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Cantor's Comments - 1st Day Chol Hamoed Pesach          April 11, 2020 - 17 Nisan 5780

04/07/2020 12:57:16 PM

Apr7

“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”
                                                                 --Willie Nelson (1933-) Singer/Song-writer

Preparing for Passover is stressful at the best of times.  After weeks of cleaning frenzies that border on obsessive compulsive, we bring in blow torches to kasher our stoves and cooking surfaces, we then buy truckloads of food that during any other time of year would last for a month, but we somehow know will only last days into the week.  Then we spend almost a full week cooking, preparing elaborate seders for our extended family, many of us are joined by friends and neighbours as we dust off the special Passover dish sets that are hauled up from our basements for one week out of the entire year.  But despite the physical challenge of preparation, the Jewish people have come to find that this rigorous exercise helps us to prepare mentally for the holiday, to appreciate the importance of the place that the festival holds within Judaism, and allows us to experience the holiday as a time of rebirth and renewal.  

 

Of course, this year, everything is quite different.  With everybody home all the time, it is hard enough to keep apace with our own daily messes, let alone complete a proper and thorough Pesach cleaning job (at least this has been my experience).  Elaborately prepared seders seem to so many of us a bit of a waste of time, energy, and precious resources, especially considering that nobody will be joining us.  And worse still, as we reflect on these difficult times, as we think about those who are sick, as some of us suffer economic losses, and as we all cry out from our isolation, it seems all but impossible to find the mental space to feel any sense of rebirth or renewal, as God intended this holiday to be for us.

 

In my D’var Torah last week, I half-laughingly suggested that at our seders this year, in addition to the usual four questions, we should all be asking “why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?”.  As I prepared the words, I thought it my own head that it was a not-too-distastefully dark attempt at humour.  But upon further reflection, I think I’d like to offer this very same idea as a serious consideration for us all—please, let us all add this question to our four questions.  I am not suggesting that this should be inscribed in our haggadot to be a tradition for years to come, but rather just this year, we have FIVE questions at all of our seders.  I would also like to suggest this to be the answer:

 

This Passover is different from all other Passovers because it must be.  This night is truly different because we feel its strangeness most strongly.  It is different in order to protect our own lives, as well as those of our family, our friends, our neighbours, our fellow Torontonians, Canadians, and indeed, fellow members of our planet earth.  But this Passover is different from all other Passovers also because it has the chance to teach us one of the most important lessons we can possibly learn, one which rarely finds an opportunity to challenge us with over the course of each of our lives.  This Passover, we take a moment to really appreciate those things in our lives that we may have taken for granted—whatever they may be.  Whether it was going to the movies, playing team sports, grabbing a Starbucks with a special friend, something as simple as taking your children or grandchildren to the park, or whatever else we did in that long lost before-time that we really are missing now.  Now we remember that Passover is the festival of thanksgiving.  This night we learn what it feels like to really appreciate those things and remember how much they added to our lives.  We remember that the Passover seder itself was meant to historically be an ancient-Greek styled symposium on the subject of being thankful.  We all, in our own ways, owe it to ourselves as Jews to use this moment in all of its tragedy for what our world is struggling with, to allow it to teach us the true meaning of gratitude.  Tonight, we discover new understanding as we retell the story of our ancient Israelite ancestors who were grateful to God as they celebrated their freedom from slavery.  Tonight and for all nights, we learn to better understand what it means to be grateful to God for the things that we have.

 

As Pesach approaches, my blessing for all of us, is that despite its challenges, that we let our festival this year indeed be the festival of rebirth and renewal.  That when our old lives return, and let us pray that they return speedily, let us return to them with renewed hearts and minds, and a reborn spirit of gratitude.

 

Chag Kasher v’Sam’each,
                                              --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tzav                                    April 4, 2020 - 10 Nisan, 5780

03/31/2020 02:57:54 PM

Mar31

Saturday, March 25, 1972 brought a major snow storm to Montreal. My 13-year-old self didn’t know how much additional snow fell, but at 4’8” tall, the snow on the sides of the road was taller than me. I wondered what the day would be like, as it was my Bar Mitzvah. Would anyone show up? Would they be snowed out? What would happen? As it turned out, all but a couple of out-of-towners were able to make it and my Bar Mitzvah took place as scheduled. The portion was Parshat Tzav, Shabbat HaGodol, the same portion as we read this Shabbat.

Rabbi David Begoun reminds us that there are many reasons offered for the custom of calling the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover “Shabbat HaGadol” (lit. Great Sabbath). Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (Cologne, 1270 – Toledo, Spain c. 1340), known as the Tur for his book Arbah Turim (Four Pillars) explains that the name originates from the great miracle that occurred on the Shabbat preceding the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. On that Shabbat, the Jews were told to take a lamb for the Paschal offering and to tie them to their bedposts. Miraculously, the Egyptians, who worshipped the lamb as a god, stood by silently as the Israelites slaughtered their deity in preparation of the Passover Seder meal.

A second explanation comes from Rabbi David Abudarham (Seville, ~1340) who writes: In the Haftorah of the Shabbat prior to Pesach we read the verse (Malachi 3:23): "Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord." Hence, it is from the Haftorah that the Shabbat gets its name and refers to a time when God will usher in the Messianic redemption, echoing God’s redemption of the Jewish People from slavery in Egypt; only this time it will be redemption from the “slavery” of this world for the freedom of the Messianic times.

Another explanation, provided by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov (Poland, 1912-Jerusalem, 1976), offers a novel interpretation that on this Shabbat the Jewish people performed their first mitzvah (Divine commandment) as a nation. By receiving and fulfilling the commandment of “On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves, each man, a lamb” (Exodus 12:3) the nation entered the realm of mitzvot, and in essence became Bar Mitzvah. Just as a thirteen year old boy is referred to as a “Gadol”, so too this Shabbat is referred to as Shabbat HaGadol.

Another “coming of age” for the Jewish People occurs on the night of Passover, when we read the Haggadah and fulfill the positive commandment of telling the story of the Exodus. Unlike other times when we perform mitzvot, such as taking the lulav or lighting Haukkah candles, this time no blessing is recited prior to the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Rabbi Moses Schreiber (Frankfort, 1762–Bratislava, 1839), known as the Chasam Sofer explains that there is a blessing but oddly it is recited at the end of the Haggadah, inconsistent with the principle that blessings are recited before the performance of the mitzvah. Why, he asks, do we not make this blessing before we perform the commandment of retelling the story of the Exodus?

He answers that when a person converting to Judaism immerses in the waters of the mikveh (ritual bath), the final stage in the conversion process, s/he has no choice but to make the blessing after s/he has immersed for a very simple reason: prior to the immersion s/he was not yet Jewish. The Haggadah tells us that every year, as a Jew recounts his/her history, s/he is obligated to feel as if s/he him-/herself left Egyptian bondage. Reciting the Haggadah is a fifteen-step process that starts with recalling our lowly origins as idol worshippers and culminates with the glorious Exodus and our entry – or “conversion” – into being Jews. To properly relive the entire experience, we must feel, as we begin the Haggadah that we are idolatrous “not-yet-Jews” and are unable to recite the blessing for performing this commandment. Finally, through the process of telling and reliving the story we reach the climax and connect to God as Jews. Like the immersing convert, we recite the blessing at the end.

Rabbi David Begoun concludes: Our Sages teach us that the realities of our physical world are merely the reflection of God’s spiritual reality. Thus, the spiritual potential of rebirth and renewal that are inherent to the Jewish month of Nissan explains why the season of spring – heralding the renewal of our physical world – occurs in it, and the miracles of the Exodus – the rebirth of our nation – occurred at this time. The time is ripe with potential for commencement, for growth. Let us use it to achieve greatness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Vayikra                            March 28, 2020 - 3 Nisan 5780

03/26/2020 09:41:50 AM

Mar26

“I just hope I can spread some of the happiness that’s been com ing my way.”

--Kenny Rogers (1938-2020) American Singer/Songwriter

 

No minyan this week, no shabbat services, no office hours, no visiting friends or family, no Starbucks coffee.  I’m pretty certain that both my cat and dog are getting sick of me being around all the time, and I dare not imagine what must be going through Jamie’s mind, despite the fact that we’ve only been married for eight months.  On the rare occasion that I do go out to restock on groceries or get supplies for Passover, I do it with my full woodworking protective gear including gloves, respirator and plastic goggles.  I imagine that for many of us, it is hard to look forward to Passover this year amidst this chaos.  In addition to asking “why is this night different from all other nights?”, we could also very well ask, “why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?”.  Without being able to gather our extended families together around the seder table, it will be quite different.  There is an ancient Chinese curse, “may you live through interesting times”.  Times are certainly interesting, and it’s hard not to feel like the world has been beset by a terrible curse.

 

Life, as we know, is full of both ups and downs.  Certainly, our world before the coronavirus pandemic was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  Perhaps then, it shouldn’t surprise us that when our world turned upside down, some things, it seems, may have managed to turn right side up.  In our isolation, we have been learning just how valuable community is in our lives because it’s amazing how hard we are working just in order to find to ways to interact with one another.  I don’t know how many of you will agree with me, but I find that whether I’m watching someone on television, or on zoom, I can’t help but keep noticing people’s homes in the background as they broadcast not from a fancy stage or sound studio, but from their personal phones or computers in their living rooms.  It makes me feel connected to them in a strangely different but wonderfully positive and personal way.  I also find it amazing how creative we have become in finding new ways to teach children, collaborate with colleagues, spend time with friends and loved ones, all without sharing the same physical space—just check out the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, each musician performing through their own smartphone.  The crisis has also opened our hearts to those in need, taught us to care and give in new ways, like apartment buildings that are coordinating grocery shopping assistance for elderly residents, or breweries who have switched operations from making beer to making hand sanitizer.  Look at each of us, as we take on the immense challenge of physically isolating ourselves, we, the human race, are in the process of showing ourselves the amazing lengths we would go to in order to protect the most vulnerable people in our society.  That is something we should be enormously proud of.
 

While we will not be seeing each other in shul this week, I urge you all to have a read through this week’s parsha, Vayikra.  It might seem a bit tedious at first, as it covers nothing but the rules of the sacrificial rite, but consider this—after completing the building of the Tabernacle, the single focus of the Israelite nation was to figure out how their new understanding of God, life and freedom worked.  They had to understand the new rules that were going to govern their embryonic society, and it was completely different than what they have been used to.  Of course it’s tedious, but this year, we are in a unique position to relate.  I, for one, can’t imagine anything more tedious than what our K-12 educators are involved in right now, as they learn to teach and manage young students entirely through online media.


In a couple of weeks, we will be celebrating some version of Passover.  I say “some version” because it certainly will not be anything like the Passovers that we are used to.  But I think that this year’s seder will bring with it an unexpected right-side-up in our upside-down world as we discover a new way to relate to the feelings and experiences of ancient ancestors.  We will be at home, sharing some of that same awe and that same fear as they did as they prayed for a plague to pass over their homes.  The mezzuzahs on our doorposts are already there to represent the blood of the lamb that marked the homes of our ancestors.  We will share the same food that they ate on the night that God destroyed the first born of Egypt.  And now, maybe for the first time, we can also understand what it meant to them to yearn for freedom and deliverance, with the same feeling of hope, kinship and comradery that we are experiencing today.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                                 --ChazJ

 

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei              March 21, 2020 - 25 Adar 5780

03/18/2020 09:50:22 AM

Mar18

Rabbi Geoff

 

 

As a result of the spreading pandemic of COVID-19 Corona virus, so much has been and will continue to be, for some time, cancelled: sports events, concerts, plays, worship services, rallies, travel, meetings, classes, family gatherings, and so much more.  David Hass, an American author and composer of contemporary Catholic liturgical music, reminds us, however, that:

 

Love has not been cancelled.

Mercy has not been cancelled.

Prayer has not been cancelled.

Attentiveness has not been cancelled.

Goodness has not been cancelled.

Thanksgiving has not been cancelled.

Loving relationships have not been cancelled.

Kindness has not been cancelled.

Music has not been cancelled.

Conversations have not been cancelled.

Learning has not been cancelled.

Poetry and storytelling has not been cancelled.

Courage has not been cancelled.

Meditation and contemplation have not been cancelled.

Painting and dancing has not been cancelled.

Families have not been cancelled.

Community and solidarity has not been cancelled.

Faith has not been cancelled.

Hope has not been cancelled.

 

And … God’s presence with us, has not been cancelled.

 

Our Torah reading for this week reminds us of the beauty of Shabbat as a time for rest and relaxation, contemplation and meditation, family and “me” time. Shabbat is a time when we can slow our pace of life down and enjoy the little things in life, like those pointed out by our poet above.

 

In our Torah portion, we read (Exodus 35:2-3): “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.  You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.” 

 

Rabbi Michael Roscoe notes that in connection with the Talmud Hagigah 15 that a person has a place reserved for him in both heaven and hell, depending on which he will qualify for,the author of our verse develops the thought that failure to devote the Sabbath to one's spiritual advancement, even if one does not violate any of its injunctions, is a major affront to the holiness bestowed upon us by God on that day.  In the author's view, one who violates any of the injunctions of the Sabbath unintentionally, though technically performing forbidden chores, is less guilty than one who does not violate a single injunction, but eats and drinks in order to indulge his body, reads material which has not been written for one's spiritual elevation, and generally reduces the Sabbath's sanctity by observing it as a day to indulge one's body.  (Midrash of Rabbi Moshe Alshich on the Torah, trans. and ed. Eliyahu Munk, Alshich, 16th century Turkey, Israel, Syria--with minor changes in English usage).

 

Rabbi Roscoe further notes that the Sabbath is a day of rest, on which people have leisure to discuss communal affairs, to talk about their rabbis, cantors, slaughterers, and sextons, and to offer comments on the way their institutions, such as the Hebrew school and ritual bath, are run.  This is the reason why we are admonished explicitly: You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day.  Do not mar your Shabbat rest by kindling fires of evil gossip and contention.  This is not the purpose for which the Shabbat was given you.  The Shabbat is not only a day of rest, but also a day of moral sanctity.  (Sh'LaH Ha-kodesh, Sh'nei Luhot Ha-B'rit, Rabbi Isaiah ben Abraham Ha-Levi Horowitz, 16-17th century, Poland, Germany and Israel). Finally, the rule applies figuratively as well.  Do not add “fire” to your talk on the Sabbath, by adding to dissent, gossip, and negative criticism.  Hasidic, Wellsprings 1.

 

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian wrote in a list of regulations for his yeshiva that everyone should be careful not to speak angrily on Friday and Shabbat.  He added that ideally a person should never feel angry; someone who nonetheless feels angry should at least not speak out of anger.  On Friday, in the rush to finish the Shabbat preparations on time, a person is apt to become short-tempered.  Also, on Shabbat when the entire family sits at the table together, parents might become angry with their young children for not behaving properly.  Therefore, special care should be taken to control one's anger.  (Lev Eliyahu cited in Love Your Neighbor, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin--Hebrew modernized)  

 

Rabbis Nahman ben Simhah of Bratslav and Nathan ben Naftali Hertz Sternhartz of Bratslav wrote The Book of the Source of Joy, which includes a chapter about joy on Shabbat.  It opens, “One must be very careful to be joyous and in a good mood on Shabbat.”  It continues that we slave away during the week, but to be free we must enjoy in God on Shabbat.  “The general principle is that we must behave with great joy on the holy Shabbat, without showing any sadness or worry at all, only to take pleasure in God and to increase the pleasures of Shabbat with all manners of pleasure, such as eating, drinking, and dressing as one is able, for eating on Shabbat is entirely spiritual and holy, and we rise to a completely different place from profane eating.”  Later, they write, “For the entire essence of the commandment and its fulfillment is by means of joy, and the essence of joy continues from Shabbat to the six weekdays,” and we must not carry over the sadness of the weekdays into Shabbat (18-19th century Ukraine).   

 

In the midst of this pandemic, let us find time to renew our spiritual connections with ourselves, our families and friends and with God. Let us use our Shabbat time to remember what has NOT been cancelled rather than what has. 

 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Be well.

Cantorial Comments - Shabbat Parah                                      March 14, 2020 | 18th Adar 5780

03/13/2020 06:27:57 AM

Mar13

Cantor Jeremy

 

“To reap a return in ten years, plant trees. To reap a return in 100, cultivate the people.”
                
--Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) Vietnamese leader and revolutionary

I’d like to thank my uncle-in-law, Rabbi Yechiel Goldreich, for the inspirational idea behind my article this week.

Coronavirus seems to lead every news story these days.  People all over the world, and here at home, are canceling their vacations, avoiding public areas and stocking up on supplies in case of a quarantine.  This year, Temple Sinai, Beth Sholom and the Village shul all postponed or entirely canceled their Purim celebrations amid fears of spreading the disease.  My own professional convention was to take place this summer in Italy, and this week we all received the official e-mail that it had been canceled (I’m rather surprised it took them this long).  Meanwhile, the world economy is slowing, stocks are falling, and the price of a small bottle of Purell is up to $110 on amazon.  It’s legitimately frightening, but also quite odd when we compare our current situation to pandemics in the past.

Many of us remember the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, also referred to as “swine flu”.  According to the CDC, there were 18,500 laboratory confirmed deaths from the disease, with unconfirmed deaths estimated at between 150,000 and 575,000 around the world.  By comparison, the current estimated number of deaths from coronavirus, worldwide, is hovering at about 3,000.  It is important to note, of course, that we are still in the midst of the crisis and experts assure us that that number will grow significantly.  But even so, I was shocked to learn about the wide gap between these numbers, particularly given the ferocity of the worldwide response to the coronavirus outbreak compared to the 2009 swine flu.  The economic behaviour is also vastly different when compared to 2009.  Today, the Dow and the S&P 500 both reflect enormous drops in the stock market as people cancel vacations, factories temporarily close, and productivity slows.  By contrast back in 2009, global economies were in the process of bouncing back after the 2008 crash, and continued to improve despite the swine flu outbreak, measuring only a small dip with respect to the markets.

The narrative of our parsha this week, Ki Tissa, focuses on the famous story of the sin of the Golden Calf.  However, for those paying attention, the very beginning of the parsha is eerily poignant for us today as it describes the Israelites responding to an outbreak of a disease within the camp.  God commands the construction of a copper washing station, initiating a policy that all those approaching the Tent of Meeting, or using the altar will be required to wash first.  “When they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die; or when they approach the altar to serve, to make a fire offering rise up in smoke to the Lord, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die” (Ex. 30:20-21).  Most interestingly, though, is God’s commandment to Moses to perform a census of the Israelite nation which includes a rather peculiar qualifier.  “When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted” (Ex. 30:12).  It seems that God is suggesting that there is a connection between the census and the plague that is gripping the Israelite camp.

There is a Jewish superstition to avoid counting people, as it invites the Evil Eye.  This can be a particularly annoying superstition to observe because we Jews are constantly counting ourselves when we make sure we have enough people in shul for a minyan.  My personal custom, as it is for many, is not to count with numbers, but to use the words of a blessing – Baruch atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz… a standard 10-word blessing, one word per person.  If I finish the blessing and there are still uncounted people, presto! We have a minyan!  Rashi’s commentary on the verse agrees, “for the evil eye has power over numbered things, and pestilence comes upon them”.

In 1919 the Spanish flu circumnavigated the globe, killing an estimated 17 to 50 million people.  The economy was entirely naffected, and this occurred for one very critical reason.  World governments deliberately withheld information pertaining to the outbreak over concerns for the post-war effort.  Without public service announcements and education about hygiene, without any concerns about canceling public gatherings, the Spanish flu was communicated to roughly 27% of the earth’s population.  But rather than experiencing a dramatic economic bust, the West soared obliviously into the roaring twenties.  When a human being is reduced to a mere statistic, humanity is devalued, particularly when dealing with large scales.  The ancient Israelites understood this as a fundamental rule of life, and therefore, rather than submit themselves as a number for the census, each person donated a half-shekel to the community chest, and in this way, the total number of Israelites could be known without enumerating a single individual.

It seems that a dramatic dip in the economy, in fact, reflects an historic peak for humanity.  The more we are aware, the more we are educated, the more we able to contain a pandemic such as the coronavirus.  While our markets may be causing us additional grief, it means that our global resources are instead being directed towards making us healthy.  Similarly, the money collected from the Israelite census was not used for sacrifices or the glory of the Tabernacle, but rather it was used to sponsor the building of the washing station.  The economy will no doubt bounce back, but in the meantime, we are investing in humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,
                        --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tetzaveh                          March 7, 2020 - 11 Adar 5780

03/06/2020 11:50:34 AM

Mar6

I've never understood the fashion industry, those people are so clothes minded. My favourite way to dress is in all black; my fashion sense is second to none.  I have a jacket that's catches fire; it’s called a blazer!  A friend confided in me: "My wife only has two complaints:  nothing to wear and not enough closet space."  I always get really frustrated trying to put clothes in my wardrobe. Think I could do with some Hanger Management.

It is often said that clothes make the man; that is certainly true of the priestly caste of Kohanim in this week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh.  Of all the unique garments of the High Priest mentioned in the Torah portion, probably the easiest to picture in our minds is the breast plate.  It was decorated with twelve jewels.  We are told specifically what they were, how they were set in four rows of three and what they represented.  Twelve stones stood for the twelve tribes and the High Priest, when he stood before the altar to worship God, was obviously representing the totality of the nation of Israel.  Depending on how we look at it, however, the breastplate is either very inclusive, or it is purposefully exclusive.  If we think in terms of the tribes of Israel, then all Israel, each of the twelve tribes, is represented with a special stone.  We are all in there.  It is very inclusive.  If we think of the larger world, it isn't.  The High Priest in his worship speaks for the Jews and only seems to be speaking for the Jews.  He stands before the altar representing a particular people, but not all people.  His prayers are for a nation, not for humanity as a whole.

For some, this makes perfect sense: the religious leader of Israel is praying for his people.  But for others, this is off-putting because, as a religious leader, should the High Priest pray for all God’s people—Jew and gentile alike?  Rabbi Harold Berman notes that this was, of course, a long time ago, and things are different now. Well, actually, he claims, they are not entirely different now. Though we do universalize a lot of our prayers, there are still some prayers in which we ask for God to hear all the prayers, “of your people Israel,” or we pray for “our fellow Jews everywhere,” and depending on how we want to think of our prayer experience those expressions can seem somewhat tribal, somewhat exclusive.

Leaving the High Priest and the breastplate of several thousand years ago behind for a moment, Rabbi Berman asks us to consider whether or not we can, we should, we must pray for all humanity, or do we only pray for those that are part of our immediate tribe, so to speak?  The truth is: it isn't such a simple question.

About a decade ago, he notes, there was considerable discussion about a practice of the Mormon Church of baptizing deceased individuals as a way of ensuring that everyone to be able to go to heaven.  This not only involved people who were Christians but not Mormons, it also involved Jews, and at one point it was revealed that it included victims of the Holocaust.  Some people who heard about this were deeply offended.  How would we feel if we learned that someone had ceremonially baptized deceased members of our families?  While many were offended, we must agree that their prayers were certainly universal; praying for everyone. It just wasn’t quite as attractive in practical application as it seemed in theory.

In another instance Rabbi Berman describes, a lot of commotion was raised by the recent reintroduction of the Latin text of the Mass, which had been unused in the Catholic Church for a few decades, but is now being reintroduced in various places.  Part of that text, before the changes of Vatican II in the 1960's, spoke of the “perfidious Jews.” That's gone. What would continue as part of the Good Friday text of what is known as the Tridentine Mass includes the text: "Let us pray also for the Jews that Our Lord and God may enlighten their hearts, that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ as the savior of all men," which has not been used in the church since 1962.  Truthfully, this isn't very different from the Church's hope that other people, all over the world, will also find their way to the truth and the salvation that only come from the Church.

Like the Mormon example, it is universal.  It is praying for other people who are not part of the faith group. Are we offended by that? Well, before we get too offended, Rabbi Berman reminds us that at the end of our service we recite a prayer called Aleynu, which concludes with a text from the book of Zechariah (14:9): V'hayah Adonai l'melech al kall ha'aretz; bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad u'sh'mo echad, “God shall be King over all the earth; on that day God shall be one and God's name shall be one.”  That too is universal, and it would seem to suggest a dream and a vision that someday all the world will come and worship the same God the same way we do.

So how do we feel about all this?  Truthfully, like Rabbi Berman, I am only concerned if that prayer—theirs or ours—promotes actions that are bigoted and intolerant.  In some places, historically, they certainly have been, but in our day and age, all of us have a responsibility to make sure we show respect to one another's faith at the very least when we are interacting with them; and respect the idea of pluralism and diversity in the society in which we live.  I don't care if other people pray for me, my soul or my body, as long as they leave me alone.  Though I plan to keep reciting the Aleynu, I will keep teaching respect for others and their beliefs as well.

In our world of growing religious intolerance and rampant rising anti-Semitism, what I want most from other people is that they should be caring, loyal, faithful members of their churches or mosques or temples, whatever they may be, praying for themselves or for whomever they choose, but recognizing that everyone has a right to live and work in peace.  When I recall the priestly vestments of the High Priest of long ago, I think, like Rabbi Berman, this was his message.  He stood before the altar and offered worship on behalf of his people, with the clear notion that this was not a zero-sum game.  "Good" for us doesn't mean "bad" for someone else.  Good for us means blessings we can share, in many ways.  Each person's individual prayer and observance, makes collectively for a better world.  Hopefully, whatever the texts before us, we will eventually realize that we don't have to pray with and for everyone else to be able to offer blessings to those around us.  Rabbi Berman concludes, if we remember this, each of us in our own faith, it will be a much better world for all of us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Terumah                      February 29, 2020 - 4 Adar 5780

02/20/2020 12:20:26 PM

Feb20

“Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules.  Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools.”

--Bob Dylan (1941-)

The Torah spends a good deal of time on the subject of sacrificial offerings.  So much so, that most of my bar and bat mitzvah students are often stuck with doing a speech about sacrifices, and we will put in a lot of effort together into finding something unique and interesting to talk about.  In the end though, it’s hard to get around the fact that sacrifices simply do not have much relevance within modern Jewish practice.  But I honestly often wonder, what would Judaism look like today if we were still committed to the ancient sacrificial cult?

The destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE ended the Jewish practice of ritual sacrifice, and Judaism was forced, as a result, to evolve new practices and methods in worship in order to maintain Jewish existence.  Highly structured communal prayer services took the place of the sacrificial cult and Jewish life was successfully able to decentralize, replacing the Temple with local community synagogues.  Jewish connection to the Divine, without sacrificial offering, was redirected towards doing good works, charitable giving and study, the foundations of what modern Jewish life is today.  However, even the modern Jew must acknowledge that according to our tradition, technically, the suspension of the sacrificial cult was never meant to be permanent.  Tradition teaches, in fact, that when the Mashiach arrives and the Temple is rebuilt, Judaism will revert to the practices of our ancestors who worshipped God exclusively through the practice of sacrifice.  Knowing this, I’m forced to admit that I’m not exactly ready for the Mashiach to arrive just yet.  Are you?  It is understandably unnerving to find that our modern sensibilities seem to be out of line with what appears to be a fundamental principle of Judaism.  I believe Judaism has survived to this day in large part because of its ability to be change, to adapt and to evolve its ideologies and practices so that it can be relevant to the times, forward thinking and resilient.  But perhaps it could be said that we are simply fooling ourselves, changing our belief system out of convenience, and straying too far from what Judaism was truly ‘supposed’ to be, from what the Torah had prescribed for us, and what God had in mind as the correct way for Jews to behave.

This week’s parsha, Terumah, seems to take us in a very different direction than where we were last week.  In last week’s parsha, Yitro, we are given the 10 Commandments, followed by a significantly long list of fundamental rules for ethical behaviour.  But this week, instead of continuing our lofty discussion of morality and ethics, we discuss the building of the Mishkan and the various precious metals, rare dyes, beautiful leathers and other expensive materials that go into its construction—a rather superficial and materialistic parsha by comparison.  Rabbi Joel Levy, Rosh Yeshiva at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem teaches that yes, this parsha is indeed materialistic, but the context here is critical to understand why this emphasis on material wealth is so important for the Israelites at this stage.  It would be incorrect to believe that building the Mishkan in this fashion is what God needs, because the Jewish understanding of the nature of God is that God does not require material goods.  People, however, sometimes do.  The Israelites are grappling with their understanding of God, and after seeing the awesome sound and light show at Sinai, they are craving the means to give God the highest compliment that they can, and demonstrate their devotion.  However, their expression of devotion is clearly derived from their only other source of knowledge of God-worship, ancient Egyptian paganism which places enormously high spiritual value on wealth (this is why Egyptian pharaohs and other persons of great importance were typically buried with vast collections of treasure).  The Israelites’ struggle between understanding what God requires of them, and their own desire to please Him in the only way they know how is ultimately exemplified by the Sin of the Golden Calf, which is simply the result of the Israelites fundamentally misunderstanding that in order to serve God, they must let go of their pagan-Egypt-centric preconceived notions of theology.

The Mishkan, and its materialistic beauty, were Judaism’s training wheels.  The Israelites required a vehicle with which to express their devotionalism which began in the form of wealth, and continued as the sacrificial cult.  No civilization in the ancient world worshiped their gods without sacrifice, because it was inconceivable for a human being living at that time to worship in any other way.  I honestly cannot imagine a world where modern Judaism continued the practice of ritual sacrifice because it would have been entirely incompatible with the modern world, that is, if Judaism could have survived to the modern era at all.  And if God is capable of creating human beings over millions of years of biological evolution, is not even more conceivable that God created Judaism through spiritual evolution?

In truth, I do believe in the Mashiach, and even the rebuilding of the third Temple.  But not for a moment do I consider my belief bound to the physical personhood of a Mashiach, nor the physical bricks and mortar of a third Temple building.  I admit that I don’t know in exactly what form I believe that the Mashiach will take any more than the Israelites who built the Mishkan in the desert could imagine what my Judaism would look like today.  All I can say for certain is that I believe that Judaism must continue to evolve.  In so doing, it may even shed more training wheels that we do not yet understand that we are currently depending upon as a crutch, all so that we can pursue our relationship with the Divine in the only way we know how.

Shabbat Shalom,
                          --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Mishpatim                          February 22, 2020 - 27 Shevat 5780

02/19/2020 03:42:16 PM

Feb19

Language is a funny thing.  I speak four languages (English, Hebrew, French, and Spanish) to varying degrees of fluency. And I’ve learned that language is a funny thing, especially when translating from one language to another when idioms or oxymorons are involved.  An oxymoron is a figure of speech containing words that seem to contradict each other.  It's often referred to as a contradiction in terms.  As with other rhetorical devices, we tend to use oxymorons for a variety of purposes.  Sometimes they're used to create a little bit of drama for the reader; sometimes they're used to make a person stop and think, whether that's to laugh or to wonder.  One of the most famous of oxymorons is “military intelligence;” another is “jumbo shrimp.”  Here’s a couple of others to think about: “act naturally,” “bittersweet,” “clearly confused,” “deafening silence,” “growing smaller,” “random order,” “small crowd,” “true myth,” and “walking dead.”  A common oxymoron is the phrase "the same difference."  This phrase qualifies as an oxymoron because the words "same" and "difference" have opposite meanings.  Bringing them together into one phrase produces a verbally puzzling, yet engaging, effect.

For us as Jews, the literal word is not the final word in understanding Torah.  The Judaism we celebrate today is largely the product of the ancient rabbis of the first centuries CE.  In transforming Judaism from a biblical to a modern tradition, they introduced a method for making Torah relevant to generations present and future.  Their methodology of Torah study can be simplified into four levels: P’shat-first understand the “literal meaning” of the verse (What the author intended); Drash-then interpret the text (what the reader understands the meaning to be), third, Remez-discover the homiletical/moral lesson learned from this verse (the philosophical underpinnings) and finally, Sod-pursue the hidden, mystical meaning.

By means of these four levels of understanding, the ancient rabbis empowered every generation with the authority to interpret the meaning of Torah in their times.  They also made clear that the Torah is a God-inspired document.  As mere mortals, we cannot hope to completely understand the reasoning or moral underpinning of every verse (thus, the notion of Sod/hidden meaning).

This week’s Torah portion contains two good examples of rabbinic method. The famous principle of lex talionis (“law of retaliation”) is stated in Exo. 21:24-25, “…Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot, burn for a burn, wound for a wound, bruise for a bruise.”  There is no doubt in the context of biblical times these verses were meant to be understood literally.  Their origin is attributed to King Hamurabi of Babylonia in the 18th century BCE.  However, later rabbinic literature never understood it this way.  The Talmud understands "an eye for an eye" as meaning that someone who damages an eye must pay the value of that eye.  An eye's worth for an eye.  The Drash (interpretive meaning) and Remez (moral lesson) become as important as the P’shat (literal meaning) in understanding this portion of Torah.

Rabbi Howard Siegel (20th Century, USA) provides us with another example in Exo. 22:17, where it is written “You shall not let a sorceress (witch) live.”  This verse, understood literally, became the basis for executing innocent women in 17th century Salem Massachusetts. However, already by the 2nd century CE the ancient rabbis understood this verse to mean “you shall not provide a witch with a livelihood.”  Today, the Wiccan religion-the modern religious practice of witchcraft-bears no semblance to the ancient taboos addressed by the Torah.  This verse requires a re-interpretation and understanding in our own day.

By placing Torah at the center of Jewish practice, we recognize the centrality of God’s presence and the never-ending evolution of God’s word through human interpretation.  In this way, Revelation is a partnership between the human and Divine.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Yitro                              February 15, 2020 - 20 Shevat 5780

02/13/2020 12:42:40 PM

Feb13

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
                                           
--Carl Jung (1875-1961),
                                             Swiss psychoanalyst, philosopher and theologian

I’ve been following a YouTube channel for some weeks by a New York University law professor, Roy Germano.  He is exactly the kind of professor you hope to encounter in a university experience – an aging but trendy looking hipster who clearly believes that teaching is about much more than preparing future lawyers with the information and skills they will need in the profession.  He seems to genuinely want to challenge his students to think differently, be cautious of assumptions and stereotypes, and dare to be vulnerable enough to open yourself up to new people, new ideas and new experiences.  On the other hand, he also does seem to be the archetype white liberal apologist whose bleeding heart would typically place him squarely in the anti-Zionist camp.  The first video in his channel begins with him admitting that while he lives in Crown Heights, he has never had any real interaction with the orthodox Jewish community, and is completely ignorant about Judaism in general.  He befriends local Chabad Rabbi Yonatan Katz who, in the wake of rising antisemitism in the neighbourhood, had started leading non-Jewish tour groups around the Chassidic Jewish enclave in Crown Heights as a community outreach initiative.  The series is entitled, “A Non-Jewish Brooklynite visits Hasidic Crown Heights”, and we watch as a complete newbie is introduced to Jewish life, philosophy, rituals, family, customs, taboos, values, and faith.

I would have much preferred that this law professor’s first experience of Judaism would have been something a little more normative than Chabad.  It is not at all that I believe that Chabad gives Judaism a bad reputation, but only that I don’t believe that Chabad best represents typical Jewish beliefs and practices.  Then again, given the diversity of different types of Jewish communities around the world, perhaps I should be very careful judging what Jewish beliefs and practices are “typical”.  However, despite my misgivings, it was fascinating to watch and see how in a few short minutes, the entirety of Jewish experience is distilled for one person with no prior knowledge and a completely open mind.  It was revealing to see what he took away from the experience as what he understood to be the central, most fundamental ideas in Judaism.  It was quite a bit different than what I would have expected.

Of course, in this week’s Parsha, Yitro, the Torah tells us, point-blank, exactly what is most important in Judaism…  The Ten Commandments.  Some of them are basic rules for social living, such as, “do not commit murder” and “do not steal”.  Some help us establish a basic understanding of who God is, and the nature of our relationship with the Divine, “I am the Lord, your God, you shall have no other gods before Me”.  Then, there are those rules that define our basic commitment to Jewish life and ritual, “Remember Shabbat and keep it holy”.  We might imagine that the central theme of Judaism, as Professor Germano perceived it, would be among these rules, but that wasn’t the case.

The answer, in fact, was more connected to another part of the narrative in our Parsha this week, one which often gets set aside because it would simply be unconscionable to deliver a sermon about Parshat Yitro without making the Ten Commandments the central part of the discussion.  But at the beginning of the Parsha, there is a beautiful moment between Moses and his father-in-law Yitro, where Yitro sees that Moses is trying to lead the Israelites by personally adjudicating every single issue in the camp of what may have been as many as 2 million people (603,550 men age 20 and over – Ex. 38:26).  Seeing Moses’ fatigue, Yitro convinces him that in order to be a good leader, he must learn to delegate.  Demonstrating his dedication, Moses protests at first because it is not in his nature to give less than his whole self to every part of the job.  In fact, that is what Moses’ name really means.  UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis teaches that the Hebrew name “Moshe”, comes from the root word which means “draw out”, because Pharoah’s daughter “drew him out” of the Nile.  But if he were really named for that event, his name should have been “Mashu’i” – “the one who was drawn out”, when in fact, the name “Moshe” more accurately means “the one who draws out [for others]”.  It is a subtle difference, but one that very much defines Moses’ character as the devoted, hands-on, leader who not only draws out the Israelites from Egypt, but also bestows law, spirituality, morality, and a national identity upon a people who had known nothing but slavery.  Moshe drive to give the maximum of what he is able to physically muster, is a recurrence of the most noble character trait that our ancient heroes have had since Avraham.  After experiencing a Jewish community for the first time, seeing how Jews care for one another and the world around them, Professor Germano concludes that “giving” is what Judaism is really all about.  And he’s absolutely correct.  The theme of giving, has been the constant purpose of Jewish existence, to effect the world in a positive way, one action at a time.  It is what we give to benefit the world that fulfills our life’s purpose as the Jewish people, to be a Light Unto The Nations.  It is by means of giving that we fulfill the purpose of life itself, God’s intention for the earth, for mankind to elevate it in holiness.  As Germano interprets this idea, “if we focus on this idea of making the world a better place, not only does that help us lead a good life… but if everybody thinks like that, there will be a ripple effect”.

Shabbat Shalom,
                             --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Beshalach                      February 8, 2020 - 13 Shevat 5780

02/06/2020 05:47:44 PM

Feb6

You might be surprised to know that one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about prayer, I learned at a rock concert! Leave it to a rabbi to learn a Jewish lesson at a rock concert! Attending that concert was an eye opening and mind blowing experience for me – it wasn’t so much the music that impressed me as it was the response of the audience. I had never seen such excitement and joy in my life! The enthusiasm, the passion, and the dancing that I witnessed at the concert made me a little jealous. There was something about the concert that felt sort of religious! I began to wonder why we couldn’t inspire that kind of passion in synagogue a least occasionally. I imagined people jumping up and down, screaming and dancing in the isles of my synagogue!

I thought about this again a few years ago when I watched the movie, “Sister Act.” Whoopee Goldberg plays a lounge singer from Las Vegas who hides out in a convent so she can testify against her former mobster boyfriend. While there, Whoopee uses her skills as a lounge singer to take the moribund church choir and bring it to life. She combines the message of the church with contemporary music to deliver a powerful message. When she changes the words of the popular song, “My Guy” into, “My God” she has people tapping their feet in the pews and singing along. Once again, I found myself wondering – why can’t we do that?

The message here is simple but profound. Music is a powerful force; and sometimes we miss the opportunity to use it in effective and meaningful ways. Torn between our commitment to tradition and a desire to renew our services we’re not always sure how to put an old and beloved message into a new container. We are caught between remaining authentic and finding something that is engaging for our generation.

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. It is one of the few Sabbaths in the year that has a special name and a character all its own. This Shabbat we celebrate the recitation of the Shira, the song which Moses and Israel sang at the Red Sea: Az yashir Moshe. More than that, we celebrate the importance of song in our spiritual life as Jews.

Shirat Hayam, the song at the sea, has a unique place in our tradition. We chant it every morning as part of p’sukei d’zimra, the preliminary service. Our liturgy is built around this song and the experience of the Israelites at the Sea. In the passage which follows the Sh’ma we recall Israel’s flight from Egypt: “You rescued us from Egypt; You redeemed us from the house of bondage…You split the waters of the sea…the waters engulfed Israel’s enemies; not one of the arrogant remained alive…” and then we go on to say, “Moses and the people Israel sang with great joy this song to the Lord…” One of those pieces of liturgy which almost everyone seems to know, mi kamokha ba-elim Adonai “who is like you among the mighty” is taken from the Shira.

So why did the tradition place so much emphasis on the Song at the Sea? I believe the answer can be found in the verses which appear just before the song in the Torah – actually we recite them immediately before we chant Az yashir Moshe each morning (Exodus 14:30-31): “Thus the Lord saved the people of Israel from the Egyptians on that day…when the Israelites witnessed the great power which the Lord wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they believed in Him and in Moses, his servant…then Moses and the people Israel sang…” The Song at the Red Sea, then, is an expression of faith. It is a direct product of fear and faith. Faith and fear of God are not expressed in abstract terms or in platitudes but through song and joyous celebration. For our ancestors, song is the language of faith. Jews do not say Ani Ma’amin, “I believe….” as Maimonides suggested. Rather they burst forth in song. The Shira represents a moment in time when Israel was transformed from a band of slaves into a community of faith. Of course there would be highs and lows in how Israel lived that faith – no sooner did they leave the Red Sea, they began to grumble and complain to Moses – but the memory of that moment at the sea would remain with them forever.

If the splitting of the Red Sea could inspire the people to sing of their faith in God, our ancestors concluded, singing should bring us to God. Experience doesn’t inspire the song; song inspires the experience. We come to synagogue not because our faith is absolute and unshakable but because we are searching for our faith; in the opportunity to raise our voices in song and prayer we can find a path that will lead us to transcendence and spirituality. When we hear the voices of others joined together, when we listen to the chanting of the Torah and the recitation of a Haftorah, when we sing the Alaynu or chant the Kedusha together something happens to us.

Who hasn’t felt a chill up their spine as the congregation raises its voice on the High Holidays as we sing Aveenu Malkaynu together or as the cantor chants Kol Nidre?   It’s not about great voices however, but a whole heart. Faith, I would suggest, is not necessarily about what we think or believe or how we formulate our ideas but about the moments of joy and sorrow translated into music that we experience together in worship and song.

But if that is the case, then we need to think more seriously about what we’re doing here and how we participate in services. People often complain to me that they don’t like to come to services because they don’t understand the Hebrew. While nothing can replace a proficient knowledge of Hebrew, it seems to me that we don’t come here searching for theological proofs – we come looking for a certain type of experience not so different from the one that those rockers were looking for at the rock concert. If you don’t believe me try reciting the service in English some time – the service becomes meaningless and incomprehensible – it’s not the words or comprehension that gives prayer meaning but what we do together.

So why do we come to synagogue? We come to recite the Kaddish, to answer amen, to be moved by the sound of prayer and, most of all, to sing together. We come to feel a sense of closeness to our neighbors and a sense of wholeness that we can only gain by being part of a community. And we come to the synagogue because we recognize that the whole is greater the sum of the parts. When we are a part of a minyan we become less ‘me’ and more ‘we.’

Now, this may surprise you. I know that this approach to prayer sounds decidedly anti-intellectual. It seems to me, however, that there are times to emphasize the mind and other times when we need to celebrate the heart. Similarly, at rock concerts words aren’t important; music and ‘the experience’ are. On Shabbat Shira we need to think about how to inspire people so that the words of Torah apply to us: “The people feared the Lord; they believed in God and in Moses His servant.” Is it possible for prayer to inspire faith or do we simply come for the Kiddush? Can services be like a rock concert? What role does song play in our lives? You don’t have to have a great voice to sing. (Believe me, Bob Dylan proves that!) But you have to be willing to lose yourself in the song and rejoice with a whole heart. Worship is not for people who have all the answers, but for people who are willing to join hand and hearts together in celebration. This morning as we celebrate the place of song in Jewish life maybe we can learn to rock and roll!

(With thanks to Rabbi David Greenspan)                   Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Bo                                    February 1, 2020 - 6 Shevat 5780

01/30/2020 10:25:44 AM

Jan30

“We live in a world that has so many people striving to look normal to a bunch of people that are abnormal, in order to be accepted. What is normal is realizing that being accepted comes at a price that robs the world of the uniqueness that God has created you to be every time you minimize your personality to make someone like you.”
                            
                                       --Shannon L. Alder, American author

Although I do not have any children of my own in the Toronto public school system, as I go about my week, it was impossible not to notice how strongly the 83,000 employees of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario are making their voices heard.  Provincial cuts in education have seen class sizes rise, seriously diminished support for students with special needs, and according to a recent press release by the ETFO, the strikes will continue until teachers receive “the tools and supports to prepare students to realize their individual aspirations and productively contribute to the economic and social fabric of this province.”  It seems so obvious—the right to education is a basic two-way street of society in that a public investment in education yields children who grow into productive adults that benefit our country and the world both socially and economically.  However, the cost of education has been rising dramatically in recent years, in part, due to our evolving understanding of teaching approaches, methods and support systems.  In particular, children with learning disabilities and/or other special needs are something we, as a society, are learning to better recognize, become more sensitive to, and adapt educational strategies in order to accommodate.  Of course, as we recognize a higher percentage of students with individualized special needs, there is an increasing demand for specialized accommodation which, in turn, has been contributing heavily towards what has become an all-time high in public education costs.  There are those who would remind us that public funding is not infinite and that it is simply impossible to accommodate everyone.   They admit that while it is regrettable that our education is not the best fit for everyone, they remind us that it has been proven successful for the majority of students, and for those students who are unable to thrive within the educational system in place, there are still opportunities for adults with poor education to be useful and valued in Canadian society.  So, does a right to education simply mean that every child has a right to have access to the education system as it exists, regardless of whether that child is able to conform to a uniform learning style that fits the majority? Or, does it really mean that the province has a duty to educate every child according to their needs?  Or, more to the point, are these special accommodations what we, as a society, should be paying for with public money?

The narrative in our Torah reading this week makes us feel like it should be time for Passover.  Parshat Bo describes the final 3 plagues visited upon Egypt.  God instructs the Israelites to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death will know to pass over their houses as it destroys the first born of Egypt.  It is the ultimate good vs evil matchup—Moses against Pharaoh, and the fate of the Israelite nation hangs in the balance.   But really, if we look at the text very carefully… what is Moses actually doing?  At first, it seems like a silly question. Well, obviously, Moses does not cause the plagues, God does.  Moses’ charge, rather, is to be a spokesman for the Israelite people to Pharaoh, bringing the words of God, the famous phrase, “Let My People Go”.  But then, if we recall last week in our reading, Moses complained to God in the burning bush that he was “aral sfatayim”, “of uncircumcised lips” (Ex. 6:30), a sufferer of a speech impediment that made him unsuitable to be a spokesman.  God responds, “You shall speak all that I command you, and Aaron, your brother, shall speak to Pharaoh, that he let the children of Israel out of his land” (Ex. 7:2).  It turns out that the words “Let My People Go” were not words uttered by Moses, but rather, his brother, Aaron.  So we ask again, what did Moses DO?

Is it still a silly question?  Of course it is!  Even today, we use interpreters for public speaking all the time.  Whether due to a language barrier, or if a sign language interpreter is required, we all understand that it is not the words of the interpreter that we are hearing, and we understand that the credit for the words does not go to the interpreter, but to the person who is being interpreted.  Moses, of all people, needed special assistance in order to fulfill his role as a part of our history, culture and theology, not to mention developing the foundations for social structure in modern western society. God called upon Moses, not Aaron, to lead the Israelite nation because Moses had the ‘special sauce’ for the job.  Aaron was Moses’ spokesman, offering the support structure needed in order for Moses to realize his potential.

Terms like normal and abnormal are becoming pejorative in our society.  It is becoming an ever-more egregious sin to define human qualities in such terms, and on the one hand, it seems clear that classifying a human characteristic in this way can cause a person to feel alienated.  But by doing so, we are also saying that we hold up normativity as the ideal, and that anything straying from this idyllic normal requires an accommodation to be resented.  I believe that it is quite normal to be abnormal.  In the many years I have been teaching bar and bat mitzvahs, we often begin with a discussion with parents about the unique learning style of their child, and we custom tailor the learning process in order to bring out the best in each student.  Even more importantly, we custom tailor the learning process in order to provide each student with a positive and rewarding learning experience, one that will be associated with Judaism and our synagogue for the rest of their lives.

Moses, together with the overwhelming majority of genius-level individuals who propel humanity forward with advances in science, art and philosophy, did not meet the standards of “normal”, and the world is better for it.  We can only imagine how many geniuses there must be out there who have been underutilized or lost entirely because our society was unwilling to “accommodate” them socially or academically.  Perhaps not every child in our education system is destined to be a Moses.  But imagine how our entire world could benefit if each child were given the means and support to achieve their potential, let alone the personal value to each child and their families.  Perhaps then, we could consider modernizing the way we prioritize public funding for education and give teachers “the tools and supports to prepare students to realize their individual aspirations and productively contribute to the economic and social fabric of this province”.

Shabbat Shalom,
                            
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vaera                              January 25, 2020 - 28 Tevet 5780

01/24/2020 10:48:18 AM

Jan24

This week I’d like to share with you the words of my colleague, Rabbi Joyce Newmark of Teaneck, NJ:

Everyone knows that thirteen is the age of Bar Mitzvah. What is less well-known is that in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages), Yehudah ben Tema offers a complete chronology of Jewish life:  At five years of age - the study of Bible, at ten - the study of Mishnah, at thirteen - responsibility for the mitzvot, at fifteen - the study of Talmud, at eighteen - marriage, at twenty - pursuit of a livelihood, at thirty - the peak of one's powers, at forty - the age of understanding, at fifty - the age of counsel, at sixty - old age, at seventy - the hoary head, at eighty - the age of strength, at ninety - the bent back, at one hundred - as one dead and out of this world.

At eighty - the age of strength?  That's certainly not how most of our society perceives eighty.  Someone who is eighty is “over the hill,” useless, frail and sickly, just waiting to die, and often seen as a burden to his or her family and community.  It's no wonder that nobody wants to be old - or to be perceived as old.  We spend billions of dollars to cover up gray hair and bald heads. We rush to buy the newest product that promises to conceal wrinkles and age spots.  We squeeze aging bodies into clothing designed for teenagers.  And if none of this works - well, there's always cosmetic surgery.  Old age seems to be a modern form of leprosy. We hide old people in nursing homes, retirement communities, and senior citizen centers because we don't want young people to be frightened by glimpses of their future.

It is interesting, then, that our Torah holds a different view about age. In this week's Torah portion, Vaera, we come to the heart of the Exodus story.  Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go.  Pharaoh, of course, refuses, and so the plagues begin, but before the first plague we read, “Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three, when they made their demand on Pharaoh.”  They were old men!  Moses and Aaron should have been living in the Egyptian equivalent of the Jewish Home for the Aged, not contending with Pharaoh for the future of the Jewish people.  Yet the Torah actually stops in the middle of the narrative to tell us that Moses was 80 and Aaron 83 at the beginning of their mission.

The 12th century Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra writes, “We do not find prophets anywhere else in Tanakh about whom the text points out that they prophesied when elderly, except these.” Why? Ibn Ezra continues, “Because [Torah] attributes greatness to them beyond all other prophets, for only to them did God appear . . . for only to them was the Torah given, and thus through their hands do the righteous inherit the world to come.” Ibn Ezra's comment makes it seem as if, somehow, the greatness of Moses and Aaron was attributable to their age, as if 80 years were required to learn the lessons that would be needed to carry out their mission.

And what are the lessons of age?  The compassion that comes from seeing that everyone is capable of foolishness and that no one is immune to pain.  The humility that comes from seeing plans and aspirations - one's own and others' - fall short and discovering that success can strike without warning. The strength that comes from learning, finally, that our most important judge is our self, that the favor of kings and princes is worthless if we have no self-respect.

The strength of eighty is not physical.  Few people who reach eighty do so without aches and pains, without slowing down, and some only reach this age with severely diminished powers.  The strength of eighty is the strength of character that comes from a lifetime of learning.

When we see only the physical, the external, and when we fear aging and therefore the aged, we sacrifice a precious resource. The Torah commands us, “you shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old” (Vayikra 19:32).  Because the word for old, zakein, is often used in Rabbinic literature to mean scholar, the gemara asks, does this apply only to an old person who is wise and scholarly, one who is to be respected for his learning?  The answer is no, even an am ha-aretz, an uneducated person, who has reached old age has something worthwhile to teach.

The elderly are not to be hidden away and shunned as if carrying some dread disease. “Rabbi Yehuda said, be careful with an old person who has forgotten his learning because of his circumstances (Rashi explains, because of illness or poverty). The Tablets [of the Ten Commandments] and the broken pieces of the [first] Tablets were both placed in the Ark” (Berakhot 8b). And never forget, by the way we treat our elders we are teaching our children how to one day treat us. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shemot                          January 18, 2020 - 21 Tevet 5780

01/16/2020 03:14:49 PM

Jan16

“Little things console us because little things afflict us.”
                                 
--Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French mathematician,                                                  physicist, inventor and theologian

Torah is the fundamental blueprint for Jewish life and culture. It teaches us about thoughtful living through law, it teaches us about spirituality and God, and teaches us about who we are by helping us understand where we came from. Often when studying Torah, the majesty of the significance of the text as the underpinnings of the entirety of Western culture, it’s easy to overlook the smaller, more personal stories that are woven into the text. With the help of midrashic literature, our Sages of Blessed Memory left no stone unturned to tease out even more beauty from the tiniest suggestion in the Torah text. This week, it is my pleasure to reprint the teaching of Dr. Joshua Kulp the head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem (where I did my first year of Cantorial school) who explores a beautiful little love story in one of these textual “ruptures” in this week’s parsha.
                                                                               
Shabbat Shalom,
                                                                                                                                      --ChazJ

The stories of the beginning of Moshe’s life are notoriously laconic. Most of what Jews think they know about Moshe’s early life actually comes from movies, especially the Ten Commandments and the Prince of Egypt. Midrash works to fill in the gaps in the story that are unexplained in the Bible itself. But midrash almost always needs a “hook” on which to hang its story, some sort of textual “rupture” that allows an ancient exegete to suggest that something happened that is not described in the text. The following is an excellent example, one that I’m guessing you might not have noticed before.

At the end of chapter one of Exodus, Pharaoh decrees “every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” Chapter two picks up immediately with “a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son.” From these verses, it sounds like this child is the Levite woman’s first. But a few verses later we learn that this child has an older sister. Where did this sister come from? If the man from the house of Levi just took this wife, how does the child already have a sister (a very clever one, as we shall soon learn)? Here is our “rupture” in the text, some point that makes little sense but allows for the rabbis to insert a story that both solves the difficulty and at the same time sharpens the message we read out of the text.

The story is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 12b. The Talmud notes that Amram (the man of the house of Levi) “went and married.” Why the extra verb “went”? The answer: he went at the advice of this remarkable daughter. The backstory is as follows:

Amram was the great man of his generation. Once he saw that the wicked Pharaoh said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (Exodus 1:22), he said: We are laboring for nothing. He arose and divorced his wife. All others who saw this arose and divorced their wives.

His daughter said to him: Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed both on the males and on the females.

Amram arose and brought back (i.e. remarried) his wife, and all the others who saw this arose and brought back their wives.

We can see here how the “darshan,” the exegete, has used the opportunity of this rupture to insert a message of courage into the text relevant to his own generation, who in all likelihood faced persecution. (When have Jews not faced persecution?)

But this solution still leaves us with a problem—if this is a remarriage, the text should have said he took back, not married. The Talmud solves this textual rupture with a beautiful story:

Rav Yehuda bar Zevina says: He performed an act of marriage. He sat her on a palanquin and Aharon and Miriam danced before her, and the ministering angels said: “A joyful mother of children” (Psalms 113:9).

Amram did not just go back to sleeping with his wife. He had a second wedding, this time allowing his children to celebrate the couple’s love for each other. Indeed, the Talmud goes on to note that according to its reckoning, Yocheved is 130 years old at the time! But no matter, for with the rekindling of their love Yocheved became again like a young girl, in love with her childhood paramour.

Through this tiny “rupture” in the text, the Midrash provides us with a rich story of the brilliance of Miriam, the courage of Yocheved and the other wives, and a story of the rekindled love of two elderly people who are about to give the Jewish people the greatest leader they will ever have, Moshe.

Dr. Joshua Kulp, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty & Rosh Yeshiva

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayechi                          January 11, 2020 - 14 Tevet 5780

01/09/2020 01:21:31 PM

Jan9

Mary Karr, an American poet, essayist and memoirist, known for her bestselling memoir, The Liars' Club once quipped: “I think a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.”  And George Burns remarked: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family—in another city.” Truth be told, most families are like fudge: mostly sweet with a few nuts! No family is immune; I often hear people say: “We put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional.” Well, this week’s Torah portion not only concludes the Book of Genesis, but will finish the saga of a family that, in modern terms, was seriously dysfunctional.

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach, in her comments on the Torah reading, reports that, looking at the facts while ignoring the spiritual implications of those facts, for the moment, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Judaism were familially dysfunctional.

First, Abraham expelled his concubine Hagar and son Ishmael from the family home. He did so at his wife Sarah's insistence. While Ishmael had to cope with his father's outright rejection, Isaac was surely left with his own feelings of insecurity and a nagging question if he did something to displease his mother or father, would his parents kick him out of the house like they did his brother? Second, Abraham nearly killed Isaac, his remaining son. Despite the religious implications of this event, Isaac probably suffered serious post-traumatic stress syndrome. Whether his near death experience was a murder attempt or a Divinely ordained sacrifice, this incident could not possibly soothe Isaac's feelings of insecurity that resulted from his brother's expulsion.

Third, Isaac married his cousin Rebecca, and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The parents openly played favorites, thus setting up an intense sibling rivalry resulting in deception by Jacob and death threats by Esau. And fourth, Jacob left home because of Esau's threats. After leaving Canaan, Jacob married two of his cousins, the sisters Leah and Rachel. He loved only Rachel, but got stuck with Leah as well. Then Jacob wound up with two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, both handmaids of his wives. Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, her second child. Between both wives and the concubines, Jacob had 13 children. However, the sisters did not get along, and Jacob openly favored Joseph over his other children resulting in deception attempted murder, and the brothers selling Joseph as a slave.

It seems clear that bad parenting by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob created harmful behavior patterns among their children. Moreover, each generation transmitted these destructive tendencies to the next generation – and the family situation just got worse and worse. The same patterns repeat themselves for four generations, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob's sons. Again and again, we see favoritism, deception, death threats, and murder attempts. If this is really the case with our beloved Patriarchs and Matriarchs, why do we hold them in such esteem?

Three times a day, we recite our most central prayer, the Amidah. How do we begin? In effect, we say to God: we don't dare approach You on our own merits. We ask you to remember the great merit of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We ask you to bless us on their account. We can understand this saga but we must change our perspective. The issue isn't what we see, but how. For instance: do we listen to someone's life story, and hear only the problems, only see what they're doing wrong? When we look out on our own lives, do we focus on what's wrong and ignore the good things? Do we see through eyes of compassion? If we see tragic behavior patterns in others do we simply get angry and look down on them? Or, do we try to understand the pain that drove them to their actions. That doesn't mean we justify harmful behaviors! We shouldn't condone destructive behavior; we must also take care that we don't harden our hearts and stay open to the virtue of rachmanut, compassion. Do we understand that people work with the life tools they grow up with? If no one shows them a different and better way to do things, they're going to have a difficult time correcting their mistakes!

Let's take another look at our patriarchs. The first thing we must accept: all families are “dysfunctional” to some degree. How could it be otherwise? We're all human! If we look back at our own lives, we're going to see behavior patterns that are sometimes positive, and sometimes not. We're flawed. It's important to recognize our own flaws because then we can be more understanding of others. So it is with our patriarchal ancestors. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob grew up in a period of rampant: idolatry, corruption, and sexual immorality. Our patriarchs sprang from the ancient Mesopotamian culture where law codes made it clear, human life in itself wasn't sacred. Everything depended on one's social and economic status. Survival in that culture didn't depend on honesty, but shrewdness, which often meant lying and manipulating. In other words, if we look at the world that gave birth to Abraham, Isaac,and Jacob and Jacob's children we don't find a world shining with God's light, let alone the magnificence of Torah. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all found God's light; they found His light shining in a very dark world. Our next step is to recognize the many positive attributes of our ancestors: generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, and devotion to God.

All is lost if we only see their negative points. All is lost if we only see each other's negative points! Do we look at the patriarchs and see only what they did that we think was wrong? Or do we look at Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and see astounding growth and accomplishments that they overcame incredible obstacles and brought us to worship the Kadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy Blessed One). And how does this play out in our own lives? Do we notice what our friend - or child - or spouse is doing wrong - and not see their goodness? Do we look at the synagogue, its events, people, organizations, and see only what's wrong or do we step back and look at a bigger picture and find that there's so much going on that's right?! Of course, we can't ignore problems. That way, we certainly can't improve anything! But if we see nothing but the problems we stay equally stuck.

The Genesis stories teach us that we must look beyond the negatives of a given situation. We cannot look at just the facts; we must also see life with a “wide angle lens,” look at the whole of a situation, see the good, and have a heart of compassion. And most importantly, see how we can use this viewpoint to teach us how to find God and live by the precepts of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Vayigash                                  January 4, 2020 - 7 Tevet 5780

01/03/2020 07:58:39 AM

Jan3

“No one that encounters prosperity does not also encounter danger.”
                                                         —Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), Greek Philosopher

Greetings from The Holy Land—no, not Boca Raton, the other one.  I feel so very privileged to be able to make it back to Jerusalem for a visit.  I lived here during my first year of cantorial school, 2005/6, and since then, every return visit always feels a little bit like I’m coming home.  That said, the city also changes so dramatically each time, with all kinds of new urban developments.  Unlike my previous visits, there is now a wonderfully convenient 20-minute train ride from Ben Gurion Airport, directly to Jerusalem’s city centre.  When I came out of the station at Yafo Street, a place which used to be perpetually grimy and congested with city traffic, I was surprised to find that the street has been replaced by a beautiful pedestrian promenade and light-rail transit, blended into a background of beautiful cityscapes, artisanal shops, and not a single car in sight. 

On my flight here, a passenger beside me watched as I used the adjustable computer screen built into my seat as a second table for the iPad I had brought with me, while my tray table was still full from the dinner service.  The man gave me a wink, “A Yiddishe kopf”, he said, congratulating me on my ingenuity.  A Yiddishe kopf—a Jewish head.  It’s a delicious phrase that could only exist in the Yiddish language.  It describes a person as “clever” or “ingenious”, with the meta-acknowledgement that ‘of course’ the Jewish people are the most clever, ingenious, industrious, astute people in the world.  And where else would you hear a stranger spontaneously say that to you except on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv?  It’s no wonder that Jerusalem is so different each time that I visit, as if a Jewish city could be anything but be among the most industrious, quickly developing, ever-growing, eco-conscious, technologically advanced cities on earth.  Why? Everybody here is walking around with a Yiddishe kopf!

Throughout history, city-states, kingdoms and empires all benefited from having a Yiddishe kopf on hand.  Often considered second-class citizens whether under Christian or Muslim rule and prohibited from owning land, Jews often rose to prominent social positions as money lenders (Christianity prohibits Christians from lending money to other Christians with interest), or as foreign trade facilitators, leveraging their well-established network of Jewish friends and relatives in distant lands on behalf of their benefactors.  While this mayhave given rise to the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews being greedy and money-grubbing, it is true that Jews were forced to evolve a keen sense for economics that has been a driving force behind world development since antiquity.  According to the biblical timeline, it would have been one of the eight Egyptian Pharaohs of the 12th dynasty who were first to recognize that every great ruler needs a Jewish economist on staff.

This week’s parsha, Vayigash, wraps up the first book of the Torah.  Joseph, the first Jewish royal economics advisor has achieved his position of prominence in Egyptian society.  He is completely unrecognizable to his brothers who have journeyed to Egypt to buy food during the famine that had plagued ancient Mesopotamia.  At long last, his identity is revealed to his brothers, and by doing so, Joseph also reclaims his heritage.  He reunites with his father, Jacob, and the whole family relocates to Egypt where Joseph can make sure that his family is provided for so that they may grow and prosper.

As I write this sentence, I am actually standing in front of Kever Rachel, the tomb of our foremother, Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph.  I can reach out and touch it.  Jerusalem is a few minutes drive to the Northwest of here where the progeny of Rachel continues to thrive, and carry on her legacy of creative thought, being able to see worlds of possibility when others can only see the reality of what is physically before them.  And yet, just outside the walls of the synagogue that house Rachel’s Tomb, is the concrete of the mighty barrier wall that protects Israel from Palestinian terror.  It is a sobering reminder that history has also taught us that wherever Jews prosper, there also exist those who resent us for our success, envy our achievements, despise our resolve, fear our strength and seek our destruction.  As proud as we may be of our Yiddishe kopf, it has failed many times in our long history to perceive the seriousness of the threats against us, bringing us to the brink of annihilation.

The artisanal shops by Kikar Tzion are particularly incredible this year.  In every store, I see industry-leading new concepts in mixed media such as combining ceramic and paper, metal and glass, and dimensional paintings that are reshaping how we understand colour, shape and functional sculpture.  The very same Yiddishe kopf that birthed these designs, I believe, also sees the possibilities of a future where Israel is at peace with Palestinians, and indeed, all of her Arab neighbours.  But just because we can envision it, doesn’t mean that it is ready to exist yet.  While there is nothing more powerful than a great new idea whose time has come, there is sometimes nothing more dangerous than a great new idea that the world is not quite ready for yet.  The Torah acknowledges our Yiddishe kopf by another term, one that both recognizes our ingenuity and also holds us responsible for using it not only to better ourselves, but to better the world.  Better than a Yiddishe kopf, we are A Light Unto The Nations, and we must continue to share our beautiful vision not only with each other, but with everyone.  It may take some time, but God willing, the rest of the world will find their Yiddishe kopf, and see the vision too.

Shabbat Shalom,
                          —ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Miketz                      December 29, 2019 - 30 Kislev 5780

12/27/2019 01:35:25 PM

Dec27

Back in the 1970s the band “Supertramp” sang about dreamers:

“Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer /
 
Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no! /
I said dreamer, you're nothing but a dreamer /
 
Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no! /
 
I said "far out, what a day, a year, a life it is!" /
 
You know, well you know, you had it comin' to you /
 
Now, there's not a lot I can do /
 
Dreamer, you stupid little dreamer /
 
So now you put your head in your hands, oh no /
 
I said, "far out, what a day, a year, a life it is!" /
 
You know, well you know, you had it comin' to you /
 
Now, there's not a lot I can do /
 
I said "far out, what a day, a year, a life it is!"

While these lyrics may seem nonsensical, in reality they reveal the lyricist’s cynicism about placing much credence in dreams. Those who do “had it comin' to you” when the dreams failed to materialize. Those who rely on dreams, he says are nothing but “stupid little dreamer[s].”

Judaism, too, has much to say about dreams. Indeed, in our portion this week, much is made of Joseph “The Dreamer”. On one hand, his skills in interpreting dreams almost cost him his life at the hands of his own brothers. On the other hand, the interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams save him from prison. From this account one might surmise that dreams play a significant role in Judaism in general and Biblical literature in particular. Not so!

Nahum Sarna, author of Understanding Genesis, notes, “Despite the fact that Israel shared with its pagan neighbors a belief in the reality of dreams as a medium of divine communication, it never developed, as in Egypt and Mesopotamia, a class of professional interpreters or a dream literature. In the entire Bible, only two Israelites engage in the interpretation of dreams-Joseph and Daniel-and significantly enough, each serves a pagan monarch in precisely the lands in which [divination by means of dreams] flourished.” 

In the case of Joseph, his dreams of superiority separated him from his family and assimilated him into the pagan world of Egypt.  Had there not been a famine in Canaan, requiring his brothers to come down to Egypt for food, Joseph might never have reconciled with them.  His dreams would have permanently driven him from his family, his people, and eventually his God. So much for dreams!

The ancient Rabbis went one step further when they suggested:Do not rely on a miracle!” We don’t sit and wait for a “miraculous” event; we make it happen. It is not our dreams that determine the future; it is our actions. Rabbi Howard Siegel (20th century, USA) elaborates on this notion: God has made humankind a partner in the completion of creation. The realization of God’s “Kingdom on Earth”, or better stated, making this earth worthy of God, is dependent on us to “make” miracles and “fashion” dreams.

Rabbi Siegel concludes: The miracle of Hanukkah, which we celebrate this week, is not really that a single vial of oil was sufficient to keep the ancient Temple’s menorah lit for eight days, but that amidst pressures to assimilate and acculturate a small band of Jews (the Maccabees) still cared enough to fight for their identity. Professor Ismar Schoresh notes, “Dreams and miracles lie in the dustpan of Jewish history.” Even Joseph realized this fact before it was too late.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Vayeshev                  December 21, 2019 - 23 Kislev 5780

12/20/2019 10:16:37 AM

Dec20

“The reasonial why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress is because they haven't yet come to the end of themselves. We're still trying to give orders, and interfering with God's work within us. ”
                              
- A. W. Tozer (1897-1963), American Christian pastor and author

Last week, in an effort to aid university administrations in supporting and protecting Jewish university students from hate, discrimination and harassment, a new American policy by executive order has effectively defined anti-Zionism as antisemitism.  Even amongst American Jews, the debate over whether or not this move on behalf of the administration was a good idea is highly controversial, and I must admit that I am also conflicted.  On the one hand, it is long overdue that the kind of perverse vitriol spouted by hate groups on campus that advocate for the destruction of Israel is formally called out for what it is – antisemitism.  It is about time that university administrations were empowered to reign in student organizations who discriminate against Israelis and otherwise make student life for Jews unbearable on campus.  But on the other hand, in order to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism, the executive order defined Judaism as both a religion and a nationality, thus leaning into the pre-existing anti-Semitic trope that Jews have a divided allegiance between Israel and the country in which they reside.  Furthermore, the order is not going to stop any university campuses from holding their annual Israel Apartheid Week activities, nor will it realistically help any Jewish students who feel unsafe on campus, but only curb potentially discriminatory or anti-Semitic practices from becoming policy, which, in fairness, most universities have under reasonable control.  So, without making much of a meaningful difference, I fear that this policy may potentially only lift the pendulum higher before it swings wildly the other direction when the US eventually votes in a very new and different kind of administration.

As Canadian Jews, we peer cautiously over to our neighbours to the south, wondering what fallout, if any, there may be from this new policy.  We know all too well that the escalating situation on our own college campuses is becoming a serious cause for concern, but is this the solution?  If we’re aren’t sure yet, what is the cost of waiting before advocating for our government to enact a similar resolution?

If the Torah could answer this question for us, I imagine that the text would be marked with a shalshalet.  Used to convey a pivotal emotional conflict, the shalshalet is one of the many trope symbols that appear over or underneath each word in the Torah that indicates how the word should be chanted in order to convey both grammar and oftentimes emotional peaks and valleys in the Torah narrative.  The shalshelet is one of the rarest varieties of trope; so rare, in fact, that it only appears seven times in the entire Torah.  We’ve read two of them, so far in the book of Genesis, and this week we will read the third in our parsha, Vayeshev.

The first use of the shalshelet in the Torah occurs in the story of the destruction of the city of Sodom.  The townspeople are gathered outside the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot, prepared to rape and kill Lot’s family for their amusement.  Oddly, the Torah says that Lot hesitates before leaving his home.  The shalshelet draws our focus to the Hebrew for ‘hesitate’, to put a spotlight on Lot’s fear and turmoil, and showing at the same time that there is still a part of him that is sorry to leave his home.  The second time the shalshelet is used is in the story of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who is sent to find a wife for Isaac.  Isaac seems to be ambivalent about marriage, and so the duty falls on Eliezer to choose the woman who would become the future matriarch of the Israelite nation.  Eliezer speaks to God, asking for help on his mission, saying “O Lord, God of my master, Abraham, grant me good fortune this day”.  A shalshelet punctuates the Hebrew word for “saying”, as the exact words of Eliezer’s request to God are revealed.

This Shabbat, we find the third and final shalshelet in the book of Genesis, and of all places, it is found in the story of Joseph encounter with Potiphar’s wife, whose sexual advances Joseph rebuffs, an act that ultimately lands Joseph in Pharoah’s prison.  The word that the shalshelet highlights is the Hebrew word for “refused” as Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife’s advances.  But what emotional turmoil is there here?  Shouldn’t we think that this would be an obvious and easy choice for Joseph?  Traditional commentaries teach that the shalshelet in this place teaches that Joseph was indeed tempted by Potiphar’s wife, but that it took great moral fortitude to refuse.  While I do appreciate interpretations that paint Joseph’s character as less than perfectly righteous (dare I say boastful and obnoxious), I feel that there is more here that this particular shalshelet can teach us.

The reality of life is that the right choices are not always so clear to us.  Sometimes when we seek to do good, our actions ultimately end up causing more harm.  Despite how much rigor and due process may go in to our well-intended actions, the consequences may not always be entirely foreseeable or within our power to control.  So what do we do?  Judaism teaches that while we must not rely on God to fight our battles for us, we must always aspire to be God’s partner, and to relinquish some semblance of control over our lives.  In this way, God and the Jewish people are described as partners in marriage, and the Torah is the marriage contract.  We look in the Torah for the best guidance that we can muster in order to help our decision making, but ultimately, the Torah is not our partner, God is.  Joseph sees in his situation that no matter what he does, he will end up in jail.  If he capitulates to Potiphar’s wife’s request, it will only be a matter of time before he is discovered, and if he doesn’t, she will accuse him anyway.  Perhaps some people in this no-win situation would have given into their baser instincts, but Joseph sticks to what he knows is right.  He makes a decision based on what he feels is the righteous thing to do, and trusts in God that the part he must play in Jewish history has already been laid before him.  He has no control over the big picture, but he takes charge of his own actions.  Joseph is in turmoil and has no options that will affect his life, but the shalshelet points to Joseph’s agency over his own soul because sometimes when we are in turmoil, all we can do is make decisions according to our conscience and have faith that God has the rest well in hand.

Shabbat Shalom,
                           --ChazJ

Rabbininc Reflections - Parshat Vayishlach                            December 14, 2019 - 16 Kislev 5780

12/13/2019 02:24:33 PM

Dec13

Judith Martin, better known by the pen name Miss Manners, is an American journalist, author, and etiquette authority who once quipped: “The invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don’t have to pay taxes — naturally, no one wants to live any other way.” Truth is that one day we wake up and realize we’re not children anymore. Perhaps it’s after we graduate elementary school, or maybe its high school, or maybe it’s when we have our first kiss or start to worry about money or death. For me, it was when I turned 60! Whenever it is, we do grow up. We’re forced to. There comes a time that we’re no longer allowed to be dependent on our parents. It is a time when our innocence disappears; a time when our carelessness is no longer seen as youthful and charming, but as pathetic and unduly childish. 

Growing up is by no means a bad thing. It allows us to make a difference in the world, to find out who we are, and to live the life we imagined as children. We dreamed of growing up when we rested our young heads on our downy pillows and looked up with wonder at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to our ceiling, wondering what the world looked beyond our own home, beyond the world that had been so meticulously created for us. 

Yet upon growing up, we find that reality often contends with those very dreams. We find that the reality of growing up is perhaps less lovely than we’d envisioned. We find that the only thing we really want back is our youth and our innocence, and the cruel irony is that these are the very things that will never return. 

As the Torah portion of Vayishlach begins, Jacob has returned home to Canaan after 20 years in his uncle’s household in Padan-aram. A lot happened to Jacob during those 20 years. He became a husband and a father, he was successful in business and acquired considerable wealth, and he learned, through his dealings with his uncle Laban, that it’s not nearly as much fun being tricked as it is being the one doing the tricking. Most of all, Jacob had grown up. He was no longer that young man who had fled from his brother’s not unjustified wrath.

On the night before he is to encounter his brother Esau again, the Torah tells us (Genesis 32:24), “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” Jacob refuses to let the “man” go until he has blessed him and he is told (Genesis 32:28), “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Sometime later, God appears to Jacob and says (Genesis 35:10), “You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name.” Jacob’s new name is proof from God that he had, in fact, changed.

Jacob’s name (Yaakov) was formed from the word akeiv, heel, because he was born grasping his brother’s heel. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, 11th century Provence) says that the name Yaakov indicates one who comes under cover and with guile, a trickster; the new name of Israel denotes a prince and a ruler. Jacob had earned a name to be proud of.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark (20th century USA) observes: So what is surprising is that the Torah continues to use the name Jacob. In fact, it appears much more frequently than the name Israel. From the moment that God changes the names of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, only their new names are used. Yet Jacob never loses his original name. Why? Perhaps to teach us that while we can and hopefully do change and grow, we never completely eradicate our former selves. Certainly, anyone over 30 has at least one thing in his or her past – something stupid, reckless, cruel, or thoughtless – that we wouldn’t want to make public. But no matter how hard you try, these are the things that you can’t erase from your memory. 

When we grow up, when we becomes responsible adults, we learn from those mistakes and try hard not to repeat them. And perhaps the painful memory of our past mistakes helps us to think twice before we make new ones. For Jacob-Israel, one sign that he had learned and changed was his new name. But still, the Torah reminds us, Jacob remains a part of Israel. Like our father Jacob, each of us is the sum of all of our past experiences, the positive and the negative. Decent, mature, menschlich people work hard to avoid repeating their negative experiences and enhance and expand the positive ones. And just maybe, when Israel looked back at Jacob, when we look back at the stupid things we did in years past and see how far we have come, it can inspire us to go still farther.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Vayishlach                  December 7, 2019 - 9 Kislev 5780

12/05/2019 10:51:24 AM

Dec5

“The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance.”
                  -- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American poet and philosopher

Today, I am proud to reprint a new commentary on the story of Jacob's Ladder, found in this week's parsha, Vayetze, written by Eitan Cooper, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Schechter Institutes in Israel.  The Schechter Institutes, you might say, is the Israeli sister organization of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the flagship institute for education in the Conservative movement, training rabbis, cantors, teachers and lay leaders of the future.

Shabbat Shalom,
                                --ChazJ

The Better Angles of Our Nature
By Eitan Cooper, Executive VP of the Schechter Institutes

Interpretations of Jacob’s ladder abound but they mainly seem to come down to three types:

A literal narrative interpretation and personal allegory – The angels ascending and descending the ladder will guard Jacob on his journey to Haran and back, through the many challenges he will face. They will comfort and inspire him, as do the angels, human and divine, who meet us during our lifetimes.

An Allegory for human history and events – The angels are an allegory for the empires of history. Babylonia, Persia, the Greeks the Romans – A Midrash tells us that Jacob is shown that all will ascend to great heights, then decline. God says, get on the ladder, you won’t fall, and through you the world will be blessed, but Jacob, fearing that he too will fall, misses the opportunity.

Metaphorical and Mystical – The 19th century Hassidic commentary “Sefat Emet” suggests that the ladder is a metaphor for the body. The head is in heaven, the feet are planted here on earth, and the body is a microcosm of the world, in which we are guided by internal angels as we ascend and descend the steps of the ladder, from earth to heaven, and back again. As each of us are created both from the dust of the earth and in the image of God, the key to well-being is finding our place on the right step, balanced between the earthly/bodily and the heavenly/spiritual aspects of us.

The late Hanan Porat, a prominent educator and leader of the Israeli settler movement in the 1970s and 1980s, building on this metaphor in Sefat Emet, commented that the angels urge us on from inside, guiding us up the ladder, ever closer to the heavenly-divine light, in order that we can descend again, bringing that light back down to earth. This light is the stuff of prophecy. To descend the ladder and to bring the light of heaven into the world to create a more ethical and compassionate society is the challenge to every Jew, first inspired by Jacob’s wonderful dream.

We can understand the implications of Porat’s interpretation in the context of his mystical nationalist views. While his politics was not my cup of tea, he offers nonetheless a beautiful and passionate vision of repairing a torn world – yet this image also contains potential, if not guided by responsible leaders, for atavism and destruction.

The metaphor that inner angels offer us a guide to redemption, if only we would listen to them, found similar expression 160 years ago in a completely different context, when President Abraham Lincoln made his inaugural address to a bitterly divided America. With Southern States on the brink of secession, he put his faith in “better angels”:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

This was Lincoln’s last major speech before the outbreak of the American Civil War, and in that respect, the image is at once prophetic and haunting when we consider the deep political divisions of our time.

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Toldot                            November 30, 2019 - 2 Kislev 5780

11/27/2019 10:54:48 AM

Nov27

The subject of parental favoritism has been trending lately, with a number of think pieces popping up on the internet and in magazines over the last several months on the topic. While many parents are often quick to declare they don’t have a favorite, a number of kids — and adult siblings — may beg to differ. In fact, the effect parental favoritism can have on kids, whether real or perceived, is a topic that’s been of growing concern.  

Research has found that the effect isn’t great, showing that children who perceive themselves as being the least favorite are more likely to do drugs and use alcohol and cigarettes in their teenage years. This is especially true when the family unit isn’t otherwise very close. And tension between siblings seems to increase when a favored child is in the mix.

Parents may also be surprised to learn that perception appears to hold a greater weight than reality in this case. In other words, it doesn’t matter so much if Mom or Dad actually have a favorite. All that really counts is if a child thinks they do. However, whether conscious or not, studies also show that a large proportion of parents consistently favor one child over another. This favoritism can manifest in different ways: more time spent with one child, more affection given, more privileges, less discipline, or less abuse.

Research by sociologist Jill Suitor examines some of the causes and consequences of parental favoritism, which occurs in one- to two-thirds of American families. Despite its taboo in our society, we consider some cases of parental favoritism to be fair — and even necessary. For example, parents give more attention to newborns than they do to their older children. The same goes for children who are sick or disabled. In these situations, parents often discuss the unequal treatment with the disfavored children in order to assure them that it's nothing personal. Other reasons for parental favoritism most of us would judge as unfair, yet they don't surprise us much. Parents might spend more time with and feel closer to same-gender children than to opposite-gender children. In mixed families, parents favor their biological children over step-children. In patriarchal cultures, parents simply favor boys over girls.

There are several additional factors that predict favoritism, one of which is birth order: Parents favor first- and last-born children over middle children. This occurs in part because middle children will never be the only child living at home — at some point first-borns and last-borns will have their parents all to themselves. Overall, first-borns get the most privileges and last-borns receive the most parental affection. It is not surprising, then, that Isaac and Rebecca choose favorites among their twins, even though we may frown upon it.

The Torah reading begins with the birth of twins-Jacob & Esau. The story continues with Jacob cheating his brother out of his birthright. Later, with the assistance of his mother, Rebecca, he takes advantage of the Isaac’s poor eyesight and steals his father’s the blessing meant for Esau, the first-born. The Torah reading clearly focuses on the actions of Jacob and Rebecca.

While Jacob, Esau and Rebecca seem to be key players, Isaac seems relegated to the sidelines. What is the role of the patriarch, Isaac, in all of this? Everett Fox notes, “Isaac functions in Genesis as a classic 2nd generation-that is, as a transmitter and stabilizing force, rather than as an active participant in the process of building a people. There hardly exists a story about him in which he is anything but a son and heir, a husband, or a father.” In fact, the most pro-active character in the Torah portion is Rebecca. She struggles with birth (Gen. 25:22): “And the children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If this be so, why do I live!?’” And she is the one that realizes that Jacob—and not Esau—deserves to carry on the covenant with God. Indeed, Rebecca’s greater love for Jacob than Esau compels her to devise a way for him to steal the blessing of the first-born; rightfully intended for Esau (refer to Genesis 27:5-17). She even plots Jacob’s escape from the wrath of his brother (Gen. 27: 42-43):“And [Rebecca] said to [Jacob]: “Here, Esau your brother is consoling himself about you, with (the thought of) killing you. So now, my son, listen to my voice: Arise and flee to Lavan my brother in Haran.”

According to psychologists Ilan Shrira and Josh Foster, favoritism is also more likely when parents are under a great deal of stress (e.g., marital problems, financial worries). In these cases, parents may be unable to inhibit their true feelings or monitor how fair they're behaving. Evolutionary theorists argue that when emotional or material resources are limited, parents will favor children who have the most potential to thrive and reproduce. Perhaps Rebecca favored Jacob because she felt him to be more stabilizing, more intellectual, more family-oriented and more worthy to pass on the genes and the covenant of Abraham.

Was Rebecca wrong in conspiring to elevate her “favorite” son Jacob? Everett Fox doesn’t think so. He writes, “The true dynamic figure of the 2nd generation here is Rebecca. It is she to whom God reveals his plan, and she who puts into motion the mechanism for seeing that it is properly carried out. She is ultimately the one responsible for bridging the gap between the dream, as typified by Abraham, and the hard-won reality, as realized by Jacob.”

Unfortunately, the consequences of parental favoritism are what we might expect — they're mostly bad. Shrira and Foster observe that disfavored children experience worse outcomes across the board: more depression, greater aggressiveness, lower self-esteem, and poorer academic performance. Sounds a lot like Esau; his parent’s favoritism adversely affects him, perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy on Rebecca’s part. As well, these repercussions are far more extreme than any benefits the favored children get out of it (negative things just have a stronger impact on people than positive things). And it's not all rosy for the favored children either — their siblings often come to resent them, poisoning those relationships. Again sounds like Esau and his relationship with Jacob. As a result, many of these consequences persist long after children have grown up and moved out of the house. People don't soon forget that they were disfavored by their parents, and many people report that being disfavored as a child continues to affect their self-esteem and their relationships in adulthood. Again, a lot like Jacob and Esau.

Shrira and Foster conclude: Nearly all parents worry about whether they play favorites. But even when parents vow to treat their children equally, they soon find that this is just not possible. Every child is different and parents must respond to their unique characteristics appropriately. You shouldn't react to a 3-year-old's tantrums in the same way as you would to a 13-year-old's. You can't deal with aggressive children in the same way as passive children. Even identical twins can't be treated identically. When it comes down to it, every child wants to feel like they're different, not clones of their siblings. The best parents can do is stay aware of any differential treatment they give and try to be as fair as possible.

So, was Rebecca right in what she did? Are there times when, for the sake of maintaining the vision, one is required to violate the basic tenets of morality; to favor one child over the other and live with the consequences?

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Chaye Sarah                          November 23, 2019 - 25 Cheshvan 5780

11/21/2019 04:54:49 PM

Nov21

 “Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution.  It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it.”

 ​​​​--Niels Bohr (1885-1962), Danish quantum physicist

 This week, we may have just seen the end of the Two-State Solution, and for the first time in my lifetime, this makes me truly afraid for both Israel and world Jewry.

On Monday, the US announced that it will no longer regard the Israeli settlements as “illegal”, which, at first glance seems like a welcome point scored for Team Israel.  It comes off initially as a moral victory that is more about technical definitions and labels than anything practical, a symbolic win for the Jewish people akin to the US formally recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.  However, a more careful consideration of this most recent development reveals that it very well may have a real and significant impact on the delicate status quo.  I believe that this change is about to set us on an ominous and frightening path that, as time goes on, will become harder to turn back from.

Growing up, I was taught that as a modern and militarily strong state, Israel’s pathway to peace depended on walking a precarious line between defending itself to insure its own security and peace negotiations with the Palestinian people in an effort to find a long-term solution to the ongoing refugee crisis.  I learned that unlike other countries, the Israeli military is a moral military, bound as much by the Jewish values of the sanctity of life, human dignity, and righteousness as by the mandate to protect Israel by the necessary use of force.  I trusted in a peace process that whether or not it would be achieved in my lifetime, it was a process that required removing hatred from the curriculum of children, land negotiations in good faith, and a commitment to non-violence.  But what would this idealized middle-eastern society of the future look like?  Would it be one unified state or two, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state living side by side?  These questions were typically left unanswered because neither way seemed livable for either side.  With a two-state solution, Israel would be forced to endure an ever-increasing security threat from Palestinian extremist groups, able to operate safely outside of Israel’s reach.  With a one-state solution, Palestinians would effectively become ethnically discriminated non-voting Israelis, a situation which would force us to concede the moral high-ground to those who today are unconscionably claiming that Israel is an apartheid state.

So which is it to be?  Do we advocate today for a two-state solution where Israel remains under constant threat, or a one-state solution in which Israel sacrifices its integrity?  Neither answer is very comforting and so, the status quo has remained which, even though it too is uncomfortable, at least we all agree that it is temporary.  Now, though, the latest change in US policy may have forced us down the road of the one-state solution, and we will be forced to endure the consequences of it.  By declaring that the settlements are no longer illegal, the US has opened up a new avenue for cash flow to Israel towards sponsoring settlement development.  In Toronto, we know all too well about the rising prices of urban development, and many young people are forced to live in Aurora, Sudbury, and other more remote areas of Ontario in order to find affordable housing, and this is also the case in Israel.  The Israeli government builds subsidized housing in the settlement communities for those Israelis who are unable to afford homes but until now, due to the “illegality” of the settlements, funding could not come directly from sponsors in the US for these projects.   As the gates are now open with the full blessing of the US government, we could see rapid settlement expansion into more territory that Palestinians perceive should be part of a future Palestinian state.  More expansion means that a Palestinian state is less and less likely, thus further removing the Two-State Solution from the realm of possibility.

Our parsha this week is Chayey Sarah, meaning “the life of Sarah”.  Ironically, by the second verse of our reading, Sarah has died.  Why must we begin our parsha this way, especially considering the title?  It has been a long week, but we must recall how last week’s parsha ended, with the binding of Isaac.  If we had concluded last week’s reading two verses later, the reason that Sarah died becomes apparent.  Sarah died of grief over Abraham’s near murder of their only son.  The story of the Akeda (Binding of Isaac) is perhaps the most difficult story in the entire Tanach.  It is difficult because we find ourselves placed in a morally ambiguous scenario; do we admire Abraham for his commitment to God, or do we feel sick over how Abraham could even think to sacrifice his son?  The answer is a very uncomfortably murky middle in which we hesitate to fully throw our weight behind either answer.  We hesitate because we’re waiting, hoping that a better answer will be forthcoming.  In the meantime, we debate the issues, searching, hoping to find a better solution, remembering all the while, that whichever way we choose, there are serious moral consequences that must be brought to bear.

Shabbat Shalom,
                      
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayera                      November 16, 2019 - 18 Cheshvan 5780

11/14/2019 03:56:57 PM

Nov14

Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, was a pogrom against Jews carried out by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The German authorities looked on without intervening.  The name Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed.

 

Jewish homes, hospitals and schools were ransacked as the attackers demolished buildings with sledgehammers.  The rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps.  British historian Martin Gilbert wrote that no event in the history of German Jews between 1933 and 1945 was so widely reported as it was happening, and the accounts from foreign journalists working in Germany sent shockwaves around the world.  The Times of London observed on 11 November 1938: "No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday."

 

The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the Nazi German diplomat Ernst von Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris. Estimates of fatalities caused by the attacks have varied. Early reports estimated that 91 Jews had been murdered. Modern analysis of German scholarly sources puts the figure much higher; when deaths from post-arrest maltreatment and subsequent suicides are included, the death toll climbs into the hundreds, with Richard J.  Evans estimating 638 suicide deaths.  Historians view Kristallnacht as a prelude to the Final Solution and the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.
 

With anti-Semitism on the rise throughout the world and even here in Toronto and the rest of Canada, as well as the increasing xenophobia and dehumanizing of the “other” we see and read about in the news, we must be ever-vigilant, speak out and work against such hatred to prevent another Holocaust or genocide from happening again.  The message of the Holocaust is not for Jews alone, but for all people who care about the dignity and humanity of all people.  We cannot ostracize others simply because they have different cultures, ethnicities or religions.  We are all created in the image of God and all worthy of unconditional positive regard and respect.  This is a message sorely needed in our increasingly violent world.  Eli Wiesel, the human rights advocate, Nobel Peace Prize Laurate and Holocaust survivor, said: “In the face of evil, there are no innocent bystanders.”  We cannot sit on the sidelines when hate rears its ugly head.  We must take a stand and be part of the solution to create a better, more peaceful and loving world.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Lech Lecha                November 9, 2019 - 11 Cheshvan 5780

11/04/2019 12:53:28 PM

Nov4

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

-       William Shakespeare

 

For the last few months, we have been reading the final speeches of Moses.  Up until Simchat Torah, the Torah has taken us through a hodgepodge of laws, some new and some revisited, a review of the Israelite narrative, a reaffirming of the special relationship between God and the Israelite nation, and a transition of power.  But since we’ve started over from the beginning again, there isn’t much to speak of in terms of laws, just stories of people, mythological creatures, kings and epic battles, not much unlike an episode of Game of Thrones.  At the end of the Torah, we pick apart a myriad of specific laws and explore in great detail how they impact Jewish existence and bring us closer to each other.   At the beginning of the Torah, it seems that our academic interest switches into a quest to reconcile what we know from archeological and geological history with the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, Noah and Abraham.  In doing so, we are often left with unanswered questions and an ultimatum that forces us to choose between Torah as literal truth and rationalism.  Those who know me know that whenever I am faced with this choice, that’s when I excitedly go out in search of door number three.

 

In our parsha this week, Lech-L’cha, we meet our hero, Abram.  By the end of the parsha, having demonstrated his faith and devotion, God renames him Abraham, adding the Hebrew letter “hey” from the Divine Name.  The focus of the narrative follows the story of Abraham as he travels from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, then to Canaan, then to Egypt and back again.  Meanwhile, epic battles are fought between the various kings of ancient Mesopotamia and Abraham is drawn into the fight when his nephew, Lot, is captured.  After Abraham’s fighting force frees Lot, the Torah gives us a passage that raises an eyebrow or two: “And Malchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest to the Most High God.  And he blessed him [Abram], and he said, ‘Blessed be Abram to the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth.  And blessed be the Most High God, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand,’ and he gave him a tithe from all.” (Gen. 14:18-20).  According to this passage, it would seem that Abraham is NOT the father of monotheism… Malchizedek has beaten him to it!  While we’re at it, what is Malchizedek’s story, and how did he come to believe in monotheism?  The Torah, unfortunately, doesn’t offer any information on this at all.

 

The story of Malchizedek bothered the Talmudic commentators, and forced them to come up with what at first seems like an awkward answer.  In masechet Nedarim 32b, the rabbis conclude the Malchizedek must actually be Shem, one of the three sons of Noah.  And while this may seem extremely far-fetched, we should remember that according to the Torah, there were only ten generations between Noah and Abraham, and Shem lived to be 600 years old.  But what would lead the rabbis to believe that Malchizedek’s secret identity was Shem, son of Noah?  It was because somebody had to be the transmitter the knowledge of God from the time of Noah, and Shem was the inheritor of that tradition, and Shem was Abraham’s great(x7)-grandfather.

 

Here lies the third door.  Let us set aside both the Torah as literal truth and rationalism for the moment.  The Torah insists that ever since the creation of Adam, the first Man, God has had a relationship with humanity.  And it would seem that according to the Torah timeline, Abraham might have been the first man to ‘discover’ God, he was not the only person alive at the time to ‘know’ God.  Even if Malchizedek was not Shem, Shem, who was on the ark with Noah, would have overlapped with Abraham’s lifetime by 150 years… and in all that time, you’d think that Shem would have taken an interest in a new, young, wealthy, influential man who was starting an entire civilization based on the belief in one supreme God.  If Shem and Abraham really did meet, perhaps even to transfer the mantel, what this means is that we can draw a chain of people who had knowledge of God from the first man to walk the earth to ourselves.  It would mean that our understanding of God does not come only from human experience of God, but from God, Himself, right from the very beginning.  If the story of Judaism is supposed to begin with Abraham, why does the Torah begin with creation?  Why should the stories before Abraham matter if they aren’t uniquely part of the story of Judaism?  It would seem that they are.  They teach us that the Jews did not discover God, rather, we were always destined to have a relationship with God, right from the very beginning.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Noach                                        November 2, 2019 - 4 Cheshvan 5780

10/31/2019 12:22:59 PM

Oct31

Shakespeare wrote, in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By Any Other Name would smell as sweet.” To which Albert Einstein once quipped, “But that’s Rose’s name! What are we supposed to call her if not Rose?” However, like Shakespeare, “God by any other name is still God!” In fact, Torah refers to God by several different names. Among them, the most common are Elohim and Adonai.

Dr. Ismar Schorsch, previous Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the fountainhead institution of the Conservative Movement in Judaism, points out, “As the story of Noah opens, the Torah returns to the word ‘Elohim’ for ‘God’ (Genesis 6:12-13): “When Elohim saw how corrupt the earth was… And Elohim said to Noah…. ” It is the same noun used by the Torah in Chapter 1 to depict the creation of the cosmos. Unlike the four-letter personal name of God Adonai, ‘Elohim’ is a plural form and a generic term for deity that can also serve to refer to pagan gods.” Schorsch continues by saying, “The [ancient] Rabbis did not fail to turn the distinction between these two names of God into a far-reaching theological insight. Indeed, the ineffable nature of God is precisely what gives rise to a profusion of divine names in Judaism, with each one conveying but a single aspect of God.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel, in his comments on our portion, notes that for the Rabbis, the name “Elohim” was used to portray God as the “Righteous and unbiased Judge,” while “Adonai” displayed God’s personal and intimate relationship with each individual human being. Another way of considering this is to understand “Elohim” as the Godly attribute of justice and “Adonai” as representing mercy. Both are attributes of the One God.

The “Elohim” attribute of God comes to judge the corruption in the new world and determine it must be destroyed. The “Adonai” attribute provides personal comfort and support to oah (Genesis 7:1): “And Adonai said to Noah: ‘Come, you and your entire household into the ark.’” In Genesis 7:16, both attributes of God appear, the “Elohim” who ordered the building of the ark and the destruction of the world, and the “Adonai” who personally made certain Noah and his family were safely within the ark before the flood began: “And they went in [the ark], male and female of all flesh, as Elohim commanded him; and Adonai closed the door upon him.”

Rabbi Siegel concludes: Names have meaning and significance. “Noah”, meaning “pleasant and comforting”, aptly describes the character of this man. So, too, the first humans: “Adam,” meaning “earth” or “earthly,” came from the “dust of the earth,” and “Eve,” meaning “mother of life,” is the first woman to experience the divine gift of procreation. God also has names from which we learn that this world will be ruled justly, but God’s justice will never turn a blind eye to mercy and personal caring

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Bereshit                              October 26, 2019 - 27 Tishrei 5780

10/25/2019 10:39:07 AM

Oct25

 “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930),
author of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

 

On Kol Nidre evening this year, I was honoured to deliver a d’var tefilah on the subject of rationalism within spirituality. Many of us find it challenging to reconcile a rationalist worldview with the existence of spirituality and holiness, but I believe that these are not at all mutually exclusive.  To illustrate, I offered the story of a “fabled” holocaust artifact, that while it was a simple inanimate object, it could serve as a witness to the Nazi atrocities, a symbol to represent the murdered family who owned it, and as an enduring legacy to both the beauty and resilience of the Jewish spirit.  I argued that it is through these stories that an object can be imbued with significant religious meaning, i.e. holiness.  Congregants expressed their shock when I dramatically revealed the original artifact from my story, and since then, I was very humbled to learn that so many had found the story moving, and expressed interest in learning more about this beautiful artifact that I have since been loving calling the “Iron Hakodesh”.  And so this week, I am pleased to share the whole, original, and undramatized story.

 

One of my guilty pleasures is to watch Do-It-Yourself videos on YouTube.  These include videos on wood furniture making, wood turning, blacksmithing and antique restorations.  I find that videos like these are just as entertaining for me to watch without any sound, which makes them ideal for some relaxation before going to bed.  It was just over a week before Rosh Hashanah when one night, as I watched a completely random antique restoration video of a badly rusted charcoal clothing iron, I was very surprised to notice that the piece had Jewish symbols sculpted into it.  I didn’t immediately consider the idea that the iron was a holocaust artifact, but the fact that it was a clearly very old and beautiful looking Jewish object inspired me to learn more about it. 

 

After watching the video several times, I browsed through the comments section on the webpage.  Although the video had only been online for two weeks, it had already inspired a fair bit of discussion.  The craftsman, himself, was wondering about the symbols, describing them as a pair of lions flanking a candelabra, and a six-pointed star on the other end of the iron.  Some of the messages in the post helped identify them as Jewish symbols, the Judean lions, the menorah, and the Magen David, but there wasn’t any discussion on where the iron was found, or anybody asking about its history.  I contacted the craftsman through Facebook and I asked him where he had found it.  He replied that he found the iron at a garage sale in the Polish town of Wroclaw, and took it back to his shop in the Czech Republic to restore it.  A little bit of research on antique irons revealed that charcoal irons were used very commonly throughout Europe up to the 1940s, but irons with decorative sculpting were often custom, hand-forged pieces owned by wealthy families and not often discarded as junk.  An item with Jewish iconography hand-forged into solid cast-iron metal from pre-1940 found in Poland almost certainly indicated that this iron was a holocaust artifact.  I looked up Wroclaw on a map, and I couldn’t help but noticed that it was only about a 20 minute drive away from Auschwitz.  There was much more that I wanted to learn about the iron, but at this point, I decided that it belonged in a Jewish home, and I contacted the craftsman again to arrange the purchase.  The iron arrived at my home only two days before Yom Kippur.

 

It has been an honour to display the iron in my home as a mantel piece, and I have enjoyed bringing it to shul and telling its story.  With the help of a few members of our community, I have since learned that the town of Wroclaw was originally the German town of Breslau, and that the iron’s original owners would have mostly likely been wealthy German Jews and not Poles.  I imagine a large beautiful German Jewish home that has been empty for months after its original owners were taken by the Nazis to the camps.  I imagine a gentile family usurping the home and casting away any objects with Jewish symbols, candlesticks, a mezuzah, and it would seem, even a clothing iron.  I managed to find an expert in antique irons who has also been able offer more information.  He concluded that it was most likely made between 1910 and 1930 by a company called Moravia Ironworks, a Jewish family-owned iron goods company based out of Olomouc, in the modern day Czech Republic which specialized in iron fences, benches and housewares.  Its company logo was simply the Magen David.

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                   --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Chol Hamoed Sukkot - Day 4    October 19, 2019 - 20 Tishrei 5780

10/17/2019 04:31:03 PM

Oct17

The prayer, Hashkivenu, which we say on Friday night, contains the phrase sukkat shelomecha (“Your canopy of peace”) three times.  It concludes with the blessing, Ufros alenu Sukat shlomecha – “spread over us the Sukkah of Your peace.”  As we celebrate this Shabbat Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot, this Intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot, Rabbi Marc Rudolph asks: “what does a Sukkah have to do with peace?  Why does our prayer compare peace to a Sukkah?”

One suggestion is that like a Sukkah, peace is fragile and temporary.  Indeed!  Currently, in 2019 there are 10 active armed conflicts in the world.  Forget about peace being fragile and temporary. It seems like world peace is completely unattainable, far from our reach.  I hate to be a pessimist, but the most we can hope for, it would seem, is some respite from war and conflict in this troubled world of ours.  One worldwide organization puts together what it calls the Global Peace Index, a ranking of the amount of peace enjoyed by each country in the world. Iceland is rated the most peaceful country in the world, followed by New Zealand and Portugal. Seventeen of the top twenty countries are Western or Central European states.  The Scandinavian countries all rank in the top 20.  The United States was ranked 128th most peaceful country while Canada came in at number 6. 

The Sukkah, easily blown down by the wind, open to the elements, here for a short duration and then gone, reminds us of how difficult it is to bring lasting peace into the world.  Here is another thought about the association of a Sukkah with peace.  A Sukkah is a place of hospitality.  Hospitality is synonymous with care and protection and peace.  In former times, it was customary for a family that was eating in the Sukkah to invite at least one poor person to the dinner table.  Then there is the kabbalistic custom of Ushpizin.  On each night of the holiday, traditional Jews invite one of the seven exalted men and women of Israel to take up residence in the Sukkah – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Ruth and Esther.  Each of these exalted people also reminds us of our obligation to protect the vulnerable and the uprooted.

Hospitality is still a sacred obligation in parts of our world.  Marcus Luttrell, a US Navy SEAL, was the sole survivor of a battle in Afghanistan.  He and three other SEAL commandos were on a mission to hunt down an al-Qaeda terrorist leader hiding in a Taliban stronghold.  Injured and bleeding, he eluded six al-Qaeda assassins who were trying to finish him off.  He made his way to a Pashtun village.  The tribe took him in and risked everything to protect him.  He came under the law of hospitality, he wrote, considered “strictly non-negotiable.”  “They were committed to defend me against the Taliban until there was not one left alive.”  This same law of hospitality prompted Abraham to offer food and shelter to three strangers who happened by his home.  It is the same law of hospitality that prompted Lot to protect the angels who visited him in Sodom from the angry crowd who wanted to harm them.  We shudder at the price he was willing to pay – to hand over his daughters as a substitute – but the point is the same.  The Law of Hospitality says that we protect those who come under our roofs even at the expense of our loved ones.

Rabbi Marc Rudolph offers a final thought about the association of a Sukkah with peace.  Sukkot is the only holiday on our calendar that we publically celebrate outdoors.  In fact, although we may be tempted to build a Sukkah in our family room, and thereby avoid the cold or inclement weather of our area, it is not valid to build a Sukkah indoors.  It has to be outdoors, for all to see.  It makes perfect sense, then, that the Sukkah is such a humble dwelling.  Since they are such humble dwellings, and others will see it, they are unlikely to stir up envy — and envy is a threat to peace.

Rabbi Rudolph reminds us that when Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to seek provisions for the famine, he cautioned them not to make themselves conspicuous. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Provence, 11th century) explains that Jacob was warning them not to show that they still had provisions to eat and they were not yet going hungry.  Jacob was concerned this would stir up envy among the pagan tribes living in the area.  In a commentary to this, the Stone Chumash notes that this has been the theme of many leaders who exhorted their fellow Jews not to flaunt their wealth to their neighbors, as that can stir up envy.  “Whatever food Jacob’s family had was honestly acquired,” writes the Stone Chumash, “but even honest resources should be displayed judiciously.”

“Spread over us the Sukkah of Your peace” asks our prayer.  We are reminded in using this language that peace is fragile like a Sukkah, and impermanent.  The words “Spread over us the Sukkah of Your peace” ask God to be with us and protect us, at least as well as human beings protect and care for the guests that dwells within their homes.  “Spread over us the shelter of Your peace” teaches us that we should be modest and judicious in our possessions, for we do not wish to incur envy, which is a threat to peace.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Haazinu                                  October 12, 2019 - 13 Tishrei 5780

10/10/2019 02:43:32 PM

Oct10

“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.”

  Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973), 36th US President

 

I often find that I am often comparing Yom Kippur to running a marathon, as it seems that in so many respects, the extended metaphor illuminates many different aspects of the value and experience of the day.  Nobody that I know really “likes” running a marathon, rather, it’s the comradery and teamsmanship, the festivity, the knowledge that we are doing something healthy for ourselves, and especially, the overcoming of a challenge that we find exhilarating.  I have yet to meet someone who says to me, “you know the last two miles of the marathon, when you’re dripping in sweat, you’ve got a painful stitch under your ribcage, but you’re still far enough away from the finish line that you can’t feel any relief that it’s almost over?  Yeah, I love that part”.  It is also true that unless you train and prepare properly, a marathon can be especially painful (if not dangerous) experience.  So too, those who only come to shul on the High Holydays and have never experienced a Shabbat service, are likely going to have a much harder time deriving benefit from the Yom Kippur experience.  Just as running a marathon without training can be a physical overload, Yom Kippur without Shabbat can be a God-overload.  Still, after finishing a long day in shul, most of us come home feeling good in the knowledge that we made it to the finish line.  We’re feeling a little bit lighter, a weight off of our shoulders (or that could just be the dehydration).  But this year, unfortunately, my personal feeling of post Yom Kippur euphoria was cut short when I came home to find that while I was in shul all day, my mobile phone and credit card numbers had been hijacked to make fraudulent purchases.

 

Of course, it’s all going to be just fine.  The fraudulent purchases were reported, the cards were canceled, and somebody at Rogers is working on getting me my phone number back, but it still feels terrible.  I ran the marathon, and somebody who wasn’t part of the race stole my prize t-shirt at the end.  The negative thoughts that ran through my head were almost worthy of having to do my “Al Chet” prayers all over again.  Unfortunately, that’s the big challenge.  While our jobs as Jews are to remain committed to ma’asim tovim (good works), and leading our lives in the spirit of Torah and mitzvot, there will always be forces that try to push us off track.  It’s easy to get demoralized and frustrated as we begin to wonder whether all that effort is really worth it when it would be so much easier to maliciously take what we want from others, just as some seem to want to take from us.  Yom Kippur may be just one day, but being Jewish is a lifetime, which means that we must hold ourselves to a better standard not just one day a year, but every day.

 

This week’s parsha is Haazinu.  Moses reveals the text of a song that he has written that he will teach to the Israelite nation.  The song reminds us that God is both righteous and just, and that all corruption stems not from Him, but from mankind.  The Israelites, therefore, should take care to remember their blessings of all that God has done for them, from delivering them from slavery to sustaining them during their forty years of wandering in the desert.  The song promises that in the future, there will be times when the Israelites are tempted to turn away from God and descend into evil, but it is especially at those times that they must remember their promise to be a holy nation, to always aspire to be better.  This promise, says Moses, must supersede all of your other commitments, it must be at the forefront of your thoughts and must guide your judgement and actions “for it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life, and through this thing, you will lengthen your days upon the land to which you are crossing over the Jordan, to possess it” (Deut. 32:47).

 

Shabbat Shalom,

                                      --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayelekh                      October 5, 2019 - 6 Tishrei, 5780

10/03/2019 04:56:27 PM

Oct3

Author Agatha Christie once quipped: “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets the more interested he is in her.” And journalist Andy Rooney observed: “I’ve learned that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.” Comedienne Phyllis Diller had this to say about growing old: “I’m at an age when my back goes out more than I do.” The Torah portion “VaYelekh” also makes observations about growing old; in this case about Moses in particular. The Torah portion for this Shabbat opens with Moses saying: “I am a hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go out and come in.” Our translation reads: “I can no longer be active - and the Lord has said to me: 'You shall not go across the Jordan River.'” A hundred and twenty isn't bad—and there are two contradictory statements about Moses' condition. Here he says, “I can no longer go out and come in,” a statement of physical weakness; and in the closing verses of the Torah it says, “His eyes were not dimmed and his strength had not left him.”

The Sages of the Talmud and Midrash offer various comments: He was physically strong, but he was weak in Torah. He could no longer study and teach Torah, so he realized that his life was at an end. Another comment suggests that even if he was not weakened, he was no longer growing in strength. He was no longer acquiring new knowledge. Some people stop learning at a much younger age. Moses, always the teacher and always the learner, knew that when he stopped learning, the game was up.

However, Rabbi Harold Berman thinks there is something more to this, and Moses actually tells us what it is. Moses says: “The Lord has said to me: 'You shall not go across the Jordan River.'” God is telling Moses, “You're finished with your life's work. You have nothing more to achieve." We all know stories of people who looked forward to their retirement, finished their last day of work or went to their retirement dinner, and suddenly died. On the one hand, there is a great sense of sadness that a person did not get to enjoy the leisure time he or she had planned. On the other hand, there is a realization that most people need purpose in their lives to be able to keep on going. Some people, when they leave their life's work behind, have no real sense of what living is all about.

I feel sorry for people like that. I believe life is more than work. Life is a sharing of good things with people we love, it is in many cases the opportunity to see and enjoy children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren, telling them stories, offering them ideas, and being role models for their future.

We don't know much about Moses' children. Rabbi Berman reminds us that they are mentioned only as children, when they are born and in one other story when they join Moses wife and father-in-law following the Exodus. Unlike Aaron, whose children are active and share in the priesthood in his lifetime, Moses' sons seem to be nowhere around. Except for a strange hint in a text at the end of the book of Judges suggesting that someone might be a descendant of Moses, we never hear anything about them. There is good reason to believe that they and their mother have long since departed the scene. What we know about Moses is all work, never interested in retiring, tired of traveling, no home life that anyone speaks of, no friends that we know of; it's all leadership all the time. Everything is focused on the goal of getting these people to, and preparing them for, the Promised Land.

And here they are. Goal achieved. No more goals left. We see in this Torah portion Moses' frenetic movement from Levites, to elders, to Joshua, to closing ceremony—desperate to hold on to something important to do. Finally, he will take to writing poetry; a few parting words of verse to leave with us besides the law and the history. He can't stand the idea that there is nothing left for him to do. Perhaps, concludes Rabbi Berman, the enigmatic expression: "I can no longer go out and come in,” is best translated: “I have no place left to go, and nothing left to do.”

All we can do is feel sorry for Moses, as we feel sorry for anyone who is so wrapped up in anything that without it there is nothing left. We are grateful for all Moses has given, only saddened by the reality that he has held on to nothing for himself. Maybe he should have taken up golf? Maybe a good poker game with the guys from time to time? Maybe he should have volunteered on occasion and helped a school or orphanage? Even the greatest and busiest of people need to have a life outside their work.

Some may remember the movie City Slickers with Billy Crystal, in which the tough cowboy teaches the city guy the secret of life. “Just one thing,” he says. We disagree. Just one thing isn't enough. We need to look around us and think of many things we could do, many ways we can connect to other people, many opportunities we all have to make our lives meaningful, no matter how old we are.”

As we begin a new year may I suggest that we keep doing the most important things we do and keep getting better at doing them, but that we also bring some variety into our lives. There are people to whom we can offer support and there are causes that need our attention. There are new things to learn and places to explore. Personally, I am looking forward to many different things in many places in the year ahead. I hope you are, too. If we stop finding things to do and places to go, we have very little left.

May the year ahead be a happy and healthy one, a varied and interesting one, a year of giving and receiving, coming and going and a year of always growing into new things that will enrich every day of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Nitzavim                                September 28, 2019 - 28 Elul 5779

09/26/2019 02:36:06 PM

Sep26

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
                           
            -       Peter Pan, by James M. Barrie (1860-1937)

While it was not a mandatory study for all cantorial students, through my years at the seminary, I made it a point to take some courses in CPE, that is, Clinical Pastoral Education – the sort that our esteemed rabbi teaches at Baycrest.  Sometimes I would be chatting with hospital patients through the day about their lives and personal challenges, and sometimes I would be called in the middle of the night to be with someone in their last moments of life.  It was an extremely rewarding, but also an emotionally draining experience which would then be compounded by reliving those experiences in our class sessions so we could all learn to better support people.  Phrases such as “God works in mysterious ways”, “we cannot understand God’s big picture” and similar platitudes were often a part of our class discussions, which were rudimentary answers to the most fundamental theological question: why do bad things happen to good people?  On the one hand, it was comforting to hear that among the students in my class who represented a broad theological spectrum from Catholic priests to Presbyterian Church ministers, nobody had any better answers to this question.  On the other hand, while some of my fellow students were content to use such platitudes, I absolutely hated them.  I believed (and for the most part, still do) that very few people actually want to hear that God intended their suffering to be part of a greater purpose.  A child with cancer, a natural disaster that claims the lives of thousands, or even the Holocaust…  how do we reconcile the idea of a good God with this kind of suffering?  We do it by acknowledging that we cannot see the world from God’s perspective – perhaps six million die today so that hundreds of millions can live later?  We cannot know, and so I towed the party line.  What else could I say?  That God isn’t actually good?

The trouble is that in the Torah, God really isn’t described as “good” per se.  As we take out the Torah from the ark this Rosh Hashanah, we will recite the 13 attributes of God as they are described in the Torah – “The LORD, The LORD is a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth.  He keeps kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and acquitting the penitent” (Ex. 34:6-7).  The word “Tov – good” is decidedly absent, but that’s not the worst of it.  If we look in the Torah, it seems that the excerpt that we read on Rosh Hashanah was incomplete as it cuts off mid-sentence.  That last part about “acquitting the penitent” actually fully translates to “does NOT fully acquit the penitent, but rather visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34:7 THE REST OF IT).

In our parsha this week, Nitzavim, Moses is winding down his long speech to the assembled Israelite nation regarding God’s divine charge, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13-14).  Moses is proclaiming that the covenant, the contract of loyalty embodied in the Torah, is between God and all Israelites, and all future generations of Israelites who are not yet born.  I am no lawyer, but I can’t imagine that in Canadian law it is possible to make a contract with someone who doesn’t exist yet.  But yet, this is the nature of God’s perspective.  The problem with our perspective is not that we don’t know God’s big picture, it’s that we can’t because we simply lack the perspective.  It’s like trying to fathom the volume of the universe in cups of sugar which is about 3.57x1083 cups.  While it’s not that hard to write it on paper, to truly perceive its magnitude is a completely different story.  Similarly, the Torah is attempting, in fairly plain language, to explain the nature of God, but we lack sufficient perspective to understand.  So, of course, it offends our sensibilities.  Why would God visit iniquities of parents on their children?  Simple, because the children are under contract.  Not fair?  Maybe, but without it, children are then not entitled to a Jewish relationship with God.  God paints in large brush strokes that transcend time and space just as easily as He paints with a single fine tip, that’s the difficulty.  Bad things sometimes happen to good people because they must, and it’s not that we don’t know God’s reason, but because we can’t, and never will.  All we can do is trust in God, and this, truly, is the most fundamental definition of faith.

Shabbat Shalom,
                          
--ChazJ

09/26/2019 02:35:34 PM

Sep26

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