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Cantor's Comments - Parshat Vayishlach                  December 5, 2020 - 19 Kislev 5781

12/04/2020 09:07:29 AM


Last Friday night, eight Toronto Conservative synagogues came together virtually for an amazing joint Kabbalat Shabbat service filled with ruach and music.  Five hundred screens joined us for the event, maxing out our zoom capacity, and another 300 were watching on Facebook.  It was by far the most people I’ve ever seen gather together for a simple Friday night service, and I was so proud to be a part of it.

You know, as Toronto goes into its third week of lockdown in this latest wave of the pandemic, I find that I’m pausing to reflect on just how accustomed I’ve become to this new reality, and I imagine that I’m not alone in this.  I think that many of us by this point have almost become a bit numb to the cabin fever.  Going a bit crazy, stressing, disinfecting groceries is just a part of our day now, so much so that we’ve pretty much stopped complaining about it.  But last Friday night was a reminder, at least to me, of what we’ve been missing in our lives.  It was a reminder to stay strong and not give into the kind of depression that many of us are fighting hard to try and stave off, some of us more successfully than others, and that there’s good reason to be hopeful that we’ll be able to return to our old lives soon.

This week’s parsha, which we WILL be reading in shul this week (be sure to join us on zoom), is Vayishlach.  Jacob’s camp is on the move, trying desperately to stay ahead of his brother Esav, still bent on killing Jacob for stealing his blessing.  Jacob decides he’s going to split his camp in two so they can go off in different directions.  That way, if Esav catches up with one of them, the other might have a better chance for survival.  Can we possibly imagine the emotional turmoil that Jacob must have experienced in this Sophie’s Choice moment.  As he does this, he sends messengers to intercept Esav with pleas and gifts in the chance that they might assuage Esav’s anger.  Esav the fast and mighty hunter reaches Jacob’s camp, and they come face to face for the first time in almost 20 years.  And as they look at one another, Esav’s anger, Jacob’s fear melt away and they embrace.  What a relief!  Just like that, the sibling rivalry is over, because we all know that that’s how it works right?  One moment you can be insanely angry with someone, enough to kill them, and the next everything is ok, right?  Of course not.

So what happened?  The answer is that 20 years happened.  When Jacob stole his brother’s blessing, it was a devious and bratty thing to do.  Let’s not let Jacob off the hook so easily, because Esav had every right to be angry.  But what happened to Jacob since then?  When Jacob ran off to live with his uncle Lavan, he worked for Lavan for 7 years to marry Rachel, only to be duped, and forced work another 7 years.  Some might say that it was the first time that Jacob finally got a taste of his own  medicine.  When Jacob then wrestles the angel, one modern interpretation is that the angel represented Jacob’s own conscience, realizing in the end that in order to become a better man, he must hold himself to account for the wrongs he had committed against others, including Esav.  When Jacob and Esav finally meet, the Torah says that Esav fell on Jacob’s neck, kissed him and they wept.  The word in the Torah that describes Esav kissing Jacob is “vayishakeihu”, which appears in the Torah with a sequence of strange dots above the word that beg for interpretation.    Commentators suggest that the word is meant to be especially significant because this act by Esav was outside his usual brutish character, indicating that he too had changed, than in 20 years, he had found some semblance of peace and learned to become a good and decent leader.

I have to admit that there are times when I feel like this pandemic has lasted for 20 years.  It has certainly aged us all.  We’ve had to learn to live a new normal, and give up things we never thought we’d ever have to.  But I think we’ve also grown a lot.   We’ve learned to appreciate so many little things that we took for granted before, going over to a friend’s house, going out for dinner, having a workout at the gym.  We’ve also learned to better appreciate some of the big things too, like going to a big beautiful wedding, or packing ourselves into shul for the High Holydays.  We’ve come to realize that it wasn’t really about “the thing” that we did so much as the people we did it with.  Do you know what proves it?  It’s the fact that all the cantors that participated in last Friday night’s huge service all know perfectly well that the 800 people watching weren’t there to necessarily listen to all the cantors do their thing, but rather, just to scroll through all of the other screens and see the faces of friends and neighbours that we haven’t seen in so long, all watching the service together from their homes.

Of course, we’re all eager for the pandemic to end, and it will.  But what I’m looking forward to especially is that I think we are all going to experience a renewed zeal for friends, for family, for community and for life, and I think it’s going to be amazing.  To help get keep that wonderful spirit alive until then, we’ve got lots more in store.  We have our huge Toronto-wide virtual Chanukah concert coming this Sunday night.  Plans are underway to do a big malaveh Malka program in January, just the way we did our big Kabbalat Shabbat, and even the Kabbalat Shabbat, I have no doubt will be returning again very soon.  Why?  Because in all of this madness, in a century that has taught us to become more inwardly focused, we discovered that what we really needed all along was each other.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782