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Cantorial Comments - 8th Day of Passover                        April 27, 2019 - 22 Nisan 5779

04/24/2019 03:27:51 PM

Apr24

“Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage.”

                             --Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4-65 CE), Roman Philosopher

 

The Mishnah says that the most critical part of the Passover Seder is the part where we point to each of the three main items on the table, that is, the shank-bone, the matzah and the bitter herbs and expound upon their meanings.  It even says in the Haggadah that whosoever does not discuss the meaning of these three items has not fulfilled the primary purpose of the seder.  By contrast, at the Burko Family seder, I think that the most important part has to be the section at the very end where we all sing the children’s songs like Echad Mi Yodeah (Who Knows One).  In the most holy of rituals, we go around the room and each person (or small group) contributes by singing their ‘number’, and while fighting exhaustion and the effects of four cups of wine, we must remain vigilant to reprise our parts whenever our number is mentioned in the song.  It is a sacred ceremony of hilarity without which the seder would be completely ruined.

 

Traditionally, the songs at the end of the Passover seder are intended to entice children to survive the long night’s ritual, keep them awake and alert in anticipation of the fun sing-along at the end of the ordeal. But like everything else at the seder, even the children’s songs are much more than simple fun, and are indeed packed with symbolism and carefully considered themes.  “Echad Mi Yodeah” is a fairly comprehensive overview of the basic Jewish principles of faith and cultural history, while the song “Adir Hu” describes the very nature of the Jewish concept of God.  The deepest song of them all, however, is also seemingly the most benign.  Chad Gadya, the poor little goat who is eaten by the cat, who is eaten by the dog, who is beaten by the stick, seems to be the innocent Hebrew equivalent of the English song, “There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly”.  However, when we scratch a little beneath the surface, this song describes the nature of Jewish existence over the millennia, and the indisputable miracle that despite all odds, the Jewish people continue to exist today whilst every other mighty ancient civilization is no more.

 

In the song, Chad Gadya, Israel is represented by the goat. The first nation in history to attack and destroy Israel was Assyria, who defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, scattering the ten lost tribes.  In our song, Assyria is represented by the cat who ate the goat.  However, Assyria was, in turn, defeated and destroyed by the Babylonians at the Battle of Ninveh in 612 BCE. Babylon is represented by the dog who ate the cat.  Babylon was conquered by Persia (the stick who beat the dog) in 539 BCE under the command of Cyrus the Great at the Battle of Opis.  Persia was later defeated by the Greeks (the fire that burned the stick), who were later conquered by the Romans (the water that quenched the fire).  Following the schism of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem fell under Byzantine control, but in 637 CE, the quickly growing Muslim Empire (the ox that drank the water), under Caliph Umar, pushed the Byzantines out of Jerusalem and all the way back to Constantinople.  Later still, Jerusalem was reconquered by the Crusaders (the butcher that slew the ox) in the name of the Pope, and conquered yet again by the Turks (the Angel of Death who slew the butcher) eventually becoming the Ottoman Empire.  Strangely, the song first appeared in Haggadot in the year 1590 which forecast God (HaKadosh Baruch Hu) defeating the Angel of Death, and if you don’t count the brief period during which Britain administered the territory of Palestine following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it means that the Ottomans were the last actual rulers of Israel before its independence as the Jewish State in 1948. Neat, right?

 

The song is a round-about way of saying that despite all odds, the Jewish people endured.  Despite persecution, defeat, slaughter and conquest, we’re still here; and in the end, that’s what counts.  That’s how we win.

 

This week, we share this sentiment with many others around the world who also stand for what is good and decent in humanity.  As of the moment that I am writing this article, the death toll from the multiple ISIS attacks in Sri Lanka is up to 321.  Christians were attacked as they observed the Easter festival in their places of worship, and our community joins with them, and truly all human beings of conscience in mourning.  As Jews, we are reminded of the recent attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Muslims are reminded of the recent attack on a mosque in New Zealand.

 

The Jewish people offer this thought to those who are suffering this week.  Easter and Passover share the common theme of rebirth.  It is a time when we remember that our respective peoples suffered greatly, but endured nonetheless.  The day will come when evil is banished from this earth, but we know all too well that it is not today.  In the meantime, we must not lose sight of who we are, and continue to worship and celebrate life according to the way that honours our values.  We do this because that is how we defeat evil.  That is how humanity wins.

 

Shabbat Shalom, Mo’adim L’simcha,
                                                                    --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - First Day of Pesach                              April 20, 2019 - 15 Nisan 5779

04/17/2019 11:33:09 AM

Apr17

There is an inherent tension between the universal and the particular in the celebration of Passover.   On one hand the rituals surrounding Passover are very Jewish.  Be it in its Biblical setting, when the sacrificial meal was central, or in its later version, that we will be observing around Seder tables — with Haggadah and symbolic foods – the observance is distinctly ours.  Yet, The Pesach story and the Passover message are universal.  The tale of the Exodus from Egypt is about the Jewish people, but it is not only about us.  Throughout history it has served as a model for the struggle for liberation from tyrants, and as the epitome of redemption in the face of oppression.  Something that is frequently called Liberation Theology in today’s churches has its roots in the Biblical account of Moses and the Israelites.

Rabbi Jim Prosnit recounts an incident from a number of years ago when a local pastor said to him, “You know that Exodus story of yours is really amazing.”  When his ears heard his mouth say, “Why thank You!” he was a little embarrassed, that he claimed personal credit for the remarkable tale we tell each year – but he was also reminded how powerful the sentiment it is to celebrate a religious tradition built on the movement from slavery to freedom.  Indeed, as Rabbi Prosnit relays, around the globe examples of the Exodus story abound, as refugees – men, women and children – persecuted and oppressed because of the dysfunctional totalitarian regimes in their countries of origin search for safety and freedom.  The tyrants who rule these countries make the Egyptian Pharaoh of old look like a liberal.  The torture and whole sale neighborhood destruction make Pharaoh’s decree that the Israelites produce bricks without straw look like child’s play.  And when some of these threatened individuals manage to escape, the stories they have to tell of how they got away, make the Biblical tales of plagues and splitting sea seem rather low-key.

But, points out Rabbi Prosnit, once these folks are out they have no Moses to show them the way; and few promised lands willing to let them in. In Europe many nations have shut their doors, and a backlash has emerged in countries that were at one point more welcoming.  While perhaps understandable because of the tremendous numbers, the human misery has to break our hearts. In the United States, threats to close the southern border and withhold aid to Central and South American countries whose citizens only seek a better life in the “land of opportunity,” seems hypocritical in light that the Statue of Liberty proclaims: “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

What about unemployment?  Don’t refugees and immigrants cause economic turmoil and take jobs?  To this let us respond by remembering that we are the children and grandchildren of immigrants and refugees; that when our ancestors sought to escape a Pharaoh called the Tsar and come here, economic conditions in this country were even worse than today.  In fact, it was their toil and creativity that did much to make things better. There is no reason why it should be different in the case of new refugees.

A second argument is the danger that they may bring – the crime and terrorism.  To date, most domestic terrorism has been of the home grown kind and statistic after statistic states that while there are examples of horrific immigrant gang violence, the percentages of new comers engaged in criminal activity is far less than the general population.  Vetting is taking place, but the time it takes and the numbers processed are an embarrassment in the wake of humanitarian crises.

And finally some suggest that while these may be heart breaking stories they are not a “Jewish issue.”  To me here, the answer is simple.  Take a look at the Passover story as a reminder that this has always been a Jewish issue.  It is not just an issue of relevance to the Passover narrative but goes to the heart of so many of our moral teachings.  And beyond that our freedom in a society in no small measure goes hand in hand with willingness of that society to embrace others.  Rabbi Prosnit reminds us that those who turn their backs on one group usually end up turning their backs on Jews.

Rabbi Posnit concludes: The Biblical Amalekites became our arch-enemies because undeterred by fear of God they cut down the weary and the stragglers.  We must make sure that we do not become Amalekites to others.  We do this by following the rituals of Passover – tasting the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs – but also by discussing how the cherished symbols can stand for something greater.  I hope those conversations will also be part of your Seders and that in the midst of our sacred, particular ritual we remember the universal message of the festival.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Metzora                              April 13, 2019 - 8 Nisan 5779

04/11/2019 02:41:41 PM

Apr11

“Every step taken in mindfulness brings us one step closer to healing ourselves and the planet.”
             -- Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-) Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, author

The great artists of the impressionist movement such as Renoir and Monet painted the beauty of industrial cityscapes, but I must admit that it isn’t really the kind of subject matter that appeals most to me. To each, their own, no?  In that spirit, I cannot criticize the patrons of Toronto’s new pop-up restaurant, “Dinner With A View”, that, for $550 per person, features a view of the underside of the Gardiner Expressway.  That said, there is another problem with the restaurant that has me spiritually bothered.

It isn’t a kosher establishment, which would otherwise preclude me from being able to try it out, but that isn’t what bothers me, and it isn’t the steep price either.  In order to take in the “spectacular” view of what appears to be some kind of light/laser show projected on to the underside of the Gardiner, the restaurant is entirely outdoors with each table encapsulated in its own clear heated bubble-like tent, while wait-staff hustle from tent to tent serving food and bussing tables.  It sounds like it has all the right makings for an exciting and unique dining experience, until you learn what transpired in a nearby location, also under the Gardiner Expressway, just two weeks prior.

It was called “Tent City”; a place where many homeless people in Toronto pitched tents of their own, using the Gardiner as a secondary refuge from the elements.  Roughly two weeks ago, the city bulldozed through Tent City, destroying what few belongings this homeless community had, and forcibly removing the inhabitants. With Toronto’s homeless shelters already at maximum capacity, the homeless population of Tent City had absolutely nowhere to go.

To be clear, I do not contest the city’s actions, per se, in dismantling Tent City.  They were there illegally on public property, and were well aware that the city could remove them at any time.  That said, I found it to be uniquely callous of the city to remove them without being able to offer an alternative.  Homeless people would typically seek out space in one of the many shelters across the city of Toronto, however, advocates have been telling us for years that the shelters are all full, and government funding allowing shelter expansion falls seriously short of addressing Toronto’s growing homelessness crisis.  Even this however, is not the reason why I am bothered by the pop-up restaurant, which technically, did not displace anyone, or have anything to do at all with the dismantling of Tent City.

The problem is optics.  A man finds shelter in a tent underneath the Gardiner – it is a dismal, unsafe, and uncomfortable life, but an acceptable one because it means survival.  He is removed and replaced by another man in a tent, but this one has paid $550 for dinner, in a heated clear bubble where he enjoys dinner in luxury.  The juxtaposition of these two people in these two tents, is disturbingly ironic, and while the restaurant’s food may be delicious, I feel that eating there would leave a bad taste in my mouth.  While I applaud the restaurant creator’s ingenuity, In my mind, it is a restaurant that has sadly been afflicted with the spiritual disease of leprosy.

This week’s parsha, Metzorah, is focused on the odd spiritual disease known in Hebrew as ‘tzara’at’, we call leprosy.  I prefer to call it by its Hebrew name, Tzara’at, because we do not want to confuse the spiritual disease of leprosy, as it is described in the Torah, with the one that doctors today identify as the debilitating disease that causes fingers and toes to fall off.  According to the Torah, Tzara’at is a spiritual affliction that can manifest on the body in a number of ways, most commonly a discolouration of the skin.  However, more interestingly, Tzara’at can also afflict inanimate objects, in particular, houses.  The Torah describes at length how to identify Tzara’at in a home, how to treat it, and what to do if treatment isn’t working.  A house that persists in showing signs of Tzara’at after weeks of treatment, the Torah teaches, must be utterly demolished.

Unlike a physical ailment brought about by bacteria, a virus, trauma, etc., Tzara’at is a disease of the spirit, brought about by problems in a marriage, immorality, lack of conscience and the like.  And why not?  Bad behaviour is communicable, much like any disease.  While it may strike us as odd that a disease can afflict a house, do we not sense something amiss in the atmosphere when we enter a home that is rife with relationship problems?  (For the ultimate proof of this point and its solution, watch last week’s episode of “This Is Us” – I wouldn’t dare reveal any spoilers!)

While it may feel out-of-step with modernity to invoke a term like leprosy as a disease, most of us will probably admit to experiencing being in a place that seems spiritually plagued, just as we experience places that spiritually rejuvenating.  We owe it to ourselves to notice when we have found ourselves in a place of spiritual affliction and to distance ourselves from it, or when possible, be an agent of spiritual healing by bringing warmth, love, and understanding.

Shabbat Shalom,
                        --ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tazria                                  April 6, 2019 - 1 Nisan 5779

04/04/2019 11:07:59 AM

Apr4

There’s been a lot of controversy about vaccines in the news lately.  A group calling themselves “Anti-Vaxxers” claims that vaccines are harmful to children and should not be given.  This is based on false information erroneously linking autism to the MMR vaccine, which was debunked years ago.  Still, some people have become anti-vaccination and as a result, there are a growing number of cases of measles in the US and Canada resulting in needless illness and death.  Vaccines are important and have a demonstrated track record of helping, rather than harming, vaccinated individuals.  Ask anyone who suffered from polio if they wished they could have had the vaccine.  Ask the thousands of dead from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 if they wished they could have received a vaccination.  Vaccines are an important part of maintaining good health in our modern world.

Indeed, as Rabbi Jonathan Waxman observes, these days we go to great lengths to protect ourselves.  We create and rush vaccines into production against new strains of flu; we develop emergency protocols to deal with outbreaks; and we separate suspected individuals with contagious diseases. But, in a sense we are not that different from ancestors who isolated those afflicted with Tsara’at, the ones who suffered from this Biblical skin disease.  We just have a few more weapons of technology at the ready.  But we, too, ultimately shun the infected.

The Torah shows that those infected were chased out of the camp of Israel and later the towns of Israel.  They were treated as lepers—though there is an ongoing debate about whether Hansen’s disease really was to be found in ancient Israel—they were shunned and isolated.  Indeed, it is not too long ago that there were leper colonies.  Not too long ago Father Damien, who ministered to lepers in a 19th century Hawaiian colony, was canonized, made a saint of the Catholic Church.  And for centuries, if one couldn’t quarantine the infected because they were too many in number, then if one had money, one fled the city and moved to the healthy air of the countryside to avoid the plagues that ravaged urban areas and its inhabitants.

We can understand the medical precautions: the need for isolation; the need for quarantine.  But what of the human cost?  What about the sense of abandonment by those who were quarantined?  What about those who were afflicted and locked up, cut off from society?  How did they feel?

Rabbi Jonathan Waxman points out that, sadly, we don’t only isolate people who have medical conditions.  We isolate others, for ideological and theological reasons.  In Judaism we have the concept of being placed in herem; where one is shunned by one’s fellow Jews.  In the 17th century, a contemporary of Spinoza, by the name of Uriel Da Costa, was put into herem for his unorthodox views and could not take the isolation.  He recanted, but in the end after suffering physical punishment, committed suicide.  But this kind of ideological shunning hasn’t disappeared from the Jewish world.  You may recall that several years ago, Judge Goldstone, whose name was on the UN report about Israel behavior during the Gaza war, was declared persona non grata at the South African shul where his grandson became Bar Mitzvah.  One may sharply disagree with the report, but to force him to miss this simchah; how petty and sad.

The Torah text speaks of an involved process of re-entry into the community.  It marked not only the fact that the person had been healed; but symbolized the rejoining of the community.  It must have been a powerful ceremony; when the person was no longer literally considered an untouchable. The weight of the world must have been lifted.  One was no longer a pariah.

With a growing awareness of inclusion, especially the LGBTQ2S+ community, partners who were formerly not allowed to be part of the medical decision making process of loved ones in hospital because they were not considered relatives, such exclusion ostracized the patient as well as the care giver.  The infirmed was left to suffer in silence, with little or no support by his/her self-identified family and community. Luckily things have changed.  Regardless of what one thinks of the LGBTQ2S+ lifestyle, we can all agree that no one should suffer alone and in isolation needlessly.  This may not be quite as dramatic as the ritual of purification described in the Torah portion; but its effect is the same; to end the separation from loved ones and to be recognized as fully part of the community.

We take seriously those afflicted with communicable diseases.  But we don’t fully appreciate what it means to be isolated when one is so afflicted.  Even more so we are often times less sensitive to the impact upon those whom we isolate in various ways because of their views or their life styles.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shemini                              March 30, 2019 - 23 Adar II 5779

03/28/2019 11:24:25 AM

Mar28

“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”
                                                                                                       
-      Dalai Lama XIV (1935-)

This past week saw the 7th release of the World Happiness Report, an independent global study sponsored, in part, by the United Nations exploring relative happiness on a societal level around the world.  The lengthy report cites many regional reasons why some countries perceive themselves, on average, as having happier citizens than others, including prevalence of crime, political/religious freedom, lack of opportunities for work and/or socioeconomic advancement, struggles on a societal level with obesity, substance abuse, mental health, and the like.  Ominously (but perhaps not unsurprisingly), chapter 7 of the report is entitled, “Addiction and Unhappiness in America”.

It seems that over the past 20-some years, the West has been steadily falling in the world rankings on the happiness leader-board.  While some western countries, like Canada, are still doing reasonably well and holding strong at a respectable 9th place, the USA is sitting further down the bench than many would have expected at 19th.  For comparison, the UK is 15th place, Israel is 13th, while the Scandinavian countries have topped the charts as a whole group, occupying 6 out of the top 7 ranked happiest countries in the world, with Finland winning the blue ribbon.

Comments on the report published by author and business mogul, Scott Mautz, seek to shed light on why, it seems, the West is not as happy as we would all expect, and based on the data, Mautz has a pretty good theory. Mautz notes an important statistical blip on this year’s report that relates to how people in the west (and young people in particular) spend their leisure time in 2019, compared to how leisure time was spent twenty years ago.  When we think about it, it shouldn’t be shocking at all – the primary difference, and what may be the major contributing factor to unhappiness in the West, says Mautz, is screen time and social media.

I love my gadgets, and readily admit that I often feel that I have sold my soul to Apple.  With my iPhone in my pocket, Apple Watch on my wrist and my MacBook that I’m currently using to write this very article, I keep my work and private life organized as my devices work in concert to help me respond at a moment’s notice to the changing needs of Beth Radom through each day.  It’s all quite miraculous, but we have all seen the down-sides to having such easy access to our gadgets.  In a given day, many of us spend more time staring at screens than interacting with people in front of us, and we as a society are beginning to forget how to do it.  I can’t even count the number of times I have been in a restaurant and noticed a family sitting at the next booth, all of them staring at their phones rather than interacting with each other.  The World Happiness Report makes a definitive connection between the way we spend our leisure time and overall happiness, indicating emphatically that people who engage more with real human interaction as a leisure activity are happier and more successful people.

In this week’s parsha, Sh’mini, tragedy strikes the Israelite camp. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu become infatuated with the newly built Tabernacle, and in their excitement to use this new wonderful gadget that would enable them to become closer to God, the Torah says they offered on the altar an “eish zara asher lo tzivah otam”, an “alien fire, one which God had not commanded.” (Lev. 10:1).   The Torah continues to describe a great fire from God, born of the strange sacrifice, which came down and consumed the bodies of Nadav and Avihu, killing both brothers.  We can all understand Nadav and Avihu’s exuberance.  How many of us have bought a new power tool or kitchen appliance and tried using it without carefully studying the safety directions first?  It’s human nature that our desire to play with our new toys somehow overpowers our otherwise reasonably well-evolved sense of fear and caution.  Sadly, it takes a dark cautionary tale, such as the one of Nadav and Avihu, to help us keep our exuberance in check.

Social media is an amazing and powerful new technology that over recent years has dramatically changed the way that we interact with one-another, and indeed, the world.  The devices we carry around with us connect us to each other at all times, give us access to the global knowledgebase that is the internet, and for the most part, they help us to become more organized, efficient and effective in our lives and how we spend our time.  But a day is still just 24 hours, just as it was 20 years ago, 100 years ago, and 3500 years ago.  Only now are we beginning to appreciate the cost to our emotional wellbeing as we realize that if we spend all of our leisure time interacting with each other solely through our phones and other screens, it means that time is taken away from the kind of in-person interaction that we clearly need for the sake of our own mental health.

Mautz’s article caught my attention, however, not so much for his insights, but for his suggested remedies which sounded hilariously familiar from a Jewish perspective, as though it could have been read straight out of the Torah.  Mautz called his first remedy the “Sacred No-Fly Zone”, that is, special times, like family dinners, when screens and social media are strictly prohibited.  I think that the Torah calls it “Shabbat”.  The second remedy Mautz calls “Putting Parameters on a Pedestal”, that is, internet, social media and screen time should be treated as privilege and not a right, particularly for children.  The Torah doesn’t believe in rights either, instead we have obligations, i.e. mitzvot, which must be considered far more sacred than rights.  The final remedy Mautz calls “Role-model Restraint”, that is, to practice putting limitations on aspects of our lives with regards to our devices.  The Torah has been teaching Jews to do this for 3500 years, from learning which clothes we are prohibited to wear to which foods we are prohibited to eat.  Practicing Judaism is and always has been an exercise in healthy restraint.

Mixed with some irony, I am awed, inspired and proud to continually find that within Torah, God and Jewish values that date back thousands of years, to find all manner of simple, realistic, and even poetic solutions to the most complex problems of the modern world.

Shabbat Shalom,
                                
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Tzav                                    March 23, 2019 - 16 Adar II 5779

03/22/2019 10:57:23 AM

Mar22

A rabbi explained to his congregation that the shul was in need of some extra money, so he asked them to consider being more than generous.  He offered that whoever gave the most when they auctioned off the aliyot (Torah honors) would be able to pick three hymns.  After the donation cards were collected, the rabbi glanced down and noticed that someone had graciously offered a $1000.  He was so excited that he immediately shared his joy with his congregation and said he'd like to personally thank the person who pledged so generously.

A very quiet, elderly, devout lady in the back of the synagogue shyly raised her hand.  The rabbi asked her to come to the front, so she slowly she made her way towards him. The rabbi told her how wonderful it was that she gave so much, and in thanks he asked her to pick out three hymns.  Her eyes brightened as she looked over the congregation. She pointed to the three most handsome men in the shul and said, "I'll take him and him and him."  Talk about generosity!

The Torah reading of Tzav describes the duties of the kohanim (priests) for performing each of the sacrifices listed in last week’s parshah, or portion.   The instructions are quite detailed and the rituals are designed to inspire awe, reverence, fear, and reflection, to name just a few responses.  And invitation to party is not one we think of, but it should be.

One sacrifice is the zevach todah, the thanksgiving offering.  It is one example of a zevach-shlamim, a peace offering, sometimes referred to as a sacrifice of well-being.  The zevach todah must be eaten on the same day it is offered, with nothing left over for the next day (Lev. 7:15).  This is surprising, because all the other peace offerings may be eaten for up to three days.  Why not the zevach todah?

Abravanel (1437-1508; Portuguese Torah scholar, diplomat, financier, mystic and communal leader) grounds his answer in human nature.  Faced with a surplus of food that must be consumed immediately (or go to waste), the individual bringing the sacrifice will invite family and friends to partake of the feast, and will naturally explain the specific good fortune prompting the sacrifice, thereby extolling God’s generosity.

Rabbi David Ackerman teaches that Tzav makes an important theological and sociological statement:  God wants us to be generous.  Properly acknowledging a gift requires giving a gift.  God doesn’t need the sacrifice; God needs to see that we share with others. The Torah commands (Deut. 16:14): “You shall rejoice in your festival with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your community.”  Tzav turns a private event into a public celebration.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comments - Parshat Vayikra                                      March 16, 2019 - 9 Adar II 5779

03/14/2019 05:33:43 PM

Mar14

“You've got to be taught // To hate and fear, // You've got to be taught // From year to year, // It's got to be drummed // In your dear little ear // You've got to be carefully taught.”
                Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960), from the Broadway musical, “South Pacific”

A few days ago, Jews around the world celebrated the welcoming of the new month of Adar II.  Tied intimately with the joy of Purim, tradition teaches, “mi shenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha”, “one who embraces [the spirit of] Adar will increase in joy”. However, last Friday morning, an incident at the Kotel in Jerusalem has left all Jews of conscience (and perhaps all human beings of conscience) disturbed, disheartened, enraged and emboldened.

For some weeks, the Women of the Wall had been planning their 30thAnniversary celebration.  Posted on the organization’s website is their itinerary for the occasion:

Thursday, March 7, 2019. 6pm:
         Welcome Event with Light Dinner, Van Leer Institution, Jerusalem

Friday, March 8, 2019. 7am:

        Celebrate Rosh Hodesh Adar II and International Women’s Day

        Meaningful Rosh Hodesh Service at the Western Wall

        Light Breakfast

        2 Learning Sessions–separate tracks for Hebrew & English speakers

        Light Lunch

        Kabbalat Shabbat Sing-a-Long


The expected turnout for the event was roughly 1000 people.  But as their buses arrived at the Kotel at 7am, they discovered their path blocked by seven entire schools of children, approximately 6000 kids in total, who had come by school-bus at 6:30am with one “holy mission” as they put it: to block the Women of the Wall from accessing any area of the Kotel, and prevent them from holding prayer services.  The Women of the Wall were spat upon, and aggressively pushed and shoved by the seminary girls.  Adding insult to injury, among the Women of the Wall were a number of paratroopers who had been personally involved in the liberation of the Kotel from Jordanian occupation in the Six-Day War.

To be clear, I am personally not a big fan of the Women of the Wall organization.  I strongly believe in egalitarianism, the right for women to be able to access and pray at the Wall in the manner to which they are accustomed, and the right for Jewish denominations of all varieties to hold prayer services at the Kotel in the style of their choosing equally and without fear of assault or oppression of any kind.  All that said, I think there is a right way to go about making these important changes, and a wrong way.  I find that Women of the Wall make their point in an almost militaristic fashion, which, while admittedly attracting important attention in the media, ultimately do a dis-service to their own cause by showing that they are just as pushy and obnoxious as their ultra-orthodox adversaries currently in charge of the Kotel’s administration.  While I may not always approve of their methods, the fact remains that Jews were accosted for celebrating a form of Judaism that does not conform with the narrow-minded view of many in the ultra-orthodox community – a perverse way of thinking that is growing quickly in influence over politics and culture in Israeli society.  What disturbs me most about this incident is not the spitting and the violence, but rather the organization of the protest, the use of school children to do the dirty work, and that the whole episode becomes a charedi children’s indoctrination process – the teaching of hatred, a skewed sense of moral equivalence, and ‘us vs them’ism.

This Shabbat in known as Shabbat Zachor, the name is derived from the special commandment we read this week which is to remember [zachor] Amalek, the evil nation which attacked the Israelites in the desert when they were most vulnerable.  To this day, the Torah commands us to blot out the memory of Amalek wherever it may be found, and while the actual ancient nation of Amalek no longer exists, many Jews observe this commandment today when testing to see if a pen has any ink left; they write the word “Amalek”, then blot it out.  In Jewish tradition, the true enemy of the Jews is Amalek, not Pharoah, nor the Romans, not even Hitler, and certainly not other Jews.  The world is in need of a great deal of ‘takanah – fixing’, which begins at home, teaching our children better lessons than who they are supposed to hate.

Shabbat Shalom,
                             
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Pekudei                                  March 9, 2019 - 2 Adar II 5779

03/07/2019 03:24:42 PM

Mar7

In Parashat Pekudei Moses calls upon the Israelites to complete God’s instructions for building the mishkan, or Tabernacle.  He calls upon two master artisans to oversee this sacred project: Betzalel ben Uri and Oholiav ben Achisamach.  Moses chooses them because they possess God’s spirit, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (Ex. 35:31). Additionally, though, they have the ability to teach others the intricate work necessary to build the mishkan (Ex. 35:34).

Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-~1164) observes there are many accomplished people who find it hard to teach others.  Rabbi Shai Held (USA, 1971-) builds on Ibn Ezra’s insight and distinguishes between those who are unable to teach effectivel  and those who are unwilling.  We can all recall a professor we’ve had who was brilliant in his or her research and writing, but couldn’t teach worth beans. Likewise, we can probably recall those who were unwilling to help us when called upon for aid in studying or getting notes from a class we missed.

Sometimes this lack of wisdom-sharing comes from demeaning others.  When I was in rabbinical school the mantra was that those who could would become scholars.  If unable to be a scholar, a pulpit rabbi; if unable to do that, then a teacher and if unable even to do that, then a chaplain.  Yet, nowadays, scholars, rabbis and teachers are realizing the importance of the chaplain skills we have when addressing real human needs and spiritual searching.

Rabbi David Ackerman, in his comments on this parshah concludes: God chooses Betzalel and Oholiav because they are generous of spirit and share their expertise without hesitation (as opposed to hoarders of knowledge).  Thus, the mishkan, God’s haven among the Israelites, is built out of the heartfelt generosity of the Israelites to God (through their donations of material) and the heartfelt generosity of Betzalel and Oholiav to their fellow Israelites (through their donations of knowledge). Generosity is a building block of sanctity.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor's Comments - Parshat Vayakhel                              March 2, 2019 - 25 Adar I 5779

02/28/2019 03:13:32 PM

Feb28

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.”
-      Helen Keller (1880-1968)

If you haven’t yet seen one of Koolulam’s YouTube videos, you’re missing out.  I was first introduced to this Israeli cover rock band three years ago, and I’ve had a small obsession with them ever since.  What makes Koolulam unique is that their musical events are not really concerts, but more like rehearsals followed up with a recording session, and the ‘audience’ is the star of the show.  For an hour or so, Koolulam teaches their audience to sing the song as a 4-part choir while the band backs them up, and when everybody has leaned their part, the song is recorded for a music video via a series of cameras set up all around the stadium.  The video is later edited and released online for the whole world to see.  What this group is able to achieve with all of their different audiences in Israel and around the world is nothing short of magical, and for the first time, they are coming to Toronto on April 2nd– there’s no way I am going to miss it.

I admit to being something of a music snob.  When it comes to secular music, I typically gravitate towards music that is more complex, such as can be found in jazz clubs or at the opera, as opposed to any of this year’s Grammy-winning artists.  My musical education has taught me to be analytical with music to the point that I find much of modern popular music to be quite derivative, clearly engineered not to add something new and unique to the musical zeitgeist, but simply to appeal to the widest and most generic audience possible. But every once in a while, as in the case of Koolulam, a popular band comes along with something truly different and unique to offer the world.  They tell a story through their music that has never been told before, and they move people in a new and profound way.  They inspire.  And when that happens, I suddenly couldn’t care less about analyzing their music, because all I want to do is just experience it, and it feels quite wonderful.

In parshat Vay’kahel, the Israelites are nearing completion of the building of the Tabernacle.  It has been almost two years since the public revelation on Sinai and the Sin of the Golden Calf.  The Israelites have learned from their experiences to mitigate their feelings of religious fervor with solemnity and sensibility.  All of that raw emotion has been channeled into a way of living that serves God and the community in the form of the three pillars of Judaism: learning, worship and acts of loving-kindness.  Inspiration is a potent feeling, as it often compels us to behave in extreme ways, and make dramatic changes in our lives.  Whether we choose to channel that feeling in a positive or negative way is often a reflection of how accustomed we are to self-discipline.  For two hundred years in Egypt, the Israelites slaves were robbed of any opportunity to exercise and develop any sense of self-discipline, and for those same two hundred years, God was absent from their lives.  In a sudden turn of events, God re-forges a relationship with the Israelites and the Israelites gain their freedom – inspiration returns to their lives, but without any experience of how to set personal limitations and structure, inspiration leads to chaos, i.e. The Golden Calf.  In this week’s parsha, it is has been two years since the Public Revelation, and during that time, the Israelites have been doing their homework, learning the rules of Torah law and service to the Divine. As a result, the Israelites learn to channel their inspiration very differently.  Moses calls upon the Israelites to help in the building of the Tabernacle, and the spirit of volunteerism and charity is so strong that Moses is forced to readdress the assembled Israelite people and kindly ask them to stop giving so much.  The inspiration that once brought about chaos and sin, has now been channeled toward charity and giving.

The modern era is full of places in which one can find all kinds of inspiration, but too often it can be hard to separate healthy kinds of inspiration from what is really commercialism masquerading as inspiration.  In the self-help section of the bookstore, how do we find a resource that helps us to make honest changes in our lives instead of quick-fixes?  In politics, how do we distinguish between those leaders who have a genuine interest in the greater good and those who are simply power-hungry?  In a world filled with different varieties of spirituality, how do we determine which ideologies are forces for good, and which are not? Often times, the answers are not obvious, and all we have are our gut instincts.  In those cases, we hope that we are not putting our faith in a Golden Calf. But over many millennia, Torah has taught Jews self-discipline, and has instilled within us gut instinct that has a pretty good track record for sniffing out right from wrong.  Through our learning and devotion to Judaism, we have earned that right to trust our instincts and embrace healthy inspiration whenever and wherever we find it.

Shabbat Shalom,
--ChazJ

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Ki Tissa                                    February 23, 2019 - 18 Adar I 5779

02/22/2019 10:35:11 AM

Feb22

In their hit song, “Fly Like an Eagle,” the Steve Miller Band reminded us that “time keeps on slipping in to the future.” And Barbra Streisand sang, about the memories that “light the corners of [our] mind.”  Their lyrics cause us to pause and think about the importance of time over space.  Likewise, in a curious juxtaposition, the Book of Exodus concludes the instructions for building a portable sanctuary in the desert (“Just as I have commanded you, they shall do” [Ex. 31:11]) with the command to observe the Sabbath (“Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths. ” [Ex. 31:13]).  The ancient rabbis noted that even something as “holy” as building a sanctuary to God must be halted in observance of the Sabbath.  Rabbi Harold Kushner, in the Eitz Hayim Pentateuch commentary, writes: “If there is a conflict between the holiness of space and the holiness of time, the holiness of time takes precedence.  Time came first; the first thing that God sanctified was the Shabbat.  It is accessible to everyone. One cannot defer it or return to it.  If one misses the moment, it is gone forever.”

There is no harm in appreciating the beauties of natural surroundings or finding inspiration in the works of human hands, but it is the preciousness and sanctity of time that too often eludes us.  When my mother passed away we, my family, shared countless memories of moments in time. Conversations began with, “Do you remember when...” and usually concluded with a sigh, smile, or even a tear.  In describing my mother’s life to friends who didn’t know her, I inevitably painted a portrait of time.  Through all of this, I have affirmed for myself that my mother was not only of the flesh, but also of the spirit.  While her physical presence bore the limitations of mortality, her true essence was measured in moments of time.  The more time we had to spend together, the more moments there were to remember and inspire.

The Sabbath is a celebration of moments of time.  Abraham Joshua Heschel tells us: “it is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation.”  The Sabbath is a day defined by “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and Thou”; a moment to peer through the window of timeless eternity and glimpse the promise of a Messianic era.  The Sabbath is a moving away from the daily chores defined by space, and embracing the warmth, compassion, and spiritual significance of time.

Rabbi Howard Siegel, in writing on this topic, concludes: “In a world of objects, people too often become just another ‘thing.’ The Shabbat is the Jew’s weekly reminder that we are more than just an object; we are defined by more than just physical presence.  We exist in moments that touch lives, create memories, and preserve hope and faith in humankind.” My mother now exists in time. I am thankful for my moments with her and cherish the memories she left behind.

Shabbat Shalom!

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

02/11/2019 12:59:02 PM

Feb11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                        
--ChazJ

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

02/07/2019 04:58:36 PM

Feb7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

01/31/2019 02:34:11 PM

Jan31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
            
            --ChazJ

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

01/24/2019 03:15:12 PM

Jan24

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

01/18/2019 10:31:23 AM

Jan18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                          --ChazJ

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

01/07/2019 02:47:07 PM

Jan7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

01/03/2019 05:00:33 PM

Jan3

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

--ChazJ

 

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

12/27/2018 03:33:14 PM

Dec27

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom!

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

12/21/2018 08:49:36 AM

Dec21

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom,

                            --ChazJ

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

12/14/2018 02:34:13 PM

Dec14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12/07/2018 10:25:25 AM

Dec7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
--ChazJ

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

11/29/2018 05:03:56 PM

Nov29

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob was a shepherd; so was Joseph.

Jacob was deceived twice; so was Joseph.

Jacob was blessed with wealth; so was Joseph.

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

Jacob got married outside of Israel; so did Joseph.

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

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

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

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

Jacob went down to Egypt; so did Joseph.

Jacob experienced famine; famine was prevented by Joseph.

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

Jacob commanded his sons; Joseph commanded his brothers.

Jacob died in Egypt; Joseph died in Egypt.

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

Parshat Vayishlach                                                              November 24, 2018 -

11/22/2018 03:33:41 PM

Nov22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11/08/2018 01:19:02 PM

Nov8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

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

11/08/2018 11:32:59 AM

Nov8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you are Chaim.

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

11/01/2018 05:04:37 PM

Nov1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom
    
                       Rabbi Geoff

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

10/25/2018 04:45:45 PM

Oct25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
          --ChazJ

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

10/18/2018 04:40:27 PM

Oct18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

10/12/2018 12:47:06 PM

Oct12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,
                          --ChazJ

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

10/05/2018 12:38:31 PM

Oct5

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Wed, November 20 2019 22 Cheshvan 5780