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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Noach                            October 13, 2018 - 4 Cheshvan, 5779

10/12/2018 12:47:06 PM

Oct12

“The mediocre teacher tells.  The good teacher explains.  The superior teacher demonstrates.  The great teacher inspires.”
                                                
--William Arthur Ward (1921-1994), American author and poet

My dog, Libbi, is a rescue dog that I adopted when she was already two years old.  She had an amazingly loving personality, but as most rescue dogs, she came with a number of behavioural challenges, not the least annoying of which was her counter-surfing.  Curious about what kinds of delicious smelling items I was working with on my kitchen counter, she would jump up on her hind legs to take a look.  But, still being slightly too short to see, she would stretch out her front paws and make sweeping motions over the counter surface, randomly attempting to knock something interesting down to the floor for further investigation.  When I caught her in the act, I would discipline her, and in time, she stopped… or so I thought.  I had finished making a pot roast one day, put the roast in the fridge, and accidentally left a plastic container of the drippings on the kitchen counter while I left the house for an hour.  When I returned, the plastic container was gone, with no mess left on the floor at all. The only evidence of the crime was a little bit of crusted grease on Libbi’s left ear, and the empty plastic container which I eventually found days later underneath a pile of dog toys.

In Parshat Noah, God calls a mulligan on creation, a do-over. Fundamentally, however, God can’t make mistakes.  So how do we reconcile this idea of a perfect God, with God’s imperfect creation?  Let’s not forget, what God created, “He called it very good”.  The easy answer is to simply say that it was not God’s mistake, but rather, human beings’ mistakes, that necessitated the flood.  God created our physical world in perfect balance, a self-sustaining eco-system in which plants, animals, insects, bacteria, all life cycles into itself; a world which is constantly converting nutrients and energy from one form into another in order to perpetuate life.  The easy answer, therefore, is that the spirit of mankind, was not in balance.  We necessitated our own destruction because we violated the rules of consumption, in that it was not for the perpetuation of life, but selfishly for power and greed. It’s an easy answer, because it places the blame squarely on our own, fallible, human shoulders.  But just as it is my responsibility to teach my dog good behaviour, or parents’ to teach their children good behaviour, is it not also God’s responsibility to balance the human the human spirit and set mankind on a path for behaviour that He might also call “very good” as with the rest of creation?

When we do some investigating, the evidence, doesn’t seem to help God’s case for denying culpability.  Here is God’s chronological record in guiding the human spirit to discern right from wrong.  First, Adam and Eve defy God’s command and eat the apple, and God imposes the severest of punishments: Exile from the Garden of Eden, and the descendants of mankind would be forced to work by the sweat of their brow in order to sustain themselves and endure the pain of childbirth.  Some commentators also suggest that from the language of the Torah, human mortality is also Adam and Eve’s punishment.  The second is Cain who commits fratricide; arguably much more severe than eating the wrong piece of fruit.  His punishment is that his harvests will have less yield and that he will cursed with being a wanderer.  In response to his strangely forgiving punishment, Cain attempts to push the envelope even further and complains about his punishment, “I must become a vagrant and a wanderer on earth?  Whoever meets me will kill me!” (Gen. 4:14).  God responds with even more mercy by placing divine protection on Cain’s life for seven generations.  Third, is the rather curious story of Lamech whose entire narrative is two verses long.  With interpretive help from the commentators, a blind Lamech accidentally kills Cain with a bow and arrow, having mistaken him for an animal.  While this homicide was clearly accidental, Lamech immediately denies any responsibility at all.  God does not indicate that Lamech should have any punishment, and the only apparent consequence is that Lamech’s wives appear not to want to live with him anymore.  In a few verses, the Torah describes the generations that have passed until the time of Noah, where the text then says, “God saw that the wickedness of Man was great upon the earth, and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was but evil always” (Gen. 6:5).  It seems that with each bad act of mankind, even though more and more severe, God is more and more merciful, and mankind is getting the wrong message each time.

I found an idea on YouTube to help me solve my problem with Libbi’s counter-surfing.  I saved up my empty soda cans, and then stacked them high on the edge of the counter.  After returning home from work, the cans, of course, would be on the floor.  But my plan had worked - Libbi’s face was completely ridden with fear from the noise of the crash, and she had the ‘guilty dog’ look for the mess on the floor that she knew I would find.  I only had to stack cans on my counters about four times.  The fourth time that I stacked them, they stayed there for days until I eventually took them down myself, and the days of doggy-counter-surfing were over.  It seemed like such a sensible tactic; the dog would see immediate consequences to her actions, and as a bonus, I wasn’t the ‘bad guy’.  In her mind, it wasn’t me punishing her for her bad behaviour, rather, it was a natural consequence of the world reacting to her actions – she, of course, had no idea that I had set her up.

God created human beings with fallibility – that was the point, so that we could learn to overcome our own faults.  While it is true that Judaism attributes all moral reward and punishment to God, part of our growth as human being is to realize that God created the world around us (not always, but often) to exact punishment upon us when we deserve it.  Blaming God is easy, particularly when that blame should sometimes be placed on ourselves.  Of course, God is responsible for guiding us on paths of morality, as that is God’s nature.   With the flood, God demonstrates for the first time that punishment doesn’t always come from God directly, but from the natural world.  Quite simply, we learn better that way.  Even today, as it did in the days of the flood, the earth continues to teach us the consequence of abusing it, and we continue to learn how to treat it, and each other, better.

Shabbat Shalom,
                          --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Bereshit                        October 6, 2018 - 27 Tishrei, 5779

10/05/2018 12:38:31 PM

Oct5

Robert Fulghum, in his best seller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, writes about the children’s game Hide and Seek: “Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so well, nobody could find him?  We did.  After a while, we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was.  Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him . . .

 

“As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there is a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window.  He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him . . . I considered going out and telling them where he is hiding . . . Finally, I just yelled, “Get found, kid!”  And I scared him so badly that he started crying and ran home to tell his mother.  It’s really hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.

 

“A man I know found out last year that he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor.  And he knew about dying, and he didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him.  So he kept his illness a secret.  And died.  Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell anybody . . . But privately, his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength.  And it hurt them that he didn’t say good-bye.”

 

Fulghum concludes: “He hid too well.”  Getting found would have kept him in the game.  Hide and Seek, grown-up style: Wanting to hide.  Needing to be sought.  Confused about being found.  “I don’t want anybody to know.”  “What will people think?”

 

Hiding is something that we do well.  Too well at times . We hide our emotions; we hide our motives.  We hide psychologically, and we call it a defense mechanism.  We hide religiously and we call it skepticism or agnosticism or “just too much trouble.”  There is a midrash which teaches about hiding: When the angels heard that God was going to create the image of God’s own being, and breathe the breath of God’s life into it, they conspired with each other to hide the image of divinity.  One angel proposed to put it on the top of a mountain.  A second proposed to hide it at the bottom of the sea.  Finally, a third angel turned to the others and exclaimed: “Let us hide it by putting it in man and woman, because that is the last place anyone will look for it.”

 

Ironically, hiding may be one of those basic human instincts:  The first question of the Bible is asked by God to Adam: “Adam, where are you?”  And where was Adam?  He was hiding, because he was ashamed.  He ate the forbidden fruit and was hiding from God.  Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the founder of Habad Hassidism, comments: “What?  God didn’t know where Adam was hiding?”  To which he answers, “Of course God knew where Adam was hiding, but Adam needed to be asked where and why he was hiding.”  This week’s Torah reading, Bereshit calls our hiding into question.  “Where are you?” is a question posed to each of us.  Where are we hiding?  Where is our place in the world?  What are we doing with our lives?

 

Our tradition talks a great deal about the fact that human beings are, by nature, hiders and concealers, but it also provides models for us to emulate of those who chose not to hide, not to run.  When we read the story of how God comes to Abraham and asks him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac (Genesis 22:2), imagine the existential angst that must have filled Abraham’s entire being. But Abraham does not hide.  He confronts his destiny and immediately answers God with the word “Here I am;” I know who I am; I know what is important to me; I stand ready to face the realities of my life no matter what the consequences.  I cannot and will not hide from life.

 

“The web of life,” wrote Shakespeare, “is of mingled yarn, good and ill together.”  Tzores and triumph is the stuff of life.  We cannot deny this or ignore it. Judaism teaches us that we cannot hide from life.  Like Abraham, we must respond to life’s challenges and vicissitudes with “Here I am.”  James Baldwin said it best when he remarked: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  I suspect, however, that most of us find it difficult to confront our true selves.  We are always looking for excuses to avoid confronting important issues in our lives.  We use our busy schedules and hectic lifestyles to conceal our identities, to evade the ultimate questions in our lives.

 

Most people don’t search for themselves because underneath they are afraid they are tainted by their deeds.  If they discover who they really are, they might not be able to live with themselves.  Judaism teaches us that we are not innately evil or tainted even if we have sinned.  Every human being is a descendant of Adam, created “in the image of God.”  The soul is pure and that never changes, no matter what we have done in life.  We can derive strength from the belief that at the core of our beings, we are pure.  All of us have it in our power to return from the darkness and pain in our lives and emerge into the light of wholeness graced by honesty and crowned by self-affirmation.

 

Each of us has been, at one time or another, bruised by life.  We have suffered tragedy, gone through a divorce, lost a job, missed a promotion, experienced a death in the family, confronted sadness and hardship we did not expect and which took us by surprise.  There are those among us who are burdened by their guilt, eaten up by envy of someone else’s good fortune or possessions, soured by jealousy, haunted by the past or obsessed with loss.  There are times when life’s difficulties seem too great to bear and so we create facades behind which to hide. We don the mask of self-deception.  Scraping away the layers of denial, of callousness, of selfishness, of fear - removing the masks we wear - is the only way we will emerge from our hiding and discover that what lies beneath our failures and foibles is a pure soul, a human being - with the capacity for inward change and renewal.  Our Rabbis teach: “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance, are always open.”  It is never too late to come out of our hiding, to overcome our loneliness, to strengthen our human relationships, or even to return to God.

 

God’s timeless question of “Where are you?” is addressed to each person’s soul and conscience.  Each of us will have to answer for ourselves.  And I pray that each of us will find the strength and courage to answer - not with the silence of Adam, but with the bold affirmation of Abraham, with “Here I am!”  I shall not be silent; I will hide no longer!  May it be so.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor's Comments - Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot      September 29, 2018 - 20 Tishrei 5779

09/28/2018 12:17:26 PM

Sep28

“What you have to do and the way you have to do it is incredibly simple.  Whether you are willing to do it is another matter.”

--Peter Drucker (1909-2005), Austro-American author and Professor of Business

 

The excitement of a good debate over Jewish Law is sometimes lost on cantors, but not so for me.  I have always loved the exciting rabbinical debate process where ideas are challenged, opinions contested, and theories must be substantiated and refuted.  In the end, it is a test of one’s skill in mentally cross-referencing an encyclopedic knowledge of the vast texts of a rabbinic library, which takes practice, a good deal of practice.  And like playing chess with a grandmaster, for me, even losing terribly, is a thrillingly positive experience.  All this is to say that I got delightfully ‘schooled’ this week in a debate with a seasoned orthodox rabbi, and it has inspired me to do some hard thinking and research.

 

In his Sukkah, this rav and I were discussing the quintessential Orthodox vs Conservative question: what is the extent of mankind’s authority when it comes to contesting establishedJewish law?  Both my orthodox friend and I agreed that without Jewish law, there is no Judaism.  We both agreed that God is the fundamental source of the Jewish legal code, and that as such, Jewish law must be regarded as pseudo-sacrosanct – at least when compared to state-law which by nature is trivial, as no part is beyond the state’s ability to fundamentally change it.  That said, not all Jewish laws are equally weighted.  New Jewish laws are created and/or changed all the time according to the needs of an evolving Jewish world, and these generally are based on older, more authoritative precedents.  Obviously, we did not have a Jewish law prohibiting turning on an electric lightbulb on Shabbat before the lightbulb was invented.  Rabbinic authorities established the law in response to the technology as its availability grew, and about which many Jews were beginning to ask questions.  In this case, Jewish law regarding the lightbulb was extrapolated based on the closest related precedents regarding the use of fire on Shabbat, ‘completing a tool’, heating, and creating sparks.  Over a century later, however, we have exceptions to the general prohibition of turning on a lightbulb on Shabbat, in part because of new technologies that circumvent the prohibition’s precedents.  These new devices and methods are accepted by some of even the most fundamentalist rabbinic authorities (see The Shabbos LampTM, KosherSwitchTM).  In many cases of Jewish law, we might say, where there is a Jewish will, there is a rabbinic way.  But how far can (or should) the proverbial envelope be pushed?

 

For orthodox Jews, the answer to this question is simple: Shulchan Orech.  Written by Rabbi Yosef Karo in 1563, the Shulchan Orech (literally, “the set table”), is an analysis and distillation of the Mishnah, Talmud and major commentators of the Gaonic and later periods in order to render a single, point-form, code of Jewish law.  Any movement in Orthodox Jewish law, must, by definition, be consistent with the precepts as they are laid out in the Shulchan Orech, without negotiation.  Many Jews (including orthodox) are surprised to discover, however, that many of the long established rules we all follow are actually only one opinion among many.

 

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hullin, 116A:

Poultry [in milk] is the subject of dispute. Rabbi Akiva opines that it is prohibited rabbinically, but Rabbi Jose of Galilee opines that poultry isn't even rabbinically prohibited...  In Rabbi Jose of Galilee's town, they would eat poultry [cooked] in milk."  Levi came to the town of Rabbi Yosef Rishba, where they served poultry head cooked in milk, he said nothing. When [Levi] returned to [his mentor], Rabbi Judah the Prince, he said -- "why don't you excommunicate them?!"  "That is the town of Rabbi Judah ben Beteira", he replied, "who follows Rabbi Jose the Galilean's opinion, that poultry is not prohibited."

 

To be clear, I DO NOT hold that cooking chicken and dairy together is permissible, and it is inappropriate for Conservative Jews to follow their own version of Jewish law without the guidance of a rabbi.  That said, if there was a rabbi who allowed mixing chicken and dairy for his or her community today, as a Conservative Jew, I would be forced to concede that the approach has legitimate legal precedent.

 

So, why aren’t we all heading out to try some chicken parmesan?  I’ll admit that I’m curious, but I can’t.  Do to so would undermine so much of how I identify as a Jew, and how I connect my current practice to my heritage.  It’s like trying to move Bathurst street six inches over.  It’s seemingly such a small move, but just imagine the traffic during construction!  Orthodoxy is not blind to the fact that rabbinic laws are man-made, but they are even more wary of construction traffic than I am.  The Shulchan Orech is the orthodox Bathurst street, constructed in 1563.  That’s where it is, and moving it is just asking for more problems than the orthodox world is prepared to deal with.  I can’t blame them, but there is an inherent problem with this way of thinking.  Sometimes, when the need is great enough, we willingly endure the construction traffic for the betterment of our city, and we rely on courageous leaders to champion those causes, particularly in the face of annoyed nay-sayers.  In 1948, Israel became a state thanks to couragous Jewish leaders.  This did not affect only Conservative Jews, but all Jews everywhere.  It fundamentally altered Jewish existance.  Bathurst Street moved, and we all moved with it.  Indeed, even some Jews (mostly ultra-orthodox) objected to the creation of the State of Israel because it would mean that they would have to redefine their ideology, particularly regarding Messianism, and to this very day, they are stuck out of step with mainstream Jewish society.  Today, Conservative Jews have almost entirely adopted egalitarianism, but some daring modern orthodox rabbis are just beginning lead their communities in a similar direction – they are working on moving Bathurst Street, and it will take some time.  It may be hard, but Bathurst Street does indeed move, and to deny that it is possible not only denies reality, but denies the opportunity for great leaders to make the differences in our world that we so desperately need.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

                          --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Ha'azinu                  September 22, 2018 - 13 Tishrei 5779

09/21/2018 11:12:11 AM

Sep21

We either feast or famine! The weather has been sweltering yet in about eight weeks we’ll be clamoring for the hot weather again because of the bitter cold. It seems that all we like to do is complain about the weather.  Yet, in last week’s Torah portion, God commanded Moses to write down a poem and teach it to the Israelites with words that that speak affectionately of the weather (Deuteronomy 32:13):  “May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass.” According to the Sifre, an early Rabbinic commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy, “my discourse” refers to words of Torah.  In fact, as Rabbi Joyce Newmark observes, the Talmudic Sages of old often compare Torah to water.  They say:

  • As water extends from one end of the world to the other, so Torah extends from one end of the world to the other,
  • As water descends from heaven, so Torah descends from heaven,
  • As water is free for all, so Torah is free for all,
  • As water is priceless, so Torah is priceless, and
  • As water brings life to the world, so Torah brings life to the world.

As Moses spoke to the people who spent 40 years in the wilderness – people who sometimes had to go several days without finding potable water – this imagery of gentle rain showers seemed to be the greatest of blessings.

Yet, with recent flooding in all parts of the world, many of us would have a hard time thinking that that rain is always a blessing.  Rashi, the great Medieval French commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, notes that rain can sometimes be a source of hardship and loss to travelers or to a farmer whose vat is filled with wine that would be spoiled by rain. This is particularly apt for our portion of HaAzinu, because Moses’ message is not all sweetness and light.  He says that in spite of all that God does for Israel, the Israelites will eventually come to reject God, and that God, in turn, will hide God’s face from them.  Ultimately, God will refrain from destroying Israel not because they are worthy of God’s kindness, but because the other nations will think that God is powerless to save them.

Like the rain, words of Torah can be gentle or harsh.  Moses gives the people difficult news – God will hide God’s face from them.  However, he also tells them that in time this will lead to blessing.  He reminds the people of God’s essential goodness and calls on them to change their ways.  Surely, according to Rabbi Newmark, this is why God wanted Moses to write down this poem and to teach it to the people – so that he might plant a seed for the future.  For this is how Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (1765-1827, Poland) understood this verse: “Words of Torah are like the rain.  The rain does not reveal its influence on vegetation immediately but saturates the earth and germinates seeds.  So too, Torah does not begin to influence us right away.  When we first hear them we don’t sense the positive effect they will have on us.  Just the opposite – they may even be inconvenient and uncomfortable.  But over time they begin to positively influence those who are open to them.” Rabbi Simcha Bunim suggests that words of Torah can germinate seeds planted deep in our souls.  And just as we cannot know which seeds planted in a garden will grow and flourish, we can’t always know how the study of Torah will influence us.

We read HaAzinu between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  During this season, we make promises to God and to ourselves that we will do things differently this year; that we will be a little bit more observant or a little bit kinder.  We make pledges of money and of time to shuls and schools and organizations that help those in need.  We are planting seeds for the future. And, HaAzinu tells us, if we remain open to words of Torah, those seeds will grow and flourish.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Vayelech - Shabbat Shuva  September 15, 2018 - 6 Tishrei 5779

09/13/2018 05:21:03 PM

Sep13

“The need for connection and community is primal, as fundamental as the need for air, water and food.”
                                --Dean Ornish (1953-), American physician, researcher, author

What does the Yekke say to his wife when he leaves for shul on December 5th?

“Honey, I’ll be home late.”

If you tell this joke to a Polish Jew who is both observant and over the age of 60, it’s a good joke.  If not, it is very likely to elicit some very confused looks, but not to worry! If you happen to fall into this second category, I’ll explain so that we can all be in on the gag.

The first thing to know is that there is a stereotype for what some call the Yekkeshe (German ancestry) Jew.  A Yekke (for short) is dressed impeccably well, is organized and methodical, punctual to the point that some might call obsessive compulsive, and insistent on decorum, particularly when it comes to the synagogue. This is in contrast with Jews of Polish ancestry from whom we get JST (Jewish Standard Time), an odd way to say that davening at shul (or any Jewish event for that matter) may start somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes behind schedule. 

Still don’t get the joke?  We’ll have to first learn a bit of halachah l’ma’aseh, that is, ‘practical Jewish law’.  In the weekday liturgy, one of the many petition-blessings is for the land which changes depending on the season.  From Passover until December 4th we say one version, and from December 5th onward we say a different version which is TWO WORDS LONGER.  Two more words, means an extra half a second of time to say them, and for a Yekkeshe Jew, half of a second late is still late. Cue the raucous laughter (or groans as the case may be).  Now wasn’t that worth it?

Whether Ashkenazi or Sefardic, Polisher or Yekkeshe, religious or secular, or even in the non-Jewish world, we all approach the idea of ceremony differently.  But ‘ceremony’ as a concept, is something that mankind in all corners of the earth and throughout history has craved as an existential necessity.  Objectively, it is a rather odd sociological concept. Imagine we are aliens observing humanity, who at regular intervals assemble to recite the same script over and over.  There’s no new information being given out.  Usually, there’s no expectation of food or serious entertainment value.  Nobody (again, usually) takes the advantage of these gatherings as business opportunities or other financial gain; or any measurable gain for that matter.  The gain is a matter of spirit.

In this week’s parsha, Vayelech, Moses is winding down his last speech.  He reveals to the people that he will not be crossing the Jordan River into what will become the Land of Israel.  He tells the assembled Israelite nation that God has appointed Joshua to be their new leader, and God instructs Moses and Joshua to enter the Tabernacle together for Joshua’s formal ‘installation’.

Joshua’s installation ceremony, or any ceremony for that matter, though commanded by God, it is not for God’s sake, but rather for our own.  Ceremony is the method by which many people speak as one voice and act as a single entity.  Unlike a discussion where we express individual ideas and listen to different opinions, the purpose of a ceremony, religious or otherwise, is to unify a group to express a single idea that the whole group shares.  Joshua was appointed by God, not by any election.  But through his installation, the nation of Israel is able to participate in the process, and collectively ratify his appointment.

The High Holyday season is a time when many Jews reflect on their commitment to synagogue.  Many of us ask ourselves if we really want to spend hundreds of dollars on holyday tickets just to show up as late as respectably possible in order to minimize the actual amount of time we spend in the service.  We ask ourselves if we really believe in God, and whether or not we are only coming to shul to appease our parents or grandparents who would be horrified if we missed Kol Nidre this year.  We ask ourselves why we should go begrudgingly if the only reason is out of a sense of obligation.

As a cantor, I like working hard to make the High Holyday services enjoyable.  I think that good music, among many other things, is ‘Hidur Mitzvah’ – beautification of a commandment – an idea that is encouraged in Judaism in order to make our rituals more fun.  But we don’t come to High Holyday services for the ‘hidur’ – beauty – we come for the MITZVAH – the obligation, and that’s ok.  We should come because are obligated to join together and be a part of this single entity we call the Jewish people.  While we certainly each seek to be motivated by our religious services to make changes for the better in our personal lives, it is our inescapable obligation to merge our own voice with Jews around the world, to collectively declare who we are, to celebrate the history and culture we share, to honour our values, and stand as one.  So come one, come all.  Period. But while you’re here, the Beth Radom team and I will do our job to make you glad that you did!

Shabbat Shalom,

                       --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Nitzavim                        September 8, 2018 - 28 Elul 5778

09/07/2018 11:05:19 AM

Sep7

Nobody likes to wait in line.  A crowded United Air Lines flight was cancelled.  A single agent was assigned to re-book a long line of unhappy inconvenienced travelers.  She was doing her best when suddenly an angry customer pushed his way to her desk.  He slapped his ticket down on the counter and shouted: "I don’t want to stand in line.  I HAVE to be on this flight and it has to be FIRST CLASS and RIGHT NOW!"

The young agent replied, "I’m sorry, sir, I’ll try to help you but I’ve got to help these folks first.  I’m sure we’ll be able to work things out for you."  The angry passenger was unimpressed and unrelenting.  He asked loudly, so that all the passengers could hear, "I don’t want to stand in line!  Do you have any idea who I am?"

Without hesitation, the agent smiled and grabbed her public address microphone. "May I have you attention, please," her voice bellowed through the terminal.  “We have a passenger here WHO DOES NOT KNOW WHO HE IS.  If anyone can help him identify himself, please come to the gate.”  

Parshat Nitzavim’s first four words (Deuteronomy 29:9), Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem, “You stand today, all of you…,” encapsulate a three-part message.  Nitzavim addresses all the types of Jews in the present (Deut. 29:9-11), as well as all Jews past and future (Deut. 29:13-14).  Nitzavim also repeats the word hayom, “today,” five times in the first five verses, and twice more later on.  Finally, Nitzavim uses nitzavim instead of omdim, the usual word for “standing.”  Looking at other places in our Torah where the text uses that particular word, we learn that whenever the Torah uses nitzavim, such as when the three angels stand outside Abraham’s tent (Gen. 18:2); when the Israelites stand at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:17); when Moses stands before God on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 34:2); and when God stands with Moses (Ex. 34:5), it connotes standing with anticipation and certainty.  Thus we learn that Nitzavim’s four opening words are a Biblical hyper-link connecting all Jews in all times to that place to affirm: we stand here in anticipation.

It makes sense, then, that we always read Nitzavim on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah.  It asks, subtly, where do we stand as we prepare to enter the New Year?  What values do we affirm?  Where do we stand in our Jewish identity, Jewish commitments and Jewish community?  Where do we stand in our tikkun olam, our building of a better world?  Where do we stand in our acts of kindness, righteousness and charity? Nitzavim beckons us to assess where we stand and anticipates, with certainty that we can do better than we have done thus far. The New Year awaits; we are joyous with anticipation and certainty to make it a better one than that which just passed. Let us stand firmly on the conviction that this year we will succeed.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Ki Tavo                      September 1, 2018 - 21 Elul, 5778

08/30/2018 05:17:25 PM

Aug30

“No one can whistle a symphony.  It takes a whole orchestra to play it.”
--H. E. Luccock (1885-1960), Professor of Divinity at Yale University and Methodist Minister

Growing up, I always felt at home in shul.  I probably knew the Beth Emeth Bais Yehudah building better than most of the adults; as they davened in the main sanctuary, I was busy (with Rabbi Adam Cutler) mapping out all of the building’s service tunnels and passageways through the walls, and exploring the best hiding spots in the synagogue basement.  Of course, I occasionally did some davening too as a member of the Beth Emeth boys’ choir. However, like most kids, I wasn’t always terribly excited about waking up early in the morning on a Saturday to go to shul.  The best excuse that I came up with (although it still didn’t seem to work on my parents) was when I was 10 years old, and I defiantly declared that I had no interest in shul because I disagreed with the principle of communal fixed-liturgy prayer.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t call it “communal fixed-liturgy prayer”.  Nevertheless, my thinking was simple – why must I pray exactly the same words, at exactly the same time as everyone else? 

The question really opens up a veritable Pandora’s Box of issues when it comes to the topic of Jewish prayer: isn’t it better connect to God on our own as individuals, each of us choosing our own words of prayer that reflect our own thoughts?  Why don’t we just pray at times when we feel spiritually moved to do so, and is in not disingenuous to do otherwise?  Is it not particularly worthless to pray using a language we don’t fully understand, about concepts that even in translation are more philosophically involved than we are prepared to take the time to understand?  Let’s say, even if we all did understand the language, even if we all did understand the concepts, even if we all felt moved to pray at exactly the same time, why should we use a liturgical text that is so ancient and immutable that it couldn’t possibly reflect the needs of a modern Jewish worshipper?

In fact, Israelite prayer was originally spontaneous.  It was improvised.  It was individualized.  It reflected the immediate problems and needs of the worshipper.  It was simple and direct.  When Moses prayed for his sister, Miriam, to be cured of leprosy, the entirety of his prayer was this: “El na, r’fa na lah”, “God, please, heal her” (Num. 12:13). The first, and only, examples of a fixed-liturgy prayer, come from this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, and they are specifically intended for farmers to recite, when bringing their first fruit tax to the Temple, “And you shall come to the Kohen who is [serving] in those days and declare to him: ‘I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us’” (Deut. 26:3).

So what happened?  Why is it that today we all need a separate book, hundreds of pages long, just for the liturgy that is recited on the High Holidays – only three days a year?  The short answer is, contrary to popular belief, it developed and grew over time, over thousands of years, poems were added, refinements were made, and adjustments were incorporated according to the needs of the time.  Then, suddenly, it was forbidden to make changes.  According to the Rambam, 12thcentury commentator, “Where a long blessing is prescribed, it is forbidden to shorten, and where the short form is prescribed, it is forbidden to lengthen” (Laws of Prayer 1:5).  But even after this statement, the liturgy continued to evolve.  Finally, Rabbi Joseph Karo, in his 16thcentury seminal work, the Shulchan Aruch, wrote an interpretation of the Rambam’s ruling, that no additions whatsoever are allowed to be inserted in the middle of blessings, not even inspiring religious poetry (Orach Chayyim 68:1).  So this must have been what shut down all further evolutions of our sacred liturgy, right?  Wrong. The entire liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat didn’t exist until the 17thcentury!

Despite efforts of the religious authority throughout the ages, liturgy has always managed to continue evolving and adapting, as Jews have been forced to do over the millennia.  That said, the changes that we do make are always considered; not brought about by a printing error, but with thought and care, so as to more closely reflect the collective consciousness of the Jewish people – and therein lies the real value. Communal prayer is about who we are, what we hope for, and what we crave from God as a people.  Of course, prayer is healthy and encouraged to be spontaneous for the individual, but to pray with the Jewish people is to share in the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people.  And how can we do so, unless we have some measure of a fixed manner in which to pray? Is every word perfectly suited all of us at all times?  Of course not, but it is what we have by consensus – and even so, variations can still be found from country to country, from community to community.  Even so, a general consensus it remains, and it is one that in addition to our collective hopes and dreams, also reflects our long history and nuanced culture.

So, whether you’ve had a good week this week or not, whether you’re feeling particularly spiritual or not, whether you feel like sleeping in on a Saturday morning or not… come to shul.  Pray with us, and join us in celebrating our collective Jewish identity.

Shabbat Shalom,
                         
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Ki Teitzei                          August 25, 2018 - 14 Elul 5778

08/23/2018 05:42:46 PM

Aug23

When the Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel, the Syrian army swarmed down the Golan Heights with hundreds of tanks, catching the Israelis off guard.  If they pass the valley, they could go straight to the coast and cut Israel in two.  At that moment, one-man—and Israeli Sgt.—advanced his tank and met the Syrians head-on with all guns blazing.  His tank was destroyed so he leapt into another and started to advance again.  This tank was stopped by a Syrian shell.  The intrepid Sgt. jumped out and started again.  Five times he repeated this daring maneuver. Since it was night, the Syrians concluded that the Israeli reserves were fully in place.  The advancing army stopped advancing.  By dawn, the Israeli reserves had arrived and began to force the Syrians into retreat.  Later on, the Sgt. was asked how he, all alone, could take on such tremendous odds.  “I did not know I was alone,” he replied.  “I just kept doing my duty.”  One man unaware of what he was doing accepting his responsibility, they really save Israel.  He was not a philosopher or a statesman or general.  He was an individual with a job to do, and he did it.

Our Torah reading this week, Ki Tetze Lamilchamah, provides the Israelites guidance in times of war.  Jewish Law (halakhah) distinguishes between wars of conquest (Milkhemet Reshut) and wars of defense (Milkhemet Mitzvah).  Halakhah clearly permits the latter, but not the former.  Yet, Ki Tetze sounds not like, a war of self-defense, but rather, a war of conquest, a war of aggression.  The Torah obviously permits such a War; to expand the borders of Eretz Yisrael, or to capture captives, such as the Yefat Toar, or just because the King of Israel decides a war is good for the country, and for God.

Some years ago, Rabbi Jack Cohen said he could not understand how the Torah could permit a war of conquest, or how we could entertain such a notion in modern Israel. Indeed, we have trumpeted the ideal of Ein Bererah, all Israel’s wars have been of no choice; they were forced on Israel by her enemies.  Even the current struggle was not Israel’s choice, but was forced on her by the terrorist organizations and suicide bombers seeking Israel’s destruction.  Golda Meir put it well when she said: “we can forgive the Arabs for killing us, but not for forcing us to kill them.”

Rabbi Jacob Chinitz, in his comments on this portion points out that former Prime Minister, Menahem Begin, was candid enough to say that sometimes a war of Yesh Bereirah (choice) is better than a war of Ein Bereirah (no choice).  Ein Bereira means our back is to the wall, as in Jacob having his back to the wall, after all his appeasement of Esau, and he had to fight.  It was Ein Bereirah.  No choice.  When we fight a war of Yesh Bereirah, we can take the initiative, limit our casualties and decide when to stop.

The problem is: how do we really distinguish between aggression and defense?  It has been said that the best defense is an aggression, and it has also been said that aggression is justified if its motive is defense.  In World War I, neither side was fighting for its life, but rather for domination of Europe.  In WWII it was clearer that Germany was the Aggressor, but Germany claimed they were defending themselves, Europe and Civilization against Communism, and the Jews.  Japan claimed it was defending itself against American domination of the Far East.   Who fired the first shot at Bunker Hill, the British or the Colonial Minute Men?  The American Declaration of Independence does not pretend to fight the mother country in self-defense.  It claims the right to be free because of some self-evident truths and a long list of abuses by England against the Colonies.

Someone said war starts in the hearts of men. Maybe Aggression and Defense also start in the hearts of men.  Bin Laden claimed he was defending Islam against American incursion into Saudi Arabia.  Arafat claimed he was defending the Palestinians. America claims it is defending itself against Terror.

Let's be honest.  Every country in the world was established as the result of aggression.  Israel is the only country in history which was established, and its birth certificate issued, by a world association of nations, the United Nations.

How does Halakhah distinguish between Milkhemet Mitzva (Defensive War) and Milkhemet Reshut (Conquest War)?  First, let it be clear that in both cases peace comes first: Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam, Melakhim 6.1) underscores that  “We do not make war with anyone, unless we call first for peace, as it is said:  ‘When you approach a city to war upon it, you shall call to it for peace.’”  According to Maimonides, a Defensive war is when it brings the salvation of Israel from the enemy.  Conquest is war against other nations to enlarge Eretz Yisrael and increase his prestige and fame.  And by this criterion all Israel’s wars were Defensive.  From 1948 when they openly threatened to throw us into the Sea; the Sinai Campaign was in defense against the Egyptian Fedayeen.  The Six Day War was a defense against strangulation.  Yom Kippur was against elimination.  Even Lebanon was against the PLO there who were threatening to destroy Israel.  Now it is to defend Israeli citizens from death in buses, halls and roads. Israel’s ultimate policy is not to destroy Palestine but to turn it into a State; but the Palestinians must be willing to want a state side-by-side with a secure Israel and so far they are not willing.  If not for Israel, Jordan and the world would never have given the Palestinians a state.  Witness 1948 to 1967 when Jordan occupied the West Bank and Egypt occupied Gaza.

Ki Tetze Lamilchama.  Even the ancient Torah, which is direct and blunt about these things, recognizes that we are in a situation of Milchemet Mitzva, Defensive war.  Even modern International Law which pretends to be more refined than the Torah in these matters should see that our wars are wars of defense.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shoftim                          August 18, 2018 - 7 Elul 5778

08/17/2018 12:03:54 PM

Aug17

“To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.”
                              
--William E. Vaughan (1915-1977) American columnist and author

The entire third floor of the Viennese Jewish museum is made up of row upon row of glass cases, containing various Jewish treasures, mostly in silver, all systematically stolen and collected by the Nazis during the Holocaust.  The museum items looted from private homes and synagogues include Torah crowns and breastplates, kiddush cups, havdalah sets, candlesticks, Torah pointers, tzedakah boxes, menorahs, and a myriad of other ornate valuables.  The Third Reich, in fact, intended for these items to be in a museum – the only place where one might learn about the Jewish people that existed once upon a time.  Among the thousands of pieces on display, it is easy to pass by one particularly small, but unique item – a complete, hand-written Torah scroll, encased in silver, about the size of a couple of cell phones stacked on top of each other, attached to a silver chain.

I find the iSiddur app on my phone quite convenient.  It’s handy to have the siddur text easily accessible, particularly when a shiva house runs out of regular siddurim.  Before I had iSiddur on my phone, like most, I used a small portable pocket siddur (I still keep one in my tallis bag).  But a siddur is something that, if you are accustomed to davening regularly, you certainly need on the go.  But a Torah?  And not a printed-published one, but a hand-written pocket Torah scroll?  Who would ever need such a thing?

In this week’s Parshat, Shoftim, the Torah outlines a series of very strict restrictions that, if the children of Israel wish to appoint a king of flesh and blood in order to be “like all the other nations” (Deut. 17:14), such a king must abide.  The Israelite king may not have too many wives, he may not amass too much wealth, or have too many horses.   Most importantly, the Israelite king is required to “write for himself two copies of the Torah, and it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them, so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel.” (Deut. 17:18-20). Since the days of the Israelite kings, as a sign of wealth and status, some Jews would commission the writing of a tiny Torah scroll, that would be chained to them at all times.

Certainly on the one hand, we can appreciate the artistry and history in a magnificent artifact, such as the one I’ve described in the Viennese museum.  But from a position of Torah scholarship, we must also appreciate the irony that the verse in the Torah that began the elitist fashion trend of these silver encrusted status symbols specifically says that their purposes is so that the wearer’s “heart will not be haughty over his brothers”(Deut. 17:20).  Parshat Shoftim instructs that we are to appoint judges, serving in a hierarchical system of judiciary courts, to which we must be held accountable for our deeds.  “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20) is meant to be our creed of vigilance for a honourable and holy society.  Yet, somehow, despite our vigilance, sometimes we get things very wrong.  We are human, and to be human is to be imperfect.

Today, we try, as Conservative Jews, to re-examine and sometimes radically change those things that our modern sensibilities deem to be systemic injustices within our tradition.  Among them, we embrace an egalitarian approach to leadership, worship and Jewish observance.  We meet head-on the challenges brought to our attention by the Jewish LGBTQ community as they continue to struggle for freedom and dignity within the broader Jewish community.  We continue to work to find ways to welcome inter-married families into our midst, so that Jewish children can have a Jewish education, and ultimately be raised in (and a part of) a Jewish community.  All this and more, we hold up to the light of Torah, remind ourselves that even our greatest sages of the past were, in the end, imperfect human beings, all so that we may pursue justice, eliminate hypocrisy, and refine our society to best reflect the ideals of a true Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,
                         ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections  - Parshat Re'eh                              August 11, 2018 - 30 Av 5778

08/09/2018 02:47:51 PM

Aug9

This Shabbat we announce the new month of Elul. In fact, we always read the portion of Re’eh on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hodesh Elul (or, in some years, on Rosh Hodesh itself). On the first of Elul, we begin to focus our attention on the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  We begin to wish each other Shana Tova, we add Psalm 27 to Shaharit and Maariv, and, most characteristic of the season, we blow the shofar at weekday morning services.  So what’s the connection between Re’eh and the Yamim Nora’im?  Re’eh begins by telling us that we have the power to choose our actions, whether or not to obey God’s commandments, and we are therefore responsible for the consequences of our choices, perhaps the most important lesson of the High Holidays (Deuteronomy 11:26):  “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.”  Here, it helps to know Hebrew: lifneikhem, “before you,” is plural, but re’eh, “see,” is singular. Moses is saying, “I am telling all of you that each individual must choose between blessing and curse, you must decide whether you will observe the mitzvot when you enter the land.”

Rabbi Joyce Newmark hears in Moses’ repeated exhortations a warning that it won’t be easy to obey the commandments when the Israelites enter the land.  There will be new temptations and dangers to lead the people away from following God.  The danger is that for the first time the people will be leading normal lives. In the wilderness, God’s presence was inescapable – there was the manna, the pillar of cloud and fire, the well, and more. But in the land of Israel the Jews would live like all other people, with houses, farms, and shops and all the pressures of daily life.  It’s impossible to ignore God when we’re living on manna.  When we buy our bread at the grocery store, it becomes easy to forget that God is the ultimate source.

Rabbi Newmark further notes that in the first listing of commandments in the Book of Exodus, the Torah begins with criminal and civil law – murder, theft, and personal injury. But here, on the verge of entering the land, the Torah begins with clearly religious laws – worship, tithes, kashrut, and festivals.  We’re being warned that these are the easiest to let slide.  The Rabbis tell us that even if there were no Torah, we would still know through the exercise of reason that murder, adultery, and robbery are wrong.  We need the Torah to tell us about those things that cannot be derived by reason – the laws and practices that apply specifically to the Jewish people.

Rabbi Newmark concludes: Jewish history shows that there is not only danger in persecution; there is also danger in normalcy. Moses warns about the temptation of normalcy – that as we become involved in the many aspects of daily living, we will be tempted to let go of those things that distinguish us as Jews.  After all, they require effort, they cost money, and they can make us uncomfortable because they make us different from our neighbors.  This is the choice that each of us is offered today – the choice to remain Jewish. In contemporary North America, there is nothing easier than to be a “nothing” – no formal conversion is necessary, we simply stop making a special effort to be Jewish.

It’s an important lesson for this season of the year.  People who attend services regularly, not to mention Rabbis and Cantors, sometimes have less than kind things to say about all the people who flock to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and then are not seen again until the next year.   It goes without saying that we’d like to see them more often. We’d like to see them more involved in Jewish life.   However, we should never forget that these Jews are choosing to remain Jewish, to be another link in the chain that stretches all the way back to Sinai.  And by doing so, they have chosen blessing – for themselves, for their families, and for the entire Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Ekev                                    August 4, 2018 - 23 Av 5778

08/02/2018 01:56:12 PM

Aug2

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
                                                  --William Arthur Ward (1921-1994), American writer

Greetings from Havana!

This week, I am honoured to be visiting with the Jewish community of Havana.  They are a small but remarkable community, who thrive in large part thanks to the support from Jewish communities around the world such as ours.  The largest synagogue in Cuba, Beth Shalom in Havana, is a Conservative synagogue that operates an amazing public service out of their own building, something similar to a soup kitchen… but instead of serving food, they offer free over-the-counter pharmaceutical supplies to the needy.  Items that we in Toronto often take for granted, like ibuprofen and infant diapers, are both hard to find (primarily due to the American embargo against Cuba, which may fortunately reach an end in the near future), and impossibly expensive for locals the rare occasion that they are available.  Thanks to the generosity of the Beth Radom community, I am here with an entire suitcase full of supplies for the Beth Shalom Pharmacy.

As I write, please consider that I am aiming to be careful with my words, as I am here, enjoying Cuban hospitality.

I had a conversation with a local shop-keeper who explained the reality of his lifestyle to me as follows (paraphrased).  “If all I have in the world is a banana, I am required to give my banana to the government.  The government will then cut up my banana and give me back only a piece of it, and then give pieces to all of my neighbours.  But I also know that I will never go hungry, and neither will my neighbours.”  There has always been an historical connection between Jews and socialism.  Following the Holocaust, the Jewish International Labour Bund, a socialist political organization, was founded in New York City.  Today, kibbutzim in Israel operate under socialist ideologies in which all wealth and services are shared equally by the community members.  Here in Cuba, the Jewish community supports their government.  They do not have much, but what they have, they are not only extremely grateful for, but are more than willing to share.  Every Shabbat, Beth Shalom organizes a kiddish, similar to our own, feeding about 70 people, many are young adults under 21.  So what?  Don’t most shuls have a kiddish?  Sure, but this community does it without the kind of resources that we have, and for many of these wonderful people, this kiddish is the only meal that they will have today.  Beth Shalom is both proud and grateful for what they have, and they share it with open hearts.

In this week’s parsha, Ekev, Moses teaches the assembled People of Israel about saying Birkat Hamazon, and it is a beautiful lesson in gratitude. “You shall eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you” (Deut. 8:10). Eat? Of course! Enjoy the wonderful food that this world has to offer (keep it kosher!), but we must be grateful – why? “[God] would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by whatever comes forth from the mouth of the Lord does man live” (Deut. 8:3).

Why is it that it is impossible to buy happiness?  Because happiness isn’t in having ‘things’.  Some may argue that people like you and I do not have the right to be saying such things because we cannot appreciate what it truly means to have nothing.  It’s true, perhaps we don’t have the right.  But then again, how can we account for the fact that some people who indeed have absolutely nothing, may still have happiness.  The Jewish community of Havana does not have nearly the same kinds of luxuries that we are accustomed to, but here, happiness exists.  That is because we, as Jewish people, have known since the time of Moses that happiness is not in ‘having’ things, but having ‘gratitude for’ things.  It is in gratitude that we are able to take stock of ourselves and celebrate all that God has blessed us with, whether we have much or little.

Shabbat Shalom and Thanks.
                                      
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vaetchanan                          July 28, 2018 - 16 Av 5778

07/26/2018 06:27:07 PM

Jul26

Alan Dershowitz, professor of Constitutional Law and Harvard University, places an imaginary scenario before his students in a class on the nexus of religion, science, philosophy and law: “Recently, archeologists discovered a scroll hidden away near the Dead Sea. Preliminary tests indicated that the scroll is authentic, written in ancient Hebrew with what is now called the old script. The controversy focuses on its contents. It purports to be the proceedings of a conclave of priests who are were trying to get their people to be more moral and law-abiding. They proposed various options and finally came up with the idea of staging an event on top of a distant mountain on which a man dressed up to look like a deity would present another man with a set of Ten Rules of Conduct. ‘The people,’ says the document, ‘will have to follow those rules if they believe that God himself wrote them.’ The remainder of the document is an abbreviated transcript of the discussion as what those Ten Rules should be.” Dershowitz poses it to them as a question of whether such a document, or similar document that challenged the roots of other faiths, if authentic, would undermine their faith. Many of his students detest the question. After much discussion, nearly half admitted that their faith would be undermined if the empirical evidence for it was conclusively destroyed by such a document.

Many of us, too, are bothered by the scenario that Dershowitz advances. In a certain sense, we have come across such challenges already. No, there is no smoking gun document similar to the one that Dershowitz hypothesized. Rather, two centuries of Biblical criticism causes us to look at the Biblical text with jaundiced eyes. We see the problems; we see the seams. We see the contradictions, not readily resolved.

One such challenge is in the Ten Rules that we read this morning. They are not identical to the ones that we read in Exodus. Oh, yes, they are quite similar; and they are ten in number. But, for example, the Hebrew verb for coveting in the two texts is different: in Exodus the word is Tachmod; here is it Titaveh. Most troubling is the difference between the two statements about Shabbat. Now if you remember L'khah Dodi, its first stanza, after the refrain, is Shamor v'Zachor B'dibur Echad, “observe and remember were said together.” This is the rabbinic solution to a textual conflict: God miraculously transmitted both variations simultaneously, but they were recorded separately-they appeared on separate tracks, as it were. Modern scholarship, of course, hypothesizes that there was a central tradition which emerged in two slightly different formats; one preserved in Exodus and the second in Deuteronomy. As to the divinity of the original tradition, that is an issue that many scholars avoid.

Richard Friedman in his commentary on the Torah offers an interesting take on this passage. He notes that in Exodus the underlying rationale for the observance of Shabbat is creation. We rest because God rested on the Sabbath. However, in Deuteronomy the rationale is different, as is the verb. Here it is not observe, but remember, i.e. remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt and God redeemed us. Friedman writes: “What do we learn from this: When God states the commandment, God identifies the Sabbath with the creation of the universe and the sanctification of time….But when a human, Moses, states the commandment, he identifies the Sabbath rather with history, with a divine action in human affairs. The Sabbath thus comes to have both dimensions: cosmic and historical.” He adds that at the very end of the text before us this morning, having begun with an injunction to remember, the commandment concludes with the verb La'asot et Yom HaShabbat, “to do the Sabbath day,” which is an usual construction, to say the least.

Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, in discussing this passage writes that what is central here is Friedman's recognition that the twin passages of the Sabbatical commandment root its observance on two levels: that by observing and remembering the Sabbath, we participate both in an act of collective memory (like what we do at Passover), but also participate in a re-enactment of the conclusion of creation. We may not believe that creation unfolded in such a simple and methodical fashion as reported in Genesis 1; but we retain a sense of God's hand in creation and can continue to see our Sabbath observance as act of Imatatio Dei, of imitating God, and couple with it our people's sense of redemption out of Egypt. And again, it is irrelevant whether it unfolded as dramatically as recounted in Exodus. What is cardinal is that it is a psychic memory of the Jewish people.

We may approach our Tradition with a tad of skepticism; with our faith not as intact as that of some of Dershowitz's students, but certainly not shattered. Hence, we continue to seek nurture and sustenance in the words that have been read and studied for centuries. May we continue to find nourishment for our souls in our sacred texts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Devarim                              July 21, 2018 - 9 Av 5778

07/19/2018 04:47:53 PM

Jul19

“Nonsense is only good because common sense is so limited.”
-      George Santanaya (1863-1952) British Philosopher and Novelist

While serving my first pulpit in England, I knew Sasha Baron Cohen’s brother, Erran (please forgive the name-dropping), performed in concerts with him, and taught his nephews (I never met Sasha).  I was proud to see Erran’s name credited recently, having done the music on a new TV series, Who Is America, starring his brother Sasha.  While Sasha has a long laundry list of starring roles, he is most noted for his outrageous satirical tv and film characters which include Borat, Bruno, and his notorious career-launching character, Ali G, on the Ali G Show.  His iconic approach to satire is one where he conducts real-life interviews while playing an outrageously caricaturized interviewer – a low IQ drug lord, a poor rural Kazakhstani, a hypersexualized eastern European, to name a few.

A fair warning to those who might be unfamiliar with Sasha Baron Cohen and who may be looking up his movies… they aren’t for polite audiences.  They are so uncomfortable (and often disgusting) that I typically have to watch while I cover my face with my hands, peeking between my fingers, but watch, I must. His new series, Who Is America, required as much face-covering as I have come to expect from Cohen’s performances.  As the interviewer, Cohen conducted his usual routine of painfully ignorant questions, horrifying suggestions and outrageous statements, but this new show added a layer which I found nothing less than shocking. Portraying different characters, Cohen traveled around America interviewing notable, educated, politically powerful individuals… who agreed with his character’s insane ideas.  And Cohen used his characters to push his interviewees [victims?] to see just how far they would go with their disturbed ideologies.  For those who are now curious enough to look up the show, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but let’s just say that the show includes an interesting PSA on creative ways of teaching toddlers to use guns. As of yet, only one episode in the series has aired, and already I believe this show shines a frightening light on the extent of the erosion of common sense and humanity in the society of our neighbours to the South, and by some extension, I think this may also be a reflection of western society as a whole.

This Saturday night we observe the fast of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish equivalent of Friday the 13th, the unlucky day on the Jewish calendar upon which both great Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.  It is also the day that the first crusade was declared by Pope Urban II in 1095 CE, the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, the  liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, the bombing of the JCC in Buenos Aires in 1994 and the Hebrew date noted for many other tragedies throughout Jewish history.  For a culture with so much tragedy in its history, it could be considered a wonder today how the Jewish people continue to keep their faith in God.  While I cannot offer a comforting answer in modern Jewish thought to this very real and important question, the answer that our great sages have given throughout history is simply that tragedy strikes when Jews turn away from God.  Despite how some of us may feel about the idea, the concept of Divine reward and punishment is a central theme in traditional Jewish thought, and it is enshrined in the Yigdal prayer, the list of the 13 attributes of God as defined by Maimonides.

Modern Jews tend to feel at odds with the idea of Divine reward and punishment.  We see on an almost daily business that bad things can and do happen to good people, and bad people often seem to avoid accountability and repercussions for their actions.  When we see these things happen before our ideas, it offends our sense of Divine justice. While traditional teaching does suggest that we all eventually receive our due in Eternal Life, there is another perspective to consider.  Our society as a whole, is also subject to judgement, that is, how we behave as a group.  It would be ideologically inconsistent to punish individuals in Life Eternal for the sins of a group, which would mean that Judaism suggests that punishment for the sins of a society would have to be visited in this world.

When we, as a society, lose our sense of brotherly love, we lose that which binds us to one another.  In ancient times, the Temple bound us together, and if we cannot connect with one another, what purpose does a Temple serve?  Thus, our sages teach that the Temple was taken away from us. While the building may have been destroyed by Babylonians and Romans, the Temple had already been spiritually destroyed – the physical destruction is simply our rude awakening to an already present reality.  Sasha Baron Cohen’s new series, while meant to be a work of comedic satire, has been a warning call that has further drawn attention to an erosion of the moral fabric of our values.  Let us allow this Tisha B’Av to serve as a moment of reflection so that we might reassert our commitment to strengthening our commitment both to sensibility and sensitivity in our world today.

B’shalom,
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Matot-Masei                          July 14, 2018 - 2 Av 5778

07/12/2018 05:03:40 PM

Jul12

This week’s Torah portion reviews all that Moses accomplished with the understanding that there will be no new ones for him. It will now be Joshua's turn to lead the people. Yet, while the Torah seems to indicate that Moses makes a gracious and elegant exit, appointing Joshua and giving him a charge on how to lead in the future, there are some signs that Moses will not “go quietly into that dark night.” In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts how he begged God to change the divine mind and let him enter the Promised Land. God replies (Deuteronomy 3:26), “My mind is made up. Don't even bring up this topic again.” This exchange between God and Moses opens the door for the Rabbis to speculate on Moses's attitude as his end came near.

The Midrash has Moses drawing a circle in the sand and refusing to move until God annuls his death decree. God then shuts all the entrances to Heaven so the prayer of Moses cannot enter. Moses pleads with all of nature to speak out on his behalf, but each one cites a verse from the Bible as to why their plea will not be heard by God. God tells Moses that God wanted to destroy both Moses and the People of Israel but Moses convinced God to save the people of Israel and now he can't have it both ways. Moses saved Israel, but he will not be able to save himself.

Then there is a fascinating exchange where Moses asserts that if Joshua is to be the leader that God should let Moses go into the Promised Land as the servant of Joshua. As I read this section I almost felt as if God was humoring Moses. God allows Moses to be the servant of Joshua. The next day Moses gets up early to serve Joshua. The people come to learn from Moses but he is gone. They find him with Joshua and want Moses to teach them but he tells them that it is forbidden and they have to learn from Joshua. The people refuse until God comes and tells them to learn from Joshua. Moses sits at Joshua's right hand as he teaches. When the lesson is done, Moses follows behind Joshua as he goes toward the Mishkan. The cloud of God descends and Joshua has a conversation with God. When it is over, Moses asks, “What did God say to you?” Joshua tells him, “When I served you, did you tell me everything that God said to you?” At that moment Moses says, “I would prefer to die 100 times rather than have one moment of envy. Ribono Shel Olam, until now I sought life, but now my soul is surrendered to You.”

Rabbi Randy Konigsberg, in reflecting on these words, opines that “God teaches Moses a valuable lesson about letting go. There are things that are worse than death. The legacy of Moses is eternal. There is no more that Moses could ask from life. It is time to let go and leave the leadership to Joshua and Aaron's son, the High priest Eliezer. It does no good to envy their new positions. Moses has done it all and now is the time to let others lead.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel writes: “Among the most difficult tasks in life is “letting go” Whether it is sending children into the world as young adults or retiring from a job that defined one's existence for so many years, we all have to eventually ‘let go.’ Everyone says how wonderful it will be to move on in life, begin anew, face new challenges, and set out for new horizons. Unfortunately, these are only words. Too often our actions, like those of the biblical giant, Moses … betray our words.”

Yes, it is hard to step out of the lives of our children. It is hard to let them make the mistakes and suffer the consequences of their choices. I cried I left my daughters on their respective college campuses. Each, in turn, asked me, “Why are you sad? Did you not prepare me to live my own life?” I answered each, “Of course I know that you are not only capable of living your own life; I know that you are more prepared than many other young adults to make the difficult decisions about life. I am just sad that you will no longer have the same presence in my life.”

It is hard to let go of our parents as well. No matter how sick or feeble they may become, we always want just one more day with them. We want them to be present in our lives. But we all have to let go of our parents as well. We have to internalize their lessons and continue to grow without them.

It is hard to retire and let others take on the responsibilities of our work. We know all the tricks of the trade. We know all the quirks of the customers and how to get them what they want. How could someone else ever fill in for all the experience we have in our work​? But now we have computers and smart phones. Now we market on social media and on websites. Customers are not just in town but all over the globe. We need to let go and let others tackle this new world in which we live.

Rabbi Randy Konigsberg, in reflecting on these words concludes: Letting go is one of the great gifts that we can give to the future. Not because we are useless, but we need to continue to grow with new challenges and learn to leave the old ones to the generation just behind us. I have often said that it is better to leave and have people wish we would stay than to stay and have people wish we would leave. How else will future leaders know of our extensive wisdom in life, if we can't show them we are wise enough to move on? May God help us serve our community wisely and may God give us the wisdom to graciously make way for others to serve when our time to let go arrives.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Pinchas                                   July 7, 2018 - 24 Tammuz 5778

07/06/2018 12:40:12 PM

Jul6

Shabbat Shalom, and greetings from Sofia, Bulgaria!

This week, I am proud to be on a short tour with the Bulgarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, performing “A Melancholy Beauty”, an oratorio (a symphony that includes singers playing characters who tell a story, but presented simply as a concert rather than a staged opera) by renowned Bulgarian composer Georgi Andreev, written in Bulgarian, English and Hebrew.  This oratorio tells an amazing true story, which I am honoured, in the telling of it, to now be a part of.   And rather than explaining the story, for more authenticity, I am including below a transcription of the narrator’s exposition to each of the seven movements. However, before we get to that, I’d like to offer what will be a short tie-in from the theme of the oratorio to this week’s parsha.

Parshat Pinchas is primarily known as the spot in the Torah that every synagogue has at least one Torah always ‘pre-rolled’ to, and that is because it contains all of the special maftir readings for Rosh Chodesh, and each of the three festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot.  However, one interesting side narrative is that of the Daughters of Zelophechad.  In our text, the Torah legislates that the territory of what will become the land of Israel will be divided up according to the households of each man over the age of 20.  The Torah further instructs that the plots of land shall become each man’s family inheritance, to be passed on to his sons, and shall always remain that family’s property. The family of Zelophechad had only daughters, and no sons to whom to pass on the family’s inheritance, and so the daughters brought their complaint directly to Moses.  Moses recognized the injustice, and so the law was immediately changed to reflect that if a family has no son, the inheritance passes to a daughter, and if not to a daughter, then to a brother, a sister or closest kinsman. Though this is still a far cry from the egalitarian social norm of today, we must acknowledge that for the time, this statute was extremely progressive.  Further than that, it is also a lesson to each of us, as private citizens, that we have a personal obligation to challenge the laws of our land that we feel are unjust, then to organize, mobilize and take action to make a change for the betterment of our society.

Shabbat Shalom,
                          
--ChazJ

 "A Melancholy Beauty" - Published with permission from the composer.
(Includes some translation from original Bulgarian)

1st Movement:
Narrator:  During a turbulent time throughout Europe, the Bulgarian land and its people knew the fear of a foreign attack.  To enhance its protection, to gain Macedonia, Skopje, and Thrace, King Boris agreed to an accord with The Reich.  His purpose to hold onto power, King Boris agreed to the pact and its every infernal decree.  The pact was a loathsome offence.  The Law for Defense of the Nation struck a blow to Bulgaria’s heart.

2nd Movement:
Narrator:  The Law for Defense of the Nation was passed.  A commission was founded to deal with the Jews and Belev accepted the infernal task.  The measures proposed by the new Commissar were refused by the priests and the bishops, refused by the people, by all of the nation.  This valiant resistance found one other ally, the commissar’s secretary, lover, and friend.  Liliana Panitza was bound by her conscience, and set herself to altering the Commissar’s plans for the Jews.

3rd Movement:
Narrator:  With 12,000 Jews in the seized territories, the regions of Macedonia, Skopje and Thrace, the Commissar kept his malevolent space.  The roundup began past Bulgarian borders: men, women, and children herded onto the trains, to Bulgarian structures turned camps of detention.  As these crimes were revealed, the purpose was plain.  Liliana Panitza passed word to the rabbis, to the Jews of Kyustendil who crafted a plan.  They would gather together all those of good will, and together, Bulgarians all made a stand.

4th Movement:
Narrator:  Four emissaries arrived in Sofia, pleading to alter the fate of the Jews.  Minister of Justice, Dimitár Peshev received the brave envoy in the still night.  With others in Parliament, he had promised this law would not target Bulgarian Jews.  Peshev called Petár Gabrovski to get to the truth.  The Interior Minister first feigned denial, but pressed by the envoy, admitted the scheme.  Gabrovski was forced then to cancel the plan.

5th Movement:
Narrator:  The Jews’ deportation was canceled, but orders did not reach those in Plovdiv, where hundreds of Jews were gathered as planned.  In the night from their homes they were taken, herded like sheep in the dark of the night.  Metropolitan Kyríl was told of the crime.  The Orthodox leader did not delay, but hurried to join the Jews in detention.  Rebuffing the soldiers, he climbed over the fence. Among the Jews of Plovdiv, he gave consolation; he vowed his allegiance to his countrymen.

6th Movement:
Narrator:  The reprieve saved Bulgarian Jews from expulsion, but enraged those in Parliament who hated the Jews.  Re-drawing their plans for expulsion, these men grew intent that all 49,000 would go to the camps.  Opposition erupted, all Bulgaria rose.  All rushed to resist, to refuse the new plans.  In firm solidarity, all ten Metropolitans and Orthodox – more steadfast than any in Europe – rose up.  Forty-two members of Parliament joined with Peshev to insist that evil be brought to an end.

7th Movement:
Narrator:  In the end, the long resistance found success; not one Jew in Bulgaria was lost.  Still, a bitter taste remained, and no small fear that Jews remained defenseless to the whims of Reichs and realms and untrustworthy kings, that countless Jewish souls had been betrayed.  With sadness mingled strangely with new hope, a multitude of Jews chose to depart this land, this people, their long-beloved home, to build a faithful nation of their own.

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Balak                                          June 30, 2018 - 17 Tammuz, 5778 

06/29/2018 12:53:32 PM

Jun29

This week's Torah portion--Balak, is named after the King of Moab who hired the powerful Midianite prophet, Balaam, to curse the Jews.  At first, Balaam said that he was not interested in this unholy mission, but once he was well paid, he decided to use his powers to the detriment of Israel.

Interestingly enough, whenever he tried to utter a curse, blessings came forth from his mouth.  Indeed, this "For Profit Prophet" who was intent on harming the People of Israel, ended up uttering the famous blessing that we know as Ma Tovu - "How goodly are your tents of Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel."

Our rabbis note that this passage, one of the most eloquent blessings of the Jewish People, was offered by someone who despised Israel, while the harshest words of rebuke in the Torah were uttered by none other than Moses, the man who sacrificed the most on their behalf.  They draw a valuable lesson from this enigma.  We generally expect our detractors to criticize or curse us, and we expect those who love us to praise us.  Do not, however, pay too much attention to the praise of our supporter because he loves us.  Nor should we be overly concerned about the harsh criticism of our detractor.   In each case, their words should be taken with a grain of salt.

However, when our best friend rebukes us (as Moses did), or when our greatest critic praises us (like Balaam), we should take their words to heart.  In such an instance, we can be certain that what they are saying is true because their words do not serve their perceived best interest.

Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky notes parallels in our own life.  For example, if our boss, who may be generally critical or picayune, praises us for a job well done, we can take that praise to the bank.  And if a loved one who is generally loathe to criticize us, tells us that we did something wrong, we'd better pay attention to that too.

We should all strive to be honest enough with friends, neighbours and co-workers.  Even if there is someone who we do not particularly like, be generous with our praise when it is warranted.  And, even if we adore someone, don't be afraid to criticize when necessary.  If we do these things, we will earn the respect of both friend and foe alike.

Shabbat Shalom,
                          
Rabbi Geoff

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Chukkat                                June 23, 2018 - 10 Tammuz 5778

06/21/2018 03:11:14 PM

Jun21

“There’s nothing new under the sun.”
--Ecclesiastes

In this week’s parsha, Chukkat, the Israelites have been wandering for some time, and the begin to get annoyed with both God and Moses, saying, “Why did you [God and Moses] make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread, no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food [mana].” (Num. 21:5). As punishment for their insolence, God sends “Han’chashim has’raphim” (literally translates ‘serpent angels’) to bite and poison many Israelites who ultimately died from, possibly, their wounds or venom (Num. 21:6). The Israelites repent, and God instructs Moses to have the Israelites fashion a figurine of a serpent to be mounted on a banner, and all those who look upon it will be healed from snake bites (Num. 21:7-9).

Immediately, this story strikes us as odd, but what becomes intensely uncomfortable is when we realize that this serpent figurine could be interpreted as a form of idol. More bothersome still, is when we ask the question… how is the serpent figurine any different from a Golden Calf? There answer is: not much. This answer is also the reason that many rabbis avoid this topic altogether. In fact, the very existence of a serpent figurine constructed on orders from God was so problematically close to idol worship that, hundreds of years later, Israelites had even become accustomed to offering sacrifices to it, forcing the Judean King Hezekiah (reigned 729-687 BCE) to order the serpent’s destruction (2 Kings 18:4). King Hezekiah then encouraged the Israelites to refer to the destroyed serpent as the “Nechushtan”, which translates “a mere piece of brass”, the term we now use today.

The simplest, cleanest answer to the difficult question of the legitimacy of the Nechushtan vs the Golden Calf, is that in the case of the Serpent figurine, God commanded its creation, which, by definition, legitimizes it. The Gold Calf was not created by Divine command, and therefore it is illegitimate. Understandably, most of us feel that this doesn’t quite resolve the issue, and so we’ll dig a bit deeper. In a careful reading of the text of the Torah, what God specifically commands regarding the serpent figurine is actually the creation of what God calls a “Saraph” figure to be set atop a banner, which Moses and the Israelites refer to thereafter as the “Nachash N’choshet”, meaning ‘Copper Serpent’. So, what is a “Saraph”, and how did become a copper serpent? Our liturgy refers several times to the seraphim as ‘Burning Angels’, as they are described in the book of Isaiah, “The Seraphim stood in attendance on Him. Each of them had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his legs, and with two he would fly. And one would call to the other, ‘Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!’” (Isaiah 6:2-3). It may be understood that God is instructing the creation of the figure of an angel, not unlike the two angels (cherubim) that God instructed to be fashioned on top of the Ark of the Covenant (in a previous commentary, we discussed at length how these cherubim represent royal charms of protection). Though Isaiah describes a 6-winged human-like figure for his vision of the Seraphim, there is no earlier description in Torah of what this angel looked like, upon which the wandering Israelites could base a likeness. So… why, then, did they make a serpent? In a word, the image of the serpent, as it is connected to medicine and healing (the caduceus is still the modern symbol for the practice of medicine), goes back a very long way through ancient history. In Greek mythology, the serpent is connected to Asclepius, god of healing (the Staff of Asclepius), and minor serpent gods of medicine can also be found in various other Mesopotamian cultures dating as far back as 4000 BCE. All this is to say, at the time of Moses, the serpent was already a well-established symbol for healing in the region. At the time, the Israelites were praying for healing (from the bite of a serpent, as it happens), and so, as they were instructed by God, they created an image of their angel of healing… a serpent.

My last trip to Israel was almost exactly one year ago, during which one of the highlights was a tour of the Migdal David [David Citadel] Museum. My high school friend, Ariel, who works for the museum gave me an absolutely fascinating personal tour, including many areas that typical museum guests don’t get to see. I noticed that a few of the exhibits had mesh screens above them that could be drawn down to hide the contents, which I had assumed was for when the museum was performing maintenance work on the artifacts, or changing the contents. I asked Ariel about them, and the answer was so shocking for me it took me a moment to collect my thoughts. The screens, Ariel explained, were drawn down when orthodox groups come through the museum, in order to hide exhibits that show that, in fact, many ancient Israelites practiced idolatry IN ADDITION to Israelite monotheism. Archeological digs within Jerusalem found small idol figurines of serpents, fertility gods, and other idols derived from Canaanite, Moabite and Phoenician theologies, dating back to various periods of the ancient Israelite Kingdom, and had been placed on display in the museum.

It bothers me to know that many ancient Israelites embraced idol worship, just as it bothers me today that some Jews consider themselves “Jewbuhs” (Jewish Buddhists), just as it bothers me when children of mixed Jewish and Christian (or other) marriages are raised in both religious traditions. While we’re at it, I cannot overstate how much I absolutely deplore the mere idea of the existence of Jews for Jesus. That said, what sense is there in denying reality? In a way, I actually find it somewhat comforting and reassuring to know that our problems in Jewish religious integrity today, are not at all a new thing. It would seem, even in our Biblical history, we dealt with a significant amount of ambiguity within our own religious tradition. There is no perfect resolution of the concept of the Nechustan within our tradition. By our modern sensibilities, there is no question that such an item would constitute an idol, just as it did to King Hezekiah, and the Israelites of that period. But before then, perhaps it could have been clearer to the Israelites that the Nechushtan was not an idol to be venerated, but rather a charm, a conduit for God’s healing. Clearly though, the distinction in the Judaism of 3000 years ago between an acceptable charm and a forbidden graven image was ambiguous at best, and was forced to become better defined. Today, the process continues as we strive to respectfully and honestly help define the behaviours, beliefs and practices of the modern Jew. I find it is a comfort to know that our problems today as a Jewish community, are not new at all.

Shabbat Shalom,
                        
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Korach                                June 16, 2018 - 3 Tammuz 5778

06/15/2018 01:06:45 PM

Jun15

Last month’s volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are just the most recent example of the violent displacement and destruction that natural disasters can cause. Looking at the photos, I was grateful to learn that no lives had been lost, but I couldn’t help thinking of the fate of Korach and his followers for spurning the Lord (Numbers 16:32): “The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households.” Why were they punished in this way?

Korach and his followers accuse Moshe and Aaron of raising “themselves above the Lord’s congregation,” despite the fact that holiness extended to all the people through Revelation at Sinai (Numbers 16:3): “You have gone too far!” they cried. What did Korach and his followers expect to gain by such mutiny? Did they hope to call attention to what they perceived to be an injustice? Did they want Moses and Aaron to share power with Korach and others? The parasha states, “Vayikach Korach, and Korach took…” (Num 16:1) The use of the singular for Korach (and the other actors, Datan Aviram, and On) could imply Korach and the rebels aren’t plotting to lead the people.  They just don’t want Moses telling them what to do. They each want to make their own decisions individually. That’s why they cite God’s declaration the Israelites are a nation of priests and a sacred nation (Ex. 19:3-6); they want to replace Moses with a flat hierarchy of equals.  Several traditional commentators suggest that the rebellion was provoked by personal jealousy: Korach was infuriated that God favored his first cousins Moses and Aaron. Datan, Aviram, and On were angry that God favored the tribe of Levi over the tribe of their ancestor, the first-born Reuben.

Regardless of the motivations, Korach and his followers not only rebelled against Moses, but against the People of Israel and most importantly, against God’s will. The Kli Yakar (1550-1619; Torah commentator and poet) connects this episode to the verse (Pirkei Avot 3:2), “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive.” Korach and his followers seek to dismantle the existing leadership structure.  This might be great for the individual but would be terrible for the community.  Because their advice would have led the Israelites to swallow each other alive, they are punished with that very same fate.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Shelach                                  June 9, 2018 - 26 Sivan 5778

06/08/2018 09:07:34 AM

Jun8

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”
                                                                       
-Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990)

While my reflections this week are my own, I must give credit to my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Adam Cutler, for first noticing this brilliant connection between a new meme currently trending in our popular culture and an ancient Jewish teaching from our Kabbalistic tradition.

Do you hear “laurel” or “yanny”? I hear “laurel” every time. Four weeks ago, a sound clip quickly made its way around the world, reaching millions of people through twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and even the mainstream media when it was forced to take notice. Whether you listened on your smartphone, or whether you heard it on tv, this sound clip has people scratching their heads. While you might very distinctly hear the word “laurel” spoken in a deep male voice in the sound clip, the person standing next to you is almost certain to defiantly tell you that they only hear a high woman’s voice, clearly saying the word “yanny”. Check it out for yourself with a quick search on google or YouTube. Just be sure to have a few people standing around for the inevitable shocking argument that is certain to erupt.

The science behind how this phenomenon is possible is well understood, and there are now even more YouTube videos explaining it in detail for the especially curious. In a nutshell, it has to do with psychological prompts, sound distortion, the age of the listener, and the condition of the listener’s high-frequency sound sensitivity, which all together demonstrate that a person uttering a single word can be experienced by a listener in more than one way. Personally, I’ve studied a great deal of audio engineering, and I find it absolutely fascinating from a technical perspective, but what is far more amazing than this, is how it sheds new light and clarity on a very old and strange Jewish mystical teaching. 

Have you ever wondered why we always light at least two Shabbat candles every Friday night? The candles we light represent the two mitzvot of Shabbat that are mentioned in the Torah. We are commanded “Shamor et Hashabbat”, to guard [keep/observe/protect] Shabbat, and “zachor et Hashabbat”, to remember Shabbat. Both of these commandments are referenced throughout the Shabbat liturgy, and are highlighted in the Kiddush recited on Friday night. The Kabbalistic tradition teaches that when God spoke these two words, “shamor” and “zachor” regarding the commandments of Shabbat, they were spoken in a single utterance, thereby giving equal weight to both commandments, and making one inseparable from the other. The poem L’cha Dodi, which we recite during Friday night services, was composed in the 16th century by Kabbalistic Master Rav Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, and it expresses this concept. In the first stanza, the poem reads “shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad // hishmi’anu El hamyuchad”, “shamor [keep] and zachor [remember] spoken in a single utterance // we all heard the One God.”

Kabbalism is known to be a rather difficult area of study, mainly because on the surface, its teachings at best sound like complete nonsense, or at worst, like the worst kind of heretical thinking. Only after a great deal of reflection and personal processing, can we hope to glean any useful insight into a particular item of Kabbalah, if any at all. For hundreds of years, this Kabbalistic notion of the words “shamor” and “zachor” spoken in a single utterance from God could be readily dismissed as an idea too odd to be taken seriously. Today, suddenly, the Laurel and Yanny phenomenon has forced us to revisit this ancient teaching (and consequently begs us to also reconsider many other bizarre teachings of Kabbalah on the basis that we simply may not yet be wise enough to understand). So what does this new insight into the mystical ‘single utterance’ offer us?

One of the fundamental principles behind Conservative Judaism today, championed in recent years by its modern leaders is the concept of “Big Tent Judaism”, that is, authentic Jewish belief and observance is not a unilateral system of rules and ideologies, but rather a large spectrum of approaches, local customs that differ as broadly as country to country, or as specific as congregation to congregation, or even family to family. Of course, Judaism does have certain fundamental rules that we all agree on, but so much of our own personal Jewish identities are based on what “speaks” to us. While some may bemoan the fact that shul attendance is down in the Conservative movement over recent years, we must not ignore the fact that involvement of young people in Israel activism and charity work is significantly up. Who are we to judge those who express their Judaism in a manner that is different from our own? This is the way Judaism speaks to them, and it becomes how they choose to express their Jewish identities. No matter how often I hear the Laurel-Yanny sound clip, I still just hear Laurel, and as I learn about Judaism from great Rabbis, philosophers, politicians and other leaders, I hear their words in the only way that I can. Meanwhile, the person next to me, may well have heard something entirely different. Certainly there are times when only one way to hear something is the correct way to hear it (in fact, the professor in the sound clip is ACTUALLY saying the word “laurel”), but there are times as well, when there truly may not be a correct answer. In this case, the diversity of our collective understanding grows and breathes life into the intellectual process. We integrate our understanding into ourselves and use it to help define ourselves as individuals and then we pass our ideas along to our friends and family. And so, Judaism evolves for another generation, just as it has in generations passed, constantly renewing our understanding of the universe for the modern Jew.

Judaism is the only surviving culture of the ancient world, and I believe this is so for three reasons. First, because we are God’s people. The Torah is our contract in perpetuity that so long as we maintain our relationship with God, God will maintain a relation with the Jewish people. Second, we survive because we are a resilient people. We have proven ourselves time and again through our history, that as a people we will endure any hardship, any insult, and any injury if it means our survival. And finally, we survive because we evolve. Our culture, traditions and ideology are always renewed through the lives and experiences of the next generation, ever adapting, ever self-criticizing, and ever striving to be better, in order to reflect the best values of the age; to ever remain a Light unto the Nations.

Shabbat Shalom,
                   —ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Behaalokha                          June 2, 2018 - 19 Sivan 5778            

05/31/2018 05:32:35 PM

May31

Growing up I loved camping. I was in Scouting for 14 years and found the outdoors rejuvenating to my spirit. So, when I had a family of my own, we went camping with the kids. Almost everyone loved it but one of my daughter’s idea of camping was a four-star hotel instead of five. She didn’t inherit the “camping gene!” In this, she shares a lot in common with the ancient Israelites.

In Beha’alotcha we see the interplay of the story of the Israelite experience in the wilderness with the communal laws. It is interesting to note how the Israelites reacted to the wilderness. They hated it. Even though they were given food, in the form of manna, each day, sufficient water and safety from their enemies, it was not enough. They complained.

At some point, Moses reached the limit of his patience. He complained to God that he cannot deal with the Israelite’s complaints any more. God’s response was to get help for Moses (Numbers 11:16 – 17): “Thus, the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of Israelite’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people.

Bring them to the Tent of Meeting. Let them take their place with you. I will come down and speak with you there. I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them. They shall share the burden of the people with you. You shall not bear it alone…’” That was exactly what God did. Moses “power” was spread over the seventy elders. As soon as Moses power was spread to them, they began to prophecy. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, complained, implying that Moses had lost some of his authority. Moses reply showed his greatness. He told Joshua that he wished all of Israel had his power.

This is a poignant lesson in leadership, a poignant lesson for all those who wish to accomplish anything in the world. Rabbi Steven Bayer, in his comments on the portion, reminds us that there is only so much we can do ourselves. Eventually, to be effective, to ensure that our program has continuity after our efforts have finished, we must delegate the activity. In this way our dream can not only be accomplished, but it can thrive as well. Like a candle, from which hundreds of candles can be lit without diminishing its flame, our vision only grows brighter when more people are brought to it.

Meanwhile, back in the desert, the Israelite people were not satisfied. Although they had manna, they were not satisfied.

They wanted meat. They wanted the satisfaction of chewing something with a different texture. God promised them meat – and Moses was amazed (Numbers 11:21-23): Moses said, “The people who are with me number 600,000 men. Yet you say, ‘I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.’ Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?” God’s reply? “The Lord answered, “Moses, is there a limit to the Lord’s power?” Again, Rabbi Bayer reminds us: We know, theologically, that there is no limit to what God can do. Yet, in the Torah, as sacrilegious as this sounds, God seemed limited by what people were willing to do for God. God needed Moses to redeem the Israelites from Egypt. What if Moses refused to go (and he did four times!)? What would God have done? Rabbi Bayer concludes: Perhaps a better (and theologically safer) way to answer the question is that there is no limit to what God can do – there is only a limit to how much we think we can accomplish with God’s help. We learn that in order for us to succeed, we must share our goals and delegate the programs, we must believe that God will give us unlimited support, all the while acting with respect towards others who work with us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Nasso                                  May 26, 2018 - 12 Sivan 5778

05/25/2018 11:15:10 AM

May25

“Too often… we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
                                                                                                             
-- John F. Kennedy

Egalitarianism and women’s rights, law and order, slavery, healthy living, social responsibility, personal accountability – Judaism revolutionized thoughtful approaches to all of these and more in the ancient world, and continues even today, to teach and guide us in the modern era.  That is the special power of timelessness that Torah possesses.  That said, it is easy to find examples in Torah of ideas that seem quite incompatible not only with our modern sensibilities, but also seem to challenge what we know as fundamental concepts within Judaism.  How do we reconcile the Torah’s disapproval of homosexuality with a God who we understand to be all-powerful and loving?  How do we reconcile the Torah’s account of creation with our God-given thirst for a scientific understanding of our universe?  How can we possibly maintain that Judaism asserts an abstract understanding of the nature of God, when we are confronted in the Torah by example after example of clear anthropomorphism of the Divine?  We are accustomed to these types of questions as they continue to be debated regularly, even in non-Jewish forums.  We often shrug, and accept these to be continuing discussions, as we become comfortable with the unanswered question.  However, intellectual honesty needs us to be uncomfortable in order to keep our discussions going. The Torah has many such uncomfortable questions to keep us debating, and at the very end of this week’s Parsha, Nasso, we are hit with a real ‘doozy’.

“And when Moses would come into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice speaking to him from between the two cherubim above the covering which was over the Ark of the Covenant.” (Num. 7:89).  This is the last verse of our rather lengthy Parsha this week, and we are left with two uncomfortable issues: First, the Torah has forbidden idols and graven images of any kind – so what are two idols doing on top of the Ark of the Covenant?  Second, up to this point God seems to have no problem speaking to whomever He wants whenever He wants – is it not unnecessary, and possibly contradictory to our understanding of God, that God suddenly has a spot in space from which He now must speak?

In order to address these questions, we must first do a little bit of investigative ancient linguistics, comparative religion and anthropology.  The word in Hebrew for cherubim is likely a derivative from the ancient Akkadian language (which pre-dates Hebrew) “karābu”, a word the means ‘to bless’, and also, according to Akkadian theology, refers to a class of genie or low-level divine spirit that serves as a supplicant before a deity, praying on behalf of others.  In Akkadian, they are typically depicted as colossal bulls.  In the nearby ancient Assyrian culture, colossal bull-like divine beings, called lamassu, are depicted in pairs guarding over gates and passageways (original lamassu sculptures from the Assyrian civilization are currently on display at the Louvre).  If we return back to the examples of cherubim as described in the Torah, we find a pair of cherubim assigned by God to guard over the gates of the Garden of Eden, prohibiting Adam and Eve from returning.  The cherubim guarding over the Ark of the Covenant are also in a pair. “The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover.” (Ex. 25:20)

Clearly, there are very important distinctions between the Akkadiankarābu, the Assyrian lamassu and the Israelite cherubim.  While the former two are meant to take the form of bulls, cherubim are winged human-like creatures.  Nevertheless, noting that they appear always in pairs and as guardians are similarities that are too coincidental to ignore, given the linguistic parallel.  But what if the comparison between these creatures could be connected even further?  Pirkei Eliezer describes a prophetic vision of God’s chariot, which is being drawn by cherubim.  The account notes their wings, but also insists that these creatures have four-faces, depending upon which direction you are looking at them.  They are the faces of a lion, and eagle, a human and… a bull.

Finally, before we at last address our initial questions, let’s take a brief look at the wings of the cherubim.  The wings are significant only because they now represent the major depictive difference between the Israelite cherubim, the Akkadian karābuand the Assyrian lamassu.  Currently on display at the Egyptian museum of Cairo, we can visit the ancient throne of King Tutankhamun, beautifully preserved from the 13thcentury BCE.  One of the notable icons depicted on the throne on both sides are a set of wings.  Wings can only be found on the depiction of the throne of Ahiram, King of Babylos (Phoneicia).  In fact, in ancient middle and near eastern cultures, wings are a common icon found associated not only with royalty, but specifically with the seat of royalty.

What does this all mean?  It means that the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant are certainly a form of idol.  It also means that it is very odd that the voice of God suddenly has a physical place from which to emanate.  Both of these things continue to be contrary to basic precepts that we understand about Judaism.  That being said, we can see from the perspective of the ancient Israelites why they would not have understood it this way.  To the ancient Israelites, the cherubim were not beings to be worshipped, but they would have been understood as symbols of Divine protection and guardianship, watching over that which is most sacred to them.  In the view of the Israelites, God needed a throne, but without a God-body, what shape was that throne to be?  The Israelites envisioned a physical place from which their new concept of God could emanate – a place that they could consider holy, and adorn with riches befitting the King of Kings.  And so, the Ark of the Covenant is not only a container, but it is also the throne of God, a seat for the One who does not sit.  It is an object that reflects the understanding of a new nation, developing their own iconography, exploring their understanding of God.

Shabbat Shalom,
                         
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Bamidbar                            May 19, 2018 - 5 Sivan 5778

05/17/2018 04:30:41 PM

May17

A guy walks past a hospital and hears a moaning voice "... 13 ... 13 ... 13 ..." The man looks over to the hospital and sees a hole in the wall, he looks through the hole and gets poked in the eye. The moaning voice then groans "... 14 ... 14 ... 14 ..."

This week we begin reading the book of Bemidbar whose name means “in the wilderness,” for this book is the narrative of the almost 39 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness until they finally came to the Land of Israel. In English, this book is known as Numbers because it opens with an account of the census taken early in the second year after the Israelites left Egypt.

The Torah says, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, 11th Century, Province) says that “head by head” means that this census was taken in the same manner as the one described in Ki Tissa (Shemot 30:11-16) – that is, by means of a half shekel brought by each person. The total population would then be determined by counting the coins. There, the Torah says each person is to bring a half shekel so that no plague shall come upon them. However, as Rabbi Joyce Newmark (20th Century, USA) observes, “there is no indication in this week’s text that the census was conducted by indirect means. It clearly implies that the Israelites were counted directly.”

Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 13th Century, Spain) cites this passage from Midrash Bemidbar Rabba has his explanation for how the Israelites were counted: “The Holy One ordered Moses to number them in a manner that would confer honor and greatness on each one of them individually. Not that you should say to the head of the family: how many are there in your family? How many children do you have? But rather all of them should pass before you in awe and with the honor due to them and you should number them.”

According to Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (15th Century, Spain), this census was intended to teach the Israelites “they were not just like animals or material objects [to be counted one, two, etc.], but each one had an importance of his own like a king or priest and that indeed God had shown special love toward them, and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status; for they were all equal and individual in status.”

Rabbi Newmark, in concluding her observations on the portion notes that the late Israeli master teacher Nehama Leibowitz taught that this has particular resonance for our own era. The great plagues of the 20th century – fascism and communism -- and the current rise of Islamic fundamentalism reject the importance of the individual, the uniqueness of each human being. The census of Bemidbar not only counted each individual (actually, each adult male), but reinforced the message that because he or she is a unique reflection of the image of God, each individual counts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Behar-Bechukotai                May 12, 2018 - 27 Iyar 5778

04/26/2018 02:45:41 PM

Apr26

In Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, we have a lengthy list of rules and regulations pertaining to land, farming, real-estate transactions, and ownership, culminating in one particular verse that seems to establish that God is our landlord: “The land shall not to be sold permanently, for you are strangers who reside [temporarily] with Me.” (Lev. 25:23)

The following is an open letter to the Landlord on behalf of the Jewish People.

Dear Landlord,

We, the Jewish People (hereafter referred to as ‘tenants’) assume, since we have not heard from You directly in a while, that You have received on time and in full, all of our regular payments of prayers and supplications.  We have also been doing our best to live respectfully by Your rather lengthy and limiting list of terms and conditions as prescribed by the lease agreement.  You must admit, that it seems unfair that you haven’t really given us a good reason why bacon is forbidden on the premises, particularly given how good it smells (we have checked thoroughly, and there is no mention in the agreement about forbidden smells).  There also doesn’t seem to be much detail in the lease regarding the 7th day maintenance break procedures, so we’ve just resorted to shutting down all utilities for the day.  We hope that that is acceptable.  There are various appliances on the property that are in desperate need of repairs.  We understand that Your repair guy is on his way, and that everything will finally work perfectly when he gets here, but we thought we’d just mention that it’s been a few thousand years, and he hasn’t shown up yet.  We know You are busy managing many other properties, but we could really use those repairs, now more than ever.

It has come to our attention that our lease is the only one you have among Your agreements with other tenants that contains an extensive list of terms and conditions.  When we initially signed the lease, we had just gotten out of an abusive relationship with Egypt, and had been wandering homeless for about 40 years.  All this is to say that we were going through a difficult time, and due to our predicament, we signed the agreement with the attitude that we would adhere to the agreement first, and learn to understand it later.  At the time, we didn’t quite understand what we were signing up for.  Please understand that due directly to our lease agreement, we’ve had to endure persecution, pogroms, and endless threats from some very angry neighbours.  Through all of this, we have had to bear the responsibility and burden of living up to the very high expectations set forth by the lease agreement.  All this is to say that the throughout the term of our lease, life on your property has not exactly been easy.

We have had a few thousand years to read the lease agreement carefully.  It turns out that among the many things that You did, in fact, promise, one thing that you didn’t was that living here was going to be easy.  You promised that we would be would be prosperous, and indeed, today, we are more prosperous that we have ever been in history.  You promised that we would lead lives of virtue and nobility, and indeed, we recognize that living by your terms and conditions, we have become a light unto the nations, held up as the standard for morality, ingenuity and scholarship.  You promised that we would be safe and secure within our borders, and though this one was hard to realize, we cannot overlook the fact that among all the other lease agreements that You have had with ancient tenants, ours is the only one which continues to be active to this day.  And even though it has taken us some time to get here, we have the most secure property on the block, and the only property that maintains equality for all who reside there.

For these reasons, we accept that our lease agreement was never going mean that our lives would be easy.  We accept that others will be jealous of the special relationship that we have with our Landlord, and as a result, we must be ready to defend our property in word and in deed.  For these reasons, we, the tenants, are very interested in renewing our lease indefinitely. But, if you happen to be in touch with the repair guy, though, please just let him know we’d really like to see him come by the property as soon as possible.

Shabbat Shalom,
                           
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Emor                                    May 5, 2018 - 20 Iyar 5778

04/26/2018 02:43:51 PM

Apr26

A farmer had some puppies he needed to sell.  He painted a sign advertising the 4 pups and set about nailing it to a post on the edge of his yard. As he was driving the last nail into the post, he felt a tug on his overalls. He looked down into the eyes of a little boy." Mister," he said, "I want to buy one of your puppies."

"Well," said the farmer, as he rubbed the sweat off the back of his neck, "These puppies come from fine parents and cost a good deal of money."

The boy dropped his head for a moment. Then reaching deep into his pocket, he pulled out a handful of change and held it up to the farmer. "I've got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?"  "Sure," said the farmer. And with that he let out a whistle. "Here, Dolly!" he called.

Out from the doghouse and down the ramp ran Dolly followed by four little balls of fur.  The little boy pressed his face against the chain link fence. His eyes danced with delight. As the dogs made their way to the fence, the little boy noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse.  Slowly another little ball appeared, this one noticeably smaller. Down the ramp it slid. Then in a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling toward the others, doing its best to catch up...

"I want that one," the little boy said, pointing to the runt. The farmer knelt down at the boy's side and said, “Son, you don't want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would."

With that the little boy stepped back from the fence, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers.  In doing so he revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg attaching itself to a specially made shoe.  Looking back up at the farmer, he said, "You see sir, I don't run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands."

With tears in his eyes, the farmer reached down and picked up the little pup and gave it to the little boy.

Throughout our Torah and Tradition we find teachings that emphasize that we must be compassionate, forgiving and patient because God is. Although God might be perfect, we certainly are not and our Torah teaches that while we should strive for perfection, we will never reach it. Which is why I find a very troubling text in this week’s Torah portion. Emor describes the laws of the Kohanim, those who will offer sacrifices to God in the portable Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, we read about their qualifications Leviticus 21:16-23): The Lord spoke further to Moses, “Speak to Aaron and say ‘no man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified. No man who is blind or lame or has a limb too short or too long, no man who is a hunchback or a dwarf or who has a growth in his eye … He may eat of the food of his God of the most holy as well as of the holy. He shall not profane these places sacred to me.’” It seems that God wants only perfect people to serve as holy priests in the Temple!

Rabbi Steven Bayer, likewise struggles with this passage and relates it to his experience of visiting St. Petersburg when it was still Leningrad.  He was traveling to visit Refuseniks entering Leningrad by train at about 5 AM.  As he taxied to the hotel he noticed that not only were the streets clean, but for the first time in almost 8 days, he saw disabled people on the streets.  he saw amputees, crutches, all manner of physically handicapped people.  Where were they during the day? The answer was quite simple.  They were not allowed out.  Their presence would give a bad “impression” to the Soviet public. So he asks: “Is it the same with the Temple?  Are those who have short limbs, hunchbacks, dwarves, are they all too grotesque for God to have preside over the sacrifices?  But, if God is all knowing and all-powerful, how can God not know about them? I guess we should be thankful that, as priests, they can still eat the priestly food portions.  They will be taken care of, but they will not be allowed to preside.”

By the standards of the time this position was considered very liberal and sensitive, but if, as I believe, the Torah is a vessel of the Divine.  To make a statement that infers that the time determines the standards is to state that God did not; that these values were human and not Divine. Are we ready to make this statement? Yet, how do we reconcile this contradiction, especially in light of what the last portion taught in protecting the rights of those who are vulnerable? Does the presence of a physically handicapped person profane God’s sanctuary?  If this be true, how can we live with this verse (Leviticus 24:20-22): “Fracture for fracture, eye for eye tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.  You shall have one standard for the stranger and citizen alike.” If God’s Law punishes through maiming another, does this mean that we hold God to the same standard as well?  If so, do we hold God responsible for the reticence so many show to make sanctuaries accessible to the handicapped?  Do we hold God responsible for how difficult it is for a handicapped person, or how impossible it is for a learning-disabled person to become a rabbi? These are questions I intend to ask, one of these days, at the right time, of the Creator of all.

I cannot believe that this would be so and, indeed, the Sages of Old legislated such laws out of existence for the same reasons. Perhaps to officiate in the Temple a priest needed to reflect God’s perfection and thus be “perfect” in form, but in the context and content of our lives, God loves us warts and all, for our Tradition teaches: “With a great love God loves us” (Maariv Service). It is not a callous god but the God of empathy that is the God or our belief and Tradition.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim   April 28, 2018 - 13 Iyar 5778

04/26/2018 01:34:57 PM

Apr26

“People can choose between the sweet lie or the bitter truth. I say the bitter truth, but many people don’t want to hear it.”

--Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli Minister of Defense

In this week’s parshah, Acharei-Mot Kedoshim, you won’t find an exciting story.  There aren’t any exciting miracles, no riveting narrative, no real iconic moments of Jewish biblical history, and truthfully, the parshah amounts to little more than a list of rules.  Nevertheless, it is among my absolute favourite parshiot, and if you haven’t already, I recommend taking the time to read deeply.  This list is not only the basis for ethical Judaism, but it is arguably the foundation beneath all of modern Western social behaviour.  When children begin learning Torah in a traditional Hebrew school, they begin not with the story of Creation, but with the rules found in parshat Kedoshim.  In the bar and bat mitzvah classes that I teach here at Beth Radom, I also begin with a careful study of this parshah and the various laws in contains.

Of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, parshat Acharei-Mot Kedoshim accounts for a whopping 81 of them, more than 7 times the average.  Among them, you will find laws pertaining to the treatment of one’s parents, ethical treatment of the disabled, charitable giving, equal treatment of all human beings before the law, personal accountability for enabling others to commit a crime, and the list goes on.  Regarding the overwhelming majority of these laws, it would be hard to find any civilized individual in the western hemisphere, Jewish and non-Jewish alike that did not believe in each of these values as fundamental to secular society.  Indeed, many of these same statues can be found in Canadian law, American law, and so for many other countries.  Though others may see these laws as self-evident today, I believe the Jewish people deserves to be proud to lay first claim to them.  I, for one, am happy to share them with the world, and I believe we are certainly all better off for it.  However, in our ever increasingly politically polarized society of Conservatives and Liberals, and to a great extent, religionists and secularists, I wonder if perhaps for the first time, some of these essential values may be under a veiled threat.

Our civil legal system is designed to keep church and state separate. Nevertheless, an educated secularist/atheist will grant that our civil laws are still based on a cultural Judeo-Christian code, i.e. the Bible, i.e. the Torah, i.e. God.  But given the theological origins of our civil legal code, can that code be truly divorced from God?  And if so, so what?

While I consider myself socio-politically liberal, I loathe to join up officially with that group, for one reason among many, its stance on Israel.  I find the political-left critique of Israel reckless, ignorant, naiive and ultimately dangerous not only to the Jewish people, not only to the Middle East, but to the entire world, including Muslims.  (For specific details on examples of factual errors, misleading statements, poor moral equivocation, I happily refer you to a set of videos on the Beth Radom website resource page for my most recent adult education seminar.)  Why do so many people fall for such obvious manipulation of truth?  It’s easy –  all you have to do is flash a picture of a suffering child and you get to name whatever perpetrator you like.  In today’s world, it seems that in so many cases, truth has been usurped by emotion; how we feel carries more legitimacy than facts.  Often times in a whirling cacophony of opinions about any given topic, we seem to kowtow to whoever is the angriest, or in the most pain, and not who makes the most sense.

When God is removed as the source and center of our sense of law, ethics and morality, we replace that center with ourselves.  How we feel, our experience, then, carries the most weight when we assess what is morally right.  On the surface, it doesn’t sound too bad.  But when we realize that that entitles every individual to their own conclusion of morality based on each of their own feelings and experiences, then all opinions are suddenly legitimate.  While truth may still be found among those opinions, it is so easy to simply lose it among the myriad of “alternative truths”.  As a result, debate is no longer a search for truth, but simply a contest of who can yell the loudest; and a picture of a suffering child yells loudly, indeed.Truth can sometimes be cold and uncomfortable.  I mean this without any sarcasm or joking intended that if a congregant asked me to perform a Jewish funeral for his beloved pet dog (yes, it has happened), I would have to refuse.  Most of you know how attached I am to my dear canine friend, and I can completely understand that person’s need to hold a service.  Nevertheless, Jewish law forbids it, and so the discussion is over. But what if… what about… could we possibly…?  The aphorism, ‘the cold, hard truth’ says it well.  It is so, because it doesn’t care how you feel about it.  The truth remains independent, immutable by cultural relativism. Truth disappoints a child when she learns that eating too much sugary food will rot her teeth.  Truth also stands in judgement of the world as it responds to the resurgence of Neo-Nazism.  While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, truth is not.  Truth belongs to God alone, and our sense of morality, our respect of law and our duty to social justice is meaningless without it.

Shabbat Shalom,
                         
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tazaria-Metzora                  April 21, 2018 - 6 Iyar 5778

04/18/2018 03:35:51 PM

Apr18

The teenage years are not kind to most kids.  In addition to social and peer pressures, many feel gawky, gangly and awkward. Their bodies are growing and changing faster than their emotional maturity and in the midst of all this, many suffer from acne or other skin ailments that they find embarrassing and shameful, even though many of their friends have the same conditions.  While the cynic reads a section of the Bible, like Leviticus Chap. 13 (dealing with the ritual purification from skin diseases) and dismisses all religion as a lot of "hocus pocus," superstition and taboo, many teens read it with their acne in mind and hope that “this too shall pass.” 

Chapters 13 and 14 of Leviticus describe the role of the ancient Israelite priesthood in diagnosing and responding to people afflicted with tzara'at, commonly but erroneously translated as leprosy.  It is highly unlikely that what the ancients called "leprosy" thousands of years ago was, in fact, what we today refer to as Hansen's disease.  The word tzara'at probably referred to any number of skin ailments.  The priest's job was to determine if the skin disease in question was contagious or not. If contagious, the person was removed from the rest of the population until the priest determined it was safe to readmit him.  In Torah terms, a person was considered Tamai (ritually impure) when diagnosed with the skin ailment and could not remain among the Children of Israel until he/she was Tahor (ritually pure).

The role of the priest extended beyond responsibility for the ancient sacrificial cult to include medical responsibilities, as well.  A priest had to be both educated in theology and medicine. In a way, the Torah is describing the ideal prototype for the modern physician.  Indeed, as Rabbi Howard Siegel points out, one of the greatest influences on Judaism was Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204 C.E.), known by the acronym, Rambam or Maimonides.  Born in Spain, he became a rabbi, philosopher/theologian, and a practicing physician.  In addition to his writings, he taught an important lesson by example. Science and theology, the concrete and the transcendent, must exist together.

Rabbi Siegel recounts that poet and storyteller Danny Siegel tells the following true story of an encounter he had several years ago: "An eminent physician is taking his students on morning rounds. Here and there he explains to his entourage some fine point of the art of healing, adding to their store of insight and knowledge so that when they assume their positions as Healers, they, too, will demonstrate the requisite skill and wisdom needed to ease suffering and pain. The professor's expertise impresses the interns and residents.

As they go from room to room, the professor and students encounter an older woman recently arrived as a "social admission."  She is not desperately ill, but her complex of ailments makes it impossible for her neighbors and friends to take care of her.  The professor sees that she is depressed, withdrawn. She refuses to eat.  There is nothing here to be revealed in the way of book-knowledge; no advanced scholarship is needed.

The professor stops, and for twenty minutes feeds the woman.

She is capable of feeding herself, but she refuses to do so.  So, with deliberate and gentle care, the teacher teaches a lesson in kindness.  He does not do it as a demonstration to the students. No, he spoon-feeds this old woman because that is what the demands of the hour are.  If, as a result of this long delay, the students will have missed some detail of graduate training, some fact concerning prescriptions or diagnosis, it matters little to the professor.

Human beings must be served with a touch of humanity."

As both Danny Siegel and Rabbi Howard Siegel teach: One becomes a physician to heal the sick; a lawyer to defend the innocent. A firm grounding in a system of morals and ethics is a prerequisite for whatever we choose to do in life.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shemini                                    April 14, 2018 - 29 Nisan 5778

04/12/2018 02:05:44 PM

Apr12

“May we think of freedom not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right.”              --Peter Marshall (1902-1949), author and theologian

The Torah likes separating things... all kinds of things. Most of us know about separating meat and dairy, but there really is much more to it: it is also forbidden to wear a garment that contains a mixture of wool and linen (‘shatnez’), you can’t sow a mixture of different seeds in the same field (‘kilayim’), you can’t plow using an ox and a donkey yoked together. If you visit a more orthodox community, you will see men and women separated to varying degrees, from a simple rope down the middle of a synagogue (‘mechitza’), to local ordinances restricting men and women to separately designated sides of the sidewalk, and using separate entrances to public buildings. We also do a lot of separating holy from profane, such as the ritual of separating the end of Shabbat from the regular weekday is called “Havdalah”, “the separation”. We separate kosher from treif, ritually pure from the ritually impure, and I, personally, find it rather amusing that in the Talmud, the euphemism used in Aramaic for ‘going to the bathroom’ also translates to ‘making a separation’.

What’s with all the separating? Our modern sensibilities teach us to be averse to separation; togetherness is the overarching philosophy that guides most of what we believe to be socially beneficial. Borders and walls that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ are bad, unity and a welcoming spirit is good. Exclusivity and privilege are bad, while inclusivity and equal opportunity are good. Invoking a highly controversial topic such as immigration policy quickly rouses some strong views, but for the most part, I think we all agree that in an ideal and perfect world, all people should be welcome everywhere. It is only over how much risk to take, sacrificing personal security and economic prosperity that compel us to pick our sides of the immigration argument. Meanwhile, contrary to popular ideology, it seems that Jewish tradition likes separating things, and indeed, jumps on every opportunity to do just that.

In this week’s parsha, Shmini, we learn about all kinds of separation. We are told we can only eat those animals that have split hooves and chew their cud. We also learn that we can only eat those sea creatures with both fins and scales. The Torah lists various birds which are prohibited to eat, and the four categories of locusts which are kosher (yes, some locusts are kosher!). But after listing all of the various rules and regulations about which animals are kosher and which are not, the Torah gives us an explanation as to why. “For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44).  Obviously, this answer does not give us much clue as to what is so special about split hooves and cud, as so in that respect we are left to wonder and speculate. However, inherent in the answer we are given, there is a suggestion that the issue about split hooves and cud is actually completely beside the point.

God intends for us to be a holy people, and the act of separating is part of the means to achieve that holiness. Separation, in this case, is simply the practice of self-restraint. When we restrict ourselves, we show discipline, forethought, measure and purpose, all of which are among the basic building blocks of holiness. God also tells us that he will make Israel an “Am Segulah”, “a nation apart”; that is, a separate and distinguished people. And perhaps it is with this intention that the Torah offers most of its seemingly arbitrary rules, for no other reason than to have some rules at all, to have a challenge that we are meant to overcome, and an opportunity to distinguish ourselves. The Mishnah teaches “God wanted to reward Israel, and so he gave them Torah and Mitzvot” (N’zikin 3:16). That’s the direct translation, but I have my own translation that I think is just as valid: “God wanted to give Israel the opportunity to be rewarded, and so he gave them Torah and Mitzvot.” The reward for observing these laws of separation, of mastering self-restraint, is holiness.

Shabbat Shalom,
                            --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Eighth Day of Passover                        April 7, 2018 - 22 Nisan 5778

04/05/2018 11:53:03 AM

Apr5

Just imagine what would happen if the events of the Exodus had occurred in our century. Moses would be on the cover of every magazine, from CARP (“Changing Careers at Eighty”) to Business Week (“How to Succeed at Relocation Planning”), from Readers’ Digest (“The Ten Commandments – Condensed Version”) to Popular Mechanics (“Innovations in Marine Engineering”). Barbara Walters, Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and Piers Morgan would compete fiercely for the “get,” the first on-camera interview with the man everyone was talking about. Moses artifacts (real and fake) would appear on EBay, and rumors about Moses’ youthful misadventures would circulate on the internet. “Moses ben Amram” would consistently rank among the most popular searches on Google. There would be a Moses fan page on Facebook and a #Moses Twitter feed. After all, today, almost everybody wants his or her “15 minutes of fame.” It doesn’t matter how you get it, as long as you can appear on television (think about the behavior of reality TV performers or the antics of some sports fans). You haven’t lived until you have been on videotape. “I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right.” PT Barnum was right: even bad publicity is better than no publicity!

But Rabbi Joyce Newmark reminds us that things were different 3600 years ago. So much so, that Moses is absent from the Haggadah. The usual explanation for this is that the Rabbis wanted to emphasize that it was God who redeemed us from Egypt, not any human being. But there is something more. The Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 34:10): “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, face to face.” The Torah also tells us (Numbers 12:3): “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” So it seems that Moses had every reason to claim celebrity status -- but he didn’t. And this is a reason for praise.

And why should Moses’ name be missing from the Pesach Haggadah in particular? In preparation for Pesach, we remove chametz from our homes, offices, and cars. In fact, we don’t just remove it – we search it out, we burn it, we nullify it, we obliterate it. Why? The simple reason is that the Torah prohibits the consumption or possession of chametz during Pesach. But Rabbi Newmark reminds us that there is also a symbolic reason:

The Rabbis interpreted the removal of chametz as a metaphor for the removal of the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination. Philo of Alexandria, the Greek-Jewish philosopher, narrowed the focus to pride. “Just as leaven is banned because it is puffed up, so too must we guard against the self-righteousness that puffs us up with false pride.” The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Ephraim Solomon of Luntshitz, noted, “Leaven is a symbol of arrogance, pride, boasting, and pursuit of recognition.”

Pesach, Hag HaAviv, the Spring festival, is a time of rebirth and renewal. And this process of renewal requires the removal of spiritual chametz, false pride, unwarranted ego. Rabbi Newmark concludes: Each of us should look to the example of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, and remember that – just maybe – I am not the center of the world. It’s hard to be humble when you are surrounded by messages telling you that you could be the next “American Idol” – but you know what the Torah says about idolatry!

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Passover                                                March 31, 2018 - 15 Nisan 5778

03/28/2018 03:01:04 PM

Mar28

“There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born, and the day we discover why.”
--William Barclay (1907-1978), Scottish author and theologian

 Amongst the many greetings you hear amongst the Jewish community today, Shabbat Shalom, Chag Kasher V’Same’ach, Gutt Yontif, the phrase “Shanah tovah” seems out of place.  Different holidays, right?  Well… that depends on how you look at it.  In the Torah, the month in which we celebrate Rosh Hashanah is called “chodesh hashvi’it” or “the seventh month” (yes, you read that correctly), and if you do your math, that makes the first month THIS MONTH!

If you are already confused, it’s understandable.  Defining the “New Year” is something of an odd subject in the Torah.  In fact, there are four distinct new years that the Torah discusses.  Rosh Hashanah, which takes place in the month of Tishrei is the New Year for the earth.  If we approach the Torah from a literal standpoint and do our biblical math, the creation of the earth at the beginning of the book of B’reishit took place on the first day of Tishrei, 5778 years ago.  But the Torah enumerates the months not from Tishrei, but from the month of Nisan.  Why?  Passover.  (For the curious, the other two new years are the fiscal new year for tree tithing on the 15th of Shvat, and the fiscal new year for cattle tithing on the 1st of Elul.)

On the one hand, you might think this makes perfect sense.  After all, what single event defines the Jewish people more than the exodus from Egypt?  But perhaps you might argue that the giving of the Torah is the more critical event.  In that case, we should probably be counting the months from the Festival of Shavuot in the month of Sivan.  But no, the Torah has made it’s choice – Passover, and Nisan get the grand prize, but on what basis?

I often tell my bar and bat mitzvah students to compare their coming of age to the experience of the Israelites becoming a nation.  I find that this paradigm helps kids find material in their parsha that they can then expand into their bar and bat mitzvah speeches.  Just as our parents actively protect and guide us during our formative years, so too, God behaved as an active parents, intervening on behalf of the Israelites, bringing them out of Israel, guiding them through the desert, providing mana for food, and the like. 

Ultimately, coming of age is about learning self-sufficiency and independence, so that we are able to survive on our own, relying less on our parents.  So too, the Israelites slowly learned how to rely less on the active intervention of God; they learned to organize themselves, establish systems of government and justice, establish a legal  code, norms for social behaviour and an army to defend themselves.  Once the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the mana ceased to fall, the guiding pillars of cloud and fire dissipated.  Does this mean that God left?  Does this mean that the Israelites no longer had any need of God?  Certainly not.  Similarly, our parents never truly leave us, even though the ultimate passage one day separates us.  We still draw on what we have learned from our parents, and they continue to inform our choices.  Forever, they remain a presence in our lives.

Within this same paradigm, the Israelites receiving the Torah can be compared to a bar or bat mitzvah.  The Israelites accepted the Torah, and bound themselves to it, but the task of learning Torah had really only just begun.  So too, our b’nei mitzvah kids have an entire lifetime ahead of them that we hope will be rich in Torah study.  The Exodus, however, is the birth of the Israelite nation, complete with birthing pangs.  It is a helpless infant, unable to fend for itself, or understand the nature of freedom.  This is the true beginning of the Journey.

Happy Birthday, Israel!

Chag Kasher V’Same’ach,
                                          --ChazJ

 Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tzav                                 March 24, 2018 - 8 Nisan 5778

03/23/2018 11:53:19 AM

Mar23

Someone recently remarked: “I’m 35 but I still feel like I’m 20…until I hang out with 20-year-olds…then I’m, like, nope, never mind, I’m 35.” Apparently we are the company we keep. It is a lesson our Torah teaches us in Parshat Tzav.

 

This week's Torah portion spells out more of the laws regarding the sacrifices the Jewish people brought. God commands (Leviticus 7:19): "... flesh that touches any contaminated thing may not be eaten, it shall be burned in fire..."  Why would flesh that was pure suddenly become contaminated by merely "touching" something else that was contaminated?

 

Rabbi Adam Lieberman teaches a valuable and powerful lesson; namely, we are profoundly influenced by our surroundings. We do become a product of our environment. Being around any type of behavior that we don't want to fully engage in ourselves is never a good idea. The fact is, when we’re around people we don't want to become more like, their behavior - whether we decide to presently do it or not - will eventually rub off on us. We can't just declare that "I will never become like them." Good or bad, our environment will affect us.

 

This is true even if people aren't involved. If someone has a problem controlling his drinking, then it's clearly unwise for him to keep alcohol in his possession. Merely seeing the alcohol or knowing that's it's easily accessible could tempt an otherwise strong and determined person. In many cases, we just have to completely distance ourselves from any behavior we don't want to engage in.

 

Whether we like it or not, we're influenced by the company we keep. And given enough time, we can eventually become more and more like those who surround us. So we should choose our environment wisely. No matter how much willpower and conviction we have to stay "true to who we are," we're all human and for better or worse, we'll change every day whether we like it or not.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Tue, October 16 2018 7 Cheshvan 5779