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

12/05/2019 10:51:24 AM

Dec5

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                                --ChazJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11/27/2019 10:54:48 AM

Nov27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

11/21/2019 04:54:49 PM

Nov21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                      
--ChazJ

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

11/14/2019 03:56:57 PM

Nov14

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Shabbat Shalom!

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

11/04/2019 12:53:28 PM

Nov4

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

-       William Shakespeare

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

--ChazJ

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

10/31/2019 12:22:59 PM

Oct31

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

10/25/2019 10:39:07 AM

Oct25

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,
                   --ChazJ

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

10/17/2019 04:31:03 PM

Oct17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

10/10/2019 02:43:32 PM

Oct10

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

                                      --ChazJ

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

10/03/2019 04:56:27 PM

Oct3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

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

09/26/2019 02:36:06 PM

Sep26

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                          
--ChazJ

09/26/2019 02:35:34 PM

Sep26

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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Ki Tavo                      September 21, 2019 - 21 Elul 5779

09/19/2019 05:50:40 PM

Sep19

Yiddish is a colorful language.  There is no other language I know of in which a curse can sound like a blessing.  Here is a selection of curses from Nahum Stutchkoff's Thesaurus of the Yiddish Language:

 

  1. Ale tsores vos ikh hob oyf mayn hartsn, zoln oysgeyn tsu zayn kop.
              (All problems I have in my heart, should go to his head.)
  2. Eyn imglik iz far im veynik.
              (One misfortune is too few for him.)
  3. Khasene hobn zol er mit di malekh hamoves tokhter.
              (He should marry the daughter of the Angel of Death.)
  4. Oyf doktoyrim zol er dos avekgebn.
              (He should give it all away to doctors.)
  5. Zalts im in di oygen, feffer im in di noz.
              (Throw salt in his eyes, pepper in his nose.)
  6. Trinkn zoln im piavkes.
              (Leeches should drink him dry.)
  7. Gut zol oyf im onshikn fin di tsen makes di beste.
              (God should visit upon him the best of the Ten Plagues.)
  8. Ale tseyn zoln bay im aroysfaln, not eyner zol im blaybn oyf tsonveytung.
              (All his teeth should fall out except one to make him suffer.)
  9. Migulgl zol er vern in a henglayhter, by tog zol er hengen, un bay nakht zol er brenen.
              (He should be transformed into a chandelier, to hang by day and to burn by night.)
  10. Zayn mazl zol im layhtn vi di levone in sof khoydesh.
              (His luck should be as bright as a new moon.)

Yet none of these curses are as threatening as those found in this week’s Torah portion of Ki Tavo.  In this week’s Torah portion, the end draws near for Moses.  The journey is completed.  The Israelites have been reminded of their obligations to their people, their land, and their God.  Now Moses brings closure to 40 years of “people-building” with a ceremony of rewards & punishments.  If they follow God’s path of mitzvot, these will be their gains.  If they choose not to follow, these will be their losses.  The list of blessings and curses in Ki Tavo is interestingly unbalanced.  There are 55 verses of curse and only 14 verses of blessing!  What we have is a unique insight into human behavior and further evidence of God’s existence.


Rabbi Howard Siegel points out that humankind is not born with an innate sense of good.  Neither are we born with a natural inclination toward evil.  People are simply born! Unlike the animal world which is instinctively wired, humankind develops instincts based on background and environment.  An infant is born into an existence of complete selfishness.  Everything is done for him/her.  As the infant grows into adolescence, the child begins learning responsibility; not just for oneself, but for community, as well.  He/she learns how good and wonderful the world can be.  This alone does not compel the youngster to abandon his/her narcissistic roots.  Therefore, the parent/teacher instructs the child in the consequences of not assuming responsibility.

The Israelites, after 40 years of adolescence, prepare to take on the responsibilities of adulthood.  Like many children, they’ve learned their lessons the hard way.  Now, in a concluding ceremony, they are reminded if they want the blessings of a good place to live, children, wealth, and peaceful interaction with neighbors and friends, they’d better heed the words of the Torah; not to, could be disastrous.  The Torah portion reminds all of us that the good life is the result of taking obligation, responsibility and commitment seriously.  A colleague of mine was asked, “How do you know God exists?”  He responded, “There is no other way to explain why people choose to do good!” Our sense of responsibility, though not innate, is divinely-inspired!

 

                     Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Ki Tetze                            September 14, 2019 - 14 Elul, 5779

09/11/2019 05:23:45 PM

Sep11

“A little bit of mercy makes the world less cold, and more just.”

-      Pope Francis

The summer is drawing to a close, kids are back in school, routines are readjusting, and once again, the High Holydays are getting close.  There is always a different flavour in the air this time of year, and in the Jewish calendar, it is called the Season of Repentance. Every morning after prayer services, we sound the shofar to remind us of this; a reminder that we all have some important soul work to do, ideally before Rosh Hashanah arrives.  We are meant to use this time to take a spiritual inventory of ourselves, recall the things we have done, good and bad, over the past year, make restitutions where they may be require, and explore areas for self-improvement for the year to come.  Ultimately, however, when the High Holydays begin, tradition teaches that each of us will come to account before God alone, and the Supreme Judge will pass his judgement upon us as we hope to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for another year.  Luckily for us, “El melech yoshev al kiseh rachamim – The Lord King sits upon the Throne of Mercy - this quote from the High Holydays liturgy reminds us that despite the forcefulness of Jewish law, God airs on the side of mercy in all cases. I think that that makes God, in many ways, a Conservative Jew.  Like Conservative Judaism, where ancient Jewish law is forced to find some reconciliation with modernity, God, in His capacity as Judge, mediates between the stricture of Jewish law and the reality of what it means to be human.

As we near the end of the Torah, Parshat Ki Tetzeh offers us kitchen sink collection of important commandments.  We see everything from family law to the treatment of animals, from healthy agricultural practices to foreign policy.  Many of the mitzvot contained in the this parsha are ones we all love to remember, laws that make us feel good about who we are as Jews as they demonstrate to the world how progressive our society was during a time when other civilizations still practiced human sacrifice, laws that makes us feel that we are deserving of the adage “a light unto the nations”.  Then there are those few laws that seem a little bit odd and seemingly without explicit purpose except perhaps to teach us that mindfulness in all aspects of life is an important philosophy – an example of this is the law of shatnez, the prohibition of wearing a garment made with intertwined linen and wool fibers.  But amidst the many sensible laws and the few odd ones, there is one in particular that stands out in our parsha this week that seems to fall into a rare third category, a category of laws that we do not talk about very often, and indeed, we tend to sweep under the proverbial rug.  This is the law of Ben Sorer Umoreh – the Law of the Glutenous Son.

The Torah describes the possible scenario in which parents may find themselves raising a gluttonous and rebellious child, who, even after chastising, still demonstrates serious behavioural problems.  In this case, according to the Torah, his parents shall “take hold of him” and bring him before the elders of the community to officially declare him a Ben Sorer Umoreh, after which, the child is stoned to death.  Fortunately, today, even in the most orthodox Jewish communities, this commandment has never been enacted.   According to tradition, it has NEVER been enacted at any time in history, in any Jewish community.  Why?  Well, obviously we wonder who would ever consider doing such a thing in the first place. But more than this, rabbinic literature demonstrates just how uncomfortable this passage was for our great rabbis throughout the ages as they tried desperately to avoid challenging the wisdom of the Torah directly.  The Rabbis of the Talmud explain that this case would only apply if the child be drunk on a particular variety of wine in particular quantities, and to have consumed particular types of food (also in particular quantities), and the Talmud continues, spending several full pages of discussion on the exact circumstances which would warrant the declaration of Ben Sorer Umoreh.  So many stipulations were made that it effectively made the real-life occurrence of such a situation impossible.

It is written in the Mishnah that the entire world stands upon three principles: Torah, service to God, and acts of lovingkindness – all three are needed for balance.  To view the words of the Torah in a vacuum, without the other two would be incorrect, and perhaps even reckless or irresponsible.  It is through the lens of service to God and acts of lovingkindness that the rabbis, in their wisdom, placed the extra stipulations on the commandment of Ben Sorer Umoreh.  So too, as Conservative Jews, we do not view Torah law in a vacuum, without considering service to God and the spirit of lovingkindness.  At the same time, we also do not deny the reality of what the Torah explicitly states, and perhaps that does mean that sometimes our ideology is in conflict.  Being human, however, is all about conflict, fallibility, the inconsistency between what we know is right and what we sometimes end up doing.  Just as we, as Conservative Jews, must muddle through an uncomfortable grey area in Judaism without the reassurance of a simple answer, or the comfortable peace of mind that goes along with it, so too, God passes judgement upon us while allowing a healthy amount of wiggle-room for our humanity.  And so, we brave the chaotic waters and do our best to always have in mind what we believe in our hearts is in service to God, we consider how those ideas might manifest themselves as as acts of lovingkindness, and attempt to keep them in balance with our tradition.  God, too, evaluates our actions with respect to Torah, while keeping in mind that Torah is only one pillar, and that the world requires all three.

Shabbat Shalom,
                       --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Shoftim                                    September 7, 2019 - 7 Elul 5779

09/02/2019 12:25:20 PM

Sep2

We are fast approaching the High Holidays.  Our tradition directs us to the process of teshuvah, of looking within ourselves and thinking about those things we might want to change, to evaluate those thing that we feel in our hearts were wrong, and that we don't want to do again.  The process is a difficult and painstaking one.  First, it involves recognition of what is wrong, and then doing something about it.  This involves truly being repentant, expressing heartfelt remorse to God, and if the wrongdoing involved another person, expressing remorse to that person first and then asking God to forgive us for hurting another person.  We then have to make certain that we do not commit the same wrong again.

The first step sounds easy: recognizing things that we feel we shouldn't do.  It is not as easy as it sounds.  We all know that we often find many creative ways in which to make excuses for ourselves.  We convince ourselves that it wasn't really wrong; we ignore what is really there.  But what we don't realize is that it is also easy to be OVERLY critical of ourselves as we go through the process of teshuvah.  We attempt to throw out the baby with the bathwater as it were.  Teshuvah is not just about wiping out the past and creating a “tabula rasa,” but rather it is about integrating the past with the future.  We need to decide what to throw out, and what to preserve.

Thinking about this integration, I became fascinated by the concept of what we do or do not decide to keep, what does and does not get destroyed, what do we want to integrate and what do we leave behind?  In this week's Torah portion, we are told (Deuteronomy 20:20): “Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down.”  The Torah gives us rules of waging war.  When you have a city under siege for a long time, we must not destroy its trees.  We may eat of them, but we must not cut them down.  Rav Saadia Gaon in his comment on this verse explained that the part of the verse which states, “but you must not cut them down,” means that we must differentiate between what is potentially the enemy (i.e. a man) and a tree, which is not the enemy.  We need to be careful not to treat the trees like a man hiding from you in a siege.  In short, we don't treat everything as though it were the enemy.

What is a possible modern application of his thinking?  In more recent times we have the example of the Vietnam War.  During this war, there was rampant bombing of the Vietnamese countryside with napalm, destroying the foliage of the forests.  There was sharp criticism of this practice.  Armies went into someone else's country and indiscriminately destroyed everything in sight.   Armies destroyed the people and the land.  Whole forests were devastated.  The only thing that mattered was winning—at all costs.  It didn't matter what was destroyed in the process.  This verse from the Torah, according to Rav Saadia, is warning us not to do this when we are at war.  The trees are not our enemies.  People may be. The Torah specifically asks (Deuteronomy 20:19), “Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”  Saadia interprets the verse as a rhetorical question with an obvious answer: the tree is not like a man who is to be routed out and destroyed.  From these comments Rabbi Jackie Wexler learns an important lesson about teshuvah.  Just as in battle we may make the mistake of treating everything in front of us as the enemy, instead of just destroying the enemy, so too with teshuvah we need to differentiate between what experiences are to be destroyed from our past, and which experiences need to be retained because they may later bear fruit.

Rabbi Wexler teaches that these same restrictions, of not wasting precious resources, apply to ourselves, and to our past experiences, at this time of year as well.  The entire month of Elul is a time of self-scrutiny, a time to re-evaluate our actions and deeds, to cut down that which needs cutting, and change that which needs changing for the New Year.  It is all too easy to go in and simply tear ourselves apart, cutting everything down, and thinking that this will give us a fresh start, when in fact we diminish ourselves in the process.  There is a real danger of cutting down the good with the bad, the fruit bearing trees, along with the chaff.  We need those building blocks, those trees on which we can bring new growth.  A true fresh start allows for growth and renewal.  It doesn't wantonly destroy, but rather clears the way for a new beginning.

The tendency in our society is exactly that: to destroy things, or throw them out instead of working on them to make them better. My car last car lasted 15 years.  When it was 7 years old and began to have minor problems, it necessitated almost $1,000 worth of maintenance work and repairs . Many people would have simply gotten rid of the car.  But the car was a good one. It had given me virtually no problems for all of the 7 years.  Mostly it needed maintenance.  Once I had worked on it and renewed it, the car once again drove like the day I purchased it for another 8 years!  So why should I get rid of it?  All it needed was some work, and once again it had a great future.

The ramifications for our soul-searching are more critical.  We need to be careful not to reject out of hand as a total failure that which we mark with failure.  It is sometimes easier to see the whole as a failure and throw it away, instead of working on the part that needs improvement.  This call for discrimination means that as we go through this process of self-scrutiny we need to do so with a sense of compassion towards ourselves.  When Saadia states that the tree is not like a man who is to be routed out and destroyed, he is telling us that the tree is not the enemy. Some people do teshuvah the same way, choosing to wipe out the past, instead of seeing our past mistakes as the building blocks for future growth.  Perhaps we need to be reminded not to cut them away, keeping in mind that WE are not the enemy; that our many fine qualities are not as well.  Certainly there are things each year that we feel a need to change, thus we have this opportunity for self-examination and renewal.  But we need to do so with compassion towards ourselves, remembering the many building blocks inside of us for good, and always, always nurturing those trees that may later bear fruit.
                                                                                     
Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Re'eh                                August 31, 2019 - 30 Av 5779

08/29/2019 02:48:37 PM

Aug29

 

 “Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”       -     
                            Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), first Prime Minister of India

                            and disciple of Mahatma Ghandi

Healing rocks, homeopathy, astrology, psychic readings, are just a few of the popular culture fads to which I most certainly do not subscribe.  Other than noticing a few psychic parlours advertised along Sheppard Avenue, I hardly ever come across these kinds of things in my day to day life, but in my annual visit to the CNE, they are hard to avoid.  It is equally hard for me to avoid noticeably rolling my eyes when I see someone hand over lots of money for a piece of quartz crystal “guaranteed” to help with weight loss.  But are these things any more bizarre the Jewish belief in a supernatural, all-powerful and all-knowing God?  By what right is my belief, objectively speaking, any more or less strange than somebody else’s?  (Oddly, astrology and psychic readings just so happen to be historically and culturally rooted in Judaism.)

 

The Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE and subsequent mass growth of the caliphate was actually considered a Golden Age for Jews under Muslim rule.  While Jews may still have been second-class citizens, they were, on the whole, tolerated and even respected in mainstream society, at least more than in the Christian world.  Muslim rulers treasured knowledge, the sciences, philosophy and mathematics, and would go to great lengths and great cost to build vast libraries.  It was also common practice for the Muslim rulers to sponsor great public debates on a wide variety of topics, and when theology was discussed, there would always be a Jewish delegation present to defend the Jewish belief system.

 

Historic records record one such debate in which the topic of discussion was reconciliation of mankind’s free will with the nature of an all-powerful God.  It bothered people that, on the one hand, both Islam and Judaism agree that the fundamental nature of God is that God is all-powerful and controls all things, and yet, both religions also believe that mankind is given free will to make both good and bad decisions according to his conscience.  After much discussion, the Muslim delegation, led by Abu Nassr Muhammed ibn Muhammed al-Farabi concluded that these two theological points are irreconcilable and a moratorium was declared on the topic.  Unfortunately, history does not recall what was said by the Jewish delegation, but let’s just imagine that they spoke about the beginning of this week’s parsha…

  

“Re’eh – “See” is the title of our parsha this week.  Moses continues his speech to the assembled Israelite nation on the banks of the Jordan river, “Re’eh – See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse” (Deut. 11:26).  Moses makes it very simple for the Israelites – do what God says, follow the commandments, and you will be blessed, or ignore me, fall into sin, and you will be cursed.  Israelites gets to choose for themselves or whether they will be good or evil because that is their right.  The name of the tree that Adam and Eve ate from in the Garden of Eden was not The Tree of Knowledge, rather, it was The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The nature of free will is not about deciding which toothbrush you want to buy, rather, it is about how each of us decides for ourselves whether we are good or evil with a reasonable knowledge of which is which, a knowledge which was originally reserved only for God.  Kabbalah teaches that when God created the universe, He had to first retract a part of Himself from a place in order to create it, before filling that place with God once again.  So too, perhaps, human free will, i.e. the knowledge of good and evil, is God once again, retracting a part of Himself in order to give a piece of Godliness to humanity.  But then, how does God fill Himself back into that void?  This is where free will and fate coalesce – while we may choose between good and evil, what is ultimately destined for us is in the hands of God.

 

Admittedly, this is not a perfect resolution to question, and I can only imagine that our ancestors produced a far more compelling argument at the interfaith debate.  But while we may not know what the Jewish delegation said, we do know that while Islam put an end to their discussions, Jews continued to debate this issue in their own houses of learning.  While some may believe that unanswered questions are dangerous, Jews love them.  The word “Islam” means “submission”, to give oneself over without question.  By contrast, the entire Torah seems to be about Israelites doing everything BUT submitting, and that was always about our choice – our free will.  Our legitimacy is inherent in the fact that we acknowledge that we do not have all of the answers, but that we struggle and challenge each other in the pursuit of knowledge to find them.  More importantly, we believe that not finding an answer does not invalidate the pursuit of it.  It’s true, sometimes Jewish belief does border on the bizarre, but even if it takes a thousand years, we don’t mind challenging and investigating them. What right does Judaism have to claim legitimacy over any other strange belief?  Just ask the psychics at the CNE if they are ready to handle a thousand years of challenge and investigation.  We’re in no rush.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Ekev                                        August 24, 2019 - 23 Av 5779 

08/22/2019 02:42:18 PM

Aug22

When I was planning my trip to see my kids in the US this past week, I looked for hotel with exercise facilities.  I called several hotels, with no luck.  Finally, I thought I had found one. I asked the receptionist if the hotel had a weight room.  "No," she replied, "but we have a lobby and you can wait there.”

Fitness is an important part of life.  The Talmud teaches that we have a responsibility to teach our children Torah, a profession and how to swim (Kiddushin 29a).  Swimming is an excellent fitness exercise.  Indeed, one of the most often quoted verses in the Torah appears in this week's portion when Moses recounts the early history of the Israelites desert journey by saying (Deuteronomy 8:3): "God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that MAN DOES NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees."  Rabbi Chaim Potok, in his commentary of the Eitz Hayim Humash notes, "This familiar verse is usually taken to mean that people need "more than bread"-including culture, art, and food for the spirit."

Rabbi Howard Siegel takes this commentary one step further and suggests that a lot of people would also benefit greatly by more exercise and better nutrition! Rabbi Siegel points out that The New York Times reported in an article that 24.5 percent of American adults are not just slightly overweight, but categorized as "obese."  Twelve states report more than a quarter of their adult population is obese.  In 1985, not a single state had more than 20% obesity.  Today more than 40 states do.

What does this have to do with Torah?  Everything!  In a later portion of the Book of Deuteronomy we will read another oft-quoted verse (30:19): " I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose Life!"  Overweight people are at a significantly greater risk of sudden death by heart attack, diabetes, or a plethora of other ailments.  As a human being, our task is to provide a quality of life to all inhabitants of this earth.  But what is the practical worth of this effort if one is unable to enjoy the fruits of this world because of health issues that could have been prevented by understanding that life has to be nurtured both spiritually and physically.

Health expert tell us that the three most important things we can do are eat right, exercise regularly and get a good night’s sleep.

So, my prescription for a better life:
          1) a regular program of exercise,
          2) eating a more nutritional diet, and
          3) bringing more Shabbat into our lives.  

Judaism knew, eons ahead of our time, what provides us with good health!

Thus, there are certain times in my day that are sacrosanct (holy, and not to be tampered with):  My daily prayer moments and exercise time.  Monday-Friday mornings, before morning minyan, I can be found either lifting weights or cycling.  This time is inviolable.  My day is not complete without it.

Kashrut, the dietary laws, has taught me nutrition.  The ideal of Kashrut is a vegetarian life style.  Not everyone achieves this ideal.  I am careful about the amount of red meat I eat and eat fish as a protein alternative.  Kashrut has also taught me to curb my cravings.  I limit my intake of sugar, salt, and fats. Keeping Kosher informs my choice of restaurants. Specifically, it keeps me away from Fast Food joints (don't be fooled by the new, improved looks of McDonald's, Wendy’s, etc).  Fast food restaurants are the No. 1 reason for the increase in obesity and are simply bad for our health.  Stay away!

And then there is the day of rest-Shabbat:  The feast for the spirit!  One day a week I rest my mind, body, and soul.  I spend time appreciating the works of my hands and the beauty of God's world, and then I am ready for another week: inspired, in shape, and healthy.

If your health is being compromised by your weight, don't put off change any longer.  We are approaching the eve of another year; another opportunity to start again.  Do it!  And remember the words of Deuteronomy: “Man does not live on bread, alone!”

Shabbat Shalom!
                           Rabbi Geoff

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Vaetchanan                    August 17, 2019 - 16 Av 5779

08/16/2019 01:01:34 PM

Aug16

“Ultimately, prayer is intended to have an effect on the individual and his or her actions.  It makes us more aware of the world, of nature, of history, of God’s role in history, of the nature of God and His demands upon us.  It emphasizes the importance of study and the performance of commandments, both moral and ritual.”

  Rabbi Professor Reuven Hammer (1933-2019)

 It was the summer of 2009, and before going back to New York City for my final year of cantorial school, I was spending a restful week with friends at a cottage in the Berkshires.  While many of the cottagers in the area were Jewish, there was no cottage synagogue nearby for Shabbat, but really, there was no need. The Jewish cottagers had become accustomed on Shabbat to heading over to one particular cottage on the lake where they all knew they would have one of the most unique, spiritually engaging and academically stimulating Shabbat experiences that could be had… but it was a carefully guarded, unadvertised local secret.  I had been looking forward to it all week because I was about to have Shabbat at the cottage of the legendary Rabbi Professor Reuven Hammer. His books were required reading for many courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary for rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and undergraduates.  One of the great rabbinical minds and shapers of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Hammer was a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, served as head of the Masorti Beit Din in Israel, and was the founding director of what is today the Schechter Institute.  About twenty or so people gathered together on Rabbi Hammer’s deck overlooking the lake, and we conducted our services as the sun rose over the water.  That was my personal experience meeting the great Rabbi. Sadly, Rabbi Professor Reuven Hammer passed away this week.

This week’s parsha is Va’etchanan, which continues Moses final speeches to the Israelite nation before crossing the Jordan River into the land that would become their permanent home.  There is a great deal in this parsha that would appear to be nothing more than a repetition, a rehash of material that Torah already covered quite a while ago.  It is particularly hard to miss the revisiting of the Ten Commandments.  With some slight variation in the wording, it’s the same Ten Commandments that we read months ago in Parshat Yitro.  Repetition is a useful literary device for captivating writing in poetry and novels, but one of the first rules of biblical exegesis is that there is no sentence, word or even a single letter than is superfluous in the Torah.  Traditional teaching forces us to consider that in each case where it may seem that the Torah is repeating itself, it is doing so for a specific reason and that there is something critical and unique to be learned by it.  Before the repetition of the commandments, Moses is sure to point out to the Israelites, “not with our forefathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, we, all of whom are here alive today” (Deut. 5:3). After forty years of wandering, the generation of Israelites that had personally experienced the public revelation at Mount Sinai had nearly died out completely, the same generation that had personally experienced slavery in Egypt.  This generation, the one now entering the land of Israel had grown up free.  In this repetition, we learn that these commandments do not simply apply only to those that were there to witness and ratify them, but that the covenant made at that time was eternally bound to all future generations of Israelites forever – a confirmation ceremony, if you will, whereby Moses offered the new generation of Israelites an opportunity to formally affirm the oath made by their ancestors.

As I look through my personal library at home at the various Judaica books that I have read and studied as a student and over my career, I feel humbled that many of their authors who were leading thinkers of the Jewish world, and of Conservative and Masorti Judaism in particular, are people whom I have been uniquely privileged to meet in their lifetimes, studied with in person, or with their direct decedents.  Reuven Hammer z’l, Neil Gillman z’l, Louis Jacobs z’l, are just some of the great modern Jewish thinkers who have furthered the understanding of what prayer, God, Jewish philosophy, law and culture means for many individuals and families who identify as Conservative Jews, and who challenged those who object to the legitimacy of Conservative Judaism with reason, scholarship and keen insight.  While I imagine that the majority of our shul members may not have heard of some of these amazing people, let alone had a chance to study with them, their contributions to Conservative Judaism certainly inform many of the thoughts and ideas that I offer in the weekly Shabbat Sheets, and when I offer a dvar Torah in shul. It is their approach to Jewish law and prayer that inform the policies of Beth Radom, and the way we operate in our own shul; their ideas have and will continue to have a lasting impact on us all.  And there are yet more great men and women alive today, who continue doing the work of building our movement and enriching our beliefs and ideologies.

This Shabbat, let us invoke the memories of these great leaders of the Conservative movement and acknowledge that their legacies have a lasting impact on each of us.  Conservative Jews are not a catch-all group whose raison d’etre is to meander religiously somewhere between Reform and Orthodoxy. Let us reaffirm our commitment to the positive definition that Conservative Judaism was meant to be – an evolving, but authentic, rigorous, rational and academically consistent approach to Jewish life and ideology fit for the modern era. 

To experience what believe to be among the greatest contributions of Rabbi Reuven Hammer, I encourage all those who are interested to purchase a copy of Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom (available in the blue shabbat version and the red weekday version).  Easily found on Amazon, it is exactly a copy of the Siddur Sim Shalom that we use in our shul, but with Rabbi Hammer’s commentary on each prayer written into the margins.

Shabbat Shalom,
                        --ChazJ

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Devarim                             August 10, 2019 - 16 Av 5779

08/09/2019 02:17:47 PM

Aug9

“Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar m’od, vahyikar lo lefached klal.” – “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to be afraid.”

 – Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (1772-1810),

father of the Breslovor chassidic dynasty

 

This week we begin the final book of the Torah with Parshat Devarim.  The biblical narrative has concluded, and the book of Devarim documents Moses final speeches to the fledgling Israelite nation.  Aware that God will not allow him to cross the Jordan river into what will become the land of Israel, Moses offers his speeches to the people on the East bank of the Jordan over a 36 day period, after which, Moses knows he will die and Joshua will lead the people on a campaign to conquer Canaan.  The literary style in which the book of Devarim is very different than the rest of the Torah, so much so that most academic scholars believe that this part of the Torah was written much later than the rest, and added to the Torah cannon around the 6thand 7thcenturies BCE.  The speeches are something of a recapitulation of the entire Torah, intended to remind the Israelites of their history, what they have been through, what they have learned, and what will be expected of them in the time to come.

 

The Shabbat experience this week is mixed with the very pungent flavour of Tisha B’Av.  This Sunday, we mark the 9thday of the Hebrew month of Av as the day of the year on which both Temples were destroyed, the first in 586 BCE, and the second in 70 CE.  It is a day of ‘bad luck’ for Judaism, similar to a Friday The 13thin popular culture.  Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, where prayers are led in a quite undertone, we sit on the floor rather than our comfortable chairs, and we fast for a full day.  During the time of the Temple, Judaism was observed much differently than it is today; the Temple was our primary focus of worship and Jewish existence revolved around the sacrificial cult.  Traditional Jewish teaching tells us that on both occasions, the destruction of the Temple was God’s punishment to the Jews for not following Torah.  At the same time, we also acknowledge that the destruction of the Temples forced the Jewish people to reinvent Jewish existence in a much more decentralized way, giving birth to rabbinic Judaism, the manner of Jewish observance that has sustained Jewish life for the last two thousand years, which we continue to practice today.

 

 

Tisha B’Av and the beginning of the book of Devarim is a serendipitous pairing.  In each, we reflect on a liminal moment in Jewish history when the future felt frightening and unclear, and both are punctuated with a profound sense of fear over the loss of God’s allegiance.  While in the case of Tisha B’Av, this is perceived more overtly with the destruction of the Temple, we cannot overestimate what must have been a similar sense of loss for the Israelites at the end of their wandering in the desert – they are losing Moses, God’s pillars of smoke and fire that guided them by day and night, and of course the mana that fell from heaven – all of the physical reminders that made them feel divinely protected.  Our nusach encourages a bit of blurring of the lines between Shabbat and Tisha B’Av so that the themes from each spill into the experiences of one another.  As a cantor, it is my responsibility to weave Tisha B’Av melodies into the Shabbat service in order to help facilitate that blending of themes.  Even though it may bring notes of sadness and mourning in to the experience of Shabbat, it also means that some of the strength and beauty of Shabbat is brought into our experience of Tisha B’Av. 

 

Twice in Moses’ speech in Devarim he says, “Fear not, and be not dismayed”, “Have no dread or fear of them”.  Why? “For I have already delivered them into your hands”.  Moses is reminding the Israelites that even though they may not have those physical signs of God presence anymore, the hard work has already been done for them – they simply have to claim what God has already provided.  And this, in a way, is a nice way to think of life – do your best, but at the end of the day, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.  So too, the tragedy of Tisha B’Av is preordained, if this what God intends, than this is what God intends.  But Moses also reminds us that we still need to do our job which is to have faith, live by the law of Torah, treat each other with dignity and respect.  Moses reminds us that those times when we lived up to our agreement with God, things went well for us, and only when we forgot to keep our agreement, did we ever see hard days.  And even out of the ashes of the Temple, Judaism can be reborn into a new era, equipped with the infrastructure to evolve and adapt, making it the only ancient civilization that continues to survive to this day. It is true that the world does not always work out in perfect equity, and sometimes God’s answer to our prayers is “no”. But as we read the rest of

 

 

the book of Devarim, we will continue to see how Moses drives one central point home, and that is that our agreement with God states that we have a priority relationship with Him, and whether He answers our prayers “yes” or “no”, the critical thing to remember is that He answers.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Matos-Masei                            August 3, 2019 - 2 Av 5779

08/01/2019 04:13:46 PM

Aug1

A physics teacher writes a question on a board: “A 40kg child that’s 100cm tall is holding a parent’s arms swinging them at 0.5 revolutions a second.  If the parent let go of the child after 2 seconds, where will the child end up?

A few moments later, the teacher comes over and reads a student’s answer: “In a foster home!”

It’s tough to let go!

As the Torah winds down to its end, as the Book of Bemidbar lists the many stops along the way for the People of Israel, we begin to see that there is a transition taking place.  The leadership of Moses is ending.  This Parsha is a review of all that Moses has accomplished with the understanding that there will be no new accomplishments for Moses.  It will now be Joshua's turn to lead the people.  The future of Israel and all the history that is yet to be written will be about Joshua and not Moses.

While the Torah seems to indicate that Moses makes a gracious and elegant exit, appointing Joshua and giving him a charge on how to lead in the future, there are some signs that Moses will not “go quietly into that dark night”.  In the Book of Devarim, Moses recounts how he begged God to change the divine mind and let him enter the Promised Land.  It is recorded there that God replies, “My mind is made up. Don't even bring up this topic again.”  This exchange between God and Moses opens the door for the Rabbis to speculate on Moses's attitude as the end came near.

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Randy Konigsberg reminds us that if there were a modern example of this fear of letting go, we need only think of the Green Bay Packer football team and their famous quarterback, Brett Favre. He was one of the most successful quarterbacks in team history. Several seasons ago he announced his intention to retire from football.  It was time to let younger quarterbacks take the field.  Then, suddenly, Brett Favre changed his mind, he did not want to retire. But the team did not want him back.  They had decided to move on without him.  Brett had such a hard time letting go that he went on to play for Green Bay's rivals and he would retire twice more before he “really meant it”.  Bret Favre had real problems letting go.

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

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

I understand very well the difficulties of moving on.  For Moses, it was the green monster of envy that convinced him to let go.  For Brett Favre, he had to tarnish his extraordinarily reputation with several losing seasons before he understood it was time to retire. We can only teach our children so much before they have to learn to walk for themselves, and we have to bite our lips and say nothing as they learn the hard lessons of experience.

Letting go is one of the great gifts that we can give to the future.  Not because we are useless, but we need to continue to grow with new challenges and learn to leave the old ones to the generation just behind us.  I have often said that it is better to leave and have people wish we would stay than to stay and have people wish we would leave.  How else will future leaders know of our extensive wisdom in life, if we can't show them we are wise enough to move on?

May God help us serve our community wisely and may God give us the wisdom to graciously make way for others to serve when our time to let go arrives.

Shabbat Shalom!
                          Rabbi Geoff

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Pinchas                                  July 27, 2019 - 24 Tammuz 5779

07/26/2019 10:58:09 AM

Jul26

“With great power comes great responsibility.”   -    Spiderman

Greetings from my honeymoon!  Well, not quite.  As I write this article, Jamie and I are on a plane heading to Jamaica, so I’m not in too much trouble for working on our vacation.  The last month for us has been equal amounts of wonderfulness and exhaustion, and we are simply bursting with gratitude for our parents, families, extended families, friends and community who have surrounded us with so much love during this most exciting time in our lives.

Of course, Jamie and I are looking forward to this very special time together, but we’re also using this time to calm down from all of the excitement, and just recharge our batteries.  More and more, we all deserve some time to disconnect from the world a bit, which seems to get more exhausting each year.  Every thought and idea by every human connected to social media from politicians to celebrities, from long lost acquaintances on the other side of the world to next-door neighbours, seems to affect us almost every hour of every day.  All of them compete for our increasingly limited attention, and many even resort to extreme acts and antics in order to rise above the noise and get their messages heard.  The world then becomes a place of extremism, and getting a vacation from it every once in a while, seems more and more necessary in order to preserve our own sanity.

As a society, we tend to criticize extreme acts, especially those clearly done for no more reason than to force us to pay attention.  I admit that I am no exception, as I often criticize the Women of The Wall who, while championing the noble cause tolerance for inclusive egalitarian prayer at the Kotel in Jerusalem, typically organize ‘stunts’ which force confrontation with police, fighting while holding Torah scrolls, and usually ends up with several protesters in jail.  But perhaps, at the same time, the stunts work too.  After all, I’m talking about them, even though I’m not happy about it. While we all love to espouse our belief in our western criminal justice system, it’s not coincidental that movies featuring vigilante super-heroes that operate above/outside the law are so popular, and that is because we all are forced to admit that we live in a world where justice often goes unserved and isn’t the perfect and equitable place we all want it to be.  Paraphrasing the words of the Commissioner Gordon from the Batman comics, vigilantes may not be the heroes that the world deserves, but perhaps they are the heroes that the world occasionally needs.

This week’s parsha, Pinchas, opens with a story that is hard for our modern sensibilities to absorb and for the traditional commentators to explain.  Pinchas, grandson of High Priest Aaron, happens upon a Israelite man who is ‘fraternizing’ with a Midianite woman.  “When Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he arose from the assembly and took a spear in his hand, and followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through her belly.” (Num. 25:7-8).  Incredibly, Moses and God REWARD Pinchas for his zealotry, “Say therefore, I [God] grant him my Covenant of Peace.  It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of Eternal Priesthood, for he was zealous for his God, and atoned for the Israelites” (Num. 25:12-13).

The best way to understand the approach of the traditional commentators to this difficult moral issue in the text, I believe, is through the example of a real historical figure who, himself, committed the most gruesome acts known to man, but who saw himself as a realist, sacrificing the few to save the many.  For this, his image was forever iconified as one of history’s most terrifying horror villains… Dracula.  

Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 fictional novel, “Dracula”, based his character on the historical ruler of Wallachia (province of Romania), Vlad III Dracula (1428-1477), also known as Vlad the Impaler. Far from a villain, Dracula was (and is) considered a national hero of Romania, having defended his people against both Ottoman and Saxon invasion.  Dracula earned his cognomen as “the impaler” for taking captured soldiers back to Wallachia from Transylvania to have them impaled as a gruesome warning all those who would terrorize his citizens.  By doing so, Dracula became notorious for his barbarity, and instilled fear into his friends and enemies alike.  He became a monster who invaded the nightmares of soldiers, but he also likely averted years of war for Wallachia, saving many soldiers’ lives on both sides.  Meanwhile, in the Torah, God responds to  the actions of Pinchas “the impaler” who “has turned my [God’s] anger away from the children of Israel by his zelously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal” (Num. 25:11).  In last week’s parsha, the Midianites seduced the Israelites into turning away from God and worshipping the Canaanite God, Baal Peor in a ceremony involving all manner of immoral behaviour.  God then punished the Israelites with a plague which then ended the parsha. It seems that at the beginning of the parsha this week, the punishment wasn’t meant to be over yet, but for the intervention of Pinchas.  Pinchas’ actions cut through the roaring crowds and captured everyone’s attention, not unlike the kinds of things that attract our attention in the media which trigger our disdain.

So then why is Pinchas not punished?  Is it not meant to be the fate of those that commit atrocities, like Dracula, even for good reason, to sacrifice their good name in the process?  Not necessarily.  As we mentioned, Vlad the Impaler is not a bloodthirsty demon in Romanian legend, but a hero.  It really all depends upon who is telling the story.  We may not agree with Pinchas’ actions, but would the Jewish people be around today without them?  Pinchas may not have been a hero, but perhaps he was the vigilante that we needed.

Shabbat Shalom,
                         
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Balak                                         July 20, 2019 - 17 Tammuz 5779

07/18/2019 03:24:34 PM

Jul18

"Do you believe in life after death?" Shimmy Rubenstein asked one of his employees.
"Yes, Sir." the young employee replied.
"Well, that makes sense then," Mr. Rubenstein went on,
"Because after you left early yesterday to go to your grandmother's funeral, she stopped in to see you."

A rabbi walks up to an atheist and says, “Afterlife.”
The atheist stares and says, “I don't get it.”
The rabbi replies, “I know!”

While many religions focus on getting to the afterlife, Judaism focuses on the here and now. We do have different traditions about olam haba, “the next world,” but Judaism teaches (Deuteronomy 30:19), “Choose life,” rather than death; the focus is on living this life and not worrying so much about the next. This is a lesson reinforced by Bilaam’s actions in this week’s portion of Balak. The Israelites arrive at the steppes of Moab prepared to enter the land of Canaan. Balak, king of Moab, sees the defeat of his neighboring rulers and fearing a similar fate, hires the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. However, Bilaam is a true prophet and can only say what God commands, so he utters blessings instead of curses. Looking out over the Israelite camp, Bilaam says in his first oracle (Numbers 23:10f):

Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Number the dust-cloud of Israel,
May I die the death of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs.

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo be Yitzhak (11th century France), commenting on the phrase “may I die the death of the upright,” simply says – “among them.” The Hafetz Hayyim, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen who lived in Poland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, explains: Bilaam did not want to live as a believing Jew, but very much wanted to die as one. Why? Because the life of a God-fearing Jew is not an easy one: he has to restrain himself and keep away from many things. There are many commandments he must perform. Each day and every hour he has various obligations. The Jew’s death is not like that. For the believing Jew, death is only a transition from a temporary life to a permanent one [the afterlife, which the Rabbis call the world to come] . . . and that is why Bilaam wanted to die as a believing Jew. But it is no great feat to die a proper death. The real feat is to live a proper life.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, teaching about this verse points out that it is true that the gemara in Avodah Zarah explains that there are those who earn their place in the world to come in a single moment, but they are the exception. For most of us, the world to come, however we may understand it, is earned by the deeds of an entire lifetime. In other words, as the Hafetz Hayyim teaches, living as a Jew is far more important than dying as a Jew.

Newmark observes: Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our age is that millions and millions of people are being taught that God cares more about how we die than about how we live. Impressionable, usually young, people are being told that the surest path to the world to come is through acts of “martyrdom,” through dying – even if that death involves the unforgivable sin of murder. This is not what the God of the Torah, and the world, asks of us. The Torah teaches that the point of religion, the point of mitzvot, is this (Leviticus 18:5): “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live.” The Talmud adds this explanation: “Live by them – and not die because of them.”

 ​​​​​Newmar concludes: Bilaam had it wrong. This is the true blessing:

May I live the life of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs.

Shabbat Shalom!
                        Rabbi Geoff

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Hukkat                                  July 13, 2019 - 10 Tammuz 5779

07/11/2019 09:18:33 AM

Jul11

A member of the Senate, known for his hot temper and acid tongue, explodes one day in mid-session and begins to shout, "Half of this Senate is made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!"

All the other Senators plead to the angry member that he withdraw his statement, or be removed from the remainder of the session.  After a long pause, the angry member accepted.

"Ok" he said, "I withdraw what I said.  Half of this Senate is NOT made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!"

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses loses his temper with the Israelites.  We recall the story.  Years ago, the people had complained about the lack of water, and God told Moses to strike a rock, Moses did, and water gushed forth.  In our Torah reading this week, once again the people complain, but this time God tells Moses to speak to the rock.  Now, Moses and Aaron struggled with this contentious people for 40 years, and they appeared to have had enough, because this time Moses does not follow orders.  This time, Moses strikes the rock, not once but twice.  The people still get their water, but both Moses and Aaron are punished.  Neither is privileged to enter the Land.

For all Moses’ humility, this greatest of teachers did have one great flaw – his temper.  All his devoted service to God and Israel were not enough to grant him at least entry into the Land.  He was marked not by his service but by his temper. The Talmud (Eruvin), teaches that a person is known according to three things.  In a word play, the Talmud uses two letters – Kuph and Samech – and adds various vowels to them to indicate those three ways.  A person is known first by "Kees" – by his pocket – in other words, how he shares his material blessings with others;  then by "Kos" – by his cup – or by what and how he drinks – and eats; and finally by Ka'as – by his anger.  How do we manage our temper? Generosity, eating and drinking, and anger.  All three ways in which our reputation is fashioned, and all three are addressed by Jewish law.

There should be no surprise when I tell you that generosity is addressed by Jewish law.  We all know the requirements of tzedakah – and remember that tzedakah is not charity, not something we do when we feel like it.  Tzedakah is more appropriately rendered as “doing the right thing,” sharing what we have with others, because we are God’s conduit in sharing the blessings with which God blesses humankind.

Then there’s the fact that we are known by how we eat and drink.  Of course, there are the rules of kashrut, of Pesah (Passover), of how to choose the appropriate wines (kosher, of course).  But I think there’s more to this requirement.  It’s not just what we eat but how we eat it.  Do we stop and say a brakhah (blessing)?  Do we binge?  Do we abuse food and drink?  Do we live to eat or eat to live?  Then let’s take this one step further.  If we expand the notion of eating and drinking to include everything that goes into our bodies, clearly we can be judged – and we are judged – by whether we abuse any kind of chemical: alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs.  We are judged by how we give and how we consume.

Finally, we are judged by how we manage our anger.  Note it’s not whether we get angry, because of course it would be unreasonable to expect a person never to become angry.  But how do we manage it?  Do we learn how to release it safely? Do we abuse others?  Do we turn it inward, rage against ourselves, and find ourselves depressed?  While we might think that Moses is the paradigm for that kind of problem – if he had managed his frustration at the people he led, might he have been permitted to enter the Land and die there?

How will we be judged?  It’s not yet the High Holy days, but it’s never too early to begin considering how we are to be judged, by God and by others.  Will we all make leadership gifts to the Jewish institutions that need our help, both here and in Israel? Will we temper our intake of food and drink, making the proper choices, and recognizing the blessings we have each time we enjoy them?  Will we respect our bodies enough to turn away from the kinds of chemicals that can only do us harm? And will we recognize when our anger is controlling us, and learn to turn the tables so that we control it?

How do we use our sacred gifts – the blessings God gives us of material wealth, of sustenance, of family and friends?  How do we ensure that we sanctify our lives daily? How do we use our pocket, our cup, and our anger?

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Korach                                    July 6, 2019 - 3 Tammuz 5779

07/04/2019 05:28:19 PM

Jul4

 “Quantum theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced He does not play dice with the universe.”-        
                                                                                    Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Does God play dice with the universe?  Einstein, and many other scientists after him have been bothered by the idea that in our universe, there exists two simultaneous, but completely separate sets rules for physics. There is a set of rules that governs our perceivable world, rules such as gravity, conservation of motion, magnetic force and the like.  These rules apply equally to small objects like pebbles, just the same as they apply to planets in space.  However, if we are talking about objects that are small enough, such as molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, all of those rules seem to go out the window, and a whole new set of rules of physics is needed to understand how these objects behave – that’s quantum physics.  Stephen Hawking made it one of his life-long goals to come up with the Grand Unifying Theory – the single set of physics rules that makes sense of both the macroscopic and microscopic worlds at the same time, but he never succeeded.  Meanwhile, quantum physics introduces levels of randomness and uncertainty because of what is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – that we cannot simultaneously know both the position and velocity of an atom. What this all means is that it appears that there is a high degree of randomness and uncertainty in the universe, which conflicts with the Judeo-Christian belief in an omnipotent God.  If God exists, it means that the universe has a master plan, which means that nothing can be random.  God does not play dice with the universe.

In polytheistic traditions, randomness and uncertainty are a lot easier to digest.  Gods are portrayed as having personalities, wants and needs that are in conflict with other gods.  Gods vie for power and influence, and human beings are often caught in the middle.  To polytheists, this helps to explain why bad things happen to good people, why prayers may go unanswered as they are subject to the whim of a god, and why it is upon each mortal to work hard to impress and please the gods and gain their favour for the sake of his or her own prosperity.  Monotheism, however, operates on a different principle. If there is only one omnipotent and all-powerful God, then the entire universe bends to His will and no other. If God is fundamentally good, then the plan for the universe must be fundamentally good.  But if this is the case, why then, must good people suffer? Why can’t God’s universe be a place where suffering doesn’t exist in the first place? 

To make matters even more difficult, it seems that there are many instances in the Torah in which God takes on personalities and traits that would only make sense in a polytheistic framework.  In the Ten Commandments, God describes himself as a jealous God, which is why we are forbidden to worship other gods or make graven images.  In last week’s parsha, Shlach, God appears to have a fragile ego when Moses points out that other nations will think less of Him if He were to allow the Israelites to perish in the desert after delivering them from Egypt. Most oddly, however, several places in the Torah seem to suggest that God has a mind that can be changed through argument.  Just try to imagine God saying, “Oh, I guess you’re right, I didn’t think of it that way.”

In this week’s parsha, Korach, God is, once again, incensed by the Israelites who have challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and threatens to destroy the entire nation.  God says to Moses and Aaron, “stand aside from the congregation, and I shall consume them in an instant.  And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces” (Num 17:10). God states what he is about to do, why doesn’t he follow through?  As a plague from God begins to take hold, Moses instructs Aaron to stand between the living and the dead with a pan of incense as an offering to God.   “Aaron took [it], just as Moses had said, and he ran into the midst of the assembly, and behold, the plague had begun among the people. He placed the incense on it and atoned for the people” (Num. 17:12).  It is odd that that God’s instruction to Moses and Aaron, “stand aside” (Hebrew – haromu) literally indicates the idea of “rising”, whereas the response from Moses and Aaron is that they “fell” (Hebrew – vayiplu) on their faces.  God said one thing, and Moses and Aaron did the exact opposite!  We would imagine that this would have infuriated God further, but it didn’t… why?  Looking carefully at the text, we might note that God’s instruction is not actually an instruction at all, but presented as a choice.  “Stand aside… and I shall consume them”, reading between the lines, there seems to be another option: don’t stand aside, and I won’t consume them. So rather than standing, Moses and Aaron “fell on their faces”, carefully indicating their choice.

Parents understand that there are times when children require a command, such as “clean your room”. But there are also opportunities to give children their own agency, present them with choices and allow them to weigh options and consequences, ultimately teaching them critical decision making skills: “Clean your room, and we’ll go out for ice-cream”.  Judaism teaches that while human beings have free will, our choices are merely illusions because God has already ordained which choice we will make – that’s the nature of God.  The relationship between God and mankind is often compared to a parent child relationship as it denotes love and commitment, as well as that of a teacher to a student.  A question may be asked not because the teacher doesn’t know the answer, but because the teacher wants the student to figure it out and learn something in the process.  Similarly, the God Mind may appear to be influenced in the Torah narrative, but perhaps we might consider that the idea of man influencing the God Mind is also a manifestation of the illusion of free will, and is merely a parental teaching strategy.

It is easy to be disillusioned by the idea that our free will doesn’t really exist in the way that best champions our independence, but does it really matter?  Just because God knows the choice, doesn’t mean that the choice isn’t ours, and just because our actions our pre-ordained, doesn’t mean God doesn’t take pleasure in the good choices of human beings.  The most successful students are the ones who are encouraged to keep asking questions, challenge established rules and find their own pathways of learning.  And of course, successful students make very proud teachers.

Shabbat Shalom,
                            
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Shelach                                June 29, 2019 - 26 Sivan 5779

06/27/2019 10:34:35 AM

Jun27

Dear Congregants,

While I am away serving my Active Duty Tour with the US Navy Pacific Fleet, I want to share the words of my colleague, Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik, in place of my Torah commentary:

You don’t have to be an expert in espionage strategy or a James Bond film fanatic to know that sending twelve spies on one mission is not a smart decision.  If the success of the mission depends on discretion, sending a full dozen assures a calamitous ending.  Forty years in the wilderness, one year for each day of the mission (Num. 14:·4), is the serious consequence of a badly sketched out plan executed even more poorly, such as it appears in this week’s Torah portion, that it almost brought about the end of the emerging history of our people.

According to the beginning of our portion, the proposal to send twelve spies to cover the Promised Land came from God (Num. 13:1-2):  “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  'Send men that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a prince among them.”  When they returned, ten out of twelve gave an extremely negative report, increasing the frustration of the people.  On the other hand, Joshua ben Nun, from the tribe of Ephraim, and Caleb ben Jephunneh, from the tribe of Judah, believed in the feasibility of the conquest.  Their words could not prevent a new seditious outbreak amongst the Israelites.

Forty years later, speaking to the new generation born in the wilderness, Moses recounts a different version of the origin of the mission. There, he points out that the initiative to send spies came from the people and that he took on the responsibility for executing it (Deut. 1:22-23): “And you came to me every one of you, and said: 'Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us, and bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come.' And the thing pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one man for every tribe…” The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 16:8) harmonizes both versions, punctiliously interpreting the first words of our portion: Shelach Lecha, “send on your behalf,” that is, God says: “On your behalf (and not on Mine), I have told you that the land is good and that I will deliver it to you.  If you need human confirmation, go on, send spies.”  For the sages, it is clear that the idea came from the people, and also that it was not good.  Twelve spies going unnoticed is not an easy task and require divine help. In that direction, another Midrash (Tanhuma Shelach 7) affirms that God sent a plague to the land of Canaan so that its inhabitants, busy burying their dead, would not pay attention to the Israelite delegation.

Another way our teachers expressed their criticism of Moses’ plan emerges from the selection of the Haftarah that complements our portion.  Taken from chapter 2 of Joshua, it recounts the unexpected events the two spies (only two) sent to Jericho had to endure in order to obtain information and achieve local logistic support for the subsequent conquest. The contrast between both stories captures Moses’ less than intelligent decision.

We could ask ourselves what was it that led the great leader, Moses, to execute this ill-conceived proposal.  The beginning of the march through the wilderness was not a bed of roses. On the contrary, it turned out to be a path riddled with thorns. As we read in the last portion, the logical difficulties of the journey provoke protests from the people, jealousy against Moses, and even a feeling of homesickness towards returning to Egypt.  Perhaps, tired of this situation, disillusioned and disappointed by the lack of understanding on the part of the people, Moses, as any leader, is tempted to resort to demagogy.  So, what could be better than to win over the respect from the tribe leaders, to strengthen popular support?

To suit everyone, he sends one spy from each tribe (a good idea for survey polls but very bad to put into practice) to the Promised Land (where “milk and honey” flow but which is inhabited by other nations who will have to be conquered).  We already know the outcome.  That very Tisha B’Av night (according to Mishnah, Taanit 4:6), the forty year wandering through the desert was decreed, time required to produce the generational roll over indispensable for attempting the conquest.  Moral: Demagogy is a bad counselor, even if you are Moses.  Joshua, his successor and participant in this story, learned the lesson and, forty years later, with the assault on Jericho, started the conquest of the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat B'ha'alotecha                        June 22, 2019 - 19 Sivan 5779

06/20/2019 12:53:04 PM

Jun20

“America is the first culture in jeopardy of amusing itself to death.”
                                                              
Rev. John Piper (1946-), theologian, author

This past Sunday morning, as I waited in the seemingly endless line at the Yorkdale SportChek for Raptors Championship regalia, I realized that I had some time on my hands to think about this week’s Shabbat commentary.  Even for someone like me who doesn’t normally follow professional sports, I was still excited to own my own little piece of Raptor-mania.  More importantly, though, I was heading to Michigan to visit my little niece and nephew that afternoon, and I wanted to be the hero that brought them their very own authentic Raptors Championship t-shirt, making them the envy of all of their new friends on their first day of camp.

Unquestionably, it’s an exciting time to be in Toronto, and everyone just seems to be in a good mood – who could possibly complain?  But amid the good cheer, it is hard not to notice that there are more than a few people whose exuberance rises above the rest of us in a pronounced way.  One fan reacted to a CP24 reporter following the big win screaming about how hard “we” worked to achieve this victory.  The reporter replied, “Wow, I feel like I should be congratulating YOU!”.  Another fan cried as she recalled the 24 years of ‘heartache’ she experienced until the day came at last that the Raptors had won their first NBA championship.

Obviously, there have been people who have done considerably worse, such as damaging property and jumping on police cars (following the game 4 win), and we can all easily agree that that kind of behaviour is never acceptable.  But most fans aren’t causing damage of any kind, so what’s wrong with getting a little bit carried away with excitement every once in a while?  The trouble is just that… it IS possible to have too much of a good thing to the point that it can become physically, psychologically or spiritually damaging.

In this week’s parsha B’ha’alotcha, the Levites are officially consecrated to God as holy servants, but the Torah offers some puzzling commentary with no explanation.  “For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself.  And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”

(Num. 8:17-18). Apparently, the first born of Israel were supposed to be God’s servants, but the Levites got the job… why?  The great 11th century commentary, Rashi, explains that the first born of Israel lost that privilege when they went overboard with their jubilation in committing the sin of the Golden Calf, and it is because the Levites who did not participate that they were chosen instead.  The rationale is obvious – don’t invest your money with a guy who has a history of gambling addiction.  It’s not that we don’t believe in forgiveness, it’s just that we want to trust the things that are important to us to those who have proven to be consistently responsible, people who have their heads screwed nice and tightly atop their shoulders, people who always keep things in perspective and don’t get carried away.

Midrashic literature illustrates this lesson through the story of Rav Mar Bar Rabinah at the wedding of his son.  When he saw that the guests were becoming overwhelmed with merriment, he brought out a very expensive goblet, smashed it before them, and their merriment was calmed (Midrash Ein Yaakov 5:2).  When we think about it, it’s quite relatable.  Haven’t we all been to a wedding where we have seen people getting a bit too carried away?  Rav Mar wasn’t trying to ruin the wedding.  He was just trying to get everyone’s attention, and tell them to ‘cool it’ a bit.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being happy.  Quite the contrary, happiness is a wonderful goal in life to pursue, and I for one certainly wouldn’t want to stand in the way of anyone’s happiness, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s.  That said, we owe it to ourselves to keep life in healthy perspective.  I’m proud of our team and our city, but my life-long happiness (or heartache) does not turn on the outcome of a basketball game – even if I am the one playing it.  Doing so cheapens the things in life that deserve the maximum expression of our jubilation – a friend battling cancer is told he is in remission, a couple who is finally able to conceive, a cantor who, at 37 years old, finds his beshert and marries her.  Our lives are made up of some wondrous stories, and the happiest wish I can think of is that we should all have the wisdom to be able to recognize them and celebrate them accordingly.

Shabbat Shalom,
                           --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Naso                                        June 15, 2019 - 12 Sivan, 5779

06/12/2019 03:27:34 PM

Jun12

I want to share with you the words of my colleague, Rabbi Harold Berman, who gives us much food for thought about parenting and grand-parenting: The Haftorah we read this morning tells a small part of the story of Samson.  Perhaps one of the reasons the Rabbis chose this section as the Haftorah is that it’s probably the nicest part of the Samson story.  Much of the rest of Samson’s story involves a lot of messy fighting, indeed wholesale slaughter, and also involves a lot of big mistakes Samson makes along the way.

So the Rabbis gave us the first part of the Samson story, the nice part about Mommy and Daddy planning a family, but by doing so they invited us to consider the issues in a much more personal way.  We read about these parents, or about these people who are not yet parents, and we were told that an angel comes and tells them not only that they will be parents, and not only that there are things they should do, and not do before their child is born, but also that he is destined for greatness.  “He will begin to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines.”

So what do they do?  They follow the rules - and they do very little else.  They raise this kid, they don’t take him for haircuts, they keep him out of bars, I suppose, those are the rules, but they don’t do much more.  He is destined for greatness! I guess they think it will come automatically.  When he comes home one day and says, “I saw this beautiful Philistine young woman and I want to marry her.”  They make a half-hearted effort to talk him out of it, but then very quickly say, “okay, whatever you want Samson, and whatever you say”.  It doesn’t turn out too well.  In fact, it goes downhill from there.  Of course, the text says, and Mom and Pop assume, it’s all in God’s hands, but still one is not impressed by their parenting. 

The text invites us to reflect for a moment on a very interesting question.   What if we could know the future?   What if an angel suddenly appeared, as the angel in this story did with Samson’s parents, and told us what the future would hold, for ourselves, for our kids, for our people?   Would this be a good thing?  Was it a good thing for the Samson family? 

We aren’t told, beyond a certain point, how long Samson’s parents lived or what they saw.  We are told at the end of the Samson stories that he was buried in the tomb of his father, Manoah, so we assume Samson’s parents, or at least his father, predeceased him.  It doesn’t matter.  We get the impression that what they knew about their son’s destiny did not make them better parents.  If anything, receiving the prophecy seems to have made them less effective in guiding, training and instilling a measure of self-control into this physically strong but morally unimpressive young man.   They knew he would achieve some important things for his people.  Did they know that his great strength would also lead to his early self-destruction?

What would we want to know about our children, or even about ourselves, as we look to the future?  If we knew what our children were destined to accomplish, would we really know how to guide them on their way?  If we had a prophecy about one of our children, would we treat other children differently?  Would we have other children?  Might we be tempted to assume the greatness of one might diminish the potential of another?

What did they tell Samson?  Did they tell him he was going to be great?  Would that be good for a kid to hear, over and over again, “You’re going to be great?”  I have known a few kids who heard from their parents how terrific they were going to be, a little too often.  Parents telling their kids, you can be great…you can work hard and achieve whatever you want, that makes some sense to me.   Parents telling kids that greatness is assured, regardless of what they do, or don’t do, is a recipe for disaster.   We would like things to be easy for our kids, and we might even wish we could give them guarantees. The easy way is not usually the best way.  Most of us do better making no assumptions about the future.  At our best, we create our future, or, alternatively, we fail to. 

I still wonder about Samson’s parents.  They knew very little, but it seems to have been enough to throw them off the track.  Would it be better to know more?   Would we want to know, for ourselves or our kids, what obstacles, what health problems, what disappointments lay ahead?   Would we accept whatever we were told, or would we do our best to try making adjustments, to make the path smoother, the successes greater and the disappointments less painful?

In religious life there is tension between a sense that all is in God’s hands, the good and the bad, and a sense that ultimately our fate is in our own hands.  As much as I believe in God, and as much as I know that a lot of things are not in my hands to change, I can’t resist the feeling that there is much I can do, and that I should never settle for something that my personal effort might make better.  I’ve seen too many people get stuck and stop trying.  I have also seen a lot of people who refused to accept what seemed inevitable and have marveled at what they achieved from so little potential. 

I’ve been reading this Samson story over and over again for a lot of years.  Somehow I think the story might have gone better if Samson’s parents had said: “Just give us the prenatal instructions, and that will be enough.  We’ll do our best and we’ll try to teach this long-haired little man to take the strength he has and the wisdom we can give him and the moral courage we can teach him and we’ll hope to be surprised and proud of the results.”

For Samson’s parents as for everyone else, let’s not try or even want to know the future, let’s just do the best with what we have and keep hoping our effort and determination will make the future a better one.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Bamidbar                            June 8, 2019 - 5 Sivan, 5779

06/06/2019 03:51:46 PM

Jun6

“If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace.”
                                                                                    
-- John Lennon (1940-1980)

It’s been brought to my attention that some members of our community are curious… what does a cantor do for his bachelor party?!  My closest friends took me for an absolutely wild time in New York City which included my favourite steak houses and delicatessens, two jazz concerts at two of my favourite jazz clubs, and a fantastic Broadway show.  I dare say that the weekend was not what most people imagine when they think of a bachelor party, but the friends that I grew up with know me all too well, and I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.  But while restaurants, concerts and shows easily fill up a long weekend, what about Shabbat?  What does a cantor’s bachelor party look like on Shabbat morning in New York City – my friends and I decided to experience the services at the flagship synagogue of the conservative movement, Park Avenue Synagogue.

Though I had never before experienced a Shabbat morning service at Park Avenue, I’ve visited the shul quite a number of times and I had a rough idea of what to expect.  In typical American Conservative style, musical instruments are permitted on Shabbat and the service was indeed accompanied by organ, piano, drums, acoustic bass, clarinet and flute, along with a four-person professional choir (I can only assume most of these people had been borrowed from a Broadway theatre…).  My dear friend and colleague, Cantor Azi Shwartz, led a sublime and beautifully nuanced service, and I was amazed at how immaculately coordinated the entire service was – honestly like going to a Broadway show.  As amazing as it was, however, it is by far not the style of service that best serves me spiritually. 

Park Avenue, is what you might call a “posh” shul, where glamour and grandiosity abound.  The magnificent building, the immaculately choreographed service, and a team of the greatest Jewish professionals and musicians had attracted a similarly heady congregation.  I noted famous composers in the room, the head of Masorti Olami (an Israeli lobbying group fighting for the religious freedoms of Conservative and Reform Jews) received an aliyah, and when the yahrtzeits were announced, the names included a few senators and congressmen.  I found it cynical and somewhat ironic when the topic of the bat mitzvah girl’s speech was decrying the fact that it seems that Torah prescribes a different monetary value to different kinds of people.

In last week’s parsha, the Torah assigned values to different types of people who wish to dedicate their lives to working in the Temple.  Men are valued more greatly than women, the young are valued more than the old, the healthy more than the weak.  Of course, as the Bat Mitzvah girl rightly pointed out, when we read this section of the Torah through the lens of our modern social sensibilities, it is easy to be offended.  That said, it was a bit off-putting for me to see people being offended who have, in all fairness, never found themselves on the less-valued side of anything.  All the while, I think the Bat Mitzvah girl missed the point – the Torah was ascribing a monetary value to those people who were prepared to give their life in service to the Temple, and the value was based entirely on what they were physically able to contribute.  An older person had (in theory) physically fewer years to serve in the Temple than a younger person.  Men, on average, were able to handle more physical labour than women, and while there are many things for which the Torah is thousands of years ahead of its time, affirmative action is not among them.

But clearly, the Torah is not trying to assign a monetary value to the life of a person or to his or her character.  Rather, only brass-tax, a value based on the amount of labour offered to the Temple.

I wanted to meet the Bat Mitzvah girl after the services, but sadly she was whisked away for a private family luncheon.  I wanted to suggest her to read a bit further to next week’s (this week’s) parsha, BaMidbar.  This week begins the fourth book of the Torah, and in it a census of the Israelites is taken.  Each member of the tribe of Israel is required to offer a small token amount of money to the Temple, not more for the rich, or less for the poor, not more for the strong, or less for the weak, not more for the wise, or less for the foolish. Admittedly, the Torah is actually only intending to count the males, for which we are forced to shrug our shoulders a bit sheepishly, but the lesson we ought to take away, the one that rings true for our time, is that we all should be counted equally in the house of Israel.  Yes, the ancient Israelites could rightly be faulted for not treating women as equals, and we modern Jews at Beth Radom have proudly corrected that injustice as we remain an egalitarian synagogue.  We are a people who are meant to treat everyone equally, and not make the great mistake of confusing wealth with human value.

I love the atmosphere we create at Beth Radom, the friendly warm way that we treat the entire shul as a bimah.  I think that it creates a respectfully casual ambiance where nobody feels more or less important to the service than anybody else.  I love glitz and glamour – who doesn’t?  But after an exciting weekend, it’s also great to be back home.

Shabbat Shalom,
                        
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Behukotai                            June 1, 2019 -  27 Iyyar, 5779

05/30/2019 03:55:09 PM

May30

How many times have you heard the statement: “Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew?”  We’ve probably all heard it and dismissed the notion as unrealistic.  Being accountable for our entire people would be and enormous responsibility!  It’s hard enough being responsible for just ourselves and our families!  However, the Torah is clear on this concept: we sink or swim together.

 

We read a troubling section of Torah known as the Tochacha, “the chastisement.” God prefaces the passage with the good stuff (Leviticus 26:3f): “If you follow my laws and faithfully observe My commandments,  I will grant your rains in their season ...” The text continues with a short but comprehensive list of blessings. But, a few verses later, the good will dissipates into a lengthy tirade.  God warns (Leviticus 26:14ff): “If you don’t obey me and do not observe all these commandments ... if you reject My laws ... and spurn My rules ... disaster will befall you.”  Moreover, the more we solidify our negative behavior, the worse the punishments become.

 

The curses culminate with exile and the desolation of the land of Israel, leading immediately to this horrid state, perhaps the worst “punishment” of all: terror.  Not fear in the sense that we even have a reason to be afraid!  The Torah warns (Leviticus 26:36): “The sound of a fluttering leaf will put them to flight; they will flee as if they were fleeing from the sword; and they will fall, even though no one pursues.”  The text continues (Leviticus 26:37):  “And they will stumble on each other, as before the sword ... even though no one pursues.” Rabbi Shaina Bacharach teaches that as strange as it may seem this is where we learn about our mutual responsibility!

 

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 27b) explains that one stumbles through the sin of the other, teaching that all are held responsible for one another.  This teaching seems to be saying that one person sins, therefore someone else stumbles and they’re both punished? How fair is this?  Well, it’s not really a question of fairness, but it is a profound statement about the way our world operates.

 

Rabbi Bacharach expounds:  Let’s look at the “dark side of the force” and how things take shape.  Where did Hitler get his ideas?  Did he just wake up one morning and decide that the final solution was a good idea?  To understand Hitler, we have to go back through European history and a lengthy heritage of anti-Semitism.  We have to specifically look at Karl von Leuger, a mayor of Vienna in the late nineteenth century. Von Leuger manipulated anti-Jewish fervor into his own political victory.  The young Adolph Hitler paid attention.  “One stumbled through the sins of the other” setting off a chain reaction and, inciting others to join them, ultimately leading to the death of millions.  Hitler’s example is dramatic.  However, the Final Solution did not start on a global level.  It started with individuals inciting other individuals with thoughtless words over a long span of history.

 

She continues: we don’t know where our words will land. For instance, we catch our child stretching the truth. Suppose our reaction is to say: I can’t ever trust you; you always lie to me!  Suppose it happens again, and our reaction is even more forceful; we re-affirm that this child is a chronic liar. The more the child hears that he always lies the more he will begin to assume that’s his make-up. Will he learn that he can’t be expected to ever tell the truth? What then? Will he even bother trying to be honest? Or will deception become a way of life for him and the others he leads astray as he grows? One word itself can be a stumbling block and set off a chain reaction.

 

This doesn’t mean we ignore wrongdoing in our kids, or in others. Of course it’s not wrong to correct or even punish a child. This was only meant as an example of how one word, one action, can bring harmful results. Moreover, the harmful results don’t end with only one person damaging our world; one sinner influences another into wrongdoing and on and on!

 

The good news: evil propagates itself this way, but so does goodness!  One kind word or thoughtful action can make all the difference in someone’s life.  And that person, also, goes on to influence others.  As we quoted earlier from the Talmud: “one stumbles through the sin of the other, teaching that all are held responsible for one another,” but the opposite is also true.  My own addition to this maxim:  One grows through the goodness of the other and so impacts others for blessing, which also results in all being held responsible for one another.

 

A thoughtless, angry word could incite a potential Hitler, but a kind word, or thoughtful gesture, could inspire a person to strive to be a tzadik, a righteous, saintly human being.  When we realize that one word, one action, on our part can reverberate through many people for countless generations, we can’t help but realize that the Talmud is correct when it says “All Israel is surety for one another”. May we be worthy of this responsibility!

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Behar                                    May 25, 2019 - 20 Iyyar 5779

05/24/2019 08:58:04 AM

May24

“Bran thought about it. ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”
                                          
— George R. R. Martin (1948-), A Game of Thrones                                                   (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

I spent this past week at my annual cantors’ convention in Louisville, Kentucky. It is difficult to describe the atmosphere created when this collection of bizarre personalities all congregate in one room, particularly when we consider that any space is usually not big enough to contain the egos of more than one cantor at a time, let alone four or five hundred. This amazingly colourful and dynamic group of people comes together with loosened ties each year to teach each other new melodies for leading services, discuss challenges that different synagogue communities face ranging from pastoral techniques for addressing mental health to membership decline, and to give concerts to each other showcasing music that would be otherwise too esoteric to perform in a typical congregational concert setting.

What moves me most, however, at each convention, are the reports on all of the amazing and exciting things that cantors are doing. This past January, nine of my colleagues brought a new Sefer Torah to the Abuyadaya Jewish community of Uganda to show solidarity with them, despite Israel’s refusal to recognize them as a legitimate Jewish community. Later this year, the Cantors Assembly will be publishing an Abuyadayan Passover Haggadah that simultaneously tells the amazing story of this unique people as it parallels the story of Passover (all proceeds from the publication will go to support the Abuyadaya). Another cantor established a partnership between his community Hebrew and a former Disney animator to create cartoon shorts of biblical stories. But perhaps the most moving presentation of all came from my dear colleague, Cantor Jeff Meyers, leader of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Cantor Meyers was there that day, when a man, may his memory be erased, motivated only by the age old plague of antisemitism, violated the very meaning of the word ‘sanctuary’ when he burst through the doors of the shul on a Shabbat morning, firing his weapon indiscriminately, ultimately killing eleven congregants. But cantor Meyers did not dwell on the event, rather the aftermath, whereupon he immediately began the impossible process of healing with his community, ministering to each person in his community who, if they had not lost a close relative, had certainly lost a friend in the unspeakable tragedy.

In this week’s parsha, Behar, we read the verse, “And you shall do My statutes and keep My decrees; and therefore you shall dwell in the land in safety” (Lev. 25:18). As though it were so simple, that all we must do is observe the laws of Torah, and God promises us safety; this conflicts with our lived experience in which bad things do indeed happen to good people. Midrashic literature teaches the story of Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuyah who sent his son up a tree to shoo away a mother bird before collecting her eggs. There are two mitzvot in the Torah which specifically states that the rewards for which are a long life - shooing away a mother bird before collecting her eggs, and honouring one’s mother and father. The rabbi’s son obeyed and climbed the tree only to accidentally slip and fall to his death whilst performing these two mitzvot simultaneously. In his despair, the rabbi concluded that God did not exist, and renounced his Jewish faith. He was henceforth referred to in the Talmud as “Acher”, a pseudonym meaning “that guy [who we hesitate to mention]”. The example of Acher is used in the Talmud time and again to remind us that this question is not at all new to Judaism since the Holocaust, but rather, one which we have wrestled with for many thousands of years. Over all this time, our best answer continues to be that while God is perfect, our world is not; and if it were, humankind would never be challenged to better itself.

And so, even in the face of abject horror and tragedy, we seek opportunities to better ourselves and each other. Upon completing his address, the delegates of the Cantors Assembly spontaneously surrounded Cantor Meyers and began to sing in a gesture of support and spiritual care, just as he has and continues to care for his community still in the midst of great suffering. In Cantor Meyers honour, the Cantors Assembly commissioned a majestic Torah cover depicting 36 stars, 11 black and gold stars to honour the victims of the shooting, and 25 silver stars to represent the first responders who rushed to the defense of the synagogue.

Shabbat Shalom,
                    
—ChazJ

Thu, December 12 2019 14 Kislev 5780