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Cantor's Comments - Sukkot                                      Saturday, October 3, 2020 - 15 Tishrei 5781

10/02/2020 08:40:43 AM


Hello everyone, and welcome back to another video d’var torah.   I say ‘welcome back’ even though it’s only been a few days since many of you last saw me on our High Holydays live-stream, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to just sit and talk to you all and offer some thoughts and words of Torah.  And by the way, about the high holydays, it was so meaningful to receive all of the wonderful feedback, compliments and thank yous from so many of you about the services.  I can share with you that at shul we were all very happy about how it all came together in the end, and on behalf of Rabbi Haber, Gabbi Mark, Principal Cindy, Miriam in the office, the choir, the shul board and myself, thank you all for tuning in, being with us, believing in us to pull off this incredible feat, and supporting the community.  But if you will indulge me briefly, I would also like to add a few personal remarks, reflecting on these past few weeks and months as we prepared to do this monumental thing that had never been done before.

It was early May.  We were somewhere in our 8th or 9th week of lockdown and all of us were beginning to realize that our summer plans were likely going to have to be canceled, and the reality that we could be doing this for a long time was beginning to sink in.  The question of what would become of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was almost too bizarre to take seriously, but we began to ask the question anyway.  In the weeks that followed it was clear that most Conservative and Reform synagogues would live stream their services.  In fact, a fair number of them had begun live streaming all of their services some years ago in order to bring religious services to those members of their communities who were hospitalized or housebound.  And the model for these live-streamed services was simple; to offer a digital window into what was happening at shul for those who couldn’t be there in person.  None of us at Beth Radom had ever had any experience with live-streaming before, but while this meant that we had a very steep learning curve to navigate, it also enabled us to dream up a very different kind of a vision.  Instead of offering a digital window into a service where we pretend that everything is otherwise normal, we dreamed of a completely redesigned High Holydays that didn’t so much live at the shul, but instead operated more like a television news program with the anchors at shul and correspondents on location in our homes.  Our hope was that in this way we would all feel our homes being drawn together into a unified sacred space.  Instead of having a window into your shul, your home would become a part of shul.  That’s why our services were filled with messages from community members, bringing you greetings from their homes to yours.  That’s why when we beat our chests for the Ashamnu, you could see your fellow congregants rise together and beat their chests together with you.  That’s why we chose the slogan, “shul is coming home” to represent the vision for our Holyday season.  

All this is to say that I wanted to take this moment to go on record and congratulate us all for participating.  By doing so, we refused to accept a mentality of “let’s just do the best we can with a bad situation”.  We instead embraced the strangeness of the times we are living in, and because of it, I think we discovered a new way to connect spiritually.  And for all of their out-of-the-box thinking, their dedication and hours and hours and hours of hard work on this colossal undertaking, I want to offer my own personal gratitude to Rabbi Haber, to our shul President Mark Vernon who managed the project, to Principal Cindy who led the family services, Miriam Sharpe in the office who had to quickly become an expert in answering your technical questions, Linda Saxe who oversaw the Yizkor Book, Ryan and David at Bounce Entertainment who operated our live-stream cameras, our videographer Nadav Rosenberg from Cliq Creative who donated his time to film the choir at the shul, Alyssa Molko who created the opening sequences and title screens for each service, our choir director and arranger, my brother Robby Burko, the members of the choir Rachel Malach, Terry Schonberger, Stacey Silver and Shayna Lavi, who largely had to record themselves at home using nothing but their own smartphones, the shul’s board of directors who put their faith in me when I proposed this insane plan, Robin Tameshtit who put together your Holyday boxes, everyone who showed up on zoom to create the Ashamnu video, all those who submitted video greetings, recorded themselves reading prayers and giving speeches, and so many more volunteers who worked the phones, stuffed envelopes, filled Holyday gift boxes and more.  And of course, the biggest thanks goes to all of our members and those who donated to the Shul in lieu of  tickets for the services and made Yom Kippur donations.  We know that these times are fraught with financial uncertainty, and we thank you for investing in your shul community, and trusting your synagogue’s professional team to deliver something extra special—a great High Holyday experience that is a reflection of the great community that we are.  Without your support, none of this could have happened.

So, we made it through.  What’s next?  I have to admit that after working some of the longest hours of my life for the past few weeks, I half expected to emerge after Yom Kippur to find that COVID was over.  But it’s not.  In fact, it seems we are heading into the dreaded second wave that we’ve all been assuming would be coming.  One of the not so small graces that we were able to enjoy during this strange COVID summer was that we could at least spend time with our families, and maybe a few friends and neighbours so long as we stayed outside in our backyards, kept our distance and wore our masks.  This will become a lot more difficult to do, if not impossible, as the Canadian winter sets in.  If you are a follower of American news, like me, then we are gluttons for even more punishment with the death of the great chief justice and proud member of the tribe, Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the Notorious RBG.  The rioting over racial injustice in many American cities is again refueled over the news that no officers will be charged in connection with the death of Breonne Taylor, and then, of course, there is the absolute travesty that was the first American presidential debate.  Looking around us, how can we blame anyone these days for feeling less than hopeful about the future of the human race? And perhaps you also feel as I do, a little extra disappointed that this is where we are so quickly after Yom Kippur.  But there’s also a silver lining—thank God, the holydays are not quite done with us yet and the timing couldn’t be more perfect because I could really use a little more community time—time spent just like we’ve been doing, celebrating our shared Jewish heritage, connecting with one another, filling our homes with music, spirit, and funky a cappella Adon Olam videos.

In our liturgy, each of the three pilgrimage festivals is announced together with a different qualifier.  For Pesach, chag haPesach hazeh, we say it is z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom.  For Shavuot, chag haShavuot hazeh, we say that it is z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah.  The meaning of the qualifiers are pretty obvious—Passover is the celebration of our freedom from slavery and Shavuot is the celebration of the giving of the Torah.  But what about Sukkot?  Chag HaSukkot hazeh, the liturgy says it is z’man simchateinu, the time of our happiness.  Why happiness?  Is Sukkot necessarily happier than Passover or Shavuot?  Wouldn’t it make more sense if it said that it was the time of shaking a lulav and etrog?  Or the time of eating outside?   What is so happy about Sukkot that makes the theme of happiness THE primary theme of the holiday?

After the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to rejoice.  The Sukkah in our backyard represents a break from the routine, the setting aside of challenges and debate and a return to nature and the basics in life.  It is a chance and a reminder to appreciate all of the good things that we have right in front of us.  During these strange times, I cannot think of a more welcome idea than a commandment to be happy.

Of course it appears that we will be wrestling with a lot of big world problems for a while longer.  But while we do, I think we’re also going to have to make an effort to focus inward too, towards ourselves and our community to continue to find the relief, the joy and the hope that we need.  How fortunate that we’re well set up for it.  If you liked what you experienced over the Holydays, then stick with us.  Come visit our virtual social hall, be a part of the book club, stream our sukkot services, and check out our weekly Sunday variety shows when they return on October 18th.  Together, we’ll hold on to that happiness, just as God holds on to us through this Holyday season, just a little while longer.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Same’ach,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782