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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,

Tue, February 25 2020 30 Shevat 5780