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

07/10/2020 07:49:27 AM


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782