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

08/21/2020 08:11:44 AM

Aug21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                              --ChazJ

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

08/07/2020 08:05:47 AM

Aug7

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom, and happy belated Tu B’Av.

 

--ChazJ

 

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

07/24/2020 09:47:32 AM

Jul24

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                               --ChazJ

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

07/17/2020 02:05:49 PM

Jul17

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

07/10/2020 07:49:27 AM

Jul10

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

--ChazJ

 

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

07/03/2020 11:53:21 AM

Jul3

Cindy Kozierok

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

06/26/2020 09:51:55 AM

Jun26

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

                              --ChazJ

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

06/11/2020 02:19:34 PM

Jun11

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                            --ChazJ

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

06/05/2020 09:26:46 AM

Jun5

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

“I throw out an anchor, sir.”

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

“I throw it another anchor, sir.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom 
 

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

05/25/2020 01:24:04 PM

May25

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom

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

05/21/2020 05:02:50 PM

May21

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,   

                            --ChazJ

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

05/12/2020 08:15:18 AM

May12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

 

 

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

05/07/2020 08:47:43 AM

May7

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom

--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Yom HaAtzmaut                May 2, 2020 - 8 Iyar 5780

04/29/2020 02:26:05 PM

Apr29

As Jews we are invited to praise God before and after we eat our meals as a way to recognize and give thanks for the bounties that we receive. In the Birkat HaMazon, the blessings after we eat, we add petitions to God for a number of things: we ask God to protect our land, to protect our citizens, to release captives, to protect the armed forces, to bring peace between the children of Isaac and Ishmael, to protect the Israeli Defense Forces and to bless “Israel, the dawn of our redemption.” With all the problems of modern day Israel—corruption, bribes, extremism, religious and ethnic intolerance—how can we realistically call Israel the “dawn of our redemption?”

Perhaps we can find the answer in our recently passed Seder at Passover. One of the staples of the Passover Seder is drinking four cups of wine. The Torah Temima, a commentary by Rabbi Baruch Epstein (Belarus, 1860-1941) points out (Exodus 6:6), the vast majority of commentators and codifiers of halakhah explain that the four cups represent the four leshonot shel geulah,
“languages of redemption.” The Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:1), however, presents these four phrases not as languages of redemption, but as four distinct redemptions. The Torah Temima praises this formulation as appropriate both within the words of the Torah and within the requirement to drink four separate cups of wine. After all, why celebrate one event four separate times? According to this, God’s ultimate redemption of the People of Israel will come
in four stages—the redemption from Egypt being only one of them and it too can be subdivided into for individual acts of salvation.


But why would the Torah categorize the redemption in four independent parts? Why would the standard understanding of one redemption not suffice? Rabbi Yaakov Kranz (1741-1804), the Dubner Maggid, explains that the redemption from Egypt was characterized as four separate salvations to teach us a lesson in complacency. The Jews were challenged to not view their redemption as over once the servitude was no longer hard, nor once they were free in Egypt,
and not even when they left Egypt before receiving the Torah. Each stage of redemption was merely an introduction to the next stage. The Jews were not to become complacent; they were not to feel already redeemed. Each Jew was not to be satisfied with any one step, but should instead investigate further, to see where there was more room for redemption, and to strive for that next step.

Rabbi Samuel Dratch notes that there is another lesson to be learned: appreciation. If the redemption was one act, the Jews would not respect the significance of their unique status in each step of the redemptive process. Their national understanding would remain unchanged from one stage to another, in expectation of redemption not yet here. The easing of labor,
relief from slavery, and Exodus from Egypt would remain unappreciated, overlooked, and taken for granted because the redemptions of receiving the Torah and entering the land were not yet realized. To overlook the gifts of God with expectations of greater ones is to relate to God with ignorance and arrogance. Taken together, these two ideas form a call for an honest
understanding of the redemptive process, one that is neither complacent nor ignorant; one that both sees future growth while still acknowledging a substantive past and present.

Redemption is a process, and as is true in every process, there are many points of triumph along the way before one attains the ultimate goal. This idea is lost on many in contemporary
 society. On the one hand, there are those for whom the redemption has arrived in full. Those who read the Haftarah of Redemption on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), not out of wishful optimism or prayer, but as an accurate reflection of the state of current events. The words “and the wolf lies with the lamb” come off their lips with no sense of irony, as a perception of reality, not as a plea for a bright future. The constant assaults in the United Nations over the past ten years, the recent growth in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) movement and the constant threat of war remain happily overlooked or imagined away. These people live in a dream state; a state of arrogant comfort that is less philosophically warranted than it is naïve. They feel we have nothing left to work on, nothing left to earn. It is them the Torah addresses when it says that redemption is a long process, a process with which we should never feel complacent. There are more redemptions and more work to be done to merit them, and this work should not be dreamed away.

On the other hand, says Rabbi Dratch, lies those for whom the blessings of Eretz Yisrael, its strength and prosperity, don’t even register to their senses. Those who would more easily say “Thank God” on finding a five-dollar bill than on Eretz Yisrael being called Eretz Yisrael once again (and not Palestine). These people forget that tradition always had a future in mind. All the
blessing of modern Israel goes unobserved and unappreciated — trying to be noticed by the eyes and ears of those who are willfully asleep. They are like those who open a stocked refrigerator complaining that they have nothing to eat. Both of these camps deny an authentic evaluation of where Israel is as a nation. Both must remember that redemption comes in parts, and our current position in the process must both be appreciated and appraised.

Many want to deem Israel to be the ultimate Or LaGoyim, “light onto the nations,” in its current state; pointing to its democracy within a neighborhood of dictators, and its unprecedented advancements in technology in the last decade. These claims blissfully dream away the corruption scandals that have rocked the Israeli government in the past decade and forget that some of those at the helm of high-tech in Tel Aviv care little to nothing of being an Or LaGoyim.  But to only criticize is to miss the fact that Israel is a moral enough nation to follow the example given to us in Torah to hold the corrupt accountable, no matter the office. To only condemn is to miss the fact that the Jews behind Israeli technology startups are making the world a better, more sophisticated place. Those that point fingers at the Orthodox for abstaining from military service should nevertheless recognize the magnificence of a country in which Torah learning is more widespread than ever before. While those who chastise the military for its secular factions must first admit that it is certainly a holy endeavor to protect the Holy Land. We must honestly admit that although our “light” may flicker, it most certainly shines as well.

In the end, we must try and emulate the prayer of King David in Psalm 126, who prayed that when the Jews return Israel, hayinu kecholmim, they will be “like dreamers.” We cannot be dreaming to the point where we lose all faculty of judgment, nor can we be asleep and remain blind to the unprecedented blessing and opportunity of Israel as a state. We must reflect on ourselves, not as critics or fanatics, but as willful participants looking to bring the redemption.
We must be like dreamers in our feeling of euphoria and wonder, but pinch ourselves awake when we realize we are dreaming. A dawn of redemption has come but The Redemption has not, and we must be steadfast in making sure it does arrive while never ignoring that it is almost here.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Tazria-Metzora                  April 25, 2020 - 1 Iyar 5780

04/23/2020 10:24:01 AM

Apr23

Welcome everyone to another Beth Radom weekly video d’var torah. Today is the 13th day of the Omer, we are in our 7th week of physical isolation, but with the windchill it feels more like 3,482 weeks since any of our lives resembled any sense of normalcy. While the latest quarantine-buying craze emptied every shoppers drug mart of hair care and colouring products, I’ll be fully embracing the ancient Omer tradition of letting my beard and what’s left of my hair grow freely into a Jewish Tormund Glantsbane, a look that I figure will be very in-fashion when we all finally emerge from our homes into our post-apocalyptic world.

 

Moving on to our parsha this week, tazria-metzorah focuses on leprosy—a deadly disease that according to the Torah requires lots of washing and social isolation in the hopes that it will one day just disappear. Unrelatable, I know. But the truth is that for centuries the subject of leprosy, or Tzara’at has been something of a difficult subject to address in Judaism. This is because our Christian dominated Western society has taught us that leprosy, as described in the bible, still exists today, more correctly referred to as Hansen’s disease, a debilitating bacterial infection that causes cumulative damage over time to nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes. The term “leper” has been used pejoratively around the world, and for thousands of years to refer to people in society who were thought of as outcasts, or undesirables, whether due to illness, disfigurement or poor hygiene. According to Jewish teaching, however, our idea of what leprosy is, and let us use the more appropriate Hebrew name for it, “Tzara’at” is something quite different.

 

Medieval commentator Nachmanides teaches that Tzara’at was not a disease of the body, but rather a disease of the spirit, brought about by an absence of godliness. This is why, according to tradition, only a kohen or priest could diagnose it, and also why not only people, but also spaces such as homes and buildings could also be afflicted with the disease. In masechet Arichin, 16 amud aleph, The Talmud offers a host of reasons why a person or a place could contract tzara’at, among them gossip, murder, perjury, arrogance, theft, and envy. In a way, it is easy to see how each of these even behaves in a similar way to a disease as something as seemingly benign and harmless as a bit of juicy gossip can worsen as it is communicated to more and more people, and before long, you get a whole community that is sickened by it. It is also easy to see then, why a priest rather than a doctor, may be better equipped to deal with tzara’at, someone who specializes in repairing souls rather than repairing bodies.

 

Of course, if you’ve been watching the news as addictively as I have these days, you’ve probably seen a few modern-day priests, try as they might, to deal with the coronavirus. Just watch televangelist Kenneth Copeland try his rather creative approach…

 

On the one hand, this truly makes me want to laugh, but on the other, it makes me wonder if 6 feet of social distancing is really not enough anymore.

 

Of course, the real heroes here are all of the frontline medical workers who are risking their lives caring for patients with COVID-19, people working in grocery stores, risking their own safety in order to keep shelves stocked with the food and supplies that we all need in order to keep ourselves safe. But the truth is that there is, indeed, a spiritual dimension in which this virus is afflicting us as well. When grandparents can’t hug their grandchildren, when millions are being laid off work, when we can’t even enjoy the simple spiritual boost of a Shabbat service in shul, we are affected spiritually. This means that as bizarre as Kenneth Copeland’s methodology may be, that he actually has the right basic idea which is that while we continue to fight COVID-19 in a physical way, we must also fight it in a spiritual way. To that end, the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (CJLS), the rabbinical body that guides Conservative Jewish communities on matters of religious law has declared that this is a she’at hadechak, which means a crisis situation, but more importantly, it is a term in Jewish law that has the power to change around some big rules, similar to a government declaring a ‘state of emergency’. Last week, we recorded a full Yizkor service at the synagogue, complete with shem Hashem and mourners kaddish, and published it for our membership online. This week, for the first time, our shul community has invoked this ruling in order to create our first virtual minyan so that those who are sitting shiva can say kaddish. Without question, there are still more spiritual needs in our community to be met, such as how to celebrate this year’s dedicated and brilliant young crop of b’nei mitzvah who I must personally applaud each and every one for their commitment to their learning, their resilience, their patience and their understanding during this unprecedented time in all of our lives. To them, I say that without question, we will figure out a way to celebrate these wonderful milestones in your lives, maybe not right away, maybe not in the way you had originally envisioned, but we will celebrate with you, and it will be a celebration that comes with an amazing story to tell your own grandchildren about someday. We do these things especially at a time like this because coronavirus is NOT Tza’arat. It was not born out of an absence of godliness, it may affect our spirit, but it is not a disease of the spirit. We know this because even though our spirits may be suffering, they are clearly fighting for us and not against us. When a kohen diagnoses a house or a building with Tzara’at, the Torah tells us that if it appears uncurable, the building must be demolished, as oftentimes places that are focal points for gossip, arrogance and envy will always be so unless they are destroyed. By contrast, this pandemic has only shown us that the spirit of our community is indeed strong, and that its power and influence extends beyond our synagogue building and can be manifested in any place where it needs to be. So with that, I’d like to remind everyone out there listening to this message that our shul is here and ready for you if and when you need it in this sha’at hadechak, this time of crisis. Our community’s collective spirit is ready to travel wherever it needs to be.

 

Stay healthy and safe, and have a shabbat shalom.

 

--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Shemini                              April 18, 2020 - 24 Nisan 5780

04/13/2020 11:55:18 AM

Apr13

The frequent juxtaposition in the liturgical calendar of Yom HaShoah v'HaGevurah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and the text in the Torah portion of Shemini describing the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu often leads commentators to speculate on a fundamental similarity: Nadav and Avihu were consumed by fire, not unlike the six million who perished in the Shoah. However, a close reading of this incident recorded in the Midrash suggests that there is a difference rather than similarity between these two events, and, from that difference, we can derive an imperative how to promote meaningful Jewish continuity and survival.

In our Torah portion, Nadav and Avihu are Aaron's son who each take a fire pan and place incense on it (Lev. 10:1-2): “...and they offered before the Lord alien fire which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord." The Midrash, various collections of Biblical exegesis, offers a number of commentaries on this event, each attempting to explain the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. According to many readings of the text, Aaron's sons were punished by divine fire, and the Sages differ only in determining their offense that ranged from intoxication to innovating an incense ritual to even presumption of their father's position. 

We can understand how some today might have perceived a parallel between the deaths of Nadav and Avihu in fire and the annihilation of European Jewry, and like the Midrash only leave it to modern commentators to speculate on the offenses of the victims which would justify their fate. Rabbi Dov Lerner, however, believes that this approach is at least unfortunate perspective to take, and may even border on obscenity.

First, he says, the Midrash is far more comprehensive in its attempts to understand the Torah narrative; the “punishment" interpretation is but one selection from many suggestions. Secondly, he points out that many believe that the Shoah was not a punishment; it was a human tragedy of cosmic proportions. It is beyond our ability and our privilege to sit in judgment on what offense(s) would be sufficient for divine judgment condemning six million men, women and children indiscriminately to death! (Perhaps it would be more appropriate that we be judged—rather than judge—for the human failures that permitted the Shoah to occur.) 

However, when one reads the Torah narrative further, there is a contradiction (Lev. 10:4-5): “Moses called Michael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, 'Come forward and carry your kinsmen away from the front of the sanctuary to a place outside the camp.' They came forward and carried them out of the camp by their tunics.” If they were consumed by fire, how could their bodies still be in existence? Reconciling this contradiction, one Sage in the Midrash suggests that the divine fire entered their mouths and consumed only their souls, leaving the bodies untouched. This Midrash now denies any parallel to the Shoah, but it is nonetheless related. 

In the Shoah, we know that even while the Jews were forced to wait for their destruction, they conducted schools, studied sacred texts, maintained Jewish commitment to the Jewish ritual calendar. We have a Shoah literature, books of rabbinic responsa to the questions posed by Jews who were living the horrors of the ghettos and the camps, and even children's poetry which survived their authors who did not. 

Based upon this Midrash, if anything emerges in the juxtaposition of the portion of Shemini and the Holocaust, it is that Nadav and Avihu lost their souls, but continued to survive physically. In the Shoah, the bodies of the Jewish People were consumed by the flames, but they retained their souls until the last moment. 

Rabbi Lerner further points out that in the liturgy of the Martyrology for Yom Kippur, one of the images we recall is that of a Sage, wrapped in a sefer Torah and wet wool to slow his death by fire. As the flames begin to consume him, he announces that he sees Hebrew letters rising to heaven. We sense that both the Torah text and the learning of the Sage were both ascending as the letters of the Alef-Bet in the fire and smoke. There was content which was to be studied and the Jewish People were educated to their tradition. 

Our challenge today is that we are a generation of Nadav and Avihu. While we continue to have Jews born into physical existence, too many have no Jewish souls; too many are unaware of a meaningful Jewish life style; too many are unconcerned about the Jewish heritage they have lost. They have rejected what they so frequently don't even know or understand. There is a the story of a young man who tells the Rabbi, “I’m am an apikores, a heretic.” Asked the Rabbi, “What yeshiva did you attend?” He answered, “I didn't attend a yeshiva; I told you, I am an apikores.” The Rabbi asked again, “Then in what heder did you study, with what tutor did you study?” Again the young man made it clear he had not studied at all. Said the Rabbi, “You are not an apikores; you don't know enough to be an apikores. You, young man, are unfortunately just an ignoramus.” 

The remedy is not new, but it needs additional restatement. We need to feed the souls of our Jews today, in programs addressing all ages. Rabbi Lerner rightly concludes that we need to provide the content of Jewish learning and the skills of asking questions and weighing answers. We need to provide the alternatives which our tradition has preserved, which model flexibility and survivability, rather than postulate absolute catechisms of “fact” and “truth.” And, we must supplement academic, cognitive learning with affective, effective hands-on Jewish life experiences which celebrate the simcha shel mitzvah,” the joy of living Jewishly.

The greatest tragedy of this generation would be to force the survivors of the Shoah who witnessed the physical destruction of so many of our Jewish People to then witness the needless annihilation of the American Jewish soul.

Shabbat Shalom!

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

04/07/2020 12:57:16 PM

Apr7

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Chag Kasher v’Sam’each,
                                              --ChazJ

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

03/31/2020 02:57:54 PM

Mar31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

03/26/2020 09:41:50 AM

Mar26

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

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

 

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

 

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

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


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

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                                 --ChazJ

 

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

03/18/2020 09:50:22 AM

Mar18

Rabbi Geoff

 

 

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

 

Love has not been cancelled.

Mercy has not been cancelled.

Prayer has not been cancelled.

Attentiveness has not been cancelled.

Goodness has not been cancelled.

Thanksgiving has not been cancelled.

Loving relationships have not been cancelled.

Kindness has not been cancelled.

Music has not been cancelled.

Conversations have not been cancelled.

Learning has not been cancelled.

Poetry and storytelling has not been cancelled.

Courage has not been cancelled.

Meditation and contemplation have not been cancelled.

Painting and dancing has not been cancelled.

Families have not been cancelled.

Community and solidarity has not been cancelled.

Faith has not been cancelled.

Hope has not been cancelled.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Be well.

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

03/13/2020 06:27:57 AM

Mar13

Cantor Jeremy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                        --ChazJ

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

03/06/2020 11:50:34 AM

Mar6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

02/20/2020 12:20:26 PM

Feb20

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

--Bob Dylan (1941-)

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                          --ChazJ

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

02/19/2020 03:42:16 PM

Feb19

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

02/13/2020 12:42:40 PM

Feb13

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                             --ChazJ

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

02/06/2020 05:47:44 PM

Feb6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(With thanks to Rabbi David Greenspan)                   Shabbat Shalom!

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

01/30/2020 10:25:44 AM

Jan30

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                            
--ChazJ

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

01/24/2020 10:48:18 AM

Jan24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

01/16/2020 03:14:49 PM

Jan16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Joshua Kulp, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty & Rosh Yeshiva

Sun, September 20 2020 2 Tishrei 5781