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

07/23/2021 09:06:13 AM

Jul23



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא זֶה כְּלָל גָּדוֹל בַּתּוֹרָה

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom
                           
 --ChazJ

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

06/25/2021 09:14:56 AM

Jun25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                           
--ChazJ

 

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

06/11/2021 10:03:43 AM

Jun11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom
                            
--ChazJ

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

05/28/2021 09:29:12 AM

May28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom
       
--ChazJ

 

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

04/23/2021 11:03:42 AM

Apr23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a Shabbat Shalom.
                                      
--ChazJ

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

03/26/2021 10:05:25 AM

Mar26

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

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

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

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

--ChazJ

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

02/12/2021 01:24:52 PM

Feb12

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
            --ChazJ

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

01/29/2021 10:15:06 AM

Jan29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                 
--ChazJ

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

01/08/2021 08:14:41 AM

Jan8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                               --ChazJ

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

12/18/2020 08:06:09 AM

Dec18

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom
                         
 --ChazJ

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

12/04/2020 09:07:29 AM

Dec4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                            --ChazJ

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

11/20/2020 09:33:41 AM

Nov20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom
                          --ChazJ

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

11/13/2020 10:09:18 AM

Nov13

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
--ChazJ

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

11/06/2020 10:31:11 AM

Nov6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                         
--ChazJ

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

10/16/2020 10:56:28 AM

Oct16

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                        --ChazJ

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

10/02/2020 08:40:43 AM

Oct2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach,
                                                                 --ChazJ

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Shoftim                            August 22, 2020 - 2 Elul 5780

08/21/2020 08:11:44 AM

Aug21

Hello everyone, and welcome to another video d’var torah.  As this very strange summer begins to come to a close, we are now turning our attention to a very strange back-to-school season.  Are kids going back to school in September?  For that matter, are teachers going back to school in September?  For how long?  What will classrooms look like?  How will teachers and students deal with masks and social distancing?  Are we heading for a spike in COVID-19 cases?  Will there be another lockdown?  We know that all of these questions have been the subject of much debate amongst our government representatives who bear the great responsibility of balancing our health and personal safety, with the needs for our society to continue to operate.  Some of us think that the plan for our kids and teachers to go back to school in September is ludicrous, while others feel that it is a necessity of the highest importance with manageable risks.  Of course, only time will tell which approach is the wiser.

It’s the unfortunate nature of wisdom that sometimes it can only be revealed in retrospect.  And it is even more often true that by the time we realize that we are the ones who’ve been proven wrong, we’ve dug in our heals so forcefully that we find ourselves in the position of having to justify all kinds of horrifying things before we finally relent, that’s assuming we ever do.  Unfortunately, it’s human nature to be stubborn, and that’s mostly because being wrong sucks.  But sometimes the human instinct to protect our ego can be so strong that we would rather destroy ourselves and others with us rather than admit to our mistakes.  

This week’s parsha is Shoftim.  Moses continues his final speech to the assembled Israelite nation, laying the foundations for the Israelite justice system.  Tzedek tzedek tirdof, true justice shall you pursue.  The Israelite nation shall appoint wise judges to adjudicate disputes, and when a person is accused of a capital offense, they can only be convicted on the testimony of at least two eye witnesses.  Moses also foresees that the Israelite nation will one day wish to appoint a king, and when that time comes, the Israelite king shall be bound to Torah and the rule of law; the king shall be humble under God and never amass too much wealth, too many horses or too many wives for himself.  It sounds, for a moment, like quite an idyllic framework for a benevolent king who serves his people, rather than a ruthless king who forces his people to serve him.  It sounds like a good king, who is wise and kind, a king like Solomon, the builder of the first Temple.  But then we think to ourselves, wait a second, didn’t king Solomon have something like a thousand wives?  Was that right?  Wait… how’s that possible?

In the first book of M’lachim, or Kings, chapter 11, verse 3, it states, “He [King Solomon] had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines”.  And a few verses earlier the Tanach boasts that he had “1400 chariots and 12,000 horses”.  And there are several verses that also describe King Solomon’s great wealth.  While it is true that Moses didn’t say exactly how many wives should be considered too many wives, or how many horses are too many horses, we can simply just point out that the medieval commentator, Rashi, seems to think that for whatever reason, Moses meant that 18 wives should be the cutoff.  I’m not here to argue exactly how many wives I think are too many, but let’s just all agree that 700 wives and 300 concubines is a lot more than 18, and we’ll be content to say that Moses would likely not have approved.  So how, then, if King Solomon was clearly in violation of the Torah, are we supposed to hold him in such high esteem?  Solomon the Wise, author of the Song of Songs, the book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Solomon, the king of peace, who’s name means peace, Solomon the servant of God who built the first great Temple in Jerusalem?

The answer depends upon how stubborn we are willing to be.  If we take an honest look at the Tanach, it gives us a very human answer.  King Solomon was not the perfect king that epitomizes the unified golden era of Israelite history.  The text describes how King Solomon’s faith was not as strong as his father, King David’s, and that his lust turned him away from God and he even began to practice forms of idolatry.  However, if instead we wanted to preserve the iconic image of King Solomon the Wise, then the rabbis of the Talmud offer this story, an excerpt of the long series of altercations between King Solomon and Ashmedai the Demon King… and before I begin, because there will be those who don’t believe me, you are welcome to look up the story for yourself in Masechet Gittin, page 68, amud bet.

Ashmedai the Demon King came before King Solomon and said, “take off the magical protective chain and ring enchanted with engraved name of God, and I will show you my strength”.  Solomon removed his chain and ring and gave them to Ashmedai who swallowed the ring and grew until he placed one wing in the Heavens and one wing on the earth.  He threw Solomon a distance of four hundred parasangs (equivalent of 2400 km).  With Solomon deposed from the throne, Ashmedai assumed the visage of Solomon and took his place.  Ashmedai then demanded of the queens to engage in forbidden sexual conduct, and when the sages of the Sanhedrin learned that the disturbed king had even commanded his own mother, Batsheva, to engage in relations with him, they understood that this was an imposter and not actually Solomon.  The Sanhedrin brought Solomon to the royal palace with a new chain and signet ring engraved with the God’s ineffable name, and when Solomon entered, Ashmedai saw him and fled.

It’s a wonderfully bizarre legend, and one that is actually quite beautiful and enlightening if we imagine that the rabbis of the Talmud were actually trying to understand and discuss mental illness, while lacking the medical knowledge that we have today.  I also find it most interesting that their approach is actually consistent with modern psychology in that we are supposed to treat mental illness almost as though it is a different entity that is interfering with a person’s healthy brain function, sometimes to the point that a person may not even be responsible for his or her own actions.  In the end, however, the Tanach teaches that it was due to King Solomon’s personal failings that ultimately led to the fracturing of the united Israelite Kingdom, and this, like it or not, is part of Solomon’s legacy. 

So who is King Solomon to us?  Is he King Solomon the Wise who was temporarily replaced by Ashmedai the Demon King?  Or is he Solomon the great ruler, who was also a human being who likely suffered in his later years from mental illness, who failed to keep the laws of Torah, who became an apostate, turned to idolatry, and whose actions led to the end of the united kingdom of Israel?  Yes, there is certainly much to learn from the rabbis’ story of King Solomon and Ashemdai, but it is not the kind of lesson that saves a civilization from a mentally ill leader, and the more we insist on a fundamentalist approach to our own beliefs, the more we risk finding ourselves 2400 km away from reality.  As get closer to the end of the summer, I wish for us all in this next phase of the COVID-19 era, clarity of mind in our thoughts and beliefs, willingness to change and adapt our actions and behaviours, and dare I say, a sense of cautious optimism for the future as we keep in mind the adage, “it is far better to admit that one does not know where one is, than to go about adamantly insisting that one is where one is not.”

Shabbat Shalom,
                              --ChazJ

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Ekev                                          August 8, 2020 - 18 Av 5780

08/07/2020 08:05:47 AM

Aug7

Hello everyone and welcome to another video d’var Torah.  It’s hard to believe that we’re already into August, more than halfway through summer.  For some of us who have barely taken a day off since the pandemic started, it feels like we’re just not going to get a summer at all this year.  Meanwhile, some others are thinking to themselves that what may have started off as a nice stay-cation, has becoming a daily struggle to avoid going stir-crazy.  But no matter which perspective you may be coming from, one thing that we can certainly all agree on is that time seems to be getting away from us, and it’s getting harder and harder to even keep track of what day of the week it is, let alone remember to acknowledge a little mini-holiday that snuck by us this year.  This past Wednesday was Tu B’Av, one of the lesser known Jewish holidays that has always been thought of as the Jewish version of Valentine’s Day.  It is a day to celebrate romance, and make that special person in our lives feel a little more loved and appreciated than they already do.  But even though this video may be reaching some of you a little bit after-the-fact, I thought it would be nice, and hopefully make us feel a little bit more grounded and normal to acknowledge the holiday, and learn a little bit about it, and as it so happens, the story of Tu B’Av is quite mind-blowing as it raises a lot of good questions, and even helps us engage in discussion about some important social issues in our modern world.

 

The earliest historical mention of Tu B’Av in rabbinic literature comes from the Mishnah in which the great sage, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel claims that “there were no days of joy in Israel greater than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur.  On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments in order not to shame anyone who had none… they would come out and dance in the vineyards, and what would they say?  Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…  But remember, Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised”.  It sounds so wholesome and beautiful, and I would even say Disney-esque, as we imagine a scene of young girls dancing in a vineyard dressed in white, one maiden with long dark hair catches the eyes of a dashingly handsome young man.  She turns and blushes, as he works up the courage to approach her.

 

Even though this is our earliest reference to the holiday, it doesn’t exactly mention how the holiday of Tu B’Av began, which would be nice to know considering that it’s not mentioned in the Torah anywhere.  For this, an important clue is found in the Talmud, masechet Ta’anit, 30b, which says about Tu B’Av that it was a special day because it was the day when “the tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle with each other”, by which the Talmud really means that it was a day when men were permitted to marry women from other tribes.  But, as far as we can tell from our understanding of Jewish law, there was never in all of Jewish history a religious prohibition against an Israelite from one tribe marrying an Israelite from another tribe.  So why does it seem that this may have been some kind of important rule back in those days?  There is one story from the Tanach which could be hiding the answer, and if it is the origin story of Tu B’Av, it is hiding it for very good reason.  In the book of Judges, or Shoftim, chapters 19 to 21 we learn of a horrific incident which sparked a civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of the Israelite nation.  A man from the tribe of Ephraim was traveling with his concubine through the Benjaminite town of Giv’ah.  In the town he found a fellow tribesman of Ephraim to stay with, which infuriated the men of the town who are described in the text as “v’nei-vli’ya’al” – “a depraved lot”, who were accustomed to taking advantage of, and even raping, defenseless strangers who travelled through their town.  The text describes them pounding on the door and demanding that the man from Ephraim give himself over to the mob to be raped.  Fearing for his life, the man offered up his concubine to the mob, whom they raped and killed along with the daughter of the man who took him in.  As the Israelite nation gathered its forces to punish the town of Giv’ah for its depravity, the tribe of Benjamin came to Giv’ah’s defense.  Seeing this, the Israelites vowed never to allow their daughters to marry a Benjaminite, and in the civil war that ensued, Giv’ah was destroyed and the tribe of Benjamin was decimated.

 

After the dust had settled and some time passed, the population of the tribe of Benjamin continued to dwindle, and Israelites felt badly that an entire tribe of Israel would be lost if they were unable to take enough wives to replenish their numbers.  But, being bound by their oath, they could not allow their daughters to marry Benjaminites.  And so, the Israelites came up with an astonishing solution. 

 

“Vayomru, hiney chag Adonai b’Shilo” – “And the Israelites said to the men of Benjamin “Behold, there is a feast of the Lord being held right now in the city of Shilo” – “l’chu va’aravtem bak’ramim” – “Go and lie in wait in the vineyards there”.  “Ur’item v’hiney im yetz’u v’not Shilo lachul bam’cholot, vi’tzatem min hakramim, vachataftem lachem ish ishto mib’not Shilo, vahalachtem eretz Binyamin.” – “As soon as you see the girls of Shiloh coming out to join in the dances, come out from the vineyards; let each of you seize a wife from among the girls of Shiloh, and be off for the land of Benjamin.” – “V’hayah ki yavo’u avotam oh acheihem lariv eileynu, v’amarnu aleyhem chanunu otam, ki lo lakachnu ish ishto bamilchama, ki lo atem n’tatem lahem ka’et te’shamu” – “And if their fathers or brothers come to us to complain, we shall say to them, ‘Be generous to them for our sake!  We could not provide any of them with a wife on account of the war, and you would have incurred guilt on account of your oath if you yourselves had given them wives.” (Judges 21:19-22)

 

And there you go, a cheery solution to a difficult problem.  *awkward pause* - nope not going there, but we can at least be somewhat comforted that the text itself actually does, in a strange way, acknowledge the awkwardness of this solution, as the story ends with a heavily implied shoulder shrug, “Bayamim hahem, ein Melech b’Yisrael, ish hayashar b’einav ya’aseh” – “In those days there was no king in Israel; and everyone did as he pleased”.

 

Today, obviously, Tu B’Av is not celebrated with mass kidnappings, and unsurprisingly, this sordid Me Too moment in Jewish history has been all but white-washed from general Jewish learning.  You can even look up Tu B’Av on any of the usual internet sites that offer insights and explanations about the various Jewish holidays, and you won’t find it, apart, maybe, from a vague comment that suggests looking it up in the book of Judges for yourself.  

 

But just because its origin story may have been less than palatable, perhaps, especially given that there is no relationship between the origin story of the holiday and the way it is commemorated in the modern era, perhaps there’s another way to look at and appreciate the holiday of Tu B’Av.

 

In the story from the book of Judges, it is clear that some annual holiday for God was already being celebrated in the city of Shiloh, one which the Benjaminites were able to take advantage of  when the young women were expected to come out into the vineyards and dance.  What sort of holiday were they celebrating?  In some Jewish communities, Tu B’Av is celebrated with extra time given to Torah study, particularly on the theme of love—not only romantic, but also fraternal love and the love between God and the Jewish people.  Tu B’Av always falls shortly after the summer solstice when the days begin to get shorter, and the tradition of studying Torah on Tu B’Av is a gesture that demonstrates how we use our precious extra hours of daylight as an opportunity to engage in what most enriches Jewish life—more Torah study.  Moreover, the theme of love is chosen because it is the most accessible starting point on the path to Tshuva, repentance.  The end of summer reminds us that the High Holidays are on the horizon.  It is at this time when we begin the long process of spiritual introspection as we prepare to humble ourselves before God for our misdeeds.  It can be an arduous, uncomfortable and even frightening process, but love is what can help us begin.  It is because of the love that we have for the special people in our lives that we feel compelled to account for the wrongs we may have committed against them so that we can make that love stronger.  The same, of course, is true for our relationship with God.  In that way, a celebration of love on Tu B’Av may be perhaps even more authentically understood as a celebration of taking the first steps of Tshuvah which is recognizing and appreciating all of the good things we have in our lives and remembering that if we seek to keep those things, we have to do the hard work that makes us worthy of them.

 

Shabbat Shalom, and happy belated Tu B’Av.

 

--ChazJ

 

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Devarim                                 July 25, 2020 - 4 Av 5780

07/24/2020 09:47:32 AM

Jul24

Hello and welcome to another video d’var Torah.  It’s been a very busy week at Beth Radom, and when I say at Beth Radom, I guess I’m really saying that it’s been a busy week for me at home.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to watch the 4 minute video message that we released earlier this week about our exciting plans for an incredibly innovative, socially distanced High Holyday experience that, with the music you love, the people you’ve been missing, and the same prayers in our machzor that move our hearts, promises to be the absolute next best thing to being with us in person.  We certainly hope you’ll be joining us for an especially meaningful season.

 

But speaking of long-winded High Holyday sermons… this week’s parsha is D’varim, and it kicks off the final book of the Torah.  As sermons go, this one is the biggest doozy of them all, because it lasted about 3 weeks.  In fact, it takes up the entire book of Dvarim.  But we do have to indulge Moses this one last time, because after this speech, both his mission and his life will be over.  The Israelites have finished their 40 years of wandering, they are on the banks of the Jordan river ready to cross over into the land that will soon become the Kingdom of Israel.  But when they do, they will be led by Joshua, not Moses.  Moses, as we remember, must account for his one transgression against God when he struck the rock to bring forth water, as opposed to what God had instructed which was just to speak to it.  For this, Moses will not cross over the river with the Israelites, but at the ripe old age of 120, Moses will die in the wilderness on Mount Navo, but not before at least watching from afar as the Israelites safely cross to the other side.

 

As with any good sermon, this one has a lot of instructions, some reminiscing, some beautiful theological and philosophical ideas, and of course, some exciting drama.  But we’ll save some of that for another video.  Today, I’d like to focus on one important idea that Moses communicates at the end of this parsha, the first segment of his long speech.  It is an idea that has been claimed by many people from different cultures and different religions over many generations, but from our modern perspective, causes us to be a bit disturbed.  When the Israelites cross the river, they will be going to war against the local kingdoms in their campaign to conquer the land for their own.  When they do, Moses reminds the Israelites, “Lo tira’um ki Adonai Eloheichem  hu hanilcham lachem” - “do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who is fighting for you” (Deut. 3:22).

 

This phrase, or at least this idea, has been used as a war cry for thousands of years, and to justify many great atrocities, but with one important distinction.  We understand to a great extent that when we feel that our fight is just, we want to believe that God is fighting on our side.  But upon a closer inspection of the verse, we see that the Torah clearly states that God is fighting FOR us, not WITH us.  Now, it may seem like an inconsequential distinction, but the Hebrew word the Torah uses, “lachem” is most accurately translated as “for you”, as in, “instead of you”.  And when we consider this and read the verse again, it means something completely different, and perhaps even more problematic!  “Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who is fighting FOR you”… as in, “you just sit back and relax, God is doing it FOR you”.

 

In 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack on Israel which sparked what we call today, the Yom Kippur War – so called because the attack began on Yom Kippur – a deliberate strategy by the Arab coalition who imagined fighting Israelis weakened by the fast, but who were, of course, met instead with a fully functional and enraged IDF that quickly defeated both armies on both fronts.  But it might not have turned out that way had an ultra right wing voice within the Israeli Knesset been given more consideration.  This voice counseled the Knesset not to mobilize the IDF on Yom Kippur, as it would be a violation of Torah.  Rather, they should instead trust that on Yom Kippur of all days, God would surely fight FOR them.

 

We would like to mock this approach, but to do so would seem to mean mocking the Torah itself.  But then, how do we read this verse in a meaningful way?  Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School posits that Moses is playing a bit of a mind game with the Israelites, helping to mentally condition them to be resilient to life’s impediments.  We do this sort of trick on ourselves all the time, like if we’ve been preparing for a big presentation, or studying for a big exam.  We’ve been working and preparing for weeks, and then in that moment before the exam begins, we tell ourselves that the work is already over.  Whatever happens next will simply reflect the work we’ve already done, but of course, that will depend on what questions are on the exam, or whether we trip over our own shoelace as we stand up to begin the presentation.  Some might call it fate, but one Jewish approach might be to say, “the rest is up to God”.

 

But actually, I think the Torah’s message goes even deeper.  The first pulpit position that I served after graduating was the New North London Synagogue, in London, England.  If any of my New North Londoners are watching this video… hello!  I miss you all!  During my time there, I did a lot of singing with a lot of absolutely adorable kids, who are all probably in their twenties by now.  But I remember a fair number of them coming to me saying that they couldn’t be in a choir because they couldn’t sing.  Now, there are certainly a lot of different people out there with varying degrees of singing abilities, but some of these kids I knew, definitely COULD sing.  I knew because I heard them singing along in shul all the time.  When I asked why they thought they couldn’t, the answer was almost always because a teacher when they were really little once told them so, and they believed it ever since.  Every time I heard this answer, my heart broke.  Because of one comment, by one teacher, years ago, a child has been deprived of the joy of singing.  I find it amazing how these kinds of ideas can get into our heads when we’re young, or even when we’re not that young!  But they still weasel their way into our minds and change the way we think and feel about ourselves.  They can even alter our personalities in a big way.

 

In modern education theory, we learn to be extremely careful about labeling students in any way, particularly those students who are regularly misbehaving and causing disruptions.  We know that when disciplining students, we tell them that their behaviour was bad, but not that they ARE bad.  We make that important distinction because we can easily see how a child who is repeatedly told they ARE bad, comes to believe it.  And when child believes it, they become justified in continuing to demonstrate bad behaviour, because it is now a part of who they are.

 

When we consider the Israelite people, having just completed 40 years of wandering in the desert, we can understand their need to believe that the hard part was over, that they had finished studying for the exam, and that the rest was well in Gods hands.  I don’t think for a moment that this idea was intended to convey that God would be doing all of the fighting for them.  The Israelites were already battled-hardened.  The already knew what war would be like.  But they needed to be able to believe in themselves, that all of their suffering had been for the purpose of preparing them for this moment.

 

There is a reason we refer to Moses in Hebrew as Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher, and not Moshe the conqueror.  Instead of being the teacher that told his student they couldn’t sing, he was the teacher who told his student who always thought he was a slave that he was actually God’s chosen.  When we read the verse “Do not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who is fighting for you”, let us not read it as a commandment to believe in God.  Judaism has plenty of those.  Let us instead read it as a commandment to believe in ourselves, that we are worth of having God fight for us.”  That way, we can enjoy a lifetime of singing.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                               --ChazJ

Commentary by Cindy Kozierok - Parshat Matot-Masei    July 18, 2020 - 26 Tammuz 5780

07/17/2020 02:05:49 PM

Jul17

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Pinchas                                     July 11, 2020 - 19 Tammuz 5780

07/10/2020 07:49:27 AM

Jul10

Hello everyone, and welcome to another Beth Radom video d’var Torah.  The news continues to haunt us as infection rates climb dramatically in the US, but at the same time, Canadians should be entitled to feel cautiously optimistic about our own numbers which are staying reasonably low, despite the easing of some restrictions.  On that note, I’ll take a moment to ask you all to appreciate my haircut—it’s the first one I’ve had since February, and you’ll have to forgive me, but this is pretty much the only forum in which anybody other than my wife will see it… and who knows, at the rate I’m losing it, by the time this whole thing is over, I might not have any hair left to be appreciated.  But I digress.

 

This week’s parsha is Pinchas.  While our parsha does have a couple of interesting narratives, such as the story of the Daughters of Zelo’afechad who help introduce women’s inheritance rights into Israelite law, and the massacre of the Israelites who had been corrupted by Midianites into sacrificing to the pagan god Ba’al, this parsha is probably best known as being the parsha that every single shul has at least one sefer torah that is perpetually pre-rolled to this spot.  This is because on just about every Jewish holiday, including minor holidays like Rosh Chodesh, we’re supposed to read in shul about the various sacrifices that would have been offered to God in the Temple in honour of that holiday, all of these are spelled out in parshat Pinchas.

 

Now, for those of you who’ve been following my written commentaries or have heard me speak in shul in the ‘before time’, know about how I prefer to view the concept of the sacrificial cult within Judaism.  Obviously, in a modern world, the idea of a ritual sacrifice of anything, let alone living animals, doesn’t sit well with our modern sensibilities, and even seems to violate our fundamental understanding of the nature of God when we try and wrap our heads around what an abstract non-corporeal God who exists outside of space and time wants with ritual blood sacrifice.  The way I view the sacrificial cult in Judaism, a view that is also supported by many other scholars within the Conservative Jewish movement is that God intended the sacrificial cult to be eventually dismantled within Judaism, used only as a temporary means to organize a civilization whose people could not originally conceive of worshipping any deity in any other way.  This of course can be supported by examples in the Torah that suggest sacrifices were meant to be used only as a temporary mechanism to bring about social order, and to teach fundamental social values such as sacrificing a portion of our own wealth in order to simultaneously bring benefit to that social order as well as bringing personal fulfillment through the act of giving, which is of course a fundamental value that remains in Judaism today.  This beautifully systematic evolutionary approach to Judaism only further deepens my own faith, when I imagine that grand design, spanning thousands of years that brought Israelites from a people of slaves through to a modern Jewish people with a philosophy, theology and theurgy, all derived from the same three and a half thousand year old text.  

 

But this is all material that I’ve covered in depth before.  Today, for parshat Pinchas, I’m bringing the topic back up because against the backdrop of our current global challenges, I’m beginning to appreciate this idea in a new way.

 

I feel immensely fortunate, and grateful to God that despite these times, I am still able to do the work that I do for our shul community.  But, I cannot even begin to describe how completely different that work is today, when compared to the work I was doing months ago.  The world has changed, the Jewish people have changed, our community has changed.  It’s a frightening thing, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m frightened.  I’m frightened not only for the big things like how civilization is going to manage through this strange year, but also for my own little corner of the world like when I think how I’m going to manage to change everything I know about being a cantor, learn a whole bunch of new technical skills, and finish an enormous amount of work and preparation, just in order to give our community a High Holidays experience this year that won’t be anything like what we know, but still need so desperately, now more than ever.

 

But at the same time, just look at what we’re doing.  We’ve built an amazing virtual community, figured out how to continue teaching our kids, entertaining each other with live music just like when my dear friend, Rabbi Ariel Tal, live from New Zealand, sang Jamie and I a song for our first wedding anniversary on our weekly zoom variety show.  The world, Judaism, our community, is evolving right before our very eyes.  The Jewish People were designed for it, and in a really funny way, I feel a bit like I was designed for it too.

 

God willing, we will be all together in shul again soon, davening on Shabbat and holidays, just like we always did.  But now, Beth Radom is about to take a big step into the world of live-streaming, and my guess is that it will be here to stay.  It’s going to feel a lot different, and may take some time to adjust, but this is a part of the brave new world that’s ahead of us.  No.  I’m not comfortable with it, but I’m going to embrace it, and make it something beautiful, something that I know our community will be proud of.  This must have been a bit similar to what it was like to transition from a version of Judaism that was focused around the sacrificial cult, to a version that wasn’t.  We also happen to be now entering what Judaism refers to as ‘the three weeks’, it is the time between the fasts of Shiv’a Asar B’Tamuz, and Tisha B’Av, the dates that commemorate the moments when the Babylonian forces in 586 BCE and later the Roman forces in 70 CE, breached of the walls of Jerusalem and then, three weeks later, destroyed the Temple.  It was a time of fear and loss, but it was also a time of change—one that made us the people we are today.

 

I think we can agree that we are proud of the people that we became after the Temple was gone.  We became a people focused on philosophy, prayer and acts of loving kindness.  We developed the Talmud and Jewish law.  Scholarly rabbis became our leaders instead of priests who were born into the job. The new live-streaming technology is being installed in our shul right now, and once it’s ready and we learn how to use it, virtual shul will be here for Beth Radom members, and a few weeks beyond that it will be time for the most monumental high holidays we’ve ever had. Once again, we’ve got a chance to bravely take Judaism into a new virtual era, and I think that our future generations will thank us for it.

 

Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll see you soon in shul!

--ChazJ

 

Parshat Chukat-Balak Commentary by Cindy Kozierok      July 4, 2020 - 12 Tammuz 5780

07/03/2020 11:53:21 AM

Jul3

Cindy Kozierok

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Korach                                  June 27, 2020 - 5 Tammuz 5780

06/26/2020 09:51:55 AM

Jun26

Hello everyone, and welcome to another socially distanced video d’var torah.  I don’t know if anybody is still keeping track out there, but it’s been about 15 weeks since we Canadians locked ourselves in our igloos and built an ice wall along the US border.  It kind of reminds me of Game of Thrones where Canadians are the Free-folk, just so long as we protect ourselves from all the COVID-19 white-walkers who refuse to wear a mask in the grocery store, “Put on a mask, you’re going to get us all killed, Greg!” “OH!  He touched an avocado and put it back!  Which one did he touch??  Did you see which one?”

 

At least during our isolation, the news cycles have been keeping us at the edge of our seats,  from the comedy that is the US elections with the latest Donald Trump gaff, to the sublime and meaningful discussions on racism that are now taking center stage both in the news and in our communities.  I can say that for me, personally, it has been absolutely enlightening to engage in these conversations with some of you in our shul’s daily virtual social hall, but one of the highlights from my week was being one of 7000 virtual attendees in an online Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony led by two rabbis who also happen to be female, LGBTQ Jews of colour, in honour of Juneteenth, the commemoration of the date in 1865 that the proclamation of the abolition of slavery finally reached the last African Americans in Texas, two and a half years after it was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln.  The event was hosted by Bechol Lashon, an organization whose mission is to strengthen Jewish identity by raising awareness about the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity of Jewish identity and experience.

 

With so much of our mental energy going into keeping ourselves safe as we slowly start venturing out into this brave and strange new world of plexiglass shields at checkout counters and bottles of hand sanitizer becoming a new form of currency, Israel has seemed, for the most part, to stay out of front page news.  It’s a good thing, after all, “no news, is good news”.  But to be honest, it has me worried.

 

Back in November, I wrote an article expressing my hesitation over the US announcement that it would no longer consider the Israeli settlements as ‘illegal’.  I was torn between the victory for the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty on the one hand, versus my worries that this was the beginning of a slippery slope that could ultimately lead to the end of the two-state solution, and a dystopian situation in which an absorbed Palestinian population would become a non-voting minority within Israel—a situation which would frighteningly validate the currently very incorrect claim that Israel is an apartheid state.  Let me be very clear about my thoughts on this—I stand with Israel 100%, and I absolutely defend Israel’s right to take appropriate action to ensure its security, as is any country, and this is precisely why I believe in a two-state solution.  With an Israeli state alongside a Palestinian state, with clear and well-defined borders, each country should ultimately have the right to determine its own future independent of the other.  This stands in contrast to the one-state solution, in which Israel absorbs the Westbank, Gaza, east Jerusalem and other disputed territories and does not give the Palestinians who live there the right to be Israeli citizens with the power to vote for representatives in the Israeli government.  As Donald Trump’s polling numbers decline making his re-election looking less and less likely, it seems that Prime Minister Netanyahu is considering plans to annex parts of the Westbank before the enabling president leaves the White House.  This action would take Israel a significant step closer to the one-state solution.

 

If we could go to shul this week, we would be reading parshat Korach.  In the story, a man by the name of Korach, who also happens to be Moses’ first cousin, challenges Moses and Aaron for leadership of the Israelite nation.  He gathers together 250 men of renown as a show of support and accuses Moses of hoarding power, saying, “The entire congregation is holy, and the LORD is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above God’s assembly?" (Num. 16:3).  In response, Moses proposes a test whereby they would each prepare an incense offering for the Tabernacle and see whom God chooses to lead.  Before the assembled community God makes it clear that Korach and his followers are in the wrong as the earth splits open and consumes them all.

 

While it is clear from the tone of the language in the Torah that Korach and his followers were behaving disrespectfully to Moses and Aaron, there is no apparent problem with Korach’s fundamental argument inherent within the Torah text.  Would have really been so bad if Moses and Aaron had at least shared some of their administrative powers with a few other leaders that clearly have the confidence many Israelites?  It was a problem enough for our sages to make it clear in their commentaries that although it is not explicitly stated, we are to interpret that Korach’s sin that led to his death was that his desire for power was not out of altruistic intentions, but rather out of jealousy, lust and personal gain. For this, he and his followers were destroyed.

 

I will admit that even with this explanation, I’m still very bothered by the story.  Of course, there are malicious dictators and oligarchs in our world today who certainly seem to operate purely out of self-interest, and that’s wrong.  But even those leaders whom we respect for having honest intentions to lead for the greater good, can we really admonish them for having a small amount of lust for power too?  If I look at myself, I honestly believe that the things that I do as a spiritual leader for our synagogue community are done for the betterment of Beth Radom and its members, but as long as I’m being honest… I also enjoy the spotlight.  There are a hundred things that I could do for our community, but I want to get up on a bimah and sing… I like being on camera, and sending my message out into the world!  I hope that’s not wrong of me.

 

Our world today is doing a great deal of introspection and soul searching.  For many of us still sitting at home avoiding contact with humanity, there isn’t a whole lot else to do.  It’s taken a global pandemic for us to stop working for a living and ask ourselves whether our living is working.  What aught we be doing differently with our lives?  When will we finally get around to doing that thing we always said we were going to do?  We’re also learning to take a deep look within ourselves with regards to racism, learning about things like microaggression, systemic barriers and colonization so that we can live in a more socially conscious way and take care of our fellow human beings here on earth.  

 

My final thought, however, turns back to Israel.  I don’t have a solution to middle east peace.  I know that with a one-state solution, we, as Jews, are in danger of becoming exactly that which the rest of the world wants to hate us for – the apartheid state that subjugates an ethnic minority.  But with a two-state solution, we leave ourselves vulnerable to sustained attacks by a group who has publicly declared their commitment to our complete annihilation.  And we can’t do nothing, because if there’s one thing that everyone seems to agree on, it is that the status quo simply can’t be sustained indefinitely.  As it says in Pirkei Avot, “if I’m not for myself, who will be for me?  If I’m only for myself, who am I?  And if not now, when?”  So, what do we do?  We take stock in ourselves.  Ask each other the tough questions.  Understand our motivations and their consequences, and also recognize that we do not live in a world of black and white where there is always a clearly defined line between good and evil.  And with that, we carefully move forward, and hope for a better future.

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

                              --ChazJ

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Behalotecha                            June 13, 2020 - 21 Sivan, 5780

06/11/2020 02:19:34 PM

Jun11

Hello everyone, and welcome to this week’s isolation video d’var torah.  While we remain in the midst of a global pandemic that has already claimed more than 400,000 lives we would have thought it absolutely inconceivable that there could possibly be any other news item that would supplant COVID-19 as the leading issue to talk about.  Two weeks ago, as Jews around the world did our very best to celebrate some semblance of the Shavuot festival while maintaining our social distancing, the story about George Floyd was beginning to reach the public stage.  On Wednesday two weeks ago, Floyd, a 46 year old African American man, died while in police custody as an officer suffocated him for more than 8 minutes, kneeling on his neck.  A perfectly clear video showed us all the shocking truth of incident, as a black man on the ground gasped and pleaded with the officer for air while three other officers stood by and calmly watched, as though it was all perfectly normal and reasonable.  The incident took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but within hours, protests and rioting broke out not only in every major American city in every US State, but all around the world, including right here at home in Toronto.  Although the officer who murdered George Floyd and the other three officers have all been arrested and charged, most of us recognize, that this incident was only a symptom of an underlying systemic cancer that western society has largely chosen to ignore for far too long, racism. Similar tragedies have happened in our history that have sparked similar outcry, but for whatever reason, maybe because we’ve all been cooped up in our homes for so long, or maybe because the American government response to the protesting so poetically seemed to just prove the point over and over, it seems like the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining some real traction that could affect some radical change not just in the US, but here in Toronto too.  And while this may seem to some of us that this is solely a matter for the black community to deal with and that the Jews should be on the sidelines, let me assure you that it is not.  With that, I’d like to talk about first, what Jewish ideology has to say about it.  Second, why this is an absolutely relevant matter for the Jewish community to weigh in on, and finally, how we, as Jews, should be participating in this movement to enact important changes in how our society works. 

 

We’re going to begin with Jewish ideology, so let’s identify the Jewish value at issue.  There are many structures within our society that oppress and place barriers in the way of people of colour.  The official platform for the movement for black lives calls for an end to the use of past criminal history to determine eligibility for housing, education, and the right to vote, more government spending on social workers and mental health experts, as an alternative to increased policing, and an end to publicly funded political campaigns that can be so easily bought by large corporations with special interests that may not reflect the will of the majority.  But, the hot button issue that has brought this whole thing into focus is specifically with regard to policing and how people of colour are both regarded and treated by police.  Of course, the murder of George Floyd serves as a clear example, but an even more perfect demonstration of the systemic problem came from an incident only a few days prior in New York City.  A white woman was walking her dog, unleashed, in Central Park, when an African American man asked her to leash her dog, an argument ensued leading to the woman threatening to call the police, specifically saying that she intended to claim, “there’s an African American man threatening my life”.  This altercation was also captured on video where see how at least one person seems to have thorough understanding that a claim like this against an African American will place them in serious jeopardy when the authorities arrive, and more than that, that it can be and IS in this case, leveraged by someone who holds what we call “white privilege”, in this case, meaning the benefit that comes with the knowledge that a first responder’s initial reaction to this scenario will be far more likely to favour a white woman than a black man.  And due to racial bias, a black man, in this case, has a much greater likelihood of being arrested, beaten, or even killed before the truth ever comes to light, that’s assuming it does at all.  When we see that the rules of our civil society can be so easily bent or even broken in order to serve one group at the expense of another, we lose our faith in the rules.  In Judaism, we call simply call these rules Torah, and as Jews, we have to believe that Torah is incorruptible.  We have to have faith in Torah, we have to have faith in the rules.  Can we possibly imagine what would become of Judaism if we suddenly lost our faith in the rules?  And of course, Torah comes from God, so if we lose our faith in Torah, it would also have to mean that we have lost our faith in God.

 

In our parsha this week, B’ha’alotcha, Moses is beginning to feel the full weight of his burden of leadership.  God agrees to divide his load among seventy elders of Israel, and the Torah describes how God’s spirit came to rest upon the seventy elders who begin to speak in ecstasy.  Delighted, Moses says, “umi yiten kol am Adonai nevi’im, ki yiten Adonai et ruchoh aleyhem” – “If only it could be that all God’s people were prophets, that God would put His spirit upon all of them!” (Num. 11:29).  Sure!  Wouldn’t it be great if every Israelite was a prophet and a saint, then Moses wouldn’t even have to lead at all!  But that’s not how reality works, we aren’t all prophets and saints, and that’s the point.  We’re supposed to have faith in God, faith in Torah, faith in the rules because people are fallible, and the rules are supposed to help keep us all in balance despite our fallibility by being equally applicable to us all.  But if you live in a system where the rules are as corruptible as people, and neither can be counted upon to bring balance, then it suddenly becomes so easy for us all to understand why someone would say, “well, then to hell with the rules” because none of them have any value at all, and that’s when you get the rioting, looting, and the destruction that we’ve been witnessing.  To those people, Torah is dead, and it’s society’s fault for killing it, not theirs.  Rioting, looting and destruction is merely the inevitable consequence of the death of Torah.

 

But why, you ask, should the Jewish community be involved?  Afterall, this issue centers around the black community, so it should be upon them to address it with the government.  Well, we might as well acknowledge that racism not only affects the black community, but all people of colour, but yes, it does center around the black community, and they should and ARE addressing it with our governments.  But we, as Jews, ought to be standing by them as they do. Historically, the black and Jewish communities have often stood together on matters of social justice.  Although it is inappropriate to compare the way in which black people have been victimized throughout history to the way that the Jewish people have, our communities both understand what it means to be oppressed, brutalized and murdered on account of being born who we are.  We are both extremely proud of our respective heritages—they fill us with meaning, purpose and spirit, and it offends us to our core to be persecuted and victimized because of it.  It is for this reason that one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders of the Jewish Conservative movement, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched beside Martin Luther King in Selma, March 7th, 1965, the day that would come to be called Bloody Sunday.  When we hear news that a synagogue has been vandalized with a swastika spray-painted on the wall and we scream “antisemitism!” at the top of our lungs, so too, when we see injustices committed against our black brothers and sisters because of their race, we should be screaming “Black Lives Matter”.

 

This brings us to our final point, which is what do we do about this as Jews.  It has been suggested that the official organization known as the Movement for Black Lives is anti-Israel, and that the Jewish community, while believing in the cause, cannot support the organization.  If you google the name of the organization right now with the word “Israel” beside it, you will see a number of articles that refer to the organizations original 2016 Cleveland platform which included a statement as follows, “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people,” and that “Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

 

When the platform was released to the public, there came an immediate backlash from the Jewish community, wondering why on earth with so much history of common sensitivities, goals and spirit of cooperation between the Jewish and Black communities, why would they turn their back on us.  It was soon after revealed that this particular segment of the platform was developed by a small team of three people which included someone with direct ties to the BDS movement, and that the platform had been ratified without being properly scrutinized.  Statements regarding Israel were immediately after removed from the official Movement for Black Lives platform.

 

Now, does this mean that there aren’t members of the organization who are decidedly against Israel?  Of course not.  But as an organization, the Movement for Black Lives has nothing to do with Israel or Palestinians, and it is just as important for us to realize that for the vast, overwhelming majority of our black brothers and sisters who are at long last starting to see a glimmer of hope that our society might actually start seriously addressing long overdue issues that have put a knee on their necks, the last thing they are thinking about is how to solve peace in the Middle East.

 

There is no excuse.  The Jews are not a monolithic people, and we should, all of us, be able to identify with this struggle.  It’s a just cause, and if we are to be a Light Unto The Nations, we cannot sit on the sidelines lest our light go out.  We owe it to our friends in the black community, we owe it to the world, and we owe it to ourselves to have these hard conversations, to support the movement with our words and resources, and to advocate for change.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                            --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Naso                                          June 6, 2020 - 14 Sivan 5780

06/05/2020 09:26:46 AM

Jun5

An old sea captain was quizzing a young naval student. “What steps would you take if a sudden storm came up on the starboard?”

“I throw out an anchor, sir.”

“What would you do if another storm sprang up aft?”

“I throw it another anchor, sir.”

“But what if a third storm sprang up forward?”

“I’d throw out another anchor, Captain.”

“Just a minute, son,” said the captain. “Where in the world are you getting all these anchors?”

“From the same place you are getting all your storms.”

 

Our lives are filled with many storms, many unexpected squalls, the burdens and difficulties of life that seemingly arrive from nowhere. The economic downturn that can change all our plans; the scramble to pay bills; the canceled vacation or lost addition to the house; bankruptcy. The embarrassment and shame we feel, the bitterness and lost pride. The unexpected diagnosis: heart disease, diabetes, cancer. The shock and denial, the disbelief and anger, the bitterness and depression. The loss of a loved one: the breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend; a divorce after years of marriage. The death of someone we love dearly and feel we can’t live without. The burdens placed on us by others: our elderly and ailing parents; our children’s developmental, academic, or social difficulties; the workload that gets dumped on us because others don’t pull their own weight. We feel pressed into service against our will. We feel cheated by those we trusted, worked with, respected. We feel cheated by life and by God. Feel betrayed and let down, violated and hurt.

 

At those times in our lives when we feel most vulnerable, we must look for anchors. We come to realize that we are very tiny cogs in the great machine of life and that many things, good and bad, are simply out of our control. We need an anchor to hold onto: a sense of security and a feeling of control. We need some reassurance and confidence that we will survive the ordeals we face. We need to find calm in the midst of the raging seas. But where do we find it?

 

Our Torah reading, Naso, in its own way, has much to teach us about the burdens we carry in life. We read of the Levitical duties regarding the transport of the Mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites throughout their desert wanderings, where it teaches us (Numbers 4:49): “Everyone to his service and to his burden and to his appointment.” Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, the great medieval Italian commentator of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, notes: “He [Aaron] appointed every one of them to the service he was to do at the time of the encampment and to his burden at the time of journeying, so that each would know the weight of his burden; and he would also know his appointment…” When the Mishkan was in motion, the Levites were responsible for the burdens of transport. When the Mishkan was stationary and set, the Levites were responsible for service in its precincts. 

 

It appears, from the cursory reading of this verse and from Rabbi Sforno’s comment, that we must recognize our burdens in life, grin and bear them. In the words of the Rabbinic Sage, Abin HaLevi, found in the Talmud (TB, Berakhot, 64a): “The beam’s owner shall bear its weight.” Or as the noted medieval Spanish biblical commentator, Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra, writes elsewhere (Zechariah 12:13): “Man himself assumes the burden under which he falls.” Our lot in life, then, seems to be to suffer the difficulties we face. Either it is an act of fate or the consequence of our own free choice, but whatever the reason, we must bear the load alone.

 

However, Rabbi Isaac Margiso, the author of the famous biblical commentary, MeAm Loez, first published in Constantinople in 1764, notes that “The responsibilities of the Levites were not, of course, limited to hauling [and maintenance]. They were also musicians, who sang or played instruments when the sacrifices were being offered, while others served as watchmen and gatekeepers.” He points out that the burdens we face are not the be-all and end-all of our lives. Our lives are filled with joyous moments as well is difficult ones, not just “hauling and maintenance,” but also “music and song.” Sure we face many trials and tribulations, but there are also many moments of achievement and glory in our lives and we must see them, recognize them as such, and appreciate them for what they are, rather than wallowing in unwarranted self-pity. Everyone has challenges in life. We must recognize that fact, understand that everyone’s challenges are different and just as difficult for them to face as ours are for us.

 

It reminds me of the incident that occurred when Dr. Karl Menninger, the famous psychiatrist, once gave a lecture on mental health I was answering questions from the audience. “What would you advise a person to do,” asked one man, “if that person felt a nervous breakdown coming on?” Most people expected him to reply: “Consult a psychiatrist.” But to their astonishment, Dr. Menninger said: “Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need and do something to help that person.” In other words, as bad as things may seem to us, there is always someone else suffering worse. He also teaches us that extending ourselves in an act of gemilut hesed, loving kindness, can also provide spiritual, emotional and psychological healing for us when we hurt most. In the words of the ancient writer, Ben Sera (13:2): “What is too heavy for you, lift not.” Instead, follow the advice of the great Talmudic Sage, Rabba, who said (TB, Baba Kama, 92b): “I’ll carry the load if you help me lift it.”

 

This is what Rabbi Sforno meant when he wrote: “… so that each would know the weight of his burden; and he would also know his appointment…” We must see our burdens for what they are, but not let them get the best of us. We must also recognize that we need not carry them alone. There are professionals who can help us. There are family and friends, who love us and can offer us comfort and support. And there is God. The book of Psalms offers us comfort and encouragement when it teaches (Psalms 68:20): “Blessed be the Lord: day by day He bears our burden.”

 

There is a wonderful story about a man who had a dream that he was walking along the beach with God (Raskas, III:23). Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand—one belonging to him, and the other to God. When the last scene flashed before him, he looked more closely at the footprints and noticed that many times along the path there was only one set of footprints in the sand. He also noticed that this happened during the lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned God: “Lord, You said that once I decided to follow You, You would walk all the way, but I noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed You most, You deserted me.” And God replied: “My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, is because then I am carrying you.”

 

Often in our loss and pain, we carry seemingly unbearable burdens in life, we do not notice that we are carried by the love of God as well as the love of family and friends. Yet we are sustained and strengthened by many support systems that carry us until we can once more walk on our feet, safely and securely. In the words of the psalmist (Psalms 55:23): “Cast your burden upon the Lord and he will sustain you.”

 

We all have burdens to bear in our life. We have to carry them, they are heavy, painful and annoying, but carry them we must. However, like the Levites who must carry the burden of the Mishkan, there comes a time when we can put the burden to rest and enjoy the music and song in our lives. Yes, it’s hard: to forget; to apologize; to save money; to be unselfish; to avoid mistakes; to keep out of a rut; to begin all over again; to make the best of all things; to keep our temper at all times; to think first act afterwards; to maintain a high standard; to keep on keeping on; to shoulder the blame; to be charitable; to admit error; to take advice to forgive. These two are the burdens of life. But it pays to try.

 

At age 42, George Sand, the famous 19th-century female French novelist who used a male pseudonym to cover the fact that her novels written by woman, was a broken and depressed human being. Her personal life at this time had fallen apart and she was the victim of severe personal criticism from powerful and influential people in France. One day, feeling low and melancholy, she wandered into the woods near her home where she had played as a child. Seated there on a boulder, she thought over the past, pondered her future, and tried to analyze her personal situation. After some time, she reached the conclusion that was to enable her to go on and write another 50 plays and novels. That decision was: “Henceforth, I shall accept what I am and what I am not. With my limitations and my gifts, I shall go on using life as long as I am in this world and afterwards. Not use life— that alone is death.”

 

Judaism is always taught “…therefore choose life!” Even though the burdens of life might sometimes overwhelm us, we must “choose life,” and face the future with courage and fortitude. We must keep our difficulties in perspective and know that we are not alone, that those who love us can help us journey through the dark paths that may lie ahead. In the words of the author, Gwen Davis, “It doesn’t matter how agitated my periphery is, as long as my center is calm.” That calm center can be found within each of us, within the close circle of loved ones we turn to for support, and in God. So, let us go forth (Numbers 4:49): “Everyone to a service and to his burden and to his appointment." 

 

Shabbat Shalom 
 

Rabbinic Reflections - Second Day of Shavuot                  May 30, 2020 - 7 Sivan 5780

05/25/2020 01:24:04 PM

May25

The menu for Shavuot is customarily restricted to dairy dishes. Many reasons are given, related to the two themes of the holy day: Shavuot is the “Festival of the First Fruits” of summer, thus eating dairy reminds us that Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey.” As well, Shavuot is the “Time of the Giving of our Torah,” and eating dairy reminds us that prior to this time, we did not have the laws of Kashrut. Thus, the Israelites had non-kosher meat to discard and needed time to prepare kosher meat, so they ate dairy until kosher meat could be procured. There are many other reasons as well. While the Sages of old provide us with many interpretations to account for the practice of eating dairy, there is one that speaks to us profoundly in our grossly material word. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah is the governing covenant between God and Israel; it is the Constitution of the Jewish polity. The Revelation at Sinai marks our taking upon ourselves a religious routine that would, from now on, define our individual and communal behavior to exclude certain behaviors that were formerly permitted.

 

In the spirit of curbing our behaviors, we relinquish the pleasures of a meat meal. Our menu becomes a symbol for the meaning of the day. A dinner of succulent steak would mock the quest for simple life which is the Torah ideal. At the outset of Creation, God intended that Adam and Eve’s children live as vegetarians (Genesis 1:29): “And God said: ‘Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed—to you it shall be for food.’” Eating meat was not granted until after the flood, a midcourse correction dictated by human depravity (Genesis 9:3-4): “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” God set the bar too high. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, comments: “On Shavuot, as we accept the road map to holiness, we remind ourselves of the ideal; to satisfy our hunger without the taking of animal life ennobles our shared existence.”

 

The essence of the Torah, then, is to create a life of self-restraint and not engage in doing everything of which we are capable just because we can. As the Rabbis of the Talmud put it, we hallow our lives by giving up a measure of our freedom to act (BT, Yevamot 20a). That is, an effort at self-denial becomes a form of self-enhancement because a life of excess leads neither to virtue nor to holiness. The Rabbis learn that the biblical injunction (Leviticus 19:2), “You shall be holy” means to live apart; to separate from the profane and live a life of holiness. They challenge us to live a life with a degree of separation from the allurements that engulf us in order to focus the mind on matters of ultimate consequence. Thus, we celebrate Shabbat as one rest day out of seven for the spiritual renewal that sustains as for the other six. Or, with kashrut, we deny ourselves many of God’s creatures to impress upon ourselves the right of all animals to inhabit the planet. Nature surely does not exist solely to gratify our human need or greed. Reverence for land and for life is the attitude that the Torah seeks to engender within us.

 

An everyday example of this worldview, that less is more, is the rabbinic notion that (BT Ketubot 66b) “the salt of wealth is its depletion.” The idea is that the way to manage our wealth is not to amass ever more, but to share some of it with the unfortunate. In other words, doing well is doing good. And in return, the principal will continue to grow. I have yet to meet of philanthropist impoverished by giving. More generally, Judaism demands of us delayed gratification.

 

In his final book, Moses and Monotheism, published just a month before the outbreak of World War II, Sigmund Freud offered rare praise to Judaism as the most spiritual of religions known. The key to that achievement lay in its rejection of immediate gratification:

The religion that began with prohibition against making an image of its God has developed in the course of centuries more and more into a religion of instinctual renunciation. Not that it demands sexual abstinence; it is content with a considerable restriction of sexual freedom. God, however, becomes completely withdrawn from sexuality and raised to an ideal of ethical perfection. Ethics, however, means restriction of instinctual gratification. The prophets did not tire of maintaining that God demands nothing else from his people but a just and virtuous life—that is to say, abstention from the gratification from all impulses that, according to our present-day moral standards, are to be condemned as vicious. And even the exhortation to believe in God seems to receive comparison with the seriousness of these ethical demands of (Vintage Books, New York, NY: 1959, P. 152).

Thus, while Freud dismissed God as an illusion, he could celebrate a religious regimen that sought to elevate the faithful above their senses and lusts. Indeed, sublimation, the art of redirecting our passions for good, was a Jewish discovery. Freud’s own highly disciplined lifestyle embodied the ethos, if not the specifics, he attributed to Judaism.

 

In short, our self-imposed restrictions set us free. To scale the heights, we need to focus our energies. The awesome prowess of a world-class pianist or tennis player comes only with years of self-denial in other things to focus on training, practicing and perfecting their skill. Even God, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, had to contract God’s self in order to make room to create the universe. God had to restrict God’s self! The intensity that flowed from such concentration filled the void left by God’s withdrawal.

 

Even as we scale down our diet on Shavuot to ready ourselves for receiving the Torah, so too do we also go without sleep. On the first evening of the festival we engage in all night study. The moment that commemorates God’s revelation finds us exhausted but saturated with Torah. Again, the ritual calls for an act that takes us beyond ourselves. To do without; to restrict ourselves attunes us to the quest of for holiness grounded on self-transcendence. As we ascend toward godliness, we are met more than halfway by infusion of holiness from God. Holiness is a reciprocal relationship. According to the Talmud, if we strive to hallow our lives here on earth, we will be paid with a burst of holiness from above (BT Yoma 39a). A world awash in holiness awaits us if we but dare to approach it.

 

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Bamidbar                            May 23, 2020 - 29 Iyar, 5780

05/21/2020 05:02:50 PM

May21

Hello and welcome to another video d’var torah.  I’ll give you all a moment to notice our new recording studio, also known as my basement.  For some reason, we decided that it was getting a bit annoying to have microphones and cameras set up in every room in our house, one by the piano for the Sunday variety show, one by the dining room table for Kabbalat shabbat and Havdalah services, and one in the home office for bar mitzvah lessons, adult education lectures and meetings—I wish I were joking about those things, but that is actually how Jamie and I have been living these last few months, tripping constantly over cables and wires in every room.  No longer…  This is now our studio!  I know it looks a bit dull right now, but not to worry, we’re going to give it the works this week and bring in some colour and flavour.  But that’s, in a way, all of our stories after three months of isolation.  Since we can’t get out and go somewhere new, the only thing we can do is make somewhere new, and I look forward to exploring the potential of this new space together with you all.  For those of you still keeping track, we’re up to week 11 of social isolation.  As I record this video, it is the 42nd day of the omer, and Shavuot is just around the corner.  I know that I’m echoing so many of our thoughts and feelings when I say that while this new way of living is starting to feel more normal, it also feels like a test of our resilience.  One that if we can pass it, we can emerge stronger as individuals, as families and as a community on the other side.  As it happens, our ancestors also understood this strange nature of isolation very well.

 

Our Parsha this week is Bamidbar which means “in the desert”, which is also the first parsha of the BOOK of BaMidbar, which we begin reading this week.  The desert is an important theme throughout the Torah.  The desert is endless, it’s a harsh environment, it is desolate, even hypnotic.  I remember going on my USY Israel Pilgrimage trip in highschool, and one of the activities was to really experience the intense solitude of the desert.  On our tour bus, we drove deep into the Negev as the sun was setting.  We got out of the bus and were told that without going too far away, to find a spot where we could look out at the desert in one direction and not be able to see anyone else.  I found my spot just as the sun was going down, and paused to take in the vast emptiness, seeing nothing but rolling sand dunes.  Something that struck me even more was the sound which was that there was no sound – no birds, no insects, not even the sound of wind.  As a musician I can tell you that there are many different kinds of silence.  There’s the silence you hear when you are in a pool under water, which is different than the silence you hear when you are taking a midnight walk around your neighbourhood.  The silence of the desert is the same kind of silence you would hear if you were to go into your closet and close the door – it is the sound of a small room, dampened by clothing all around.  It is a very intimate kind of silence.  And that’s the desert.  It’s intimate, lonely, it’s timeless, and without question, you come out of it a different person from when you went in.  

 

In the opening verse of our Parsha we read, “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe bamidbar Sinai b’ohel mo’ed”, “And God spoke to Moshe from the wilderness of the Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting”.  The inclusion of the word “wilderness” is not accidental.  The forty years of wandering in the desert was a time of trial for the Israelites, it was a time for learning how to behave as a nation, a time to build a relationship with God and understand how to be a moral, ethical and holy people, it was a time free from the distractions of the outside world, the desert served as the incubator for the Israelite nation.

 

Once again, we find ourselves in a sort of incubator as we hunker down in our homes.  Some of us are learning all kinds of amazing and crazy things about the people we live with that we never knew before, and perhaps never would have known if not for our isolation.  Some of us are taking this time to engage in hobbies that we would have otherwise never had the opportunity to do, some of us are using this time to study new subjects and take classes online.  Some of us are using the opportunity to exercise more and get in shape.  And maybe some of us are simply taking this opportunity to relax our minds and bodies in a way we never would have had a chance to do in our lives so that we can become more centered, more focused, more attuned human beings.  Our desert is testing our mettle in many ways, but it can also be our Sinai, an opportunity to emerge different from the person we were when we went in.

 

Shabbat Shalom,   

                            --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Behar-Bechukotai              May 16, 2020 - 22 Iyar 5780

05/12/2020 08:15:18 AM

May12

It is said that after God created the world, he had to fill it with people. So God sent off an angel with two sacks—one full of wise souls and one full of foolish ones—to be distributed equally in various communities. But while the angel is flying over Chelm, one of the sacks became caught on the top of a mountain and all of foolish souls spilled out and fell into Chelm.

There is a story about the citizens of Chelm who used to spend a good deal of time worrying—so much time, in fact, that they soon began to worry about how much they worried. The Grand Council of Wise Men convened a meeting to discuss all this worrying and to find a solution for it. For seven days and seven nights the wise men of Chelm discussed the problem, until finally the chairman and announced a solution: Yossel, the chimney sweep, would be the official Chelm Worrier. In return for one ruble a week, he would do the worrying for everybody in Chelm.

The Grand Council members all agreed that this was the ideal solution, but just before the vote was taken, one of the sages rose to speak against the proposal. “Wait a minute,” he announced. “If Yossel were to receive one ruble a week, then what would he have to worry about?”

Our lives are filled with worry and stress. We rush around our daily schedules from appointment to appointment, from errand to errand, trying to get everything done in the little time we have. Picking up the kids here, dropping them off there. Seeing this client at that time and that client at this one, rushing from appointment to appointment hoping not to be late, the traffic will cooperate and that things will run smoothly. We worry about deadlines and proposals to be accepted. We worry about our health and the health of our kids. There’s now even a health warning out about dog parasites coming from the Okanogan Valley in BC that can be fatal to a pet—something else to worry about. We worry about making ends meet, paying our bills, and putting something away for a rainy day or for the future.

Even the news makes us worry. Global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, the pending environmental nightmare that haunts us and now, COVID-19! Political instability around the world, especially in Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Free trade, the global economy, Japanese exclusivism and protectionism, Chinese economic dominance and the US markets. Decline in education and funding for social services. The alarming state of healthcare and the unbelievable amount of government waste and overspending. The deficit. Oy, where’s the Alka-Seltzer! There’s an old quip that says: I was feeling lonely and down, when out of the gloom came a voice saying, “Cheer up, things could be worse!” So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse!

Even though the Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” we often feel that there are insurmountable obstacles placed before us, veritable mountains of difficulty to climb and overcome. The lyrics from the song, “don’t worry, be happy,” ring empty in our ears. And the irony of MAD Magazine’s Alfred E Newman, with his “What, me worry?” motto, brings only a cynical smirk to our lips. Reality, we know, is far more stressful and worrisome. An old Hebrew proverb observes “it’s tough being a Jew.” Or as Jim Henson’s puppet, Kermit the frog, used to sing: “it’s not easy being green.”

Our Torah reading for this Shabbat begins with the verse (Leviticus 25:1): “and the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai…” It is from this phrase that we take the name for this week’s reading, Behar, meaning, “In the mountain.” It is the first half of this double portion of Behar-Behuqotai. It recognizes that mountains have always been viewed as obstacles, when, in fact, great things have occurred atop mountains. 

Indeed, mountains play a very important role in Jewish history. The ark of Noah came to rest on the mountaintop of Ararat. Abraham and Isaac confronted God on Mount Moriah, which later became the site of the First and Second Temples. Moses spent two 40-day periods on Mount Sinai. Elijah the prophet faced the priests of Baal and triumphed in the name of God on Mount Carmel. The prophetess Dvora met the enemy atop Mount Tabor and was victorious. As the mystic poet, William Blake, one said: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” Perhaps that is why we find the protecting words of Psalm 121 so comforting in our times of trouble or distress (Psalm 121:1): “I will lift my eyes towards the mountains, what is the source of my help? The source of my help is the Lord, creator of heaven and earth.”

The centrality of mountains in our tradition teaches us of their importance in our lives. They teach us that we must be willing to climb mountains to make the most out of our lives. Whether the mountains we climb are spiritual or physical, only at the top do we have the privilege to take in the great view. We must have the courage and stamina to face the challenges of life whether they are raising a family, working toward a promotion, confronting emotional hardships or setbacks, facing daunting tasks, or just making it through the day. As the great black American educator and author, Booker T. Washington, points out: “Success is not measured by the heights one attains but by the obstacles one overcomes in its attainment.”

No doubt, mountain climbing is hard, but when we reach our goal we see something magnificent and exhilarating. Emotionally, mountain climbing brings out the best in us: it elevates the soul above the plain of the commonplace to wider horizons. Rabbi Bernard Raskus of St. Paul Minnesota, points out that “people who live on the plains tend to be a little quieter and more relaxed than those who live on the side of a mountain. To live on the side of the mountain is to be challenged by the elements, to climb the mountain to get home; it takes a person willing to face hardships.”

From time immemorial, mountains have been a challenge to humanity. Throughout history and literature mountains represent mighty obstacles to overcome. When Sir Edmund Hillary succeeded in climbing Mount Everest, the highest mountain on the face of the earth, he was asked why he did it. His response: “Because it was there.” There are always seemingly insuperable mountains that loom on the horizon of our lives. These mountains are meant to be climbed and overcome. These mountains challenge us to rise to the call, muster the strength and reach for the unreachable. To go for the brass ring; to grow in ways we never thought possible. These mountains beckon us not to live on the monotonous, level, unexciting plains, but to face the challenge, the excitement, the exuberance of the mountains. Without mountains, we would not scale new heights of achievement: personal, physical, emotional and spiritual.

Our Torah reading, Behar, “in the mountain,” teaches us that when we are “in the mountain,” when we encounter obstacles in our lives, to view them not as stumbling blocks, but as opportunities for growth and development: as ways to make ourselves better, more caring and sensitive human beings, ennobled and matured by the challenges met and conquered. Our Torah reading challenges us to lift our eyes to that mountain and find inner strength; as the poet, Arthur Guiterman, wrote: “God gave me hills to climb and strength for climbing.” Our Torah reading beckons us to see life as a mountain just waiting to be climbed. It encourages us to begin the ascent, and no matter what happens, to keep climbing. That same poet, Arthur Guiterman, writes further: “God’s road is uphill, and man climb slowly.” But you and I both know that climbing is the only way to get to the top.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses in Mount Sinai…” God spoke to Moses in the mountain and gave him the guidance and direction he needed to face the hardships and challenges that lay ahead. Let us also find the voice of God within us, within the personal mountains facing us, so we—like Moses—may find the guidance and direction we need to face the hardships and challenges that lie ahead for us and so we may triumphantly scale the peaks before us and gaze upon the magnificent view just waiting there to be seen.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

 

 

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Emor                                    May 9, 2020 - 15 Iyar 5780

05/07/2020 08:47:43 AM

May7

Hello everyone, this is Cantor Jeremy, back once again for another video d’var torah.  At the time I’m recording this message, it is the 28th day of the Omer.  For most of us, we are now in our 9th week of social isolation, my beard length has reached 5 Justin Trudeaus, which I believe is the standard unit of beard measurement and about halfway to my goal, because as we all know, 10 Justin Trudeaus equals one Castaway Tom Hanks, the modern, must-have look of the COVID-19 era.

 

Even though we really can’t yet see any light at the end of this very frightening and strange tunnel, there are some small victories that we’ve been noticing lately that have certainly lifted our spirits just a little.  We know that our social isolation is working, and the curve is flattening.  And at long last, the weather is getting warmer and people are taking some badly needed walks in the sunshine.  One isolation activity that I have been involved with, and something I strongly encourage us all to do this spring and summer season, is gardening.  Whether you have a big backyard that is just begging for a crop of fresh vegetables, or even if you have just a small space on a window sill for a few potted flowers, gardening can be a relaxing and rewarding activity that brings beauty and fresh air into any space.  For me, my little gardening project has been a welcome meditative distraction from worries of the world, and I’m looking forward to the fresh vegetables that could help me minimize the number of trips that I makle to the grocery store.

 

Another small victory that we are all beginning to notice is how we are all starting to acclimatize to this new normal, and even learn to make the most out of it.  Folks are starting to figure out how to keep in touch with each other and gather virtually on Zoom, necessary household supply stores like Costco and Home Depot have redesigned how they operate in order to observe proper social distancing guidelines, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has come a long way from delivering his first socially distanced program from his bathtub, and I like to think that my video divrei torah have made some dramatic technical strides over the last couple of months.  Our shul community, alone, has discovered all kinds of exciting ways, despite the lockdown, to continue a wide variety of programming, from daily minyanim to virtual social halls, from Zoom adult education classes with Rabbi Haber, to the upcoming Beth Radom Virtual Book Club led by my lovely wife Jamie – which reminds me, don’t forget to get your copy of ‘Unorthodox’ by Deborah Feldman, so that you can participate in the first book club meeting next month.  Most importantly, this week, Beth Radom is bringing back Shabbat services held on Zoom, every Friday night and every Saturday night from here on in, as many other synagogues are beginning to do, and noticing a rather amazing phenomenon in the process.  In an era of declining synagogue memberships and families becoming gradually less likely to make regular Jewish community participation a priority, attendance at virtual Shabbat services is up significantly compared to the services that were once held in their respective sanctuaries only a few months ago.

 

This brings us to our parsha this week, Emor, in which the Torah establishes for us the order of the Hebrew calendar year, and through it, when and how each of the holidays and festivals are to be observed, starting with the weekly observance of Shabbat, all the way to the annual fast on Yom Kippur.  It is the how, the when, and the why for all of the times during the year that we as Jews gather together to celebrate our heritage.  More than anything else in Jewish tradition, this is the foundational construct of what we call today ‘the Jewish community’, our common heritage that unites our families into a larger group that worships together, studies together, that celebrates together in good times, and grieves together in challenging times.  It is that foundational construct that in recent decades we have feared has been dwindling as we see young families less and less likely to participate in synagogue life, let alone make it enough of a priority to pay synagogue membership fees that help ensure that religious services and other community programs can continue for future generations.

 

Even though we are still five months away, I have no doubt that figuring out what to do for this year’s High Holidays has been a sobering discussion point for every synagogue board on earth.  How do we run services if social distancing rules are still in place?  What will attendance be like?  Can a shul stay open without the critical revenue that comes from High Holiday ticket sales?  Will there even be a High Holidays at all this year?  Our shul, like so many others, is working hard to find the answers to these important questions, but the truth is that with the changing reality of the ongoing pandemic, we can’t be certain yet.  But as bleak as it sounds, these difficult times have revealed a small but beautiful victory for synagogues too.  While synagogue buildings may be empty, synagogue communities around the world, including our own, are unquestionably growing stronger.  Virtual synagogue programs have redefined the geography of our communities in that there no longer is any geography.  Our virtual shiva minyanim often saw more than 50 people in regular attendance from all over the world, many more congregants than ever before have been Zooming into Rabbi Haber’s online classes, and this Friday, I’ve been asked to honour a congregation in Israel by virtually leading them this week in Kabbalat Shabbat from my home in Toronto – something that in any other period in history would have been both technologically and halachically impossible.  It is such a moving thought that it makes me excited in a way that I have never been, to see what Beth Radom virtual services will be like, and demonstrates once more, the very same strength and resilience that Jewish people have embodied in every generation for thousands of years.

 

My final thought is this.  Many of us are struggling with severe illness during these desperate times.  More of us are struggling financially, and certainly all of us, to some degree, are struggling both psychologically and spiritually.  I don’t know how many synagogues around the world may need to shutter their doors forever as a direct result of this pandemic, and I don’t know how this High Holiday season may turn out, but if it’s been a while since you’ve checked in on your synagogue community, whether that’s us at Beth Radom, or any other synagogue, there’s never been a better time than right now.  It’s changing, it’s exciting, and for the first time ever, it’s all available at the click of a button from your own home.  Judaism is taking its next evolutionary step as we redefine what it means to be a community, adding, it would seem, a brand new chapter to parshat Emor.

 

Shabbat Shalom

--ChazJ

Thu, August 5 2021 27 Av 5781