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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Tetzaveh                      February 16, 2019 - 11 Adar I 5779

02/11/2019 12:59:02 PM

Feb11

“One who looks around him is intelligent, one who looks within him is wise.”
            -- Matshona Dhliwayo, Zimbabwean-Canadian philosopher, author and entrepreneur

I’ve never been to Yale University, but like many Jewish scholars, I am keenly familiar with Yale’s peculiar coat of arms.  It depicts a shield with an open book placed on top, the right side of the book contains the Hebrew word “אורים” (pronounced ‘Urim’), and on the left, “תמים” (pronounced ‘Tumim’).  Below the shield is a banner with the Latin phrase “LUX ET VERITAS”, meaning “Light and Truth”.  It is something of an odd choice for an American university to have Hebrew on its coat of arms, but even stranger than this, why would the coat of arms of any university at all (let alone such a prestigious institution as Yale) reference the magical Israelite practice of divination?

Judaism has so many delicious oddities, and anyone who has ever attended one of my adult education seminars knows that I love to talk about Jewish oddities, from the mystical spells of Kabbalism to some of the ethically problematic commandments in the Torah (yes, there are a few of those).  I study them to for the love of studying Judaism, and also to see if I can find some morsel of learning that I can force-fit into a more rationalistic approach to Judaism – my kind of Judaism.  The biblical art of divination by use of the Urim and Tumim seer stones is as bizarre as it gets.

The names of the stones, Urim and Tumim, mean “Light” and “Truth” respectively, hence the Latin inscription on the banner at the bottom of the Yale coat of arms.  The motto “Light and Truth” has a rather nice ring to it, and the idea could even fit well in an academic institution, but the real meaning behind these names has to do with an ancient Israelite practice that feels very alien to most Jews today; the Urim and Tumim were a pair of magical stones used by the High Priest to magically discern the guilty from the innocent, answer all manner of unknowable questions, and even predict the future.

The Urim and Tumim make their first appearance in this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh.  The Torah describes the garments of the High Priest, including his ‘ephod’ – ‘breastplate’, emblazed with twelve gems representing each of the tribes of Israel, and then the Torah explains that the Urim and Tumim must be placed into the breastplate as well.  According to tradition, the High Priest would ask a question and the Urim would light up letters on the twelve stones of the breastplate.  The letters, however, were out of order, and the Tumim would correctly arrange them into the words that answered the High Priest’s question.  Thus the name of the Urim (Light) is derived from illuminating the letters, and the name Tumim (Truth) for rearranging the letters in correct order.  While Yale may insist on translating the word “Tumim” as “Truth”, the more correct English translation is “Perfection”.

Divination was a common practice in the ancient world. The ancient Greeks consulted oracles, the Vikings used runes, ancient Egyptians practiced scrying, and even today, it’s not hard in Toronto to find a psychic’s parlor where you can be treated to tarot cards, reading tea leaves and whatever it is that they do with their crystal ball (that you can purchase on Amazon for about fifteen bucks).  But while some of us may think low of the practice, we must all acknowledge that divination is very much native to Judaism as well, and continues to be a significant part of the culture of Jews from India, along with astrology and fortune-telling.

There’s a big difference, however, between most ancient forms of divination of the variety that Jewish Indians believe in, and your common carnival psychic.  The carnival psychic makes loosely shaped educated guesses that are designed to confuse to the point that we cannot distinguish between insight and imagination. Ancient divination practices, by contrast, typically involve exhaustive ritual designed to calm the mind, focus the spirit, and pursue knowledge already contained within oneself.  Ancient Egyptian scrying, for example, requires one to prepare in solitude, fasting, slowly and quietly bathing, and then using a focus object (such as a mirror, candle or crystal) and controlled breathing, achieve a state of heightened concentration and meditation. Personally, I like meditation, taking time out from my day to really contemplate and reflect.  It can help me understand a particularly emotional experience I had that day, or it might help me think of an exciting idea for a d’var torah.  The ideas come to me if I just give them a chance, and then it will hit me, an illumination, and everything makes sense.

In our parsha, the Torah identifies each of the gemstones on the High Priest’s breastplate by a proper name: Nofech, Sappir, Yahalom… (Ex. 28:17-20).  Their names, apparently written in Hebrew on the stones, themselves.  Tradition teaches that when using the Urim and Tumim, the Urim would light up specific letters carved on the gemstones from their names, and the Tumim would allow them to appear to the High Priest in the order that would deliver a message.  While nobody knows where the Urim and Tumim seer stones are, Mormon theology claims that they were brought to America and buried until they were discovered by the Mormon main prophet, Joseph Smith.  Smith then used the stones

to illuminate and translate a new gospel of Jesus which became the Mormon faith’s central text.  While the magical-ness of the Jewish seer stones is something that grates against modern sensibilities, I think that the concept of meditation and reflection in order to find illumination and understanding within ourselves is a very useful tool for a person of any faith.  So let us therefore remind Yale students that while they might go to university for great academic achievement, Light and Truth are more likely to be found not at Yale, but within themselves.

Shabbat Shalom,
                        
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Terumah                        February 9, 2019 - 4 Adar I 5779

02/07/2019 04:58:36 PM

Feb7

What is the tallest building in the world? The library; it has the most stories! Did you hear the joke about the roof? Never mind, it's over your head! What did one wall say to the other wall? Meet you at the corner. What area of a room is the warmest? The corner - it's always about 90 degrees! What animal can jump higher than a house? Any animal - a house can't jump.

Parshat Terumah takes us far afield from the realm of drama, but not from theater. Here, we are talking about the set. From the grandest scope to the smallest detail, the Torah describes the wonderful place where the contact with God was. Interestingly, there's a blessing for when we pass by a place where a miracle occurred: …She-assa nisim la’avoteinu bamakom hazeh, “…Who performed miracles for our ancestors in this place,” yet, as Rabbi Joel Berman points out, we don't have a blessing for Sinai, arguably the holiest of locales. We, as a people, encountered God directly at Sinai. However that happened, Sinai was the major event, when the line between the human and the divine blurred, and we all stood in the presence of God.

Tradition holds that, as descendants of those who were there, we are supposed to view ourselves as having come out of Egypt and followed Moses to Sinai. Even those who join our tribe and come under the wings of the Shehinah, once the conversion process is completed, are also supposed to see themselves as having been there. The story of the Exodus captures the imagination that needs to be told every year, as we do at Passover. And as great as the story of the Exodus is, it's not the end or even the climax of the story. Neither is walking through the Reed Sea. It's the giving of the Torah. It's Sinai. It's at Sinai where a rag tag motley group of tattered slaves became a people.

The Midrash teaches that Sinai was chosen not because it was the greatest of mounts, but because it was the most modest. God actually had to come a little further, just to “meet us half way.” This was a great Chessed, because we were not exactly in a strong bargaining position. But Sinai lost its holiness the minute we packed up and left. The holy mountain was just not holy any more. God is holy, and where God is shown or is revealed, that's the holy spot.

We don't make Sinai a shrine. If Sinai is not a shrine, what is? To the Israelites after Sinai, it was the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. That's the holy space. We have gone through the phases of seeing how the commandments created holy behavior, and how Shabbat defined holy time. Now we encounter holy space. There's a coffee table book that took the descriptions of the Mishkan, and visually reconstructed it. The book was put together a very religious artist, and it is in fact very beautiful, if you like that sort of thing. But, as Rabbi Berman teaches, it is not the only way to visualize the Tabernacle. That is part of the lesson. The Bible is not a picture book. We don't know exactly what the Mishkan looked like. Just as we don't know exactly what Sinai looked like, what Moses, Abraham, Isaac or Jacob looked like, we aren't given this description just so we know what it looked like, but rather we are told about the various parts of the tent so we can know what they did.

For example, we get the instructions to build an ark for the tablets of the Law. Now, there are as many ways of depicting two cherubs whose wings spread over the Ark of the Covenant as there are artists. Just as there are no descriptions of people, there is no way to actually know how the Mishkan looked. We may know more about the Temple, but since the destruction of the Temple, we have moved the center of worship to the synagogue and the home. The idea now is that we can make our home a beautiful place where God can visit. And we can do it a lot of different ways; there's no set description for adding an element of holiness to our home.

The Bible doesn't describe places or people—it leaves it up to us. Paradise will look different to everyone. When we read the stories of the Torah, we can imagine Moses or Abraham to look like our personal heroes. Some will think of actors, others will imagine relatives, and still others leaders and heroes from other contexts. The chosen image will have the most power imaginable, because it's imagined. When we read a good book, and then see the movie, is the casting ever as good as how we cast it in our heads when we read it? In the same way, holy space will be as different to different people as there are differences in the way we think. So, I guess one could say that the ultimate holy space is in our heads.

And what does God have to say about how we design our holy space to make God feel at home? There's the story of The Kotsker Rebbe, who once asked the people of his village, “Where do you find God?” They answered what they thought he wanted to hear, “God is everywhere!” He replied in Yiddish that they were only partly right: Vu m'lust ehm ah'rein, “Where you let Him in!” God is everywhere we let Him in. Here’s to hoping that our houses and our heads are places that let God in.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Mishpatim                          February 2, 2019 - 27 Shevat 5779

01/31/2019 02:34:11 PM

Jan31

“We are like icebergs in the ocean: one-eighth part consciousness and the rest submerged beneath the surface of articulate apprehension.”
                              
--William Gerhardie (1895-1977), British novelist, playwright

I met Rabbi Professor David Golinkin in 2013 in Ottawa at my previous synagogue, Agudath Israel.  He was “my rabbi’s rabbi”, that is, the person that my synagogue rabbi turned to when he found himself hopelessly stuck on a rabbinical problem.  That, and Rabbi Golinkin also happened (and continues) to be the Rosh Yeshiva of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, one among the most prestigious institutions churning out freshly minted rabbis, fit for the modern era… and he plays guitar, of course.  Ever since meeting him, I’ve been on his e-mail list, receiving brilliant weekly commentaries on the week’s parsha, which, I assume he writes in his spare time when he’s not at a gig.

In the text of his comments this week, he referenced a passage in rabbinic literature that I hadn’t learned before, and it took me by complete surprise.  According to Talmud Yerushalmi Brachot, the Great Sages had, at one point in Jewish history, decided to remove any mention of the Ten Commandments from the liturgy, citing the reason that ‘the heretics’ might believe that nothing else besides the Ten Commandments were received at Sinai.  To this very day, we can scour the siddur as much as we like, but we won’t find any mention of the Big Ten. 

Isn’t it strange that in most synagogue sanctuaries around the world (including our own), we will almost always find some kind of artistic depiction of the two tablets, or a representation of the text of the Ten Commandments.  Only last week, our entire congregation was called to its feet as the commandments were read from the Torah.  We as Jews, and indeed, all Abrahamic religions, recognize the centrality of the Ten Commandments, and yet, for some reason, we do not refer to them anywhere in our siddur.

As it happens, it is not the practice of all congregations to rise when the Ten Commandments are recited.  In fact, there is an ongoing rabbinic dispute that even crosses denominational lines as to whether the custom of standing for the Ten Commandments is appropriate.  The rabbis who condemn this practice argue that standing for the reading of the commandments encourages the belief these ten are more important than the other 603. Judaism teaches that although there is a hierarchy to some commandments in terms of practical priority, we do not teach that one commandment is any holier than another.  We are equally obligated to observe all of them.  Therefore, these rabbis argue that we should not stand for the recitation of the Ten Commandments, lest we give the wrong impression by glorifying them more than all other commandments in the Torah.

Our Great Sages of Blessed Memory were always sensitive to problems in perception.  In the entire Passover Haggadah, we won’t find any mention of Moses.  This is so that we won’t ignorantly attribute any credit for the plagues and other Exodus miracles to Moses, but God alone.  We also won’t find any mention of God in the book of Esther.  One reason among many is that the story is just too raunchy for God to be explicitly a part of (if this is news to anybody, I happily suggest listening very carefully to the Megillah this year).  While we all know that what matters most is who we are on the inside, the fact is that what people see on the outside does impact the way others view us.  We have to be careful about public perception, and avoid situations that might be misconstrued in a negative way.  The Talmud calls this 'marit ayin', 'the way it looks'.

Of course, the Ten Commandments are great.  They are solid commandments, and I have no arguments with them, but since we finished covering them last week, it's time to get down to real business.  In this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, we finally get into the guts of Torah.  Listing in great detail, the Torah begins to outline God’s rules for moral, ethical behaviour in detail.  The Torah outlines specifically what our obligations are to God, to each other, and to ourselves.  While it is certainly nice to have our slogans, “The true North, strong and free”, or “I pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands”, the real nuts and bolts of our social code lie with the establishment of our intricate legal code that defines what is and what is not permitted in our society.  So too, parshat Mishpatim pushes beyond slogans and gets into the real rules of Jewish society; slavery (‘eved ivri’), criminal legislation (‘an eye for an eye’), marriage and inheritance law, laws of war, laws of social welfare, and laws of assembly.

While our operating philosophy may be summed up in a few short words, the reality of life and societal living is deeply complex, and most of us don’t live our lives as slogans.  So too, understanding Jewish values must penetrate far beyond the categorical summaries.

The Talmud describes a man who comes to Hillel the Sage and says, “teach me all of Torah while I stand here on one foot”.  Hillel replied, “Do not do unto others that which you would not have done unto you.  This is all of Torah, the rest is commentary.  Now go and learn it.” (Tractate Shabbat 31a)

Shabbat Shalom,
            
            --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Yitro                                    January 26, 2019 - 20 Shevat 5779

01/24/2019 03:15:12 PM

Jan24

In the late 1960's a strange circumstance took place in Jerusalem. A man was visiting the morning minyan at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Neve Schechter facility there, and was given an aliyah. He chanted a variant form of Torah blessing (found in some Reconstructionist Prayer Books) that says: asher kervanu la’avodato, v'natan lanu et Torato – “Who (God) has brought us closer to His service, and gave us His Torah.” Whereupon, the scholar in residence asked him to use the blessing found in every traditional siddur and the guest refused. It was a controversy for the students there that day. Seminarians asked the professor why it was so vitally important to him to have the exact blessing form. Isn't hospitality to a guest more important than the exact form of blessing over the Torah? His answer was that the individual had denied the vital principle of Divine Selection of Israel found in the prayer that many of us recall: asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim – “who has chosen us from all nations.” The professor said that we cannot deny the Divine Selection of Israel and its responsibility for fulfilling the commandments given by God in love.

We first read of the Divine Selection of Israel in the portion of Yitro, and, that is, with conditions (Exodus 19:5): “And if you obey my voice and fulfill my commandments, you shall be my treasure above all peoples.” It appears that God’s selection of us as the “Chosen People” (more correctly, the “treasured people”) is conditional based on our willingness to obey God and live by God’s commandments. If so, then God will choose us to be God’s treasured people, rather than we choosing God. Moreover, the prophets Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Ezekiel each echo the thought. In fact, the three select the exact same phrase in Hebrew of soothing in their respective messages: as we read in Hebrew, v’hayu li l’am, “and they shall be my people.”

Of all the important parts of the Torah, surely the Ten Commandments are among the most notable. Of all the portions of the Torah, then, today's reading is one of the most important and among the most memorized. However, in looking so closely at the Decalogue we unfortunately tend to downplay God's election and adoption of the Israelite people and God’s challenge to us to be God’s People.  These themes in Yitro appear before the narrative describing the Revelation.  This verbal expression which affirms the special relationship between God and our ancestors, before the experience at Sinai has unfolded, is both energizing and full of rich expectations.

When we study the texts surrounding the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, we cannot help but notice that the Revelation is only AFTER we hear the declaration by God: “And you shall be to me a treasure among peoples.”  It reminds us that there is responsibility to keep earning that description. The fact of Israel's being God's people and that we may be unified by God's love for Israel is quite special.  It may even be more significant for the future of the Jewish people.

Yet, questions remain: "How shall we earn the status of being God's people," as the text indicates: “My People”  Is it in mitzvot?  Is it in recollection that God elevates us by obligations? Can we elevate ourselves by taking the mitzvot more seriously?  What do we do with the conditional "if" as in, "If they obey me and fulfill my commandments, then you shall be to me a treasure beyond all the nations."  Doesn't it mean that we have to earn the title time and again of being God's treasure?  This is a theme that gets reaffirmation in the portion of Behukotai, with the fuller description, "And I will walk among you, and I will be your God and you shall be my people. " What is significant is that the Torah invites us to see deeper: And you shall be to me a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People.  We need to make choices to warrant that description and we need to help others see their potential in being seen as part of that sacred job description.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor's Comments - Parshat B'shalach                         January 19, 2019 - 13 Shevat 5779

01/18/2019 10:31:23 AM

Jan18

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
                                                                           
- C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), author

I was talking to a woman I met on a vacation some time ago, and upon seeing my kippah, she said “you know, I’ve always found Jews to be such lovely, moral and highly educated people”.  To be honest, I felt awkward in the moment I heard her say it, but I shrugged it off.  Her statement was an uncomfortable and politically incorrect faux pas, but I could clearly see that she had intended it to be both friendly and complimentary, and I wasn’t about to launch into a debate about positive stereotyping and antisemitism while on vacation.

Throughout history, for better or for worse, the portrait of a Jew has existed in the minds of the masses as a caricature.  It was true for Shakespeare as he conceived the character of Shylock, it was true in Nazi propaganda cartoons, and even though she perceived her caricature as positive, it was still just as true for my vacation friend.  Jews, like most people, come in all varieties.  There are Jews that are great with money and accounting, and Jews that aren’t. There are that are very highly educated, and there are Jews that aren’t. There are Jews who are honest, moral, socially responsible people, and there are Jews who lie, cheat and steal (kosher is a meal option in Canadian prisons).  That said, as a Jew, I believe that one of the many advantages of being Jewish is that learning Torah will help guide me towards the more honest, moral and socially responsible life.  Despite this, Jewish stereotypes, it would seem, are a constant and continuing problem for the Jewish people… and God started it.

Twice in the Torah (Ex. 32:9 & Deut. 9:13) God calls the Jews “am k’shei oref”, “a stiff-necked people”. From the context of the Torah and the help of the great commentators we understand this to mean that God is calling the Israelites belligerent, stubborn, fickle, and simply, always complaining.  Of course we want to deny that this describes the Jewish people as a whole, but at least in the story of the Torah, it’s completely true (of course, Jewish complaining is perfectly true, Torah or otherwise).

The Israelites cry to God many times during the wandering in the desert wilderness for food and water, for fear of threatening armies and for relief from suffering.  Although these seem like very legitimate things to be concerned about, they are only concerning when you remove God from the equation.  Context is key. The biblical narrative is best described as a record of the God’s interaction with the world. God can and should be expected to be present in all things in the Torah. Up to our parsha this week, B’shalach, in the book of Sh’mot, God has caused ten terrifying plagues to fall upon Egypt, pillars of fire and smoke to protect and guide their camp, and in the climax of the story, the Red Sea splits in two, allowing the Israelites to walk on dry land between walls of water. The Israelites have personally witnessed the most overt demonstration on current record of God’s immense direct power, and yet, they are concerned whether God is going to continue to provide, and make good on His promise to deliver them to the Land Flowing the Milk and Honey. While that kind of trust in God is understandably difficult for people in the modern age, the Israelites in the Torah should have no excuse.

In Parshat B’shalach, the Israelites’ journey towards becoming the “stiff-necked” nation begins, and it’s easy to forgive them at first. Before the splitting of the sea, when the Egyptians were still pursuing the Israelites, they are understandably afraid for their lives. They say to Moses, “is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Isn't this the thing [about] which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert?” (Ex. 14:11-12). Although they had already just witnessed ten divine plagues, perhaps they might have thought that after the plagues, God had finished his part and was now about to leave them to die. But of course, we know what happens next. The sea miraculously parts, the Jews pass through safely, while the Egyptians drown. But despite this further demonstration of power, only one chapter later, the Israelites are complaining again about the lack of water. Not only do they find water moments later, but Moses even miraculously sweetens the water that was originally bitter. One chapter later, the Israelites are complaining about their food, and then about other provisions in the chapter after that.

So it seems we are, indeed, a stiff-necked people, indeed. But some years ago I attended a lecture by Rabbi Wayne Allen, who taught that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He pointed out that stiff-necked people are so because they are dissatisfied, and they can only be dissatisfied if something has not sufficiently met expectations. While to many people like this may come across as pretentious, it is important to note that what they are doing is demanding integrity from us. They believe that we can do better, and if we are all honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that most of the time we can, and the question we ask ourselves is not “can I?’ but rather, “is it worth my effort?”

It’s true that ‘chutzpah’, ‘cheekiness’ is somehow embedded within Jewish culture. But what is that really? It is the audacity to break through our secular Canadian polite façade once in a while, and risk making a scene by calling someone out for demonstrating a lack of integrity. This is particularly true within the Jewish community. Are we really “lovely, moral, highly educated people”? All I can say is that at the very least, one of our cultural oddities is that we certainly set the bar very high for one another when it comes to morality, education, success and many other qualities. If that makes us ‘stiff-necked’, it doesn’t sound too terrible.

Shabbat Shalom,
                          --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Bo                                      January 12, 2019 - 6 Shevat 5779

01/07/2019 02:47:07 PM

Jan7

A man was very eager to meet his future son in law.  His daughter had gotten engaged unexpectedly and this weekend would be their first time meeting him.  He told all of his friends at work he had a whole list of questions to ask this young man.

On Sunday morning he invited his soon to be son-in-law out for a cup of coffee.  As they began to talk, the father quickly found himself asking the questions that were weighing on his mind.  “Do you have a job?  I know you just finished college and all, but how do you plan to support yourself and my daughter?”  The young man paused and said, “Well, God will provide.”

The father then asked his second question, “Where do you intend to live?  Do you have a house or apartment lined up for after the wedding?”  The young man paused and again, and with much conviction said, “God will provide.”

The father waited a few moments before launching into his third question.  “Son, do you have any money?  Any savings?  A financial nest egg?”  The young man looked him right in the eye and said again, “God will provide.”

The following Monday all of the father’s co-workers were curious to find out how it had gone meeting his future son-in-law.  The father smiled and said, "I kind of like the kid.  He thinks I am God!”

This young man had faith in God. How about us?  Do we believe in God? Really believe?   This probably sounds like one question, but it’s really two. Do we believe in God? Do we really believe in God?  If we're honest with ourselves, we find that our attitudes and our actions often contradict the beliefs we hold dear.  It’s human nature.  We're flawed beings who behave inconsistently.  How could it not be that way?  The Sages tell us that we possess both the yetzer harah, impulse to evil, to selfishness, and the yetzer hatov, the impulse to goodness and altruism.

My guess is that a lot of us are saying yes!  Of course, I believe in God!  In that case, we have to ask ourselves if we act like we believe.  So, here's the next part of the question: Are God's commandments really commandments; or suggestions?  Before we answer, consider whether we incorporate these commandments into our lives.  Not just the Big Ten. Not just the ritual commandments.  Not just the ethical commandments. But the Commandments; because if the commandments are just theories, or if we believe in the commandments and don't work at keeping them, what do we really believe about God?  How each of us answers this question will determine the future of Judaism. Each of us has the ability to either strengthen or quench the light of Torah in ourselves and in others.

In the Torah reading for this week (Exodus 11:26f) we read: “And it will be that when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’"  We say this every year at the Seder on Pesach (Passover) eve. It’s not only part of the haggadah, but the reason for the Four Questions traditionally asked by the youngest child.  But when we have to answer the question, “What do you mean by this rite,” what kind of answer do we really give?

Before anyone says, “My kids are grown,” or “I don't have any children,” or even “I have taught my own children properly,” the Torah addresses this command to the plural “you.”  This is addressed to the community as a whole.  Every Jew is ultimately responsible for every other Jew.  After all, what happens at a Seder if there are no children?  The adults ask the questions!  So really, this is a question for every one of us.  Aren't we all the B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel?

But how can we assume that anyone, child or adult, is going to even ask the question?  Note, the Torah doesn't say that if your children ask, you answer.  Scripture assumes the kids will ask.  Suppose they don't!  Are we supposed to tell them to ask?  Rabbi Shaina Bacharach teaches that, first of all, if our youth don’t see worship of God, in both prayer and behavior, they’re not even going to ask.  They won't have anything to ask about.  On the other hand, if we don’t raise them to ask questions, to think independently, they’re liable to accept Torah at face value.  And lest we ask, “Rabbi, what's wrong with accepting Torah at face value?” we must ask ourselves if that's what we do.  Does the easiest, most superficial interpretation bring us closer to God or push us away.  Are there parts of Judaism we find hard to accept, at least without struggling with the issues?  If we just accept it without real thought, it won't have much meaning.  We have to plumb Torah, make it part of our lives, our consciousness.  And this is not a choice! If we don’t do this, we don’t have Judaism to pass on to another generation. If we don’t have Torah truly implanted within us, we don’t really have Judaism anymore.  We just have an ethnic identity.

The Pesach rite is based on a tremendous leap of faith.  It is belief translated into action.  It’s about the willingness to obey God, even when it means leaving our emotional comfort zone.  As Rabbi Bacharach describes, it’s about obeying God, even when we're frightened, even when it’s dark outside, whether the darkness comes from locusts that swarm and obscure the sun, or gloom that swarming and settles in so deeply we feel we can touch it, that it’s closing in on us, and we can't even find or relate to the people we love.  The Pesach rite is about obeying God even when its pitch black, like midnight in Egypt, and the wailing and howling, the pain and the grief, echo through our bones, and our only protection from horror is to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on our house.  A great Hasidic teacher, the Sefat Emet, said: The exodus from Egypt was only the beginning, the time when they came out from under Pharaoh's hand.  Afterwards, they had to enter the category of God's servants in order to receive the Torah.  Note his language: they had to enter the category of God's servants.  The Hebrew for slave is eved, but a servant is also an eved!  Same word, same root, just a question of whom one is serving. The Sefat Emet points out that until we're ready to be God's servants, we're not even capable of receiving the Torah in our own lives.

The Sefat Emet said that smearing the blood on the lintel and on the doorposts is so that they know that this is only the beginning.  Blood here does not signify death but birth and rebirth.  So, when our children, or friends, or any fellow Jew asks the question, what is this avodah, this rite, this servitude, what will we answer?  Will we simply reply that we must have a Seder meal and retell the story?  Or do we answer that this avodah, this rite, means that we're supposed to follow God and God's laws, even when it’s hard, even when we're tempted otherwise, even when the world seems black and full of pain?

The exodus from Egypt occupies a central place in Jewish thought.  This has less to do with the history, with the past, than it does in its present, ongoing nature in our own spiritual development.  Rabbi Bacharach concludes:  The holiness of the Torah lies in teaching us how to live right now.  Each and every day, we must remember the paradox of Judaism: “freedom,” better defined as “redemption,” lies in servitude to God alone. The Torah teaches us that God's light, as manifest through the commandments, is ultimately our only hope.  Belief is not thought, its action!  Otherwise, our most cherished beliefs become as worthless as claiming to love someone and but in reality abusing that person.  The Torah tells us to do the ritual and explain it to our children, but it’s tells us so much more. It tells us that this is how we're supposed to live.  We must be ready to follow God's command without hesitation, even when we fear the consequences, even when all seems black.  Yes, God did give us free will. But like we tell our children, there's a right choice and a wrong choice. And if we say they should make the right choice, but we don’t make it ourselves, they have no way to learn what the right choice really is.  So it is with God and Torah.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Vaera                              January 5, 2019 - 28 Tevet 5779

01/03/2019 05:00:33 PM

Jan3

I remember the first time I began seriously studying the book of Sh’mot [Exodus], and being oddly surprised (as a school kid might be) at how exciting studying Torah could actually be.  It was an exciting story, with larger than life characters, and all kinds of questions about what you think might have been going on in their minds as these people wrote the story of the Torah with their lives.  I remember being excruciatingly bothered by one question, which I felt that my Tanach teacher never really helped me understand very well.  As it happens in the text, before the plagues begin raining down on Egypt, God has a little chat with Moses in which He states that after each plague, “God will harden Pharaoh’s heart”.   By this means, God will essentially be forcing Pharaoh to refuse to let the Hebrews go, thereby forcibly subjecting the Egyptian people to endure an additional plague.  How could God morally justify robbing Pharaoh of his free will in deciding whether to free the Hebrew slaves?  Does this mean that we are supposed to redeem Pharaoh, to some degree, as something less infamous than THE greatest villain in Jewish history and mythos?  Can you assure me that God’s not doing something just a bit shady here?

 

In parshat Va’eira, Moses arrives before Pharaoh and demands, “let my people go”.  In our parsha, we read about eight of the times that Pharaoh refuses, and eight plagues that followed them.  The narrative is almost lyrical in Jewish ears, “And Moses said, let my people go, and Pharaoh answered, no”.  It is very easy to dismiss as meaningless dramatically floral language that the text mentions that before Pharaoh answers ‘no’, “God hardens Pharaoh’s heart”.  But taking a more careful look, it actually has a deliberate and pointed meaning that seriously impacts the cultural, and emotional connection that we have to this iconic moment that all Jews recognize. These few words force us to rebalance our understanding of how we regard each of the characters in this scene.  It is almost like the moment later in life when you learn that an old school-mate who bullied you as a child, was actually the victim of an abusive father.  You think to yourself, “I may never forgive what that person did to me, but perhaps he isn’t the villain that I thought he was”.  So too, in carefully reading the phrase, we almost feel badly for Pharaoh.

 

The great sages all noted the very obvious problem and my Tanach teacher taught me about the various answers that the different rabbis came up with.  For example, Rashi and Ramban agree that God did it because all ten plagues were not threats, but rather Divine punishment for the enslavement of the Israelites. Ibn Ezra explains that it was just God showing off in order to make the whole thing more miraculous (no kidding). Chizkuni notices that for the first few plagues, the text does not specifically say that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but only later on, which he says was therefore a punishment for refusing to listen to the word of God the first few times.  I never really found that any of the medieval commentators, though, really answered my question.  Is this FAIR? Even if Pharaoh deserved punishment, why go through the motion of forcing him to say no?  Why not just deliver all the plagues and be done with it? Who’s the show for?

 

I admit that Chizkuni’s commentary, in a rather strange way, made a bit more sense to me than the others.  I can kind of imagine God getting annoyed by Pharaoh’s first few refusals.  Each time Moses performs a miracle, such as turning his staff into a snake, Pharaoh instructs his magicians to do the same, so that he could feel confident that his gods were equal to the strength of the God of the Israelites.  The first few times, Pharaoh’s magicians are able to seemingly perform similar miracles (although Moses’ snake-staff devours the snake-staves of Pharaoh’s magicians), and Pharaoh is feeling pretty confident. God, meanwhile, is gradually losing His divine patience, and after a few little miracles and relatively minor plagues, God finally cracks and thinks, “That’s it Pharaoh… you wanna see what a REAL God can do?  Let’s go for a stroll down the rabbit hole and see just how freaky we can get.  And I’m not even gonna let you say ‘no’ anymore”. Yes, it’s a bit illustrative, but it at least addressed my burning question.  The show is for Pharaoh, for his audacious underestimation the God of the Israelites.

 

I think there is another way to look at it that speaks true to our core theological understanding.  God has a special relationship with the Jewish people. But, God is not only the god of the Jewish people, but of all peoples, whether they recognize it or not.  It is not politically correct to say that other gods of other religions are invalid and incorrect, but that is quite literally the definition of monotheism.  This means that God does must not only play on the side of the Jews, but on all sides. Or perhaps it may be more accurate to say that God isn’t playing the game at all.  He’s watching two other teams play, occasionally walking by and rearranging game pieces on both sides as He likes.  Regardless, in the story of Exodus, we see God in the role that He must play – not as the God of the Israelites verses the God of the Egyptians, but as one God, who moves all game pieces.  Kabbalism teaches us that there are ten Sephirot, aspects of God that manifest on ten spiritual planes between our world and the Infinite.  To learn to access them is to appreciate the manner in which God transcends our earth, our space and our time.  In meditation, the Kabbalist contemplates that God’s nature is that He transcends not only the rules of the game, but the game itself.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

--ChazJ

 

Rabbi's Reflections - Parshat Shemot                              December 29, 2018 - 21 Tevet 5779

12/27/2018 03:33:14 PM

Dec27

We live in a world of distraction and short attention spans. This is how it manifests: I decide to water my garden. As I turn on the hose in the driveway, I look over at my car and decide my car needs washing. As I start toward the garage, I notice that there is mail on the porch table that I brought up from the mail box earlier. I decide to go through the mail before I wash the car. I lay my car keys down on the table, put the junk mail in the garbage can under the table, and notice that the can is full. So, I decide to put the bills back on the table and take out the garbage first. But then I think, since I'm going to be near the mailbox when I take out the garbage anyway, I may as well pay the bills first. I take my check book off the table, and see that there is only 1 check left.

 

My extra checks are in my desk in the study, so I go inside the house to my desk where I find the can of Coke that I had been drinking. I'm going to look for my checks, but first I need to push the Coke aside so that I don't accidentally knock it over. I see that the Coke is getting warm, and I decide I should put it in the refrigerator to keep it cold.

 

As I head toward the kitchen with the Coke, a vase of flowers on the counter catches my eye--they need to be watered. I set the Coke down on the counter, and I discover my reading glasses that I've been searching for all morning. I decide I better put them back on my desk, but first I'm going to water the flowers. I set the glasses back down on the counter, fill a container with water and suddenly I spot the TV remote. Someone left it on the kitchen table. I realize that tonight when we go to watch TV, I will be looking for the remote, but I won't remember that it's on the kitchen table, so I decide to put it back in the den where it belongs, but first I'll water the flowers.

 

I pour some water in the flowers, but quite a bit of it spills on the floor. So, I set the remote back down on the table, get some towels and wipe up the spill. Then, I head down the hall trying to remember what I was planning to do.

 

At the end of the day: the car isn't washed, the bills aren't paid, there is a warm can of Coke sitting on the counter, the flowers don't have enough water, there is still only 1 check in my check book, I can’t find the remote, I can't find my glasses, and I don't remember what I did with the car keys.

 

Then, when I try to figure out why nothing got done today, I'm really baffled because I know I was busy all day long, and I'm really tired. I realize this is a serious problem, and I'll try to get some help for it, but first I'll check my e-mail.

 

Maybe we need to stop, pause for a moment and slow down. This served Moses well in our Torah portion this week. We begin with an account of the birth and early life of Moses. This story's central event is God's revelation and call to Moses at the burning bush. The Torah tells us that one day Moses was tending his father-in-law's sheep when he noticed a burning thorn bush. Moses says, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight.” Then we read, “When God saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him.” We can easily understand this passage to mean that the burning bush was a test; that it was only after Moses decided to stop and take notice of it that God decided to call him.

 

It has been suggested that the bush had been burning for some time and that many people had seen it, said to themselves: “Oh, a burning bush, that's cool” - and just kept on walking. What distinguished Moses was that he saw the bush, recognized it as something extraordinary, and stopped to investigate it and try to understand what it meant.

 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner sees another test in the burning bush, because the Torah tells us, “the bush was not consumed.” Rabbi Kushner writes: “How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it actually was being consumed? Even dry kindling wood is not burned up for several minutes. . . . God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes.” In other words, God wanted a leader who understood that important tasks often require a significant commitment of time.

 

Rabbi Joyce Newmark points out that today we seem to live in an “attention deficit” culture. Here's something new - try it once, if it's not everything you hoped for, forget it, and move on to the next new thing. For example, every fall (and now in winter and summer as well), television networks heavily promote the season's new shows, but if the ratings are disappointing after one or two episodes, the show is cancelled, never to be seen again. But, it's not just television shows. People want instant success and gratification from their jobs, their friends, their fitness programs, and their family lives. “Been there, done that, it didn't work, so I'm outta here.” A congregant once told me she had come to shul one Friday night, “but it wasn't spiritual, so I won't be coming back.”

 

If we watch a TV show once and decide that it's not for us, there's no real harm done. But the things that matter - a career, good health and fitness, marriage, parenting, a relationship with God - take time. Sometimes we have to invest a lot of time before you see results. If we refuse to make that investment, we will be left with nothing.

 

Moses turned away from his daily routine to see a burning bush. He stood and watched it and thought about it, and, finally, he realized that the bush continued to burn but was not consumed. It was then that God called to him, because God knew that although taking the Israelites out of Egypt and leading them to the Promised Land would take 40 years, and that those years would be filled with frustration and disappointments, Moses would not abandon his mission - because God's promise was worth waiting for.

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Vayechi                          December 22, 2018 - 14 Tevet 5779

12/21/2018 08:49:36 AM

Dec21

“The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.”
                        --Kakuzo Okakura (1862-1913), Japanese author, artist, scholar

This coming February, I will be directing the 2019 Zimriyah Toronto Inter-Hebrew-School Song Festival.  It is my second year directing for the UJA, and it’s quite a bit of fun. Some dozen or so Hebrew schools from all around Toronto are represented by their school choir, and each is given the stage to perform for the other schools.  It’s a great deal of fun for students, their parents and families, their teachers and the Jewish community as a whole.  This year, I’m working particularly hard to avoid repeating a minor fiasco that gave me quite a headache last year, and has given me pause for thought.

 

The schools that participate in Zimriyah represent a broad spectrum of Jewish life in Toronto.  Some schools are decidedly religious, representing a one of the various Orthodox communities, other schools teach about Judaism with a more exclusively cultural or Zionist approach.  It is beautiful to see all of the various denominations and backgrounds come together for the final group songs of the Zimriyah performance, but as the director, I’ve discovered that it is quite challenging to find song material that everyone can agree upon.  Last year, the theme of Zimriyah was Yiddish, and one of the songs I had suggested was a piece from a Boris Thomashevsky’s 1915 classic Yiddish Musical, The Green Millionaire.  The Song was called “Lebn Zol Columbus”, a song about Jews in New York, fresh of the boat from the ‘old country’, singing about how happy they were to be in America, the Land of Opportunity, finally free from religious and economic oppression. The song’s chorus began with a salute to America with the phrase, “Lebn Zol Columbus” – “Long Live Columbus”.

 

The song is among my favourites, and I’ve been singing it for years with various different choral groups.  I chose it for last year’s Zimiryah because it added many dimensions to the Yiddish theme – Yiddish Theatre, pre-war lower east side New York, early 20thcentury Jewish immigration the US, escape from pogroms and oppression, Jewish religious freedom in the West… a long list of historical and cultural idiom all wrapped up in one song.  It was also an easy chorus for kids to learn, so in my mind, this was the perfect song to pick.  But, we had to pull the song after complaints came back about saluting Christopher Columbus, as it is generally recognized today that Columbus committed atrocities against the indigenous American peoples.  The song also featured separate vocal lines for boys and for girls, which some complained was insensitive to those children who may not identify specifically with one of those genders.  Regardless of how I felt, personally, on these issues, what was certain was that these were not the kinds of challenges that the schools dealt with when I was a kid, and the backlash took me completely by surprise. Nevertheless, the lesson that I learned was that I have to approach this program with the same sensitivity as I would with an interfaith program, careful to always incorporate and not alienate, erring always on the side of caution.   As I choose songs for this year’s 2019 theme, Songs of the Israeli Pioneers, I am being as mindful and deliberate as I know how to be.

 

Today, walking the line of sensitivity and inclusivity is like navigating through a minefield.  We each want special attention to our individual needs, and yet we must treat everyone equally.  We all intrinsically understand that the concept of equality is distinct from sameness, but we often get caught and confused between the two when we get down to specifics.  For example, we have separate bathrooms for men and women because men and women are not the same, but both bathrooms are cleaned with the same level of care because men and women are equal.  But, what if it cost a vastly different amount of money to clean each of the bathrooms? Does equal mean that they are both cleaned regardless of cost?  Or does equal mean that we spend the same amount of money on each, and you get what you get?  Equality can mean different things to different people, which is especially problematic when you want to treat everybody equally!

 

Equality is not a very traditionally Jewish idea.  We can often demonstrate that the Torah was way ahead of its time on issues of social equality when compared to various civilizations throughout history, but by modern standards, not so much. Throughout Jewish history there have been imbalances of equality between men and women, between social castes, between those with yichus [lineage] and those without, and even between siblings (birth order traditionally determines size of inheritance).  But without the need to worry about treating everyone the same, the Torah shows us how to treat people on an individual basis.

 

Parshat Vayechi closes out the first book of the Torah.  As Jacob is in his final days, he calls his sons to him and gives

 

them his final blessings – not the same blessing, but each his own unique blessing.  Zebulun is blessed with success in sea-trade while Dan is blessed with wisdom and a sense of justice.  Naphtali is blessed with grace and speed while Issachar is likened to a sturdy donkey, blessed with prosperity in labour.  Reuben’s blessing is a chastisement for his impetuousness, while Judah is blessed with monarchy, success in battle and abundance of luxury.

 

 “Chanoch l’na’ar al pi darko” - “Teach each child according to his way” (Prov. 22:6).  As parents, we aim to love each of our children equally, but loving them equally does not mean treating them equally.  We want each of them to have the same basic things – love, success, peace, fulfillment. However, when we explore how each of these are manifest in different people, they could not be more different from one person to the next.  So we guide each child, with the same love, towards their own goals, which must obviously differ from child to child.

 

Life is often unfair.  Full Stop. That said, we try today to be more sensitive to equality and fairness, but like the case of bathroom cleanliness, if we look hard enough, we will find ways in which even those things that seem fair, are still unfair.  But there will always be those whose versions of equality differ, and so perceive personal slights against them.  Indeed, there are big issues of equality and discrimination that we as a society must tackle, and while we do, a lot will get caught in the cross-fire.  But the answer is not to give-up and say that it’s impossible to please everyone (we wouldn’t have a shul if we did that).  Instead we take the risks as they are, we adapt and change, do our best to continue the good work that needs doing, learn from our mistakes, and sometimes, clean ourselves up as we go.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

                            --ChazJ

Rabbi's Reflections - Parshat Vayegash                                  December 15, 2018 - 7 Tevet 5779

12/14/2018 02:34:13 PM

Dec14

This week I share the beautiful and meaningful words of my colleague, Rabbi Aaron Rubinger: Today’s Torah reading, Vayegash, represents the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is here, after many years of separation from his family, that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and is reunited with his aging father, Jacob. This family reunion is a highly emotional encounter and the Torah provides us with a vivid description of these events, sparing no details. First, with the brother, we read (Genesis 45:1f): “And Joseph could no longer control himself before all of his servants. And he cried out: “Have everyone withdraw from me. So there was no one else about Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said to his brothers: ‘I am Joseph. Is still my father yet live?’” And further on it reads (Genesis 45:14f): “And Joseph embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept. And Benjamin wept on his neck. And Joseph kissed all of his brothers and wept upon them.” Still later in the portion, Joseph finally sees his beloved father. And here too the scene is deeply emotional (Genesis 46:29): “And then Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father and he presented himself unto him. And fell on his neck and wept on his neck a long while.” For many of us this narrative may actually be a bit too emotional. By the standards of our day, this scene of family love marked by weeping and wailing seems highly sentimental and gushy. Here are all these adult men shedding tears, falling upon each other, openly expressing their love in such a slobbering manner.

In our own age, we tend to have a rather negative attitude towards such demonstrative expression. Particularly, it appears, we are extremely uncomfortable with this basic human act of crying. In our society shedding tears is regarded as a source of embarrassment. The discharge of tears is viewed almost as being the same as the discharge of bodily waste - it is something we wish to do alone, privately, not in public.

This is especially the case when it comes to men. Despite the sexual liberation that supposedly has taken place in our culture, men, “real men” as we say, are not supposed to cry. Our idea of what is heroic forbids such emotional displays by the male sex. Men are still supposed to be strong - tough - and resorting to tears is usually viewed as a sign of weakness. Thomas Paine wrote, "I love the man that can smile in trouble that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection." It is the man that can smile in his troubles. This is heroic and considered real manliness.

And what about women? Do real women cry? Perhaps. Yes, our culture does allow women to cry. Yet, when you think about it, you realize that this allowance is only a kind of indulgence that we grant to the so-called "weaker sex." Yes, a woman may cry, but she better not do so if she wants to be regarded as an equal to a man. If she wants to be seen as a mature, competent and strong woman, then she better put away those Kleenexes, for as the "Four Seasons" sang in the early 60's "Big Girls Don't Cry."

We have an expression for people who cry too much or too often. We call them "babies", as in cry-babies. And this idiom emphasizes our view that only infants are allowed to cry, but not real men and not even real adult women either. We don't even really want our children to cry. What are we always saying to our kids: “Stop crying, grow up!” Yes, children do cry... but not “good children,” right? “Good children,” behave themselves; good children control their emotions. What's one of the most embarrassing situations for a parent? When our children cry in front of other people. What are we to do?! We apologize to everyone around us. “I'm sorry he cried. He's not being good. I'll have to take him home. I'm so, so sorry.” It seems, that we, as a culture, have a deep-seated aversion to tears and such a strong dislike for the sound of weeping. The ultimate value of our times is self-control. We are always seeking to control our emotions. We are always attempting to portray an image of self-composure.

As a rabbi, I see this very frequently. A death has occurred and I'll go to the house to meet with the family. As we talk about the life and qualities of their loved one who has passed away, and as we start reminiscing about the various chapters of that dear person's life, some tears may start to appear in the eyes of family members. What do they do? They apologize to me. "I'm sorry, rabbi, my emotions are getting the better of me." Apologize? Why should they apologize? For loving someone? For missing someone? For having one's heart ripped apart by the tragedy of a loss? Here was a parent who gave us more love than we probably deserved; a loving mother or a gentle father who we are no longer able to be with; who we are no longer able to confide in, or share our happy or sad episodes of life with - he or she is now forever gone from our lives on earth. Should we not cry? Should we not weep? And if, God forbid, a child, a son or a daughter, has been snatched away by the cruel hands of death, why on earth should it be so imperative that we control our emotions? Real people cry, it is a mark of our humanity; its evidence of having a heart and a soul and being more than just a body!

It may surprise you to learn that our heritage actively seeks to encourage people to cry. Our rituals and solemn occasions always make room for the release of our emotions. Judaism recognizes that as human beings, we have some rather distinct qualities, perhaps not shared by other creatures of this planet, for only people know how to laugh and only people - real people - know how to cry.

One of the most beautiful images found in the Midrash is the description that the rabbis give when they portrayed Abraham as standing above the alter, as he was about to offer up Isaac his son. The ancient rabbis tell us that as Abraham held the knife in his hand, he was gazing down at his son, and Isaac was looking up towards his father. Abraham's eyes, they say, welled up with tears and the tears were dripping over and they fell directly into the eyes to Isaac. What a powerful and poetic image that is of the fathers of our nation. In Judaism, this is the real hero and this is real manliness - a man not only of faith and courage, but a man, too, of tenderness, love, and deep emotion.

Real people do cry, just as Jacob and Joseph and Joseph's brothers cried in our Torah portion this morning. Real people cry because real people love and care and hurt. Real people know tragedy and experience great joy, too. Real people have suffered and have seen loved ones suffer. Real people have real emotions and are not afraid to feel them or to show them. And so may we all.

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Miketz - Chanukah, Day 6    December 9, 2018 - 30 Kislev 5779

12/07/2018 10:25:25 AM

Dec7

“I worry a little about what is going on today in the world… antisemitism is growing, and we, the remnants of what’s left, please, keep the torch, don’t give up. Am Yisrael Chai.” 

                                         Sam Weisberg (1927 - ) holocaust survivor, past- president of                                                                                      Beth Radom Congregation, Author

When Sam says he worries about antisemitism in the modern world, it is a warning to all of us not to be taken lightly.  This week, the Azrieli Foundation published his holocaust memoirs into a book, “Carry The Torch”, and I was privileged to be present at the book launch this past Sunday.  The quote above is from his speech at the event, and the horrific irony was lost on no one there that while Sam celebrated his heroic story of survival, he felt the need to save a word in his remarks to reflect on recent events that have deeply disturbed the Jewish community.

I have been taking my time in composing a public response to the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and for that matter, the rise of antisemitism over recent years.  Since Pittsburgh, I have been trying to take careful stock of my feelings, and trying to get a sense of the way other Jews felt around the world.  Of course, we are all horrified, frightened, sad and angry over what took place.  But what is different for Jews, in the honest, practical reality of Jewish existence?  How has this event changed our thinking and our actions?  For a short time, antisemitism was discussed in the mainstream media.  It was even publicly acknowledged that there appeared to be a steep rise in anti-Semitic incidents and rhetoric in very recent years, but, as is the tendency with news cycles, they moved on.  Within the Jewish community, I have, indeed, heard that many synagogues (including our own) are evaluating and often expanding their building security to some degree, but in talking to most people, I honestly do not believe that most Jews feel an increased sense of danger in their home shuls.  But, should we?

To answer the question, I needed to do some research.  Today, it is clear that in most North American urban environments, the majority of non-Jews have at least been exposed to Jewish people.  Some of the stereotypes, such as that Jews have horns, are no longer widely believed, and in fact, according to the ADL, the average American is likely to have a favourable view of Jews as educated, charitable, resilient, industrious, upstanding citizens.  Personally, I found that attending the vigil after Pittsburgh in Toronto, and seeing so many vigils held across the US and Canada in the news, it restored a lot of my faith in humanity.  Without question, the Jewish community has many friends, but how prevalent, really, is an unfavourable attitude towards Jews?  And I don’t mean to ask how many people believe in neo-Nazi variety hatred, rather, how typical is it for a

North American to believe that Jews may be nice people, but hold too much political power?  Or that Jews control most of the world’s wealth or media?  The most recent ADL survey in 2015 (I wish I had more up-to-date data) indicates that more than 10% of Americans hold these kinds of views, but I wanted to dig deeper.

Over the last several weeks I have been cold-calling churches in Toronto.  I have been trying desperately to set up even one single meeting with a priest or minister to help me answer a few questions, most importantly among them:  How do you respond to a congregant who asks you about the Jews’ role in the death of Jesus?  In December 2015, the Vatican released a lengthy official document that stated, among other things, that “Jews do not need to be converted to find salvation, and… Catholics should work with Jews to fight antisemitism”.  That said, no church authority that I have reached out to, including the Toronto Archdiocese Interfaith Department, has responded to my question.  I intend to keep calling, and when I do get an answer, I can promise that I will not be quiet about it.

Parshat Mikketz tells the story of Joseph’s rise to power. At last, things are going well for Joseph, and by the end of the parsha, Joseph is tearfully reunited with his family and everybody will soon move to Egypt where they can live in peace and luxury.  It’s a happy ending to the first book of the Torah, but as we all know, there are still four books to go, and they are not about how easy, settled and permanent life is for the Israelites.  This has always been the story of Jewish existence.  Each year at our seder table, we read, “elah she’bechol dor vador, omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu”, “in every generation, there are those that rise against us to destroy us”.

I think that we, as a Jewish community, are too complacent.  Of course, the threat of violence is coming only from a very small minority of North American society, and at least for now, we can trust that any violent act carried out against the Jewish community is going to be met with extreme condemnation from the world at large.  But something has shifted.  It is my sense that those that already maintain some sense of anti-Semitic views, while not considering violence, are becoming more entrenched and certain of those ideas.  Those that have already been entrenched in their ideas, feel safer in expressing those ideas publically, and those that have already been comfortable expressing those ideas publically, are more emboldened to take action.  And those that have already been emboldened to take action, feel more motivated towards violent action.  I am not, however, calling the Jewish community to a more defensive position.  I do not believe that the solution lies in baring our teeth,

increasing security, cutting interfaith ties and treating the world with suspicion.  The frontline for this war is not on the doorsteps of our synagogues, but in public discourse.  We need to take back command of our own narrative, not by telling ‘our side’ of the story which invites the idea that there are two valid approaches, but by exposing the reality of it.  I don’t care what the official policy of the church’s attitude towards Jews is.  I care about the reality of what a clergyman says to his congregant.  At the same time, the Jewish community must focus its attention on our education system.  The Ryerson School of Social Work focuses a great deal of attention (and rightly so) on understanding oppression felt by the indigenous community, the LGBTQ community, the black community, and many more.  The course on antisemitism was removed from the mandatory list eight years ago, and this week, the Ryerson University’s Social Work Students’ Union has formally endorsed Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the discriminatory Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.  Holocaust studies and discussions about antisemitism is being reduced or removed from public schools, and I have meanwhile been approached to speak at a school this week in response to an apparently disturbing interpretation of a school production of the Merchant of Venice.

Rest assured, this article will continue in the coming weeks as I learn more, and delve into antisemitism on campuses, in social media, and in institution.

Shabbat Shalom,
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayeshev                                  December 1, 2018 - 23 Kislev 5779

11/29/2018 05:03:56 PM

Nov29

Genealogists take family history research very seriously. However, they, like us, all still love good genealogy humor. For example, one genealogist claimed: “My ancestors are so hard to find, they must have been in a witness protection program!” Another remarked: “I think my ancestors had several ‘bad heir’ days.” A third quipped: “Genealogy is life in the past lane!”

So, who are our ancestors? The Torah introduces our ancestors to us in a very specific formulaic way. The formulaic introduction occurs 13 times in the TaNaKh, our Hebrew Bible. The formula begins with the introductory words, Eleh Toldot, “These are the Generations of...” Then the text continues with a specific ancestor’s “proper name” followed by a term for “giving birth to.” Generally, in the formula, the father’s name precedes the off-spring’s name. And it’s logical that we’d expect the off-spring’s names to be listed in birth order, eldest first followed by younger siblings.

A few examples from the Book of Genesis: After the death of Haran, one of the three sons of Terah, the Torah’s text relates that Terah took Abram and Lot, the son of Haran, to Charan. The formula is written: “And these are the Generations of Terah.” Relating to Abraham after his experience with the binding of his son Isaac, the Torah writes, “And These are the generations of Ishmael ben Abraham” and following several verses later, “And These are the generations of Isaac ben Abraham.” In connection with the sons of Isaac, the verse, “And these are the generations of Esav,” occurs twice in the Torah.

Finally, toward the end of the story of Jacob, in this week’s portion, we read the verse, “And Jacob settled in the land of his fathers in the land of Canaan.” Followed by our formula of introduction, “These are the generations of Jacob.” The verse continues with Jacob’s name being followed by the name Joseph. According to the formulaic introduction we just described, we'd expect the name following Jacob to be the name of his eldest son, Reuben. Why does the Torah continue with the name of Joseph?

Our sages posit that this order foreshadows that what happened during Jacob’s life will occur again to Joseph in his life. Jacob’s bris is never mentioned in the Torah; neither is Joseph’s. Jacob’s mother had difficulty conceiving a child; so did Joseph’s. Jacob’s mother had two sons; so did Joseph’s. Jacob acted “as if” he was the firstborn, the bachor, even though he wasn’t; so did Joseph. Jacob’s mother had difficult labors and childbirths; so did Joseph’s. Jacob was hated by his brother; and Joseph’s brothers hated Joseph. Jacob’s brother wanted to kill him; so did Joseph’s.

Jacob was a shepherd; so was Joseph.

Jacob was deceived twice; so was Joseph.

Jacob was blessed with wealth; so was Joseph.

Jacob traveled beyond the borders of Israel; so did Joseph.

Jacob got married outside of Israel; so did Joseph.

Jacob’s sons were born outside of Israel; so were Joseph’s.

Jacob was accompanied by messengers of God, by angels; so was Joseph.

Jacob became great based on a dream; through dreams so did Joseph.

Jacob’s father-in-law was blessed on account of his merit; so was Joseph’s father-in-law.

Jacob went down to Egypt; so did Joseph.

Jacob experienced famine; famine was prevented by Joseph.

Jacob swore his sons to an oath; Joseph’s brothers swore an oath to Joseph.

Jacob commanded his sons; Joseph commanded his brothers.

Jacob died in Egypt; Joseph died in Egypt.

Jacob’s body was mummified; Joseph’s body was mummified.

Jacob’s body was buried in Israel; Joseph’s body was buried in Israel.

Our Torah foreshadows the events that will unfold for Joseph during his life. Joseph ben Rachel lived as the firstborn, the bachor, to his mother Rachel for ten years before his brother Benjamin was born and his mother Rachel died. After his mother’s dies, our Torah says Joseph “was a youth along with sons of Bilhah and Zilpah his father’s women.” Rabbi Dennis Linson observes that after years enjoying the privileges of being Rachel’s firstborn and her only son, it’s not hard to understand how difficult it must have been for Joseph to adjust to being just one of the kids of his father’s concubines and to be raised by someone other than his mother. Joseph, just like any one of us, wanted the love and attention of his parents. After his mother died, he especially wanted his father’s attention. When our Torah informs us that “Joseph brought reports to his father of what his brothers did against their father’s wishes,” we can understand that Joseph did so because he wanted to please his father and to look good in his father’s eyes.

Rabbi Linson concludes: It is good that we become aware of how much, and how far any of us are willing to go to please our parents and gain their attention. In our Torah’s formulaic text, “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph…” the word Joseph comes in the text to provide an example, an emphasis, a guidepost to each of us that we should look inside ourselves and know ourselves and our motivations well.

Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Vayishlach                                                              November 24, 2018 -

11/22/2018 03:33:41 PM

Nov22

This week's Parsha, Vayishlach is a very complex one, with battles, both anticipated and real, as one of the identifiable themes.

There are indeed various kinds of battles: those we fight within our psyches, sometimes within our families (sibling rivalry as we grew up or as we watched our children fight over a favoured something special), those where we challenge some of our institutions including schools, government, houses of worship, and physical battles fought within or between countries where differences were highlighted more than similarities.  But there are countless times and situations where similarities are the norm and the focus of the lives we live.

The recent killing spree in a synagogue in Pittsburgh was intended to highlight differences in ideology and the strength of an individual over a multitude.  The strength of Jewish community both in Pittsburgh and far beyond the borders of the United States is a tribute to the power of community for good. Jews are well known to support their own.  Many non-Jews world-wide also joined in to show support of community.

Some potential battles are avoided thanks to negotiators and mediators; in some situations the power of community more than balances the scales toward good and calm.

Community is a great equalizer, where people of many differing backgrounds, interests and beliefs find commonalities to pull themselves together, where people find a sense of belonging, of good, of tranquility and of joy.

As in Parshat Vayislach, there is an anticipation of something unknown about tomorrow, but for members of Beth Radom and within the Toronto community, the anticipation of something tomorrow is an exciting one.   Something is coming, something good (hmmm, sounds like West Side Story).  Tomorrow we will come together.  (Isn't that a Beatles song title?)  The sun will come up tomorrow (thanks Annie 😉), and there will be no rumbles in this building tomorrow.  

Tomorrow evening there will be a coming together of community, an evening of celebration of the upcoming holiday of Chanukah and inspiring and heart-warming music, an evening of harmony (in more ways than one) and another chance for a community to gather for good things.

Tomorrow evening's concert will feature friends who have been singing together off and on since their time together at Cantorial school and friends who have been singing together since their high school days, individuals who lead their congregations on both sides of the Canada-US border, and a quartet who sings and wins awards within Canada and the US and has performed in Sweden, Germany and the UK.  Quite the talented singers, all.  What brings them all together?  Their love of music, the international language, and their desire to bring people together.

Chanukah is a time of coming together, of celebration, of appreciation of being a united Jewish community and of the miracles within the Chanukah story.

We look forward to celebrating all of the good that we have and are, both at the concert tomorrow evening and throughout the holiday.

Shabbat shalom.
Barbara Lazar
Guest Writer and Concert Co-Chair

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayeitze                    November 17, 2018 - 9 Kislev 5779

11/08/2018 01:19:02 PM

Nov8

Jacob’s adventures, both this week and last, give us an interesting picture of him. Interesting, but not always flattering. He is, literally, grasping; hanging on to Esau’s heel as Esau emerges, first, from the womb, in a way that prefigures their relationship. Jacob (whose name is derived from the heel by which he tried to hold Esau back) will take things away from Esau. Having purchased the birthright (under odd conditions – Esau was starving and traded his first-born rights for some soup) and stolen, through deception, in Padan Aram, the blessings, Jacob, continues his grasping ways and makes a fortune sheepherding for his father in law, Laban. Now there seems to be nothing illegal about how he does this. In fact, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock says an interesting explanation how Jacob quite fairly and honestly made his profit from Laban’s sheep, which concludes with the words: “This was a way to thrive, and he was blessed. And thrift is blessing, if men steal it not.” Theft or not, it certainly ticks off Laban and his children, and they, perhaps disingenuously, perhaps not, accuse Jacob of tricking them.

Taken together, Jacob’s activities certainly seem to be a possible source of some of the enduring anti-Semitic stereotypes which we still hear about. Certainly we see this in the rising tide of anti-Semitism in England by way of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and the US as we witnessed in Pittsburgh. The historically untrue narrative of Jews “stealing” the country of Palestine from its “native inhabitants” certainly feeds into the stereotype of the grasping, greedy, tricky Jew. (I’ve actually always found it funny that the people who were demonstrably among the most grotesquely greedy in history, the Germans, who took the gold teeth, hair, and whatever else they could get their filthy little hands on from the millions of Jews they murdered with almost unbelievable energy and thoroughness, accused us of being money hungry).

What are we to make of Jacob’s business acumen, his ability to come out on top so often in his dealings with those around him? Is this meant to be a character trait that we should imitate (as anti-Semites, in a negative take, would say we have done), or just a quirk, a result of the difficult circumstances Jacob was faced with and his need to deal with them, and not meant to be a positive Jewish trait?

Rabbi Shimon Felix looks at the opening section of our portion for an answer. Jacob leaves home, and has the dream in which he sees a ladder witch angels ascending and descending, and receives God’s promise of the land of Israel for him and his descendants, as well as His ongoing protection. When he awakes, he expresses his excitement and wonder at God’s presence, and makes a promise: “If God will be with me, and watch over me on this road which I am traveling, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return peacefully to the house of my father, and He will be a God to me, then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, will be the House of God, and all that He gives me I will tithe to him.” This is a remarkable statement of priorities. Jacob asks for a relationship with God in which he, Jacob, is cared for, and receives his basic physical needs: “Bread to eat, and clothing to wear”, and, ultimately, a home – “the house of my father” - in the land of Israel. If all of these physical needs are met, Jacob will respond with the building of a House of God, a Temple, and he will also donate a tenth of the physical good which God has supplied to him, giving back from that which he has received.

It seems clear that Jacob’s relationship with God, his spiritual life, is predicated on the physical one. His opening words, in response to God’s presence and promise of protection, focus on the essentials of life: food, clothing, shelter. Once these basic needs are met, Jacob turns, as it were, to things spiritual, but, actually, also physical: a temple, and tithes to God. It is only once his life is arranged that he can turn to spiritual things, and even those spiritual things are expressed with the physical.

This, thinks Rabbi Felix, is what Jacob’s “grasping” nature is really all about. He understands that spirituality grows out of, and is part of, a real, lived life. It does not stand in opposition to food and drink, clothing, shelter, personal security. Rather, it grows out of them, it is based on them, and is actually part of a fully lived, fully realized life, with sibling rivalries, money worries, a wife (in Jacob’s case, wives) and kids; real conflicts, real fears, real needs. Only once that life is being lived, with a consciousness of God being here with us, supporting us, sheltering us, can we turn to issues of the spirit, the House of God, tithes (which assumes an accumulation of wealth from which we can give charity), and a life of the spirit, which must, because we are all living in the physical world, be itself rooted in “things” – temple, charity, etc.

This is the way Jews are meant to relate to the world: as the platform that enables us to have a fully realized relationship with God. Eschewing celibacy as an unnatural and abnormal negation of the creative urge, denying a spiritualized notion of poverty, and rejecting otherworldliness, Jews have embraced our physical, temporal existence, accepting that this is the place in which God has put us, and knowing that it is from here, the real world, that we are meant to relate to God and God’s values. This is what Jacob is doing when he works so hard at arranging his physical existence: a relationship with God predicated on really being and functioning in the world.

Rabbi Felix concludes: The anti-Semitic trope, which sees the Jew as too much engaged in the things of this world, is rooted in an idealized spirituality, one which denies the value of the real world. Jacob’s activities certainly seem to be a possible source of some of the enduring anti-Semitic stereotypes which we still hear about. These world-views, in theory at least, respect celibacy and poverty as ways to live truly spiritual lives, divorced from the messy reality of making money, raising kids, and building homes. The Jew, who synthesizes the two realms, who understands that there is no spirituality that makes lunch unnecessary, or that will wash the floor and do the dishes, is faulted for this insight, and blamed by people who are often themselves quite venal and mercenary, for being too involved in making a living, supporting his family, making his way in the world. These people divorce the real from the spiritual, which actually often leaves them with no moral or ethical anchor in their day to day lives – the holy stuff is for church, not for business, not for life. Jacob taught us that we only live one life, a life of eating, buying, selling, making ends meet, helping others do the same, in which it is our task to find God. God can be found nowhere else.

Shabbat Shalom

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Toledot                      November 10, 2018 - 2 Kislev 5779

11/08/2018 11:32:59 AM

Nov8

There is a great deal that I would like to share in the wake of Pittsburgh.  In the coming weeks, I will be addressing antisemitism and hatred, ordinary misconceptions of Jewish people among the gentile community, political rhetoric that stokes the fire of hatred, and more.  This week, however, in honour of our Bat Mitzvah girl, I will be postponing my detailed comments until my next Shabbat Sheet installment, and instead, I would like to offer this moving poem which was shared with me this past week.
            Shabbat Shalom,
                                    --ChazJ

WHAT’S YOUR NAME?
– by Zev
SteinbergDedicated to the baby who was to be named at the Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat morning, October 27, 2018.

Little boy, what’s your name – do you have one? 
Sweet baby, just eight days, what should we call you?

I have heard the sacred circumcision postponed for jaundiced yellow, but never before for bloodshed red.

Is your name Shalom? We long for peace in this troubled world. I hope you are Shalom.

Is your name Nachum? Oh, how we need to be comforted in our grief. I hope you are Nachum.

Is your name Raphael? Our broken hearts and bleeding souls need healing. I hope you are Raphael.

You should have been carried high into the congregation on Shabbat morning - past from loving hands to loving hands - on a cushioned pillow to receive your Jewish name. Instead your elders fell and were carried out on stretchers in plastic bags. Their names on tags.

Is your name Moshe? Our unbearable anguish and rage demands justice. I hope you are Moshe.

Is your name Ariel? We need the ferocious strength of lions to protect our people. I hope you are Ariel.

Is your name Barak? We need courageous warriors to vanquish our enemies. I hope you are Barak.

The blood on Shabbat morning was supposed to be covenantal not sacrilegious, sacramental not sacrificial, sacred not unholy. The tears were supposed to be of boundless joy not bottomless sorrow. The cries were supposed to be “mazel tov” not the mourner’s kaddish.

Is your name Simcha? We need an end to sadness by bringing joy into our world. I hope you are Simcha.

Is your name Yaron? We need an end to mourning by bringing song into our lives . I hope you are Yaron.

Is your name Matan? We need the gift of children who will bring a better tomorrow. I hope you are Matan.

So little boy, what’s your name? Take them all if you will. Take a thousand names. Be peace and Comfort and Healing. Be

Justice and Strength and Courage. Be Joy and Song and a Gift to the world. Be every good name and every good thing.

And, Sweet baby, take one more name if you will – because I hope you will be blessed with a long, blissful, beautiful and meaningful life…

I hope you are Chaim.

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Chaye Sarah              November 3, 2018 - 25 Cheshvan 5779

11/01/2018 05:04:37 PM

Nov1

Today, the least talked about subject from synagogue pulpits is interfaith marriage.  Noted Jewish historian and demographer, Jack Wertheimer, notes, “Not long ago, a Manhattan rabbi stunned his congregants by informing them that the future of the Jewish people would be secured not through trips to Israel, not through the battle against anti-Semitism, and not through the continued upward mobility of Jews, but in the bedroom. What shocked his sophisticated Upper East Side audience had nothing to do with his allusion to sex; these days, it is perfectly acceptable to speak in public about intimate behavior.  What is not permissible in polite Jewish company is an allusion to the decisions people make about their own family lives, or to the impact of those decisions on the ability of the Jewish community to sustain itself.”

The Torah gives a detailed narrative of Abraham’s effort to find the right wife for his son, Isaac.  Living in a land dominated by a Canaanite population, Abraham knows the future of God’s promise to make him the father of a great nation rests upon Isaac’s continued commitment to this vision and to his clan. Abraham’s concern is so great that he sends his servant, and not his son, to find the appropriate mate among the members of his brother’s family.  He compels his servant to take an oath that he “will not take a wife for [Abraham’s] son from the Canaanites among whom [he] dwells, but will go to the land of [Abraham’s] birth and get a wife for Isaac (Gen. 24:3-4).”  Abraham’s concern is not about the worthiness of Canaanite people, but the cultural and spiritual differences that exist.

Before 1965, the intermarriage rate for Jews was 10% (4% in Quebec).  By 1985, a demographic study found the rate to be 52% (12% in Quebec).  What changed during this time?  Were Jews less interested in being Jewish?  Maybe so, but the years between 1965 and 1985 also marked an increasing acceptance of the Jew as Canadians.  Barriers that previously prevented Jews from living in certain neighborhoods, attending certain schools, practicing medicine in certain hospitals, began to fall. Today, a Jew can live anywhere, be a part of any profession, and move freely through Canadian society.  With this openness comes increased involvement with the majority non-Jewish culture.  In 1965, Jews primarily lived, worked, and socialized within their own parochial community.  By 1985, their circles of involvement had greatly increased and, so to, the intermarriage rate.

Why marry a Jew?  Jews need Jews to be Jewish.  It is difficult enough to build a marriage and raise a healthy family.  To complicate it with different belief systems and cultural norms, that too often come into competition with one another, can make difficult almost insurmountable.  A number of non-Jewish spouses make the decision to convert, and others, who don’t convert, still agree to raise their children Jewishly.  But a larger number of Jews in an interfaith marriage decide to “drop out” of Judaism altogether.

The question we are left with is the same question Abraham had to confront- “Why be Jewish?”  Rabbi David Wolpe’s answer to this question is, “Because Judaism can teach us how to deepen our lives, to improve the world, to join with others who have the same lofty aims.  Judaism can teach us spiritual and moral mindfulness, a way of living in this world that promotes joy inside of us and also encourages ethical action.  But finally, the answer to why be Jewish must reside in the mystery of each seeking soul, trying to find its place with others and with God.”

(With appreciation to Rabbi Howard Siegel for permission to use his material in this reflection.)

Shabbat Shalom
    
                       Rabbi Geoff

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Vayera                            October 27, 2018 - 18 Cheshvan 5779

10/25/2018 04:45:45 PM

Oct25

“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” -- Socrates

 Parshat Vayera contains the single most problematic narrative in the Torah; a story that offends our modern sensibilities in the most disturbing way possible – the Binding of Isaac.  The greatest rabbinic minds throughout the centuries have all written exhaustively, attempting to find a way to render this short segment of Torah so as to diminish God’s apparent cruelty, justify Abraham’s compliance and complicity, and suss out teachable lessons for Jewish theology, morality and faith.

We are all familiar with the basic narrative:  God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  The next morning, Abraham ascends a mountain with his son, builds a sacrificial altar, and binds Isaac to it.  Abraham raises his knife over Isaac, and an angel stops him, explaining that Abraham has passed his test of faith, and Isaac is substituted with a ram.  Where do we even begin to identify all of the ethical and theological problems here? How could God ask such a thing? How could God then go back on his own word?  Was it a fair test?  Was the test, in fact, passed?  Should we applaud Abraham for his faith or should we despise him for being willing to sacrifice his son?  Does Abraham’s choice not demonstrate a failure of understanding fundamental principles of Jewish values?  Does God’s request not demonstrate a fundamental disregard for Jewish values? Is God allowed to violate His own rules? If the Torah is meant to teach us basic humanity, why is it so absent from this story, and what does that say about Judaism as a whole?

Truly, the litany of questions could fill the remaining space in this week’s Shabbat Sheet, never mind the space required to address even one of them. My objective this week, instead, is to simply derail the obnoxiously simple answer that too often ends discussions about Jewish theology:  We, human beings, have no right to question God, because in our limited capacity, we cannot appreciate God’s Divine plan.

I was serving my first pulpit in London, England, when I heard an old teacher of mine from CHAT was in town offering some advanced seminars in theology.  Back in high school, Dr. Elliott Malamet was the famous Jewish Ethics teacher that every CHAT student wanted to learn with.  His classes were as exciting and informative as they were disturbing as we tackled all kinds of ethical dilemmas from both Jewish and secular philosophy perspectives.  In London, Dr. Malamet was offering a two hour advanced theology seminar covering the Akedah, and there was no chance I would miss the opportunity to hear this one.

There were about a hundred people in attendance, from all kinds of religious backgrounds, and an hour into the lecture, it was clear that the more orthodox looking attendees were getting increasingly uncomfortable.  Dr. Malamet delved in depth into the ethical conundrums that the story presented, showing how the solutions that traditional rabbinical commentators came up with, in fact, exacerbated the theological problems they had set out to solve.  There was a man sitting next to me who had been habitually shaking his right leg as he became more annoyed with the presentation, until he finally interjected (without raising his hand) “How can we dare judge God by our moral standards when we cannot fathom God’s ultimate perspective?”

It was as though Dr. Malamet had been waiting for this question for the entire class; even annoyed that it had taken this long for someone to ask. “If we cannot judge God by the same moral standards that He expects from us,” Dr. Malamet replied, “then how can we say that God is good?”

We must be able to judge God by the moral standard He has given us, because it’s the only one we have.  We question God’s morality when someone close to us dies.  We wonder what God could be thinking when bad people prosper and good people suffer, or when we see any injustice in the world for that matter.  We wonder, where was God during the Holocaust?  Each year we seek God’s forgiveness for the sins we have committed, but must it only be a one-way street?  Some respond to injustice in the world by using it as proof positive that God does not exist, but to hold God accountable to the morality of mankind, to be angry with God, also means that the communication lines between man and God remain open both ways.  And just as we seek God’s forgiveness, we explore in our own hearts to do the same for God.

The story goes that one old Jewish man had a ritual on the eve of Yom Kippur; he would sit alone in his house with an extra empty chair across his table.  He would then pour two drinks, one for himself, and the other for the empty chair. He would then take out a small notebook and begin to read, “God, here are the list of offences I have committed against you this past year.  I oversold a pair of shoes to an unsuspecting customer.  I have committed slander against my neighbour.  I have been unkind to my eldest son.  Twice this year, I have violated the laws of Shabbat.”  After completing his lengthy list, then the man would take out a large, expensive leather bound book, and he would begin to read, “God, here are the offences you have committed this year.  A young widow died this year, leaving her six children as orphans.  A drought has caused all of the crops to fail in the next town over, and they are starving and losing their businesses.  I heard of a war many miles away that has taken thousands of lives.”  After reading each page, He finally closed the book, stared at the empty chair and raised his glass.  “God, if you can find it in your heart to forgive me my trespasses this year, I will do the same for you”.  Each year, the man imagined he would hear God’s reply, “You are too lenient, but I will accept your forgiveness”.

Shabbat Shalom,
          --ChazJ

Rabbi's Reflections - Parshat Lech Lecha                    October 20, 2018 - 11 Cheshvan 5779

10/18/2018 04:40:27 PM

Oct18

This week I share with you the thoughts of my colleague Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkley, CA:  The French philosopher Emanuel Levinas teaches that what makes Torah holy is its infinite meaning.  It is impossible to exhaust the possibilities of true Torah.  I include in the category of Torah other works of art with similarly infinite possibility- such as Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" which weaves together several classic fairy tales and creates a metaphor for growth unlike any other I've encountered.

Three parallel stories take place in "Into the Woods." Jack (of the beanstalk) visits the sky-world of the giants, Cinderella gets her chance at the palace ball, and Little Red Riding Hood ventures off the safe path after being tempted by the wolf.  Each character departs from what they knew and plunges into the unknown, encountering both incredible highs and lows.  Whereas the play begins with the classic "Once upon a time," it surely doesn't end with "happily ever after."  In fact, "happy ever after" is the title of the closing song of the first act- a true metaphor for life can't end so cleanly.

And so we turn to the parsha.  I am drawn to Lech Lecha because of its message is embodied in Abram's journey.  The story begins with "Adonai saying to Abram, “[Lech Lecha] Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1)."  Previous to God's communication all we know of Abram is that he is married to Sarai and travels with his father's family.  All very uninformative as to Abram's character!  Except this: his story sounds very typical; very ordinary; hardly the stuff of legends.

What makes Abram worthy of receiving God's word?  We have heard of no great deeds or theological speculations from the Torah the text.  The story of the idols is an early rabbinic attempt to give Abram' a monumental childhood - any childhood! - but can't begin to answer the question.  The only answer to the question can be found in the following verses: Abram went forth as Adonai had commanded, .took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:5). God speaks, Abram goes.

We live with a deep desire for routine and pattern.   Comfort is an ideal we wish for in this world.  How easy would it be to give up the luxuries we enjoy?   Now imagine leaving behind caffeine and computer, family and home, language and faith community- everything you know and understand.  Suddenly God speaks to you.  You've had no interactions with God, no one around you has heard from this One God, and your first command is: Go! Enter a thorny new life of pain and unpredictability and joy and elusive transcendence.  What would you do?

Would you go?  Take that step away from the path and take a chance at glory?  With no covenant established yet, Abram displays chance-taking and takes the first step of a holy journey.  And that first step is what our steps are every time we stop to consider: steps away from the safe and the certain.

The spiritual journey is an unending path of fluctuation and newness.  A relationship with any person includes the unquantifiable- that which can only be discovered once the mutual journey begins.  So too with God, as Sondheim says: "So it's into the woods you go again, / you have to every now and then. / Into the woods, / No telling when, / Be ready for the journey. / Into the woods / you have to grope, / but that's the way you learn to cope. / Into the woods to find there's hope / of getting through the journey."   Abram had not left the comfortable in favor of the transformative, the world would be an empty place.

And so, we begin our story: Once upon a time, a childless man named Abram and his wife Sarai began a journey with a Partner they didn't know.  There are seldom "happy ever afters” in stories of Truth, but their story included moments of Godliness and pain, loss and joy that they passed on to their children and their children's children.  You might be one of those descendants, but the only way you'll really know that you're worthy of their inheritance is if you venture yourself into the uncertain woods of faith.

Shabbat Shalom!

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

10/12/2018 12:47:06 PM

Oct12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                          --ChazJ

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

10/05/2018 12:38:31 PM

Oct5

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom!

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

09/28/2018 12:17:26 PM

Sep28

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hullin, 116A:

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

                          --ChazJ

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

09/21/2018 11:12:11 AM

Sep21

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

09/13/2018 05:21:03 PM

Sep13

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

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

“Honey, I’ll be home late.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

                       --ChazJ

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

09/07/2018 11:05:19 AM

Sep7

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

08/30/2018 05:17:25 PM

Aug30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                         
--ChazJ

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

08/23/2018 05:42:46 PM

Aug23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

08/17/2018 12:03:54 PM

Aug17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                         ChazJ

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

08/09/2018 02:47:51 PM

Aug9

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

08/02/2018 01:56:12 PM

Aug2

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

Greetings from Havana!

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Thanks.
                                      
--ChazJ

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

07/26/2018 06:27:07 PM

Jul26

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, February 21 2019 16 Adar I 5779