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

06/27/2019 10:34:35 AM


Dear Congregants,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

06/20/2019 12:53:04 PM


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

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

06/12/2019 03:27:34 PM


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

06/06/2019 03:51:46 PM


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

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

05/30/2019 03:55:09 PM


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Shabbat Shalom!

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

05/24/2019 08:58:04 AM


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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Emor                                        May 18, 2019 - 13 Iyyar 5779

05/17/2019 10:54:43 AM


In January, a Saudi teen that was granted asylum in Canada after fleeing from her allegedly abusive family has arrived in Canada.  Her flight from Seoul, South Korea, landed in Toronto a day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would accept 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun as a refugee.

According to CBC News, the young woman fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign that drew global attention to her case.

Al-Qunun said her father physically abused her and tried to force her into an arranged marriage.  The teen also wrote that she was afraid and that her family would kill her if she were returned home.

Sadly, her story is not an isolated case.  Every year, thousands of women and girls are murdered by members of their own families because they have tarnished the family’s honor.  Their crimes range from adultery to refusing to enter an arranged marriage, from seeking a divorce from an abusive husband to flirting, from dressing immodestly to being raped.  More often than not, the authorities look the other way.

The United Nations estimates that some 5,000 “honor killings” take place annually.  Women’s and human rights groups believe that the number is much higher.  Most take place in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, but there are also documented cases in Europe, North America, and elsewhere.

With this in mind, it’s disturbing to read this verse in our Torah portion for this week (Leviticus 20:26): “When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire.”  It certainly seems to sanction, even require, “honor killing.”  However, it is not only incorrect, but also dangerous, to define Judaism simply by reading the Torah text.  We Jews read the Torah through the eyes of the Rabbis, and we understand that what the text means, and particularly how it is to be applied in matters of halakhah (Jewish Law), is what the Rabbis say it means.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, in her comments on this verse, teaches us that the Rabbis of the Talmud have quite a bit to say about this verse, and the first thing they have to say is that it doesn’t apply to every daughter of a priest, but only to one who is married. How do we know?  It’s obvious; while the Torah disapproves of sex outside of marriage, it doesn’t become criminal unless the parties were ineligible to marry each other – that is, when the woman is already married or betrothed (the Torah permits polygamy) or when they are related in a way the Torah defines as incestuous.

Moreover, Newmark points out, the Torah says (Deuteronomy 22:22), “If a man is found lying with another man’s wife, both of them – the man and the woman with whom he lay – shall die.”  In other words, adultery by anyone – not just the daughter of a priest – is a capital offense, and the punishment is meted out by the court, not by the woman’s family.

And finally, the Rabbis surround capital punishment with so many requirements that it is hard to imagine that it could ever be employed.  Among the requirements that would have to be met for the court to judge anyone guilty of adultery are these:

  • Before the couple did anything, they would have to be seen by two kosher witnesses who would issue a warning that what they were planning to do was prohibited and punishable by death and naming the specific method of execution that applied.
  • Those who were warned would have to verbally acknowledge that they understood the warning and were aware of the method of execution that would be imposed, and
  • The couple would have to go ahead and have sex anyway -- in the sight of the two witnesses.

Newmark observes: while I don’t speak from experience, I’m pretty sure that’s not how most adultery takes place.

So if all adultery is a capital offense, what’s the force of this verse?  It’s about the form of execution that would be imposed if a daughter of a priest were convicted of adultery.  The Talmud prescribes four methods of execution – strangulation, decapitation, burning, and stoning, in increasing degrees of severity (and none of them is what you imagine).  Normally the form of execution for adultery is strangulation, but the daughter of a priest is executed by burning – a more severe form of execution – because “it is her father whom she defiles.”  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac, 1040-1105, Provence) explains: “She profanes and shames his honor, for people say about him, ‘cursed be the one who begot her, cursed be the one who brought her up.’”  Because the kohanim (priests) are set apart by God to be role models of holiness and to serve in the sanctuary, the misbehavior of the daughter of the priest reflects not only on her family, but on the special role of the kohanim.

Newmark concludes: Clearly, the Torah forbids “honor killing” – only the court can impose the death penalty, and only in the most extreme circumstances.  Still, the concern for honor is real.  Like it or not, an individual’s behavior reflects on his or her parents, teachers, and community.  It’s true that sometimes perfectly good parents raise a rotten kid, and good people sometimes come from terrible families, but as a working assumption it’s reasonable to think that a person’s behavior reflects the values he or she learned from parents, teachers, religious authorities, and other significant institutions in his or her life.

At the end of our portion, the Torah records the case of the blasphemer, son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian father. We never learn his name, but we are told that his mother’s name was Shelomit bat Dibri of the tribe of Dan.  Rashi explains, “This teaches that a wicked person brings disgrace upon himself, disgrace upon his father (or parents), disgrace upon his tribe, and similarly, a righteous person brings praise for himself, praise for his father, praise for his tribe.

Never forget – the choices we make are not made for ourselves alone.

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Kedoshim                                May 11, 2019 - 6 Iyyar 5779

05/09/2019 11:45:49 AM


“Know yourself.  Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”
--- Ann Landers (1918-2002) - Pseudonym for the writers of the                                     Chicago Sun column, “Ask Ann Landers”, Ruth Crowley and Esther Pauline

 I imagine that Judaism must seem quite bizarre when observing it from the gentile world; the prayer shawls with their tassels, folksy circle dances and crusty flat bread that they eat for a week.  Even among Jews, we readily admit it can be pretty strange at times, like when we wear black boxes on our heads and arms, or when we all gather to eat the ceremonial pickled fish at a bris at 8am (I absolutely love herring, but at the same time I assume that we all concede it’s objectively gross).  But for all the weird hippi-Kabbalism and furry hats that comprise some of the more ‘romantic’ parts of Judaism, its core system, the basic values upon which our religion is based, are very simple, honest, and good.  This week’s parsha, Kedoshim, lists pretty much all of them: love your neighbour as yourself, treat the disabled with dignity, respect your parents, leave the corners of your field to the poor, seek justice fairly, deal honestly in business, the list goes on.

It is plain for most to see.  Even most non-Jews know that the single thing that we Jewish people venerate second only to God is Torah.  If we take a look, we find that the basic substance of the Torah is 613 commandments.  We then dismiss half of them that are irrelevant so long as we don’t have a Temple, which really leaves us with just a few uncomplicated guidelines and methods for respecting ourselves, one another, and God.  The rest, honestly, is flavouring.  The Talmud distills the core of Judaism even further with a story about a man who visits the great rabbis Hillel and Shamai.  The man visited the great Rav Shamai first with a request, “teach me the entirety of Torah whilst I stand here upon one leg”.  Shamai scoffed at the impossible and disrespectful question.  The man then visited the wise Rav Hillel and asked him the same question, to which Rav Hillel replied, “do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.  This is the entirety of Torah, and the rest is just commentary.  Go and learn it!”

Recent years have seen a dramatic resurgence in antisemitism in our schools, in governments, in the workplace, in popular opinion, in the news and in dramatic acts of extreme violence.  Many argue that this hostility is in no way directed at Jews but only against Israel and Zionism, that Israel’s existence is a crime against displaced indigenous Palestinians.  They curse Israel for committing war crimes in flexing its military might against children throwing rocks.  While Israel has been conducting operations in Gaza this past week, they seem to be completely oblivious to the rockets fired from Gaza and terror tunnels.

The anti-Semitic cartoon that appeared in the New York Times revealed the core of Zionism, which should not have been much of a surprise to any Jew, but I have to admit that I was still shocked anyway.  Not so much that something that bad could have made it to print without being caught by an editor, but that this blatantly obvious example of the rising issue of antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism would be largely ignored by the world.

For all his genius, Rav Shamai misconstrued the meaning of man’s question.  Shamai assumed that the man was insulting him, asking for just a taste of quickie-Judaism, as if Jewish learning was really just a passing interest like stamp-collecting.  Rav Hillel, on the other hand, did not take the man’s question as an insult, but as a genuine and earnest request to understand what was the most fundamental principle at the core of Judaism.  In the same breath, however, Rav Hillel makes sure that the man understands that just because he knows the fundamental principle, does not absolve him from the responsibility of learning Judaism properly.  “The rest is just commentary, go and learn it”, are Hillel’s parting words to the man.

The optimist in me wants to believe that most people, themselves, don’t actually understand the source of their feelings against Israel.  All we can do is continue to demonstrate our core, as we have always done, while we, as a people, continue to press the important question: what is the core behind your hatred?  Because calling it “anti-Zionism”, while still important, is really just commentary.

 Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbinical Reflections - Parshat Acharei-Mot                          May 4, 2019 - 29 Nisan 5779

05/01/2019 02:35:17 PM


A Jewish man is sitting on a bench reading his newspaper when an anti-Semite approaches him and says, "You know, all the world's problems are because of the Jews."

The Jewish man looks up and replies, "And the bicycle riders."

The anti-Semite replies befuddled, "Why the bicycle riders?"

The Jewish man responds, "Why the Jews?"

It seems that anti-Semitism has risen its ugly head once again, and only 74 years after the Holocaust; within living memory of the most heinous attack on the Jews in the history of the world. Indeed, B’nai Brith Canada reports that anti-Semitic incidents doubled between last year and this.  The attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA six months ago and the attack on Chabad of Poway, CA this past week mark a new chapter in the history of anti-Semitism in the US. Pittsburgh, alone, was the largest single lethal attack against Jews in US history; and now linked with the attack in California, exactly six months later, leaves us devastated and wondering why and how this can happen in the 21st Century.

The title of this week’s Torah portion, coming from the opening words of the reading, is Acharei-Mot, literally, “after the death,” referring to the two sons of Aaron who died after bringing a strange fire to the altar of God in the Mishkan (the portable desert Temple).  Moses’ response upon hearing the news is silence. What could he say to comfort his brother after the death of his nephews?  But, in the aftermath of the terrible tragedies in the US and the many acts of anti-Semitism in Europe, we cannot be silent.  Silence is what led the world to complacency over the actions of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s that led to the Holocaust in the 1940s.  We cannot be silent; we must speak out.  We cannot be silent; we must hold governments and humanity to account.  It was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the Anglo-Irish statesman most famous for his letter to Thomas Mercer, who notably stated in it:  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  That is what enabled the Holocaust to happen and we cannot let such a thing happen again. 

In 2005, the European Union agency, the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), published the non-legally binding Working Definition of Antisemitism adopted by the inter-governmental body the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and governmental and non-governmental organizations worldwide.  The definition reads:  “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”  In other words, anti-Semitism is hostility to, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews.  Antisemitism is generally considered to be a form of racism, but has also been characterized as a political ideology which serves as an organizing principle and unites disparate groups, such as the far left and far right in Europe –and increasingly in North America—and jihadist Muslims that has led to the attacks on entire Jewish communities such as Pittsburgh and Poway.

Yet anti-Semitism is not new, or a product of the 20th and 21st centuries.  Although the term did not come into common usage until the 19th century, and now is also applied to historic anti-Jewish incidents, it has roots that go back to the anti-Judaism of early Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire. Notable instances of persecution include the Rhineland massacres preceding the First Crusade in 1096, the Edict of Expulsion from England in 1290, the expulsion of Jews from France in 1306, the massacres of Spanish Jews in 1391, the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the Cossack massacres in Ukraine from 1648 to 1657, various anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire between 1821 and 1906, the 1894–1906 Dreyfus affair in France, the Holocaust in German-occupied Europe during World War II, Soviet anti-Jewish policies, and Arab and Muslim involvement in the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries post-1948. It is a sad tale of woe upon the Jewish people for no other reason than being Jews.

And now, as your spiritual leader, I am supposed to explain the inexplicable and to make sense of the nonsensical.  I am tasked to tell you that hatred will lose, we will win, the Jewish People will triumph, and this ongoing stream of terror will end.  As an eternal optimist, my cup feels empty in the wake of another tragedy on innocent worshippers in a synagogue near San Diego.  I am deputized to offer ‘thoughts and prayers’ again, when plain folk engaged in sacred prayer are gunned down.  Whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal or secular Jews—our differences seem trivial in moments like these.  Today, again, we are all one people draped under a tallit of grief. 

There is no denying that echoes of a darker time in Jewish history are ringing in our ears today.  Will this lead to an expulsion like in Spain?  Pogrom, like in Russia?  A Holocaust like in Europe? Or will it lead to resolve, strength and our rising up to stop history from repeating itself?  If we choose the latter, as I do, it requires each of us to do more than be pundits on the sidelines.  We must actively speak out against such horrors.  We must demand protection and security from our government, an accounting from our fellow citizens and the prosecution of the guilty.  As my colleague, Rabbi David Seth Kirshner writes:  Hate does not brew from thin-air.  It has a root.  Hate is fertilized and given sunlight to grow, like a cancerous weed.  Indifference only makes that cancerous weed metastasize.  Elie Wiesel said, “Indifference is the epitome of evil.”

In memory of every person that ever died or was persecuted expressing his or her religion, especially those this past Shabbat, let us commit at this moment to cutting down those weeds, arresting that metastasis, and drowning out hate with love, compassion, respect, understanding, tolerance and hope.  Let us all do our part and get off the sidelines to make our cup overflow with joy once again.

Shabbat Shalom!

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

04/24/2019 03:27:51 PM


“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,

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

04/17/2019 11:33:09 AM


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


“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,

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

04/04/2019 11:07:59 AM


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


“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,

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

03/22/2019 10:57:23 AM


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


“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,

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

03/07/2019 03:24:42 PM


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


“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,

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

02/22/2019 10:35:11 AM


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


“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,

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

02/07/2019 04:58:36 PM


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


“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,

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

01/24/2019 03:15:12 PM


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


“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,

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

01/07/2019 02:47:07 PM


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


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,



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

12/27/2018 03:33:14 PM


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


“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,


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

12/14/2018 02:34:13 PM


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


“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,

Wed, January 22 2020 25 Tevet 5780