Ben and Jerry’s ice cream has allied itself with BDS, the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize and destroy Israel by economic means.  There’s a lot more to be said on this, and we WILL be diving into it over the course of Shabbat, but suffice it to say that the Jewish world, together with other people of conscience, will be preferring Haagen-Dazs from here on in.  

As a Jewish community, our attention is also on Nigeria, where Israeli middle east peace activist, Rudy Rochman together with journalist Edouard Benayim and film maker Andrew Liebman have been detained by the Nigerian secret police for more than two weeks now.  Rochman and his team were in Nigeria filming a documentary about Jewish communities in Africa when their gift of a sefer Torah to a local community was perceived as giving support to a Nigerian separatist movement.  For now, we are meant to wait with baited breath while the Israeli embassy works toward their safe release.  In the meantime, one thing we can and should do is take a moment to look up some of Rudy Rochman’s videos on YouTube and see the incredible grassroots work he has been doing in building relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, while combatting anti-zionism and anti-semitism.  Beyond that, we will continue to simply pray for their speedy and safe release.  Links to Rochman’s videos can be found in the description of this video. 

Today however, we are focusing on what happened at the kotel, which, to be fair, often sees clashes between egalitarian and ultra-orthodox worshippers.  But when these clashes happen, it has always happened in the main kotel plaza area, where activist groups such as Women of the Wall come to pray on Rosh Chodesh.  Although accosting them is inexcusable, they do expect and prepare to be harassed so that at least the media will continue to pay attention to the cause.  But this attack happened at the south wall, an out-of-the-way place at the kotel intended for egalitarian worship so as not to cause offense.  I was there, personally, back in 2017 celebrating the bar mitzvahs of two of my cousins.  Attacking us here was meant to send a message that it is not good enough that non-orthodox Jews should be banned from praying in accordance with their values at the main kotel plaza, but anywhere and everywhere, and that anyone who does not abide by ultra-orthodox values should be stripped entirely of their Jewish identity and seen as enemies of Judaism.  Here is their message on Israeli news: 

The man (in the video) speaking words of hate, lies and ignorance is the former head of the office of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Dov Halbertal, an extremist who no longer represents the office of the Chief Rabbi, but is a voice within the ultra-orthodox community who often shows up on Israeli news to defend perceived offenses on the part of some schools of thought within ultra-orthodoxy.  For context, the video showss Rabbi Halbertal back in 2018 commenting on the pride parade in Jerusalem: 

What is also ironic is that this week’s parsha is V’etchanan, which amazingly, is a review session of all that the people of Israel have learned.  We even have a complete rehash of the 10 commandments, the same 10 given at Mount Sinai, way back in the book of Exodus.  “Observe them faithfully”, says Moses, “for that will be the proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples”.  So in the spirit of parshat V’etchanan, shall review with Rabbi Halbertal and his supporters a few important words of Torah that he must have forgotten.

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃

Do not hate your brother in your heart.  Reprove him, but incur no guilt because of him.

לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃

You shall not take vengeance, or bear a grudge against your countrymen.  Love your fellow as you would yourself, I am the Lord.

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה

So said our great teacher Rabbi Akiva, “this is a fundamental principle of the Torah”

I have no further commentary on this.  Eileh Mishpatim, these are Mishpatim – simple, self-evident laws of decency, like do not place a stumbling block before a blind man, or to treat all people equally before the law regardless of wealth or status.

As I prepare this d’var Torah, only hours ago, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, chief rabbi of Har Bracha, a respected voice within the ultra-orthodox community, has spoken out, calling on the authorities in charge of the Western Wall Plaza to accommodate Reform and Conservative prayer groups at the south wall, saying “orthodox and haredi people who adhere to Jewish law and tradition need not be bothered by these groups which come to the Western Wall.  Rather, they should be happy that more of their Jewish brothers and sisters are connecting to the site of the Temple, and more of them want to pray to their Father in Heaven.”  In this statement we see that Rabbi Halbertal’s statement does not represent all orthodox Jews, or even all ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel, and that co-existence and mutual tolerance is indeed possible. 

Still, again in the spirit of parshat V’etchanan, on this first Shabbat of consolation following Tisha B’Av, one final reminder to Rabbi Halbertal and his followers… a story they know very well because it is arguably the most well-known Talmudic story of them all, found in Masechet Gittin, 55b.

There was once a Jewish man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza.  The man had prepared a feast and asked his servent to invite his friend Kamtza to the event.  Confused over the similar sounding names, the servant mistakingly invited Bar Kamtza.  Upon receiving the invitation Bar Kamtza took it as a gesture of forgiveness, dressed in his finest clothing and came to the feast.  But when the host noticed Bar Kamtza, he demanded that he leave.

Embarrassed, Bar Kamtza asked the host if he could be permitted to stay, and that he would pay for anything he ate or drank.  But the host refused his offer.

“Allow me, then, to stay and I will pay for half of the entire feast,” begged Bar Kamtza, trying to avoid abject embarrassment.  But the host refused the offer.

“Then I will pay for the full cost if you will only not embarrass me further”, pleaded Bar Kamtza. And the host had Bar Kamtza dragged from the feast and thrown into the street.

Bar Kamtza decided then and there to go to the Roman Emperor Nero and slander the host, along with all of the rabbis who did not come to his defense at the feast. 

In an audience before the Emperor, Bar Kamtza exclaimed, “The Jews are plotting a rebellion against his Imperial majesty!  As proof, send a sacrifice to the Temple, and you will see it will be rejected!” 

Together with a delegation of Roman soldiers, Emperor Nero sent a choice calf back with Bar Kamtza to be offered, but along the journey, Bar Kamtza secretly made a blemish on the animal, one that he knew would cause it to be rejected. 

As expected, upon reaching the Temple, the animal was rejected for sacrifice.  Word of the rejection reached the Emperor who became enraged, and so because of the hatred between brothers, Rome began its march on Jerusalem whereupon the House of God was burned, and the Tabernacle destroyed on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av. 

רחנניא בן עקשיא אומר רצה הקב"ה לזכות את ישראל לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצות

The Mishna teaches us that God gave the Jewish people this amazing Torah, this incredibly complicated, difficult Torah filled with rules and obligations not to punish or oppress, but to challenge us, to hold us to a higher standard and dare us to be better than we are.  Rabbi Halbertal, that is real Judaism, and you’re welcome to come join us when you’ve decided to become religious enough. 

Shabbat Shalom

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Balak                                        June 26, 2021 - 16 Tammuz, 5781

06/25/2021 09:14:56 AM


A talking donkey, an invisible angel, and a curse…  This week’s parsha is a bit of a toughy… let’s get into it.

Parshat Balak is a very strange story that doesn’t digest easily.  Balak is the King of Moab.  He hears reports that a nation of Egyptian slaves have been wandering around the desert for some time, and have lead a number of recent ruthlessly successful military campaigns against the people of Bashan, the Amorites, and the Cheshbonites, and have now set up camp on the eastern shores of the Jordan river, the front doorstep of the kingdom of Moab.  Although the people of Israel aren’t interested in the Moabites’ territory, that doesn’t stop Balak from feeling uneasy about them.  And so, King Balak seeks out Bilaam, a famous prophet and diviner for hire from the neighbouring region of Petorah to ask him to cast a terrible curse upon the Israelite nation.  What’s the nature of this curse?  We don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter because that’s not what ends up happening.  At first Bilaam refuses the mission, having had a vision from God telling him not to do it.  But Balak persists, offering Bilaam riches beyond his wildest dreams, literally, the Torah, says, Bilaam can request anything he wants in the world, if he’ll perform this one task, and so Bilaam accepts.  Setting aside for a moment that Bilaam seems to have a fairly chummy relationship with God, this is where the story starts to get weird.  Bilaam sets out on his journey to the Israelite encampment, riding on his donkey.  God sends an angel to block Bilaam’s path, who is apparently only visible to the donkey.  The donkey, seeing God’s angel with sword drawn swerves to the side of the road to avoid the angel.  Unable to see any cause for his donkey to behave so oddly, Bilaam beats his donkey with a stick in order to steer him back on to the road.  The Torah then says that God opened up the mouth of the donkey who exclaims, “why are you beating me?  Can’t you see something strange is going on here?”  Before Bilaam has a chance to respond, presumably to say, “yes, I apparently have a talking donkey” God uncovers Bilaam’s eyes so that he can now see the angel too.  The angel says “Hi, I’m Satan, I’m annoyed that I have to take time out of my busy schedule to be here, and if your donkey hadn’t swerved to avoid me, I’d have already killed you, spared the donkey, and been on my way.”  (yes, I’m paraphrasing, but not nearly as much as you might think) Then Bilaam apologizes.  He remembers that he probably had it coming considering that God had told him explicitly not to take King Balak’s job to curse the Israelites.  At which point the angel replies, “Oh, that’s ok, you can continue on your way if you like, but when it comes time to curse the Israelites, you’ll only be able to say the words that I tell you.”  Long story short, Bilaam finally reaches the Israelite encampment, but as he is about to utter the curse, he finds that the only words that come out of his mouth are words of blessing.  Specifically, Bilaam’s words of blessing are the words that today appear in our siddurim, to be recited as we enter a synagogue, Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael, How good are you tents, O’Jacob, you’re dwelling places o’ Israel.  That’s the story, thanks for sticking with me through it.

Perhaps you’re thinking, Cantor Jeremy, this story is certainly weird, but really, how weird is it compared to the other biblical stories of floods, plagues, miracles, angles and prophets – which is perfectly fair.  But consider that there are only two stories in the entire Torah in which an animal speaks, placing it firmly into an exclusive category of weird.  What was the other animal?  What was the other story, you ask?  It was the snake, the Nachash, from the story of Adam and Eve, a story that we know was never meant to be understood as literal history, but rather as an allegory for the origin of sentience, how at some point in the real history of human evolution, human beings became self-aware, developed the concept of morality and began to nurture their sense of spirituality.  In the story of Adam and Eve, the snake is a metaphor for the evil inclination, the yetzer harah, that voice that exists in each of our heads that encourages us to indulge our animal instinct for desire and pleasure without considering the consequences of our actions.  So of course, the snake speaks.  The snake is just a manifestation of the part of ourselves that is more animal than divine image of God.

What if the same way we look at the snake could be applied to the donkey in the story of Bilaam?  It would mean that the dialogue between Bilaam and the donkey is really Bilaam’s internal dialogue.  Let’s put ourselves in Bilaam’s shoes for a moment and imagine what might be on his mind.

Bilaam is not just any non-Israelite prophet.  God speaks directly to Bilaam early on in the story after King Balak first tries to hire him.  While Bilaam is not a member of God’s chosen people, Bilaam is clearly tuned in to the same one universal God that the Israelites worship.  While the Israelites claim a special relationship with God, God’s universality also means non-exclusivity.  It should only stand to reason that there must be a few other people out there like Bilaam who are tuned into the one-God concept and who are not necessarily members of the tribe.  Bilaam is then swayed by King Balak’s promise of earthly goods, wealth and treasure, and agrees to act against God’s instructions in order to curse a people whom he has never met, with whom he has no quarrel, and who don’t even have any plans to move against the Moabites.

Queue the inner dialogue:  The Donkey, Bilaam’s conscience, asks “why am I beating myself up?  There’s no obstacle in my path, or is there?  A part of me senses that something is wrong, but part of me wants to give in to the earthly pleasures that King Balak has promised.  I don’t want to turn around and go home, but yet I cannot seem to continue… I’m stuck.”

Suddenly the angel is revealed, and we must recall that the word Satan in Hebrew does not refer to some menacing evil fallen angel, the word Satan simply means “adversary”.  In other words, the real “adversary” is finally revealed to Bilaam.  What is the adversary? It’s Bilaam’s own guilty conscience.  But what choice does he have at this point?  He has accepted King Balak’s job, so he must proceed, but in recognizing that his adversary, the reason for his being “stuck” is his own conscience, he is then able to reconnect with God (who he now remembers told him not to go in the first place), realizing that as always, he can only do that which God allows him to do, and in this case, God will not allow him to place a curse upon the Israelites.  So having wrestled with his conscience, Bilaam can continue on his journey once again, already knowing exactly how it will end.

It is stories like that of Bilaam that remind us that as central as the Torah is to Jewish existence, it was never intended to be a history book.  The word “Torah” means “law” in English, but perhaps a more appropriate translation is “teaching”.  To us in modern times, the law is a set of precisely written statues by which we must live in our society.  This is also true in the case of Jewish law, which has been debated, distilled, codified, interpreted, and recodified again to become the rules that govern Jewish existence today, including everything from what words we use when making a blessing, to how to observe Shabbat.  But this wasn’t always the case.  We didn’t always have laws we could look up in a book.  In pre-ancient times, the law was a person, usually a king or a chieftain, who enacted judgements according to his instincts, whether they be good or bad.  The revolutionary point of Torah was that a leader could be taught to be a wise judge, someone who could be instilled with a sense of morality, spirit, justice and mercy and the knowledge of how to keep them in balance.  A list of good rules can certainly go a long way towards helping a person become a good and wise judge, but as we all know, words can be twisted, and facts can be obscured.  Stories, however, penetrate our hearts and minds, they can change the way we think and see the world.  That is why we study Torah, not just to robotically regurgitate rules, but to be enlightened with the patterns of thinking that bring takanah, a little bit of healing to a world in need of more talking donkeys.

Shabbat Shalom,


Cantor's Comment - Parshat Korach                                    June 12, 2021 - 2 Tammuz 5781

06/11/2021 10:03:43 AM


Al Kiddush Hashem – for the holiness of God’s name.  It isn’t a battle cry.  It’s a special phrase we use that describes those who have been murdered because of their Jewishness.  The victims of the holocaust, fallen Israeli soldiers, victims of pogroms, blood libels, lynchings, are all examples of those who we say have died al kiddush Hashem, for the holiness of God’s name.  It’s a phrase most of us know very well as we invoke it on the holidays and memorial services.  But what about killing in God’s name?  To be fair, there are many examples in the Tanach where Israelites were instructed by God to kill, but the concept of killing in God’s name, the idea that one human being can understand the morality of God with such certainty so as to justify the killing of another, is fundamentally alien to Jewish ideology.  Judaism prohibits killing in the name of God.

The title of our Parsha this week, Korach, is named for the man who challenges Moses in the desert for leadership of the Israelite people.  At this point in the biblical narrative, the people of Israel have already reached the other side of the Sinai desert and saw with their own eyes the land promised to them by God.  Except that they didn’t enter the land on account of the sin of the spies from last week’s parsha, because while all the spies agreed that the land was indeed flowing with milk and honey, only 2 of the spies believed that with God’s help, the Israelite nation would be able to successfully conquer the land from the Canaanites.  The other 10 spies, however, disagreed, believing that the Israelites had no chance of mounting a successful campaign.  For their lack of faith, God decided that the people were not yet deserving of the land, and instructed Moses to lead the people back into the desert where they would wander aimlessly until a new generation of Israelites could at last become the people to merit crossing the Jordan river.  We can only imagine how the Israelites must have felt at this point – dejected, resentful, and hopeless that despite the wonders they had seen, knowing they, themselves would die in the desert without ever setting foot in the land of Israel.  Enter Korach, who, with the support of 250 elders, marches up to Moses to demand a referendum on his leadership.  It makes perfect sense from the perspective of the Israelites, that their confidence in Moses would be shaken.  After a contest followed by a fire and light show in which God demonstrates his preference that Moses and Aaron retain their roles as the leaders of Israel, God causes the ground to open up and swallow Korach, his family, and all of his followers.

That’s the literal interpretation of the Torah narrative, and we can pretty much all agree that it sounds pretty awful.  Challenging our leaders and holding them accountable is supposed to be a hallmark of democracy.  If the Torah is meant to be the foundation upon which western civilized society is built, it should be encouraging debate and free speech.  It should abhor authoritarianism, and at the very least, it shouldn’t be the kind of administration that kills dissidents, their families and all of their followers.

Of course, it doesn’t really make sense to judge 3000 year old political systems by our modern standards but don’t worry, we’re not about to let the Torah off the hook here.  The Torah is supposed to be timeless, and have something to teach us in every generation.  It’s going to take some doing getting there, but follow along this line of reasoning with me.  

Let’s first remember that the basic premise of Judaism, and certainly the Torah, is that God is always right.  For religious Jews, which for most of Jewish history, was ALL Jews, the story of Korach would not have posed any moral problems.  God chose Moses and Aaron, end of story.  Anybody opposing Moses and Aaron is also opposing God, and since God is always right, any challenger is morally deserving of whatever they get.  The Israelite nation, at the time, was definitively not a democracy, and therefore the Torah need make no apology.  Except, though, that it seems that the traditional commentators are also bothered by this story, highlighting passages that, with some interpretation, portray Korach as power hungry, disrespectful, not at all concerned about what would be best for the Israelite people, and therefore deserving of his fate.  In a way, it appears that even the commentators do not feel that the argument that “God knows what He’s doing” is sufficient for them.

There are a lot of good points that the commentators make in order to justify the death of Korach and his followers.  The most convincing one that I can see is that idea that the Torah makes many references to Moses innate humility, to be a person who is truly selfless, and therefore best suited to be the person to both commune directly with God and lead the Israelite people.  How often can we say that for certain about our leaders today? And for me, that’s as good a reason as any, because this would mean that Korach and his followers were usurpers of power for their own self-interest, and completely out of step with the Divine plan that was already underway.   But that’s not what the story of Korach means to me.  Rather, I believe the lesson of Korach is really about the story of how our sages have interpreted it throughout history.  Think about it - never has there been a time when we simply accepted that the killing of Korach was intrinsically moral just because God chose Moses.  This, I believe, is exactly the way of thinking that has always set the Jewish people apart from the other ancient civilizations.  It is what gives the Jewish people a special cultural uniqueness, and allows us to realize our value as a Light Unto the Nations.  It is because even though our theological understanding of God is that He is intrinsically moral, it doesn’t stop us from questioning God’s morality, as illustrated in this clip from the movie, Bruce Almighty, where God is played by Morgan Freeman.

Morgan Freeman’s fantastic characterization of God notwithstanding, here we see perhaps the most bizarre theological contradiction in mainstream Jewish ideology – Jews are allowed to question God who is unquestionable.  We can ask why, we can strive to learn by cultivating a relationship with the divine, but we must in the end admit that we don’t know, and never will.  It’s what makes that wonderfully awkward pause at the end of that video clip so deliciously appropriate, but it’s also why even though millions of Jews have died ‘al kiddush Hashem’, for the sake of God’s holiness, we do not kill for this reason. Jews don’t kill in the name of God.  Which isn’t to say there have not been religious Jewish zealots, even in our recent history, such as Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995, or Baruch Goldstein who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994.  But whenever such atrocities have happened, the entire Jewish people have responded in an immediate, clear and unified voice of condemnation.  As media campaigns continue to lie and smear Israel for the sin of surviving, and as we Jews in the diaspora endure a dramatic rise in antisemitism as punishment for the same, we hope that the world might one day realize that the Jewish people stand against all religious zealotry, including Jewish zealotry.  But make no mistake, the Jewish people will fight to protect ourselves, to preserve our people, and safeguard our right to existence, self-determination and to be free from oppression, just as is the right of every other human being on earth.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Beha'alotcha                              May 29, 2021 18 Sivan, 5781

05/28/2021 09:29:12 AM


War crimes, crimes against humanity, apartheid – it is not only because of the recent clashes between Israel and Palestinians that these terms have been invoked around the world in condemnation of Israel.  But for many decades, from the halls of the United Nations to the battle cries of protesters, claims such as these have been made by those who have stood against the Jewish state, the only democratic, pluralistic, inclusive and truly free nation in the middle east.  In response, Israel, the Jewish people, and supporters of Zionism have long pointed out the double standard of accusing Israel of these atrocities while largely ignoring the egregious human rights violations committed by North Korea, Iran, Syria, China and others.  Many understandably see this response as a terrible argument—that if Israel is indeed the just and moral state that it claims to be, then surely the fact that other countries have committed worse atrocities cannot be used as an excuse, and that Israel’s actions should and must be judged appropriately.  However, if we take a moment to investigate how this clear bias against Israel translates to the formulating of international law and, in turn, world opinion, it turns out that this may be one of those rare instances when whataboutism might actually be making a very important point.

Whataboutism is a defensive pivoting argument that attempts to shift the discussion away from an issue by basically pointing to a bigger fish to be fried.  Back in 2017, John Oliver did a piece on whataboutism, and since he was so kind enough to weigh in with his enlightened opinion on the middle east conflict recently, let’s begin with his understanding of whataboutism.

In this case, John Oliver is absolutely correct, both about how whataboutism is often abused in the media, and about how annoyingly effective it can be at deflecting accountability.  However, in this next clip, Hillel Neuer, head of the NGO UN WATCH, is defending Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council, seemingly using the same whataboutism tactic.  See if you can tell why when Neuer does it, it’s a lot different.  

By asking Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Iran “where are your Jews”, Neuer attempts, perhaps in vain, to reveal what’s really going on, speaking to the legitimacy of UN Human Rights council itself.  With no degree of subtlety, Neuer is pointing out that the council is composed of human rights abusers ironically tasked with defining what constitutes human rights abuses; and by an amazing coincidence, this body has come to the consensus that human rights abuses can be defined in such a way as to not only single out the one nation they would prefer to see wiped off the map, but also to determine that this country’s offenses are so horrifying, so inhumane, that taking the time to point out those violations is critical enough to deserve a permanent council agenda item, #7, at every meeting.  No other country gets this honour – not Syria, not Iran, not North Korea, not Russia, not China… just Israel.  By doing so, the Human Rights Council loses all credibility to accuse anyone of an actual human rights abuse.  It’s not whataboutism, it’s not even a case of the pot calling the kettle black, it is revealing the sham that is the Human Rights council which has distorted facts to suit the geo-political interests of its constituent nations while simultaneously providing a convenient means of sweeping their own atrocities under the proverbial rug.

It wasn’t always this way.  The League of Nations, as the UN was called back in 1948, voted to give the Jews a state in the region which the Jewish people eagerly accepted.  At the time, only a few of the nations of Africa and only about half of the Arab and Muslim nations were member states.  But in 1975 the balance of influence in the United Nations began to change when communist Cuba fought to forge a coalition with other communist UN delegations in order to take on the United States.  At the same time, a number of Muslim states banded together in order to use the same tactic to take on Israel.  The communist and Muslim coalitions soon realized that by uniting and supporting each other’s initiatives, they would constitute a power voting block within the UN, and by focusing their collective attention on Israel, they could also simultaneously whittle away at the influence of Israel’s closest ally, the United States.  Today the UN is ruled not by universal morality, but by consensus which, by definition, includes the world’s worst abusers; abusers who have discovered that with a bit of mutual back scratching, it is possible to pass the most self-serving resolutions.  It is corrupt partisan politics on a global scale that has resulted in the normalizing of comments like this:

Now, I don’t really want to go into a whole segment explaining why this is awful, mostly because it’s a topic that’s been covered very well by a lot of other YouTubers, so I’ll link to a couple of them in the description.  But suffice it to say that applying a term like apartheid to the state of Israel is offensive, wrong, ignorant and beyond disrespectful to the real memories and experiences of people who actually suffered horribly under real apartheid.

This week’s parsha is B’ha’alotcha.  The burden of leadership is becoming so exhausting for Moses that God finally tells him to get some help.  Seventy elders of Israel are called to the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting.  The Torah describes God drawing on the spirit of Moses, and causing it to rest on the seventy elders which caused them to speak in ecstasy.  In what really amounts to a ceremony in which Moses shares the burden of his leadership with the seventy elders it is odd the way the Torah describes the elders as “speaking in ecstasy”.  The commentators suggest that by this the Torah means that the 70 elders received the gift of prophecy, a connection to God that until then had been reserved only for Moses.  By this we understand that these 70 elders were imbued with an understanding that helped govern the people, like Moses, in accordance with God’s principles, completely setting aside their own ambitions and agendas.

Would it be so, that we could count on our leaders, at home and around the world to all set aside their own ambitions and agendas in order to serve the greater good.  Personally, I believe there is such a thing as the moral majority – the idea that humanity as a whole is fundamentally good such that the majority of people stand up for common sense and decency.  But the structure of modern leadership rewards the ruthless, the unscrupulous, to the point that it is hard to know in any given election whether those individuals who have succeeded enough to win a place on the ballot truly believe in serving the greater good.  In the end, the United Nations has probably done more good than harm, mediating conflicts, addressing crises and working towards global causes such as climate change.  But it is also a governing body that suffers from its own special version of corruption and bias to which Israel’s conscience is not accountable.

Shabbat Shalom


Cantor's Comment - Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim      April 24, 2021 - 12 Iyyar 5781

04/23/2021 11:03:42 AM


Holiness.  It’s a word that Judaism tends to throw around a lot.  Most of us have a pretty good idea of what kinds of things are holy.  Of course God is holy.  Torah is holy, along with other sacred texts.  We have ritual objects that we consider holy like a mezuzah or a shofar.  And we also have places that are holy, like a synagogue, the kotel (what many know as the wailing wall), or the whole city of Jerusalem, for that matter.  It’s actually a topic we’ve covered on this channel before, where we learned that holiness really, can be anything that is special or dear to us.  It could be something expensive and glamourous, like a piece of heirloom jewelry, or it could be something simpler like a picture of a loved one that we treasure, or a song that carries special meaning for us.  What about people though?  Can a person be holy?  Of course!  Traditions around the world have holy men and women.  Some are holy because their tradition teaches that they speak on behalf of God, some are holy for their great wisdom and attunement to the harmony of the universe.  But in Judaism, we tend not to label individuals as being either a holy man or woman, even when it comes to great rabbis.  And it’s not because we don’t believe they’re holy, and there isn’t even anything wrong with CALLING them holy either.  The reason we don’t do it is because in Judaism, we are ALL holy.

In this week’s double parsha, Acharei Mot / Kedoshim, the section for kedoshim begins with the words, “vay’daber Adonai el Moshe leimor, daber el kol adat b’nei yisrael v’amarta aleihem, k’doshim teehiyu, ki kadosh ani” – “And God spoke to Moses saying, speak to the entire assembled people of Israel and say to them, you shall be holy, for I am holy.”

So you see, it’s a bit weird in Judaism to single out one particular person as an example of someone who is holy, because we are all supposed to be holy.  But, says the torah, holiness works a bit differently with people.  As with objects, we are holy because we are precious and significant to the people in our lives.  But there is a second dimension to holiness within people because we also have the opportunity and the obligation to make ourselves precious and significant not only to others, but also to ourselves.

How do we do that?  A huge chunk of the Torah that we are reading this week is dedicated to what scholars refer to as The Holiness Code - a long list of rules and regulations on how we must conduct ourselves both ritually and morally.  Between laws that teach us not to spread gossip, or to take unfair advantage of others, we also have laws that get up close and personal as they teach us about intimacy,  while others simply tell us to avoid buying into meaningless superstitious beliefs.  In the end, the Holiness Code can be rolled up into one word… respect… respect for ourselves and others.  It is showing respect that gives us our holiness.

As I prepare this message, Ontario remains in lockdown due to the recent surge in COVID cases.  For many of us, this latest lockdown barely feels any different than what we have endured over the past year.  Still, the weather is getting warmer, and despite the slow vaccine rollout, we know that better days ARE just head so long as we sit tight.  And yet, for many of us, this doesn’t bring us much comfort.  In fact, there is a higher tendency for many of us to simply feel a bit numb to all of the drama at this point.  A New York Times article from this week suggests that the word for what we are experiencing now is ‘languishing’.  It’s not depression.  Surprisingly, it’s not even anxiety anymore, which used to be a big one for a lot of us.  Rather it’s a feeling of a lack of motivation, difficulty focusing, and just a big gigantic collective feeling of “meh”.

The soul within each of us that connects us all to each other and to God means that we are all forever spared from being meaningless.  Nobody is meaningless, and therefore we can’t ever really lose our holiness.  But we can lose our meaning.  In fact, it is easy to lose our joi de vivre when we’re stuck inside all day every day.  It’s easy to fall into a rut where we lose respect for ourselves, and lose sight of the main goal of being human, which is to bring beauty, knowledge, and healing to the world, which in turn fills us with meaning and holiness. It’s easy to give up on our ourselves when there’s nobody around to keep us accountable.  

So, God says, you will be holy because I am holy.  Not necessarily because others are holding us to a standard, but because God is holding us to a standard.  We cannot languish because God doesn’t languish.  Holiness is a job that God has charged us to do at all times, whether we feel like it or not.  You’ve gotta keep doing you’re job, God says, because I’m staying committed to mine.  We all MUST keep filling the world with holiness.  That was the deal, no matter what.  We are in this together.

Have a Shabbat Shalom.

Cantor's Commentary - Passover                                        March 26, 2021 - 14 Nisan 5781

03/26/2021 10:05:25 AM


Freedom.  This word carries great meaning for so many people across so many cultures throughout the world.  It invokes our sense of basic human rights like self-determination, to be free from oppression, or the ability to decide what is right for our bodies.  Today, it is also a subject of controversy.  Must there be limits to freedom?  Where do we draw the line in our society and how do we enforce it?

It is not without a sense of irony that once again our Passover celebrations this year, we call in Hebrew z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom, as we maintain our social distancing in our own homes, unable to gather with friends and family.  The connection between the holiday of Passover and freedom is obvious to anyone familiar with the story, but we might rightly say, why does our tradition teach us that the theme of freedom should be our central focus on Passover.  Shouldn’t it be the telling of the story?  As it says in the Haggadah, v’higadetah l’vincha?  And you shall tell your children of the Exodus from Egypt?  And the more we tell the story, the more we are to be praised?  But if that were true, if the story of the Exodus was the central focus of Passover, why does the Haggadah never mention Moses?  Why do we read the Haggadah at the seder instead of the book of Exodus?  Sure, we spill drops of wine when we mention each of the plagues, but where’s the story of the burning bush? When in the seder do we talk about the famous phrase that calls out from the Torah “Let My People Go”?  Why instead does the Haggadah seem to go on endlessly discussing this rabbi and that rabbi who says point to the matzah, it was really 250 plagues that they Israelites experienced in Egypt, or my seder lasted so long that when we finally finished it was time for morning prayers?

Passover is the beginning of the Jewish story – not the story of creation, not even the story of the Exodus.  When we tell our children about our story, who we are, where we come from, why all of these strange and bizarre things that we do so differently from the rest of the world, we begin by talking about our freedom, not just from the tyranny of Egypt, but what it means to be a free people.  We talk about why our freedom is so important to us.  When we became a free people, we became a holy people.  We became a people of laws, and morals.  We became a people of learning, and of strength and nobility.  We tell our kids look around you, everything that we are came from this, and now it belongs to you.  It’s not Rosh Hashanah that begins the Jewish People.  It’s not the story of Creation, these are part of our story, but not the beginning of it.  To the Jewish people, freedom is not about what we’re allowed or not allowed to do today.  To us, it’s not about social distancing, it’s not about being forced to wear masks, it’s not about gun laws, it’s not even about antisemitism.   It’s about the hard work, the devotion, the beauty, the ingenuity and the spirit of the Jewish people and the heritage that we have built together over three and a half thousand years.  That is what our freedom means to us.

And now, now we’re ready for the story.  Avadim Hayinu L’Pharoah b’mitzrayim… Once upon a  time we were slaves to the Pharoah in Egypt, but now we are free, and that is what allowed us to become who we are today.  And who are we today?  How did we get here?  That’s going to take a while.  Good thing we have all night.  I’m Cantor Jeremy and this has been a Beth Radom video d’var torah. Chag Kasher V’sam’each.


Cantor's Comments - Parshat Mishpatim                          January 13, 2021 - 1 Adar, 5781

02/12/2021 01:24:52 PM



I've said a few times before that I want so badly to be done talking about American politics, and it does feel like very soon, that that beautiful day will come when the humdrum of American political discourse will return to being of only passing interest to Jewish Canadians.  But that day isn’t today, especially since it so happens that the parsha we are reading in the Torah this week has something important to say about it.  I’m speaking of course about the impeachment trial, which, other than the coronavirus, has been essentially the only news story being covered this week by just about every news network in both the US and Canada.  

Does the former president of the United States bare responsibility for the capitol insurrection on January 6?  Lead house impeachment manager, and certified member of the tribe, Jamie Raskin, functioned as a prosecuting attorney laying out the case for conviction.  The most compelling part for me, at least, was the 13-minute video that included footage taken from the capitol’s cc tv cameras and various rioters’ smartphones, assembled in chronological order showing how the whole event unfolded, and how it synchronized with what the former president was communicating at that time on twitter.  The video captured the horror of the riot itself, the former presidents own words urging the rioters as well as shouting and chanting from the rioters, themselves, who were echoing the former president and declaring that they were acting upon his instruction.  I also appreciated that Raskin broadened the scope of his analysis of the former president Trump’s behaviour, demonstrating how it related to his claims of election fraud, the attack on the Michigan capitol on April 30th of last year, and the Charlottesville white-supremacist protest back in 2017 where we saw videos of skinheads marching to the haunting chant “Jews will not replace us”.

Though I cannot claim impartiality, I can at least share that the consensus even among Trump supporters, and reportedly even Trump, himself, was that his defense attorneys were disorganized and ineffective at presenting their side of the story.  But the gist of their argument was that politicians must be granted considerable leeway in using hyperbolic, flowery, and even zealous language, because that is the nature of political discourse, and it all falls under the umbrella of protected speech in accordance with the first amendment to the US Constitution.  We are to understand, for example, that Trump’s statement “fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore” is meant to be understood metaphorically, and cannot be construed as inciting a specific, planned violent attack.

Though, as I said, I’m not impartial, I can at least admit that the Trump attorneys have made a fair point.  Trump has always used that kind of language, and although it seemed that Trump was directly instructing the mob in light of how the riot unfolded, we can’t ignore the fact that Trump has been saying stuff like this for 5 years, and so far as we can tell, they haven’t been taken literally before… or have they, and we just didn’t want to believe that people would actually act on them?

This week’s parsha is Mishpatim, which means “laws”.  It seems appropriate given that out of the 613 commandments in the Torah, parshat Mishpatim has 53 of them, more commandments by far in a single parsha than we’ve had so far.  But more than that, the term “Mishpatim” refers to the whole category of laws that are inferable, or laws that can be derived from common sense such as the prohibition of accepting a bribe, or against physically striking one’s parents, or cursing God, to name a few.  These are in contrast to the Chukim, or “statutes”, those laws which may not necessarily make perfect sense to us, but we follow them anyways, because Judaism sometimes does that, like the prohibition against eating pork or against wearing a garment that uses a mixture of wool and linen thread.

In our parsha, alongside all of the other laws of common sense, is the prohibition against enticing someone to idol worship.  “V’shem Elohim acherim, lo tazkiru, lo yishma al picha” – “you shall not recognize the names of other Gods, they shall not be heard upon your lips”.  In both the commentaries by Rashi and Ibn Ezra, they seem to be particularly concerned that a Jewish person should not even ask a non-Jew to swear by their god as a way of making a binding promise.  In the Sefer Hachinuch, a rabbinic text that expounds upon the 613 commandments in the order they are given in the Torah, the commentary simply says about this law, “the reason is obvious”.   Of course, it’s a Mishpat, an obvious, common sense law that a theologically based civilization has a rule that says first in the 10 commandments, don’t worship idols, and then in the next parsha, don’t encourage others to do it either.  But what, specifically, does it mean to “entice” someone to practice idol worship?  By what mechanism do we determine if someone was joking, or maybe just exaggerating?  While it is often true that the Torah can be cryptic and lacking in detail when it comes to many of the mitzvot which is where the vast library of rabbinic literature comes into play, in this case, the Torah gives us all the detail we need.  “Lo yishma al picha” – “it shall not be heard on your lips”.  In other words, JUST DON’T SAY IT – no joking about it, no exaggerating, nothing.  Nachmanides even suggests that if you have to use the name of a foreign God for a good reason, perhaps if you’re studying world religions in an academic setting, that we should try changing the name a bit, like saying “Jebus Pryste”.  Yeah, it’s a bit weird.  But like hate speech or inciting violence, if we truly believe that there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, then we have to be willing to give up a small piece of our sense of entitlement to say whatever we want whenever we want.

But what about our rights?  How far does this censorship go?  Where do we draw the line?

Admittedly, it’s a bit easier for the Torah to simply forbid specific speech outright.  We must remember that the concept of personal rights and freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, didn’t exist for the ancient Israelites, who instead only understood that they had obligations.  While I hold my religious obligations in the highest regard, I also feel privileged to live in a society that also grants me certain rights and freedoms, including the freedom of speech which I’m exercising right now.  The Torah considers the prohibition against enticing idol worship a common sense law, but if we are not prepared to also accept the unilateral prohibition against certain speech, including joking and exaggerating in the way that freedom of allows me to do, then common sense gets decidedly less common.

Luckily, rights don’t come from Judaism, rights don’t really even make sense in Judaism.  Rather, they come from my Canadian-ism, and Canadianism is not about being accountable to God, it’s about being accountable to other Canadians.  In this context, the system of rights and freedoms works just fine.  If I exercise my free speech which allows me to insult each and every one of my friends, Canada will not throw me in prison, but I am still accountable to my friends who can exercise their freedom to not speak to me anymore.  And whose fault is it?  Mine, of course!  Rights and freedoms are powerful things that form the bedrock of our society, but they are not part of our deal with God.  Instead, they are a part of a deal that we make with each other in that we must be accountable for the consequences that arise out of exercising those rights and freedoms.  If we can’t accept those consequences, then we don’t deserve our rights and freedoms.

Since the US Senate requires a two thirds majority to convict, it would have mean that quite a few Republicans would have to vote with the democrats which seems unlikely.  The acquittal will represent a failure for common sense and decency.  It will, as we have seen, invite future lawmakers to practice these same kinds of rhetorical tactics that are designed specifically to create cults of the self, rather than accountable public servants.  It is a tactic that is, at its core, the modern version of enticing others to idol worship.  If it cannot be legislated away by law, then it will be up to all of us to be on guard for it next time, call it out when we see it, and help each other understand that it goes against who we are as the Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor's Commentary - Parshat Beshalach                          January 30, 2021 - 17 Shevat 5781

01/29/2021 10:15:06 AM


A lot has happened since my last video three weeks ago.  Of course, Joe Biden became president of the United States.  For some reason, at exactly the same time, the late night tv comedy shows like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel have become a lot less interesting – and I say that with deepest respect, love and admiration… for their entire writing staff which I don’t have.  While Toronto is in continued lockdown, the vaccines have finally arrived, even though the rollout seems to be much less than optimal.  But on the bright side, it does seem like whatever we’re doing, it’s beginning to look like we’re finally making a dent in this pandemic.  

The latest graphs from show that the number of new cases in Canada seems to be declining steadily since New Year’s.  The same seems to be true in the United States, and even worldwide.  While our political leaders and news media continue to tell us that it may yet still be a while before we’ll start seeing life return to some semblance of normal, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling encouraged, and confident that whatever it is we’re doing, we seem to be on the right track.

In the virtual Jewish world this past week, we celebrated the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the birthday of the trees, or at least that’s the way we teach it to our kids.  In reality, the holiday of Tu Bishvat was both historically and religiously just a date to mark the fiscal year for agricultural tax purposes in ancient Judea.  But in the modern era, it has become a celebration of nature, environmentalism, and the delicious foods indigenous to Israel, and indeed the whole eastern Mediterranean region such as grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates; foods that have defined the taste of the middle east for millennia.

On Wednesday, our little shul took part in the most amazing program, perhaps the first of its kind—a multinational virtual tu bishvat seder that brought together Jewish communities from Canada, the US, the UK, and Israel, all zooming together in common cause.  One of the speakers was the great Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, with whom I had once upon a time had the absolute pleasure and distinction of serving alongside when I lived in London.  And my own personal contribution to the program was a music video I created of a brand new 5-part a cappella arrangement of the song Lo Aleicha, which we’ve I’ve also posted on the Beth Radom youtube channel.  For some real fun, be sure to check it out, and I’ll leave a link in the description and a card at the end of this video.  Despite the enormous hardship that the ongoing pandemic has brought on our world, one little silver lining has been this new model we have for virtual Jewish programming and creativity that we might never have otherwise conceived of, which has now become a part of our lives.  For this special tu bishvat seder, I chose the song Lo Aleicha for its universal message, reminding us that just because a project like saving for our planet is too big to be accomplished by one person alone, that does not absolve any of us of the responsibility to do our part.  While the quote from pirkei avot was referring to the restoration of the Temple, the same could easily be said for protecting our environment, and if we think about it, the restoration of the Temple, coupled with bringing about the Mashiach and world peace is inexorably linked with a world that has successfully achieved sustainable energy, clean air and water, and carbon neutrality.  It is only fitting that also this week, General Motors announced their plan to switch over to only producing electric vehicles by 2035.

I think that it’s so critical that we all take notice of major companies and businesses that make these kinds of commitments and recognize them for the bold steps they are taking, because let’s be clear, overhauling any company, let alone a car manufacturing company to be eco-conscious is a difficult and expensive goal that comes with a fair amount of risk.  Difficult, expensive and risk—three things that businesses usually try to avoid.  Instead to do what GM is planning will require trust in good conscience, faith and dedication to the cause—three more things that history has shown is often antithetical to good business.  And as long as we’re being honest, let’s also recognize that the world does have a few other more immediate priorities right now like our health, and of course, our economy.  If you were to say to me, “you know, investing in going carbon neutral is a nice idea, but right now we’re kinda focused on making payroll and avoiding mass layoffs”, I would have a very hard time arguing with that.  But whichever side of this issue we may find ourselves on, we SHOULD be able to all agree that these are examples of legitimate arguments that deserved to be wrestled with, debated vigorously in the media, by politicians, and within our own communities.  Unfortunately, though, we can’t.  We can’t because we’re still stuck on the much sillier debate on the validity of earth science in the first place, one of the sad realities of the misinformation age that we still seem to be stuck in.  And it seems we will remain so until we can address some of the serious problems of the human condition that continue to plague or society.

This week’s special Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, named so for the climax of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when we read about the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, after which, finally realizing that they were free from Egypt forever, the Israelites erupted in song, Ashira L’Adonai Ki Ga’oh Ga’ah, I sing unto God for He is most exalted.  Not long before, however, there was a moment that the Israelites were not so sure they would make it.  As they were cornered by the Egyptian army, and their backs up against the water, the Torah says that the Israelites cried out to Moses, “hamibli eyn k’varim b’mitzrayim l’kachtanu lamut bamidbar?” – “Were there so few available graves in Egypt that you took us out here to die in the desert?”  You heard it right—sarcasm in the Torah! And if you ask me, it’s still pretty funny for a three and half thousand year old joke.  Nachmanides, the medieval commentator, however, doesn’t think it’s so funny.  There were two groups among the Israelites, he explains, that when they saw the Egyptian army, one group cried out to God, while the other denied Moses and would not admit to having been saved, saying that they would have been better off not having been rescued.

Now I have to admit that if I had been there, personally, watching the Egyptian army closing in with no obvious path of escape, I can’t say for certain whether or not that at that moment I would be feeling at all confident in Moses leadership. Now of course, I’m not going to debate the question of whether or not the events of the Torah are exactly true to history.  But if I had been there, and it was my back up against the Red Sea with Moses beside me as we both watched the Egyptian army charge at us, in that case it would also HAVE to mean that I had personally witnessed first-hand the 10 plagues of Egypt, real proof that there was a very powerful God out there looking out for me.  In a very real way, it would be a lot like if I were to go around saying the earth was flat, then I spend ten days with a team of world renowned scientists who slowly and gently walked me through all of the math and physics in order to help me to understand that the earth was undeniably round, then I was personally flown up into space to see it with my own eyes, only to return to earth a couple days later whereupon I tell the scientists that they’re just being silly, and that I know better, and then I go back to telling people the earth was flat again.  It’s actually infuriating!  God must have been wondering why He should have bothered with the Israelites in the first place.  And it could just be that the Israelites at the time didn’t have a complete grasp yet of how the whole God thing works, after all, they had just spent 200 years in godless slavery.  So perhaps they were just scared, which is absolutely fair, and even makes sense to us because we see today that it is human nature to deflect fear with sarcasm.  But it is also that same sarcasm which shows a lack of humility in the face of the unknown, and an unwillingness to admit ignorance. 

All of a sudden it makes much more sense that those Israelites who saw the chariots of the Egyptian army and feared for their lives dismissed Moses and refused to admit they had been freed, because what they feared even more was the idea of the existence of an all-powerful God to whom they owed their body and soul.  It is no wonder they sang, mi chamocha ba’eilim, Adonai, mi chamocha nedar bakodesh, norah tehilot oseh feleh – “who is like You among the powerful, Adonai, who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praise, performing feats beyond understanding”.

So too, we can understand the fear that lives behind the skepticism when it comes to investing our lives and livelihood into making the changes necessary to meet the very challenging goals of green living.  We understand because it is even more terrifying to be forced to admit that our planet may be fragile, that our presence on it might be in jeopardy.  It’s true that maybe amidst a pandemic, now may not necessarily be the time for all of us to get on board with this particular agenda.  But that time will undoubtably come, and if we are all ready to acknowledge the reality before us and face our fears, who knows, just like the splitting of the sea, we may yet see another great miracle.

Shabbat Shalom,

Update this content.

Cantor's Comment - Parshat Sh'mot                                      January 9, 2021 - 25 Tevet 5781

01/08/2021 08:14:41 AM


Hello everyone.  Happy New Year!  I’m Cantor Jeremy, and I want to welcome you all back with another Beth Radom video d’var Torah.

Over the winter holidays, I had thought of a fantastic d’var torah that I was very excited to share with you for this video.  It was about how much we used to take for granted being able to go traveling and exploring the world during our vacation time, as we are reminded just a little bit how perilous and significant it was that the tribe of Israel uprooted themselves from Canaan, the land that God promised them, and resettled in Egypt, which is how our parsha this week begins, setting up the entire story of the Exodus.  It really was going to be quite good.  

But we need to talk about what happened on Wednesday in Washington DC.  I think that many of the news organizations and pundits have actually been doing a decent job of helping us process it, not just for the American citizens, but for us as Canadians too, and also as thinking and caring citizens of the world.  But I also think that as Jews, we must process what happened using a Jewish lens, and I don’t mind sharing with you that putting my thoughts together for this video was good for my own sanity and peace of mind.

To quickly recap, as the United States congress met to certify the results of the electoral college, which is a mere formality before a new president can be sworn into office, the current US President incited rioters to storm the capital building with weapons that included guns, bombs, Molotov cocktails and gas, whereupon they broke into the senate chambers, various government offices, and committed acts of vandalism and theft, and claiming four lives in the process.  I could talk at length about how I feel that Donald Trump is directly responsible, how the rioters should be prosecuted, how Trump supporters in the House and the Senate should be ashamed of themselves for what they have helped bring about, about how the police behaved, and frankly how embarrassing the whole episode is, or at least should be, to all Americans (and as an American citizen, I include myself in that category as well).  And if there is an American out there who isn’t embarrassed, they should simply be shown this picture, for as long as it takes, until the shame finally sets in.  But as I said, there are a lot of people on tv covering those issues quite well.

So what does the Jewish voice have to add to the cacophony of opinions, accusations, and punditry that is consuming public discourse?  Jewish tradition has, over its thousands of years history, always had a respect for the power of words.  And I mean that not because it is our words that have the power to motivate or to incite, to love or to hate, to enlighten or to confuse, but rather Jewish people have always held that words, themselves, are in fact holy.  If you were to ask me, what is a Jewish blessing?  I would begin by teaching about the basic construct that we use, Baruch atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Ha’olam.  We could talk at length about what those words mean, but those aren’t actually the words used for Jewish blessings, are they?  I’ve changed two of them.  Why?  Because Jews take blessings seriously, and if we’re not making an appropriate blessing, then we don’t invoke the actual words.  We do this because we believe that these words are sacred and shouldn’t be used callously.  So too, when we engage in prayer, our words our sacred, we take them seriously.  The words of Torah are sacred—words that our wisest sages over the last couple of thousand years have spent their lifetimes analyzing and exploring.  We refer to the entire Hebrew language as Lashon Kodesh, the holy tongue.  And Jews have also learned that when we hear words like “Jews will not replace us”, and “dirty Jew”, we hear them with deadly seriousness, which means that in a very dark and strange way, these words are sacred to us too.

The words that directly led to what we saw on Wednesday were plain for all to see and hear.  At a rally a few moments before the incident, Donald Trump directly said, and I quote, “And we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, we won’t have a country anymore”, and that was only moments before telling the crowd to walk down Pennsylvania Ave. to the capitol.  Those words were sacred and the world should have taken them seriously.  Each time he told his followers not to believe the election results, the world should have taken those words seriously.  Each time he has villainized an opponent, every time he made a bigoted statement all the way back to calling Mexican immigrants rapists when it all began 5 years ago, the world should have taken his words seriously.  Without universal repudiation, the meaning of those words took hold, they were allowed to fester and cause a rot in the fabric of our modern society that has gone beyond the borders of the US.

This week in shul, we read parshat Sh’mot, the beginning of the book of Exodus.  In the opening verses, we read about the 70 members of the Israelite clan, that immigrated to Egypt, where their brother, Joseph, second in command to the Pharoah could help provide for them during the famine.  By verse 8, years have gone by and the entire generation of Joseph had passed on, the Israelite nation had, meanwhile, grown significantly in number, at which point the Torah tells us that a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.  For fear that the Israelites might one day become so powerful as to challenge the Egyptians, Pharoah ordered that the Israelites be enslaved… or did he?  According to the Torah, Pharaoh actually said “hava nitchakmah lo”, “let us deal shrewdly with them”.  Pharaoh makes no mention of slavery.  So how exactly did it happen that the Israelites became enslaved?  You would think that if there was an edict from the Pharaoh that all Israelites were suddenly committed to slavery that there would be a rebellion, or some escapees?  Ramban, the medieval commentator sheds some light on this question.  The Egyptian people, says Ramban, would not have let Pharaoh commit gratuitous violence against the Israelites.  Instead Pharaoh said that they should act cleverly so that the Israelites would not sense that they were acting out of enmity towards them.  I think it makes perfect sense.  You can’t enslave a whole population right away.  It takes time.  Freedoms have to be taken away slowly, their humanity stripped away carefully.  Meanwhile, Pharaoh also had to desensitize the Egyptians, teach them that they have been treated unfairly and that there is a group of people who are the cause for all of their problems.  They need to learn the words to demonize and dehumanize the Israelites.  Jews today know all too well how this process changes a society and where it can lead.

It does seem that the incident on Wednesday, which we could even call a coup attempt, has rattled America, perhaps even enough to help many more people to see through the barrage of lies, misinformation and propaganda that has been a large part of the American diet for the last 5 years as it has slowly eroded our sense of honour and decency, and our respect for each other.  If so, we can only hope that as the source of that influence wanes in power, we can all open a new chapter together and reinvest our words with the holiness they deserve.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Miketz                                December 19, 2020 - 4 Tevet 5781

12/18/2020 08:06:09 AM


As of Monday, I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off for a COVID-friendly winter stay-cation.  I’m looking forward to spending some down time with my lovely wife who just finished her last exam for her bachelor of social work, and hopefully I’ll get back into some woodworking which has been one of my happy hobbies over the last few years.  This means that this will be my last video d’var torah for the year 2020, and it feels like an appropriate time for a bit of reflection.

2020 has been a rough year that has upended our lives.  No matter what your political views may be, I believe we can all agree that in Canada, we are fortunate that our political leadership has been unified, strong, and cohesive enough to keep relative control of the outbreak, especially compared to some other countries whose names rhyme with Shmamerica.  But even so, 14,000 Canadian COVID-related deaths is certainly no laughing matter.  It’s not a laughing matter that so many have lost their jobs and businesses because of lockdowns and quarantine.  It’s not a laughing matter than children’s education is suffering as both schools and students struggle to adjust to a very different way of learning.  And it’s definitely no laughing matter that not a single household in our entire country has been spared from the rapidly escalating mental health crisis as people deal with being isolated from their friends, family and community.

I also think it’s strange to think about just how long we’ve been doing this for.  For example, it’s been so long that somehow I now have more hair than I’ve ever had in my life, while at the exact same time having less hair than I’ve ever had in my life.  Honestly, though, I feel the magnitude of the pandemic’s impact when I think about the fact that I have two beautiful new nieces that I have not yet met in person, which is only made sadder by the fact that my parents have a nine-month-old granddaughter whom they haven’t met in person.  Jamie and I got married in July of last year, which means that more than 50% of our 18 months of marriage has been spent in quarantine.  Quarantine has defined our marriage, because Jamie and I can honestly say that we barely know what married life is like without quarantine.  Each one of us has our own story about how the year 2020 has redefined our existence.  

This week’s parsha is Mikeitz.  We’ve left ourselves off from last week smack dab in the middle of the story of Joseph.  Last week, we heard about his father, Jacob, giving him his beautiful coat of many colours.  We read about how Joseph behaved like a complete brat about it when he lorded his father’s favour over his brothers, telling them about his dreams where they all bowed down to him.  And of course, we learned about how Joseph was then sold into slavery by his brothers,  after which a false accusation lands him in an Egyptian prison.  It’s a really depressing note to end a story on, but as bad as it seems, it is actually a very natural stopping point in the story.  If you haven’t seen the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in a while, or especially if you haven’t seen it yet at all, you can download it and watch a TV version as a great lockdown activity for the family this season.  And if you do, you’ll notice that the exact spot in the Torah narrative that ends last week’s parsha with Joseph in prison is precisely the spot that was chosen for the end of Act I in the Broadway musical, just before the curtain comes down for the intermission.  It was chosen because it’s the big turning point in Joseph’s life.  Before buying the theatre ticket, we’re already supposed to be familiar with the end of the story, which is that Joseph is destined to rise to the 2nd in command position over all of Egypt, next only to the Pharaoh, himself.  So while Joseph sits in prison singing “Close Every Door To Me”, we already know that Joseph’s experience, his leadership skills, his visions, his gift of dream interpreting and listening have all matured, preparing him for his epic rise to power.

As 2020 draws to a close and Toronto continues the lockdown, I see some inspiring parallels between the strange lives we are living today, and what we are reading in the Biblical narrative.  We’re all sitting in prison with Joseph right now, singing right along with him.  But as the lyrics of the song go, “Children of Israel are never alone, ‘cause we know we shall find,our own piece of mind, ‘cause we have been promised a land of our own”.  We’ve come to the turning point.  Although there’s still a long way to go, the vaccines are out and being administered around the world.  As the political pundits and health professionals have been telling us on the news, we’re now at the beginning of the end to the pandemic.  And as we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, we begin to look at our own narratives in a different way.  As difficult as life has been over the last year, we’ve learned many valuable lessons along the way.  We’ve learned to appreciate things that we used to take for granted like the way we used to spend time with friends and family.  We’ve learned new ways to define and build communities where geographical borders no longer exist. We’ve learned to integrate technology into our lives that will undoubtedly redefine how we live, learn and work forever.  Even as Jamie and I reflect on our quarantine marriage, we wonder if the lessons we’ve learned about communication, respect and cooperation in this strange time are actually lessons that would have been otherwise much harder, and taken much longer to learn.  It’s hard to quantify just how much this year has affected each of our lives.  But I believe that if we remain hopeful that we will come out stronger, if we remember the lessons that 2020 has taught us, and seize this perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity to reboot our lives with some long overdue upgrades, I think that we can all look forward to a beautiful, uplifting and satisfying second act.  Jamie and I wish you all out there a restful winter vacation, and we look forward to reconnecting with you all again in the new year.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Vayishlach                  December 5, 2020 - 19 Kislev 5781

12/04/2020 09:07:29 AM


Last Friday night, eight Toronto Conservative synagogues came together virtually for an amazing joint Kabbalat Shabbat service filled with ruach and music.  Five hundred screens joined us for the event, maxing out our zoom capacity, and another 300 were watching on Facebook.  It was by far the most people I’ve ever seen gather together for a simple Friday night service, and I was so proud to be a part of it.

You know, as Toronto goes into its third week of lockdown in this latest wave of the pandemic, I find that I’m pausing to reflect on just how accustomed I’ve become to this new reality, and I imagine that I’m not alone in this.  I think that many of us by this point have almost become a bit numb to the cabin fever.  Going a bit crazy, stressing, disinfecting groceries is just a part of our day now, so much so that we’ve pretty much stopped complaining about it.  But last Friday night was a reminder, at least to me, of what we’ve been missing in our lives.  It was a reminder to stay strong and not give into the kind of depression that many of us are fighting hard to try and stave off, some of us more successfully than others, and that there’s good reason to be hopeful that we’ll be able to return to our old lives soon.

This week’s parsha, which we WILL be reading in shul this week (be sure to join us on zoom), is Vayishlach.  Jacob’s camp is on the move, trying desperately to stay ahead of his brother Esav, still bent on killing Jacob for stealing his blessing.  Jacob decides he’s going to split his camp in two so they can go off in different directions.  That way, if Esav catches up with one of them, the other might have a better chance for survival.  Can we possibly imagine the emotional turmoil that Jacob must have experienced in this Sophie’s Choice moment.  As he does this, he sends messengers to intercept Esav with pleas and gifts in the chance that they might assuage Esav’s anger.  Esav the fast and mighty hunter reaches Jacob’s camp, and they come face to face for the first time in almost 20 years.  And as they look at one another, Esav’s anger, Jacob’s fear melt away and they embrace.  What a relief!  Just like that, the sibling rivalry is over, because we all know that that’s how it works right?  One moment you can be insanely angry with someone, enough to kill them, and the next everything is ok, right?  Of course not.

So what happened?  The answer is that 20 years happened.  When Jacob stole his brother’s blessing, it was a devious and bratty thing to do.  Let’s not let Jacob off the hook so easily, because Esav had every right to be angry.  But what happened to Jacob since then?  When Jacob ran off to live with his uncle Lavan, he worked for Lavan for 7 years to marry Rachel, only to be duped, and forced work another 7 years.  Some might say that it was the first time that Jacob finally got a taste of his own  medicine.  When Jacob then wrestles the angel, one modern interpretation is that the angel represented Jacob’s own conscience, realizing in the end that in order to become a better man, he must hold himself to account for the wrongs he had committed against others, including Esav.  When Jacob and Esav finally meet, the Torah says that Esav fell on Jacob’s neck, kissed him and they wept.  The word in the Torah that describes Esav kissing Jacob is “vayishakeihu”, which appears in the Torah with a sequence of strange dots above the word that beg for interpretation.    Commentators suggest that the word is meant to be especially significant because this act by Esav was outside his usual brutish character, indicating that he too had changed, than in 20 years, he had found some semblance of peace and learned to become a good and decent leader.

I have to admit that there are times when I feel like this pandemic has lasted for 20 years.  It has certainly aged us all.  We’ve had to learn to live a new normal, and give up things we never thought we’d ever have to.  But I think we’ve also grown a lot.   We’ve learned to appreciate so many little things that we took for granted before, going over to a friend’s house, going out for dinner, having a workout at the gym.  We’ve also learned to better appreciate some of the big things too, like going to a big beautiful wedding, or packing ourselves into shul for the High Holydays.  We’ve come to realize that it wasn’t really about “the thing” that we did so much as the people we did it with.  Do you know what proves it?  It’s the fact that all the cantors that participated in last Friday night’s huge service all know perfectly well that the 800 people watching weren’t there to necessarily listen to all the cantors do their thing, but rather, just to scroll through all of the other screens and see the faces of friends and neighbours that we haven’t seen in so long, all watching the service together from their homes.

Of course, we’re all eager for the pandemic to end, and it will.  But what I’m looking forward to especially is that I think we are all going to experience a renewed zeal for friends, for family, for community and for life, and I think it’s going to be amazing.  To help get keep that wonderful spirit alive until then, we’ve got lots more in store.  We have our huge Toronto-wide virtual Chanukah concert coming this Sunday night.  Plans are underway to do a big malaveh Malka program in January, just the way we did our big Kabbalat Shabbat, and even the Kabbalat Shabbat, I have no doubt will be returning again very soon.  Why?  Because in all of this madness, in a century that has taught us to become more inwardly focused, we discovered that what we really needed all along was each other.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Toldot                            November 21, 2020 - 5 Kislev 5781

11/20/2020 09:33:41 AM


Well it’s happened. Not that Toronto is entering yet another lockdown, no. Jamie and I have somehow managed to keep it together pretty well up until now, but we’ve reached a turning point… at 2:02 am, we realized that we’ve come to the end of Netflix… and Amazon Prime… and Disney+. And it’s not as though the shul hasn’t been keeping us busy. In a strange way, our synagogue has never been more active with at least one community program going on just about every day, and plans in the works for a Toronto-wide Kabbalat Shabbat program, a virtual chanukah unity concert coming with 9 synagogues already on board, and more are signing up. Regular virtual shabbat morning services are coming back as of next week, I’m making my way through the new book we’re doing for the Beth Radom book club, and a virtual community talent show is coming in January… I’ll be playing the spoons. It’s just that there’s so much time, and absolutely nowhere to go. And even the news is boring again, which I’m admittedly grateful for, as they say, no news is good news. We know that there are two effective vaccines that will eventually be available, it’s just a matter of waiting… without Netflix. But I have to believe that I’m not the only one to realize that even when I’m being as productive as I can be, just how much I miss engaging with the world, getting out there and making the most out of life.

It’s for this reason that in this week’s parsha, Toldot, I’ve been thinking more about the Biblical character, Yitzhak. What comes to mind when we think of Yitzhak, the second of the three great forefathers (did you catch that? Second of the three great forefathers?). At least for me, it’s the story of the Binding of Isaac, which I suspect is probably what most people think of. But really how many other stories are there? There’s the story of the news that Sarah would conceive Yitzhak, there’s the story in our parsha this week when Yitzhak is tricked by Yaakov and Rivka into giving Yaakov the greater blessing, and that’s about it. Even in the story of Yitzhak marrying Rivka, Yitzhak’s character is entirely uninvolved. Now compare that to Abraham, who left his home, who met three angels, who tried to save the city of Sodom, who had audiences with kings. And Jacob? Who plots with his mother to trick his father who runs away from his brother who threatens to kill him, who had the dream about the ladder, who worked 7 years for his uncle’s promise that he could marry Rachel, only to be tricked and forced to work another 7 years, who raised twelve sons and a daughter, and even wrestled with an angel after which he is given the name Yisra’el? Now there’s a forefather!

When we explore the ancient aggadic literature, the first story teaches that Yitzhak was the counterpart to his father Avraham in body and soul, that he resembled him in every way, in beauty, wisdom, strength, wealth and noble deeds, and it was therefore as great an honour for Yitzhak to be called the son of his father as for Avraham to be called the father of his son. Of course, the Conservative movement has no difficulty embracing biblical criticism, and so when we read rabbinic texts like this, it’s hard not to think “the rabbis doth protest too much”. That’s Shakespeare, he liked to protest the rabbis. And why not? Yitzhak seems to be an ancillary character at best, and at worst, at 37 years old, he couldn’t be bothered to find a wife for himself, the servant Eliezer went and did it for him, and he doted on his brutish older son, Esau while apparently ignoring his younger son, Yaakov. And let’s not forget, it’s not as though Yitzhak was stuck in quarantine for years out of his life.

Despite these apparent shortcomings, however, it seems that Yitzhak still manages to do whatever job it seems that God had intended for him. When a famine strikes, and Yitzhak makes plans to move his clan to Egypt, God appears to him saying, “Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land of which I shall tell you; Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you, and to your seed, I will give all these countries, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Avraham your father; And I will make your seed multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give to your seed all these countries; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 26:2-5)

The rabbis ask, why is it that God allowed both Abraham and Jacob to go to Egypt when the need arose, but Yitzchak was prohibited?

To answer that, the rabbis begin with another question. What must Yitzhak have been like as a person? We certainly can’t tell much from the things that Yitzchak says, since he doesn’t speak much in the Torah at all. Perhaps he’s the strong and silent type. But then we remember Yitzhak’s traumatic childhood – his father was ready to sacrifice him on God’s instruction, but still it doesn’t seem that Yitzhak even protested. The Akeidah may have even been the reason that his mother Sarah died, but how did it affect Yitzchak? The Rabbis say that Yitzchak was an “Olah Temimah – a perfect, pure offering”, making him a person of unique holiness. Perhaps he didn’t have the gift of the gab like his father, perhaps he wasn’t the warrior that his son, Jacob would grow up to be, but a simple, quiet man of piety and contemplation. The rabbis suggest that his holiness gave him a special connection to the Promised Land, and that going to live in Egypt would be beneath him. Unlike his father and his son who were merchants and shepherds, Yitchak focused his clan on agriculture, using his connection to the land to amass enormous wealth “for he had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and great store of servants; and the P’lisht’im envied him” (Gen. 26:12-14).

In the story where Jacob disguises himself as his brother, Esau, in order to trick an infirmed Yitzchak into giving him the greater blessing, we note the peculiar wording as the Torah describes the scene, “And he came near, and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garment, and blessed him and said, See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which God has blessed” (Gen. 27:27).

We often wonder why it is that people who live in urban areas typically have very different personalities, ideologies and political leanings than those who live in rural areas. Many urbanites fail to understand why rural folks can often be very defensive when it comes to their territory, and there is a historical reason for this. Merchants and tradesmen are portable. When a threat is perceived, a clan of merchants can relatively easily pack up and relocate, but a farmer’s livelihood has always relied on staying put and having the skills to defend their territory. It is no wonder why Yitzchak may have valued Esau’s skills more than Jacob’s, as he probably saw in Esau much of himself, despite Esau’s brutishness.

Yitzchak, it seems, was a man who knew how to hunker down, who knew how to stick it out for the long haul. Strong and silent, Yitzhak knew how to bide his time, and even prosper while doing so. And his legacy is of course very much a part of the Jewish people, who have proven time and again, that when we need to, we can hunker down and wait out a storm, Netflix, or no Netflix.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Chaya Sarah                November 14, 2020 - 27 Cheshvan 5781

11/13/2020 10:09:18 AM


This past week has been a mesmerizing onslaught of news from the Biden victory in the American elections, to President Trump's refusal to concede amidst baseless accusations of election fraud.  Even the announcement of death of beloved Jeopardy host Alex Trebek was only just barely powerful enough to attract the attention of the mainstream media.  While the world wasn't paying attention, the great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks passed away, only a few months after disclosing that he had cancer.  In a quiet instant, the world lost one of its greatest Jewish scholars, authors, educators and communicators of the modern era.  Under other circumstances, his funeral would have attracted tens of thousands, and dignitaries from all over the world.  Instead, he was buried quietly and quickly in accordance with London's COVID restrictions, and no more than 30 people in attendance.

There is an old Chassidic story that tells of the deaths of two men in one town on the same day.  One was a great rabbi and scholar, and the other a murderous villain.  By some accident during the preparation of their bodies for burial, their identities were mistaken and their caskets switched. As a result of the mistake, the villain's funeral was presided over by a host of dignitaries, and was accompanied by thousands to the cemetery where the casket was buried in a place of honour.  Meanwhile, the great rabbi's funeral was a modest one, with only a few in attendance.  Why would God allow such a tragic disrespect for the great rabbi, and such an honour for a villain?  The chassidic masters teach that by this, the villain could be rewarded on earth for the small acts of righteousness he had done in his lifetime, so that he could then earn his eternity in Gehenom.  Meanwhile, the rabbi's indignity was the earthly consequence of the small sins he committed in his lifetime, so that he could then merit an eternity in paradise.

In memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, I invite you all to watch this amazing video of him giving a TED talk in 2017 which could not be more relevant today . It is a true testament to his scholarship and genius as a communicator to watch him speak to a world audience, about world issues, from the perspective of Jewish wisdom.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Vayera                              November 7, 2020 - 20 Cheshvan 5781

11/06/2020 10:31:11 AM


Hello everyone, I’m Cantor Jeremy, welcome to another Beth Radom video d’var torah. 

Just so we’re all clear, as I’m recording this video it’s late on Thursday night, and my tv has been on for nearly 3 days straight tuned in to the news.  If I look like I have bags under my eyes for not having slept for the last few days, that’s because I have bags under my eyes for not having slept for the last few days.  Those of you who may not know, both Jamie and I are American citizens and we cast absentee ballots.  Here’s my ballot, and this is 100% real, this is my ballot which has not been cast because it arrived in my mailbox on Wednesday (thank you American postal service), so the only value it has now is purely sentimental.  I’m only slightly comforted by the fact that I vote in New York, and so we can safely say that they didn’t need it too badly. 

Occasionally on this channel, I’ve enjoyed taking a few cheap-shots at American politics, and those who know me, know that I’ve never been a fan of Donald Trump, but I generally still avoid wading too deeply into political waters of any kind in an official capacity.  But I think this time, I am compelled to make an exception.  And before I criticize, I feel it is absolutely critical to give credit where credit is due.  Donald Trump has been, throughout his presidency, an avid supporter of Israel, more so than any other American president in history, and while we can argue whether or not that support is in Israel’s best interest, that fact remains.  It is also largely due to the support of the Trump administration that Israel has made enormous progress in normalizing its relationships with some of its Arab and Muslim neighbours including Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, and that is an enormously big deal.  A few months ago, I was concerned that America’s enabling of Israel would lead to the annexation of the West Bank, and a dangerous move towards a one-state solution, and I was wrong.  In fact, it was in part because an American-enabled Israel was so strong and threatening, that these countries were compelled to go to the negotiating table.  I must admit that I am more confident today about Israeli foreign relations and optimistic about middle east peace than I can remember, and that is most assuredly due in part to the Trump administration.  Similarly, if you assess the health of the US economy based on the behaviour of the markets pre-COVID, at which time the American unemployment rate was also at a record low, we must credit Donald Trump because these are metrics that are good and healthy for any country, whether or not we agree about the way in which they were accomplished. 

But, at his press conference on Wednesday, I watched Donald Trump utter the words, “we have to stop the voting”.  On the surface, it seems perfectly reasonable.  The election was Tuesday.  You can’t vote on Wednesday or any time thereafter, obviously excluding absentee ballots.  But that’s not what he was referring to.  He wants to stop the COUNTING of the ballots, and his choice of words could not have been more deliberately misleading.  Voting after the election day is illegal, but counting ballots for days and even weeks following an election is not just legal, this year due to COVID, it’s absolutely necessary, and Trump knows that it’s dangerous for him.  This is because he knows that those remaining ballots are far more likely to be votes for Biden.  Why?  Because the ballots left to be counted are the mail-in ballots which take more time to process, ballots that were cast by people who would rather not go anywhere near a crowded polling station over concerns about coronavirus—a concern that is shared primarily among democratic voters.  This means that Trump’s cry of election fraud is itself so transparently fraudulent, that I’m nauseated.   

Of course, it’s not the first time that Trump has deliberately lied or misled the public.  It’s not the first time that he has been caught deliberately lying or misleading the public.  It’s not even the first time that he has been caught deliberately lying or misleading the public with mortally dangerous consequences to public health and safety, and let there be no mistake, by claiming election fraud, Donald Trump is inciting civil unrest that very well may lead to violence.  It is just one more example of the extent to which one man will go to serve his own lust for power and adulation.  It is narcissism in its rawest, truest form, and only a drop in the bucket next to the stream of hate, bigotry, bluster, gas-lighting, buffoonery and hyperbole that has defined Donald Trump’s term as president and the representation of the United States on the world stage for the last four years. 

In our parsha this week, Vayera, God informs Abraham that He intends to destroy the city of Sodom for their wickedness.  The Talmud lists 109 examples of the kinds of atrocities commonly committed by the people of Sodom including rape, murder, thievery, corruption, and interestingly, isolationism is listed in there too.  Abraham nevertheless argues with God, asking Him to spare the people of Sodom.  God agrees on the condition that Abraham is able to find at least 50 good people who didn’t deserve to be destroyed.  But Abraham isn’t done arguing, and asks God if He would still consider sparing the city if he could only find 45 good people.  Abraham even tries to manipulate God, saying “What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” (Gen. 18:28).  God agrees not to destroy Sodom if Abraham is able to find 45 righteous people.  But Abraham is still not finished, eventually bargaining with God down to just 10 people—that if Abraham could find just 10 righteous people in the entire city of Sodom, for the sake of those 10, God would spare a city of murderers and rapists.

We are all meant to try and emulate Abraham, to be as righteous, to be as noble and as selfless.  It is an amazing virtue to be the kind of person who sees the best in everyone, who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, and who always chooses mercy, even when it may not be deserved.  Our tradition teaches us that it was not really God who chose Abraham to be the father of a great and mighty nation.  Rather, Abraham distinguished himself by being the only one who’s spirit was such that it was open and attuned to be able to receive a Divine broadcast.  But even Abraham could only defend Sodom to a point.  When Abraham could not find even 10 righteous people among the entire city of Sodom, he had no choice but to concede, villainy could not be defended any further.

From Neo-Nazis to the Proud Boys and other variations of white supremacy, there’s no doubt that there are way too sick and despicable people out there.  I understand why they would find their champion in Donald Trump.  But if this election has shown us anything, it has shown us that there are also a lot of good, normal, well-meaning folks who also support him, and either their capacity for forgiveness is positively Abrahamic, or there is something else deeply wrong with our society.  Perhaps social media is to blame, perhaps it’s materialism and greed, maybe it’s the kind of Sodomite isolationism that today manifests itself in the way we treat immigrants, I don’t know.  But for now, I’ll simply be content that soon, like Sodom, the name Trump will once again be nothing more than a cautionary tale of what a society can become when we believe ourselves to be better than our fellow man, rather than believe IN ourselves that we can just be better. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor Comments - Parshat Bereshit                            October 17, 2020  - 29 Tishrei 5781

10/16/2020 10:56:28 AM


“I'm always pushing for human responsibility. Given that chimpanzees and many other animals are sentient and sapient, then we should treat them with respect.”
--Jane Goodall (1934-), primatologist and anthropologist

What is sentience?  How do we determine whether an organism is sentient?  Is it a measure of the awareness of self?  A measure of intelligence or cognition?  To be perfectly honest, I actually don’t know what the answer is.  I think it should be easy enough for everyone to agree, though, that human beings today are sentient, and that if we go far back enough along the evolutionary chain, we must eventually come across some kind of homo sapien ancestor who is not sentient, even if we have to go as far back as a single-celled organism.  I can also admit that I have no idea whether the human transition to sentience was an extremely long and gradual process, or whether it was a short one in our evolutionary history.  But no matter what, we must be able to say at some point a transition happened.  Whether we are talking about one individual who was the first to be sentient, or a larger group over a longer period of time, let’s metaphorically call these first individuals Adam and Eve.

“And God formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7).  The story of sentient humanity begins.  The human, becoming self-aware, began to try and understand the world in which he or she lived which seemed to magically have everything that was needed for survival, shelter in caves, fruit and berries for food, a care-free Garden of Eden.  Except, it was not entirely care-free because there existed in it something that was forbidden.  The sentient human does not yet have a sense of morality, but only a rudimentary understanding of a distinction between things that can be used for benefit ,and things that, unless avoided, will cause harm.  The latter is represented by the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Meanwhile, “God had formed out of the ground every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man called each living creature, that remained its name.” (Gen. 2:19) According to our metaphor, this translates to the sentient human gaining intellect, learning rudimentary language and assigning names to the animals and other objects around him, whether gestural or vocal so that more complex ideas can shared between other capable human beings.  As language develops, and human social interaction develops, man and woman are able to bond as a pair beyond sexuality and we now have intimacy.  I believe this concept is particularly well reflected in the biblical language as God describes the intention for the partnership between man and woman to be ‘ezer k’negdo’ – literally translated as ‘a helpmate opposite him’, a relationship based first on social interaction, not on sexuality.

At this point, what we’ve done is draw a parallel between what we can reasonably understand about the anthropological development of human sentience and the biblical narrative.  But we could rightly ask, what do we actually learn from this?  Let me suggest that what we are really learning about here is the nature of God.  Although God may be personified in the story of creation, as strange as it may feel to say it, the Jewish concept of God is that God is not a person.  Traditionally, God is more easily described by what He is not, than by what He is.  The traditional positive description of God comes from Exodus 34:6-7, “God, compassionate and gracious, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and who cleanses”.  However, in light of our exploration of the story of Adam and Even, perhaps we might also say that God is the source of sentience in the universe, and creator of purpose.  While it is demonstrably true that the universe could certainly exist without sentience, what would be the point?  Why should it matter at all whether or not the universe exists if there is no being who can appreciate it?  Make something of it?  Fill it with amazing things?  You might even say that sentience IS the point of the universe.  Humanity, therefore, is God’s gift to the universe that it might know itself.  We learn from this that our sentience is a precious gift, and that we are meant to use it to learn, explore, feel, create, and show our gratitude to God who gave it to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor's Comments - Sukkot                                      Saturday, October 3, 2020 - 15 Tishrei 5781

10/02/2020 08:40:43 AM


Hello everyone, and welcome back to another video d’var torah.   I say ‘welcome back’ even though it’s only been a few days since many of you last saw me on our High Holydays live-stream, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to just sit and talk to you all and offer some thoughts and words of Torah.  And by the way, about the high holydays, it was so meaningful to receive all of the wonderful feedback, compliments and thank yous from so many of you about the services.  I can share with you that at shul we were all very happy about how it all came together in the end, and on behalf of Rabbi Haber, Gabbi Mark, Principal Cindy, Miriam in the office, the choir, the shul board and myself, thank you all for tuning in, being with us, believing in us to pull off this incredible feat, and supporting the community.  But if you will indulge me briefly, I would also like to add a few personal remarks, reflecting on these past few weeks and months as we prepared to do this monumental thing that had never been done before.

It was early May.  We were somewhere in our 8th or 9th week of lockdown and all of us were beginning to realize that our summer plans were likely going to have to be canceled, and the reality that we could be doing this for a long time was beginning to sink in.  The question of what would become of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was almost too bizarre to take seriously, but we began to ask the question anyway.  In the weeks that followed it was clear that most Conservative and Reform synagogues would live stream their services.  In fact, a fair number of them had begun live streaming all of their services some years ago in order to bring religious services to those members of their communities who were hospitalized or housebound.  And the model for these live-streamed services was simple; to offer a digital window into what was happening at shul for those who couldn’t be there in person.  None of us at Beth Radom had ever had any experience with live-streaming before, but while this meant that we had a very steep learning curve to navigate, it also enabled us to dream up a very different kind of a vision.  Instead of offering a digital window into a service where we pretend that everything is otherwise normal, we dreamed of a completely redesigned High Holydays that didn’t so much live at the shul, but instead operated more like a television news program with the anchors at shul and correspondents on location in our homes.  Our hope was that in this way we would all feel our homes being drawn together into a unified sacred space.  Instead of having a window into your shul, your home would become a part of shul.  That’s why our services were filled with messages from community members, bringing you greetings from their homes to yours.  That’s why when we beat our chests for the Ashamnu, you could see your fellow congregants rise together and beat their chests together with you.  That’s why we chose the slogan, “shul is coming home” to represent the vision for our Holyday season.  

All this is to say that I wanted to take this moment to go on record and congratulate us all for participating.  By doing so, we refused to accept a mentality of “let’s just do the best we can with a bad situation”.  We instead embraced the strangeness of the times we are living in, and because of it, I think we discovered a new way to connect spiritually.  And for all of their out-of-the-box thinking, their dedication and hours and hours and hours of hard work on this colossal undertaking, I want to offer my own personal gratitude to Rabbi Haber, to our shul President Mark Vernon who managed the project, to Principal Cindy who led the family services, Miriam Sharpe in the office who had to quickly become an expert in answering your technical questions, Linda Saxe who oversaw the Yizkor Book, Ryan and David at Bounce Entertainment who operated our live-stream cameras, our videographer Nadav Rosenberg from Cliq Creative who donated his time to film the choir at the shul, Alyssa Molko who created the opening sequences and title screens for each service, our choir director and arranger, my brother Robby Burko, the members of the choir Rachel Malach, Terry Schonberger, Stacey Silver and Shayna Lavi, who largely had to record themselves at home using nothing but their own smartphones, the shul’s board of directors who put their faith in me when I proposed this insane plan, Robin Tameshtit who put together your Holyday boxes, everyone who showed up on zoom to create the Ashamnu video, all those who submitted video greetings, recorded themselves reading prayers and giving speeches, and so many more volunteers who worked the phones, stuffed envelopes, filled Holyday gift boxes and more.  And of course, the biggest thanks goes to all of our members and those who donated to the Shul in lieu of  tickets for the services and made Yom Kippur donations.  We know that these times are fraught with financial uncertainty, and we thank you for investing in your shul community, and trusting your synagogue’s professional team to deliver something extra special—a great High Holyday experience that is a reflection of the great community that we are.  Without your support, none of this could have happened.

So, we made it through.  What’s next?  I have to admit that after working some of the longest hours of my life for the past few weeks, I half expected to emerge after Yom Kippur to find that COVID was over.  But it’s not.  In fact, it seems we are heading into the dreaded second wave that we’ve all been assuming would be coming.  One of the not so small graces that we were able to enjoy during this strange COVID summer was that we could at least spend time with our families, and maybe a few friends and neighbours so long as we stayed outside in our backyards, kept our distance and wore our masks.  This will become a lot more difficult to do, if not impossible, as the Canadian winter sets in.  If you are a follower of American news, like me, then we are gluttons for even more punishment with the death of the great chief justice and proud member of the tribe, Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the Notorious RBG.  The rioting over racial injustice in many American cities is again refueled over the news that no officers will be charged in connection with the death of Breonne Taylor, and then, of course, there is the absolute travesty that was the first American presidential debate.  Looking around us, how can we blame anyone these days for feeling less than hopeful about the future of the human race? And perhaps you also feel as I do, a little extra disappointed that this is where we are so quickly after Yom Kippur.  But there’s also a silver lining—thank God, the holydays are not quite done with us yet and the timing couldn’t be more perfect because I could really use a little more community time—time spent just like we’ve been doing, celebrating our shared Jewish heritage, connecting with one another, filling our homes with music, spirit, and funky a cappella Adon Olam videos.

In our liturgy, each of the three pilgrimage festivals is announced together with a different qualifier.  For Pesach, chag haPesach hazeh, we say it is z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom.  For Shavuot, chag haShavuot hazeh, we say that it is z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.  The meaning of the qualifiers are pretty obvious—Passover is the celebration of our freedom from slavery and Shavuot is the celebration of the giving of the Torah.  But what about Sukkot?  Chag HaSukkot hazeh, the liturgy says it is z’man simchateinu, the time of our happiness.  Why happiness?  Is Sukkot necessarily happier than Passover or Shavuot?  Wouldn’t it make more sense if it said that it was the time of shaking a lulav and etrog?  Or the time of eating outside?   What is so happy about Sukkot that makes the theme of happiness THE primary theme of the holiday?

After the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to rejoice.  The Sukkah in our backyard represents a break from the routine, the setting aside of challenges and debate and a return to nature and the basics in life.  It is a chance and a reminder to appreciate all of the good things that we have right in front of us.  During these strange times, I cannot think of a more welcome idea than a commandment to be happy.

Of course it appears that we will be wrestling with a lot of big world problems for a while longer.  But while we do, I think we’re also going to have to make an effort to focus inward too, towards ourselves and our community to continue to find the relief, the joy and the hope that we need.  How fortunate that we’re well set up for it.  If you liked what you experienced over the Holydays, then stick with us.  Come visit our virtual social hall, be a part of the book club, stream our sukkot services, and check out our weekly Sunday variety shows when they return on October 18th.  Together, we’ll hold on to that happiness, just as God holds on to us through this Holyday season, just a little while longer.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach,

Sat, March 25 2023 3 Nisan 5783