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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,

Tue, February 25 2020 30 Shevat 5780