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HH Sermons and Divrei Torah


Tikkun Olam by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur day 2015

Tikkun Olam 

There once was a rabbi who was distressed at the lack of generosity among her congregants. So she prayed that the rich should give more charity to the poor.

When she was done with her prayers, her husband asked her, “Nu? Has your prayer been answered?” “Half of it was,” replied the rabbi. “The poor are willing to accept.”

Giving a sermon on tzedakah is a risky business. There are so many causes, so much sorrow and suffering in the world, how could I choose one cause? And our own shul, as you heard last night, needs your funds to grow and thrive. Won’t I be sabotaging the shul’s own needs if I ask you today to support something else?

During the Avinu Malkenu prayer we sing Ki ain banu maasim: “athough we have no deeds, be kind to us.” It is easy in our world to feel that we have no deeds to our names.

I too feel overwhelmed. People email me practically every week with worthy causes that the shul should support, worthy groups the shul should get involved with, worthy projects the shul should undertake. A few summers ago I spent 4 days in Jerusalem with a person I call the "mitzvah maniac”— Danny Siegel— who tirelessly spends every summer in Israel searching out small, grassroots, underfunded tzedakah projects to bring back to the Diaspora. He shlepped me from one amazing tzedakah project to another. I was overwhelmed by the need and overwhelmed by the possibilities and overwhelmed by the depth of those who give their all to a cause. By the woman who gives free massages to victims of trauma. By the woman who collects wedding gowns for needy brides. By the workshops for kids with Down syndrone, by the soup kitchen, by the balloon animals for kids with cancer. I rode for cancer this past June, but I did not walk for cancer in September, or bike from Barrie to Baycrest, or clean up the Don, or build a school in Africa. I cannot do it all, so why bother doing anything?

Because, as Pirkei Avot teaches: "Lo alekha ha'melakhah ligmor, v'lo atah ben horin l'hibatel mimenah”: it is not our duty to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from starting it.

We have to start, friends. We don’t have to finish the work, but we have to start.

For generations, the question of where to direct limited funds and where to place limited resources when the need is so overwhelming has been endlessly debated by the Rabbis. Should we reach out to Jews first and foremost? To our own family, our own community first, and only then to those in the wider circles around us? Or should we start with the global community, with the biggest and most immediate need, and only after tackling that move inward?

The answer is in a remarkable story in the Talmud of Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, whose disciples bought a horse from a heathen—and a pearl was found hidden in the horse’s saddle. "Does the heathen owner know of the pearl?" he asked.  "No." "Then give the pearl back to him." “But you need not return the pearl, because he is a heathen!” the disciples cried. The Rabbi responded, "Do you think that I am a barbarian? I would prefer to hear the heathen say, 'Blessed be the G-d of the Jews,' than to possess all the pearls in the world!”

According to Rav Aharon Soloveichik, the 20th century’s greatest Orthodox thinker, Shimon Ben Shetach in the above story gives a remarkable definition of a barbarian. He writes,  “Anyone who fails to apply a uniform standard of mishpat (justice) and tzedek (righteousness) to all human beings, regardless of origin, color, or creed, is deemed barbaric.”

Let’s be honest: giving Jewish tzedakah to non-Jews unveils a complex web of old wounds and ancient divides. In Christianity, giving to the poor was historically bound up with missionary work—and that scared us. But now that we are willing participants in globalization, the question of giving tzedakah beyond the shtetl gates has become critical. We have clear halachic justification which many Jews today choose to ignore. The Talmud in Masechet Gittin says: “Support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor... visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead all because of darchei shalom, ways of peace.”

The concept of minpnei darchei shalom, do it because it increases peace in the world, had profound meaning to our ancient sages. It signified a willingness to go beyond the bounds of Torah law in order to achieve a more civil society for everyone. It was not just a means to keep Judaism safe from non-Jewish hatred, but, said the former chief Rabbi of Israel Yehudah Underman, “it flows from the core ethical teachings of the Torah.”

I’d rather hear “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” than be insulated in my own Jewish middle-class world where everything is alright.

I grew up in New York in the turbulent 60’s, but whatever else we did, one thing was clear: Jews got involved in the world. We marched against the war in Vietnam in our Jewish youth groups. My mother took a whole busload of people from our synagogue to Washington to rally for reproductive rights. There was no bifurcation between being religious and being socially active in causes that were not Jewish. Integration was a Jewish issue. The environment was a Jewish issue. Fair housing was a Jewish issue.

What happened to make us so much more insular? How many times have I been told that child poverty and illiteracy are not “Jewish issues”? I remember being told that domestic violence wasn’t a “Jewish issue.” I’m not gay so gay rights aren’t my issue. I’m not black or Asian so minority rights aren’t my issue.

For me, I am animated by Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous poem:

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Friends: everything we do is Torah, and we show Torah to the world by everything we do.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal The World, suggests that Judaism is a religion of sacred discontent. Abraham, Moses, Amos, Isaiah are messengers of dissatisfaction with the status quo. He writes, “In Judaism, faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be...Judaism is not peace of mind. I remain in awe at the challenge G-d has set us: to build, to change, to ‘mend’ the world until it becomes a place worthy of the divine presence because we have learned to honour the image of G-d that is humankind.” 

I’d rather Jews be known for sacred discontent than be known for upholding the status quo.

Last night I introduced the phrase Tikkun Middot—repairing our inner world. Today, I want to talk about Tikkun Olam—repairing our outer world. Tikkun olam has come to refer to social action programs, and is a catch-phrase of the Reform movement. So much so, that at one Reform convention someone raised their hand and asked “How do you say Tikkun Olam in Hebrew”? But the phrase is originally from the kabbalah, and has a much deeper theological meaning. The Kabbalists ask “how can the world contain G-d, who is the world?” The answer: when G-d created the world, ten vessels contained the overpowering amount of “G-dliness” present. It was too much. The vessels broke, and “sparks” of G-dliness were released into the darkness. Thus in our broken, dark, shattered world, sparks of G-dliness can still be found. The gathering of those sparks is, according to Kabbalah, called tikkun olam, repairing those broken vessels of creation. In Kabbalah, when the world is repaired, it is as if G-d’s overwhelming Presence can return to us from its exile.

That is the deeper meaning of Tikkun Olam: we can—no, we must— repair the broken vessels in all of creation. It’s not just a nice thing to do, a feel-good moment in a soup kitchen. Tikkun Olam is sacred discontent which forces us to remake the world, to advance history, to cause a fundamental shift in the universe.

Tikkun olam is the Jewish responsibility for fixing what is wrong with the whole wide world.  In Pirke Avot, Hillel says it: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? But when I am only for myself, what am I?” The Torah says it: “Thou halt not stand idly by while thy neigbour bleeds.” The Mishnah says it: “One person was created to teach us the importance of the actions of every individual.” The midrash says it: “One person (Adam) was created as the common ancestor of all people, for the sake of the peace of the human race, so that one should not be able to say to a neighbour, ‘My ancestor was better than yours.’” The Book of Ruth says it: through kindness to others who are not us, who are the Moabites gleaning in our fields, the Messiah will one day come.

I’d rather hear “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” than have the next generation ask me, “where were you?”

As a shul, we need to balances the Torah’s call for tradition with the prophet’s calls for justice. Today’s haftarah makes it crystal clear when Isaiah cries out in the name of G-d: 

Is this the fast I desire,
A day for people to starve their bodies? 
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? 
Do you call that a fast, a day which the Lord calls favourable?
No! This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
To share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your kin.

Rabbi Avi Olitzky wrote in Tablet magazine: “There has to be harmony between the synagogue’s mission and its agenda. A synagogue cannot just be in the business of being in business.” That is why our synagogue needs to put Tikkun Olam in the centre of its mission this year. Pirke Avot teaches, and this is in our mission statement on our website: “On three things the world stands: on Torah, on worship, and on deeds of goodness.” We are good on Torah, having commissioned one and using it Shabbat after Shabbat to teach and to guide us. Learning is already a core value that we demonstrate our commitment to through our many opportunities for learning throughout the year. I spoke on prayer on Rosh Hashanah, and we are already engaged with prayer, and will continue as we embark on finding or creating a new prayerbook. But we are not in business just to study Torah, and just to pray. If those two don’t lead us to acts of goodness, we aren’t in the right business at all. The Talmud says clearly, in Masechet Avodah 17b, the tractate focusing on worship and study: “One who engages in Torah study and does not practice doing deeds of kindness is like one who has no God.” 

Let me say it in this very provocative way, the way the Talmud would say itin our faces: a shul with no constant, predictable, worthwhile Tikkun Olam, is a shul without God. Because how can we proclaim “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” if we aren’t out in the world doing holy work, as Jews, in G-d’s name?

So while we beat our breasts on Yom Kippur with our own personal sins, we will have an opportunity to manifest our vision for a better world as soon as the shofar is blown tonight.

I’m going to get specific. I’d like to see City Shul take on three projects this year to make Tikkun Olam not just in a phrase in our mission statement, but practiced.

I’m going to move from the inside out; from the most local to the most global. We can do all three because there are hundreds of adults in this room today and if a handful take one project and another handful take another project and a third handful take the third project, we’ll still have hundreds of people left over.

So lets start. First: local. Our shul is in downtown Toronto. Surrounding us is illiteracy and hunger, street people and drug addiction, lonely seniors, women fleeing abuse, folks in all sorts of halfway houses, newly paroled ex-cons. We pray in the thick of it all. We get requests for volunteers all the time, most specifically and most recently: first to visit and assist with Jewish events at Castleview Wychwood long-term care facility on Christie Street, where just about everyone is fighting loneliness and boredom and they all come, regardless of their religion, to whatever Jewish events there are; we can animate that space by our presence, with our kids and with our energy. Second, to help local newly paroled women through the Elizabeth Fry Society to get back on their feet with furnishings for their apts. I’m looking for a group of people to make these mitzvahs happen. And if other ideas to be locally active come our way or need to be found, we need people to take it on themselves through the Tikkun Olam Task Force. Can I ask Anne Milchberg, Chair of the Tikkun Olam Task Force, to stand up? Please sign up on the sheet outside if you will be in the group to be a local volunteer and Anne will find you after the holidays. (Or: if you are reading this, click here to volunteer.)

Second, Israel. I didn’t speak about Israel this morning, which has been my Yom Kippur sermon theme for almost every Yom Kippur for years. Even when last year I talked about not talking about Israel, I talked about Israel! So here is my only Israel moment: my heart broke into a thousand pieces this summer when I heard two pieces of horrible news: first, the cold-blooded murder of 16 year old Shira Banki and the wounding of six others at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, by an ultra-Orthodox man who had been previously imprisoned for 10 years for stabbing three people at the 2005 Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. And second, the burning death of a one-and-a-half year-old Palestinian infant and the later death of his parents from their wounds, after their house was set on fire in the West Bank village of Douma, near Nablus by settlers who sprayed painted graffiti reading "revenge" and "long live the Messiah" in Hebrew. Now we could sit back and say “oh you can’t blame all of Israel for such craziness” but there is something wrong in a democratic, modern and liberal Israel when Jewish religious fanatics can sabotage and control so much of the country we are trying to love. Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, and a director of Women of the Wall, says, “we can throw up our hands when confronted with the many serious issues and complexities; or we can roll up our sleeves and take them on. But we can’t do both at the same time.” We may want to throw up our hands but we need to roll up our sleeves or we will not have any deeds to our names when it comes to an Israel we can be proud of. I’ll make it easy: $18 gets you a membership to ARZA Canada, the Reform Zionist organization that does unending work desegregating buses, establishing preschools and kindergartens with liberal Jewish values, promoting shared society between Jews and Arabs, and tirelessly working for women’s and minority rights. We will send out the link in the next shul newsletter to everyone here, and anyone, shul member or not, can join. You’ll get on their mailing list and be kept abreast of their work and your dollars will go to Israeli causes which reflect your own values. On November 15th, you can meet and hear Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the dynamic Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism who ran for Knesset, speak to us at City Shul about the kind of sleeve-rolling we can do in the Diaspora to help cure Israel—and I mean cure her—of this scourge of violent Jewish religious fanaticism. Making peace from the inside. 9If you are reading this: Click here to register.) Can I ask Penny Fine, Chair of the Israel Engagement Task Force to stand up? Please sign up on the sheet outside if you will be part of the group to make a thoughtful, insightful and liberal Israeli programming happen for our shul, and Penny will find you after the holidays. (OR: if you are reading this, click here to volunteer.)

Last, and probably most obvious and most pressing and most global: the Syrian refuge crisis. Rabbi Jonathan Sack wrote recently in the Guardian: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbour because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”

We were strangers in the land of Egypt; and— we were strangers in the land of Canada. How many of you, if you’re not aboriginal, can say you are “old-stock Canadian?” We should remember the days when “none was too many” for us.

“Who by water?” A little boy washes up on a Turkish beach like so much driftwood. What has been going on in Syria these past few years has risen to a level of desperation that  propels people to cross the Mediterranean in the sort of boat we’d never take out onto Lake Ontario. Over 100,000 thousand civilians have died and over 11 million people have been displaced so far in Syria’s civil war. This is the greatest and most immediate humanitarian crisis of our age.

Let the world say “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” and not “where were the Jews, once so oppressed and so dispersed and so homeless and so friendless, when the world experienced once again a cataclysm from which so many, like them, could not escape?”

I am proud to announce that City Shul will be sponsoring a refugee family through the aegis of JIAS, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, the only Jewish organization to have the status of an SAH—a Sponsorship Agreement Holder with the government of Canada. This partnership allows us to combine the universalism of sponsoring a refugee of whatever religion with the value of working with a historic Jewish refugee organization, now working with many other synagogues who have decided as we have to take on this mitzvah. Friends, this is serious business.This sponsorship will take time, money, and effort. We will need a lot of helping hands to make this happen. And frankly, we will need a lot of funds to make this happen. The paperwork is ready to be signed and the family ready to be assigned to us once we have the funds. I will be blunt: we need $27,600 to sponsor a family of four. I know you dug into your pockets yesterday for the shul and that is also critical. However, If there are just 27 people or families here who can give $1,000; or 54 people who can give $500, or 100 people who give $270, or we find 1,000 people who give $27, it doesn't matter, as long as we get $27,600 in as short a time as humanly possible. These funds will be collected through the shul and by the shul and you will be tax receipted by the shul, and we in turn will transfer the full funds to JIAS. Here’s how to do it: go online and give to The Syrian Refugee Fund, but remember if you donate online we lose 3 percent so I’m asking you in full chutzpah to give 3 percent more than your calculated final amount so we can collect the full amount as directly as possible. Or you can mail a cheque made out to City Shul with the memo line Syrian Refugee Fund to the shul’s post office address which you can find on our website

Once we have the funds we will need people; people to greet our family, to secure an apartment and furnish it for our family; to help them find work and get their health cards and, of course, to make them feel welcome. The ushers will be giving out a sign-up sheet right after this sermon to see if we have the people to accomplish this and the funders to make it happen. You can sign up right here and now to fund or to volunteer or both, even though its Yom Kippur and we don’t normally write on the holiday this is what is called in Hebrew “pikuach nefesh”—the direct saving of a life—which supersedes all prohibitions and all commandments. There are little pencils in front of you in the pews. We will keep you informed all along the way as we progress getting both the funding and the volunteers we need.

I want to close with this beautiful story by poet Loren Eiseley: “While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, "It makes a difference to this one.”

We cannot do it all. But we cannot do nothing. Just pick up one starfish this year. A local one, an Israeli one, or a global one. Let just one person exclaim "Blessed be the G-d of the Jews” this year, and that will be the first half of the prayer—for generosity— answered.

Shana Tova.

Two Goats by Anne Milchberg
September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur morning

Today’s Torah portion on what’s often referred to as the “Ritual Scapegoat” has always fascinated me.   It’s a description of the Yom Kippur service that the High Priest performed in the Holy Temple millennia ago.  Among other things,

Two identical goats were to be brought “before the Lord” at the door of the tent of meeting.

Aaron, the High Priest, had to cast lots (an old-school version of playing heads or tails) upon two goats.  One lot (or “heads”) destined that goat for the Lord; and the other lot, or “tails”, turned that unfortunate goat into something called “Azazel”.   Azazel, by the way, translates into English as “gone goat”.

Aaron had to offer up the “Lord’s” goat as a sin offering – an “I’m sorry” tribute for unintentional sins.  Basically, the Temple priests cooked the goat up, and parts of it got consumed.  Texas Barbecue, Jerusalem-style. 

As for the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel, it was to be sent alive into the wilderness for atonement purposes. 

The instructions in the Torah for this are very clear:

 “v. 21 - And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, even all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness.”

“v.22 - And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land which is cut off; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.

So…… this was a mandated Temple ritual involving two identical goats, in which one goat ended up as Texas-style Barbecue and the other as an abandoned wanderer in a terrifying, unknown environment.   

What might the folks in the Holy Temple have been thinking with this arrangement?  Why two goats, each with a different fate?

Here’s my take.

On the premise that guys like Aaron operated with a lot more sophistication and advanced thinking than I sometimes wrongly ascribe to people from distant millennia, this was no random ritual.   

Wikipedia defines “sin” as a “diversion from the perceived ideal order for humaliving.   

In Judaism, sins are viewed as either intentional or unintentional, but they always have consequences – small or big.  

Some sins, committed as honest mistakes, might be capable of dissipation or resolution. With a bit of fixing and fiddling, it’s possible that they’ll result in no net harm to the universe.  

Back in the day, when Jerusalem probably had no shortage of goats, it would have been pretty easy and straightforward to grab a couple of identical goats for ritual purposes. One of them would be taken to the Temple and be sacrificed to settle accounts with Hashem for all the honest mistakes people made.  The fate of that goat wasn’t mysterious at all: its demise, through sacrifice, would have been witnessed by a number of priests.

The second goat, the Azazel goat, was the high priests’ mysterious get-out-of-town “transport system” for sins that were deliberate or not capable of being resolved. 

What is the fate of the Azazel goat that gets sent into the wilderness?  A number of Torah scholars suggest that it is sent over a cliff and dies.  But the precise language in the Torah – in English translations anyway - doesn’t suggest that fate at all.   In fact, we have no idea:

whether the goat lives or dies;  or

whether it meets up with goats dumped off in past years and the wilderness becomes a repository for bad goats;  or if it gives birth to baby goats and more sins are created as a result. 

We truly don’t know the fate of this goat.

My interpretation is this:  sins may be removed from the individuals who committed them, but they’re not gone.  They’ve just gone somewhere else in the universe, out of our immediate control and oversight.  This is not good.

How I see this is quite different from the popular understanding of the Azazel goat as “scapegoat”, in which another living being - who isn’t us - is given the misfortune of carrying our messes off into the sunset, where they just magically disappear, and relieve us of any burden.    

We would all agree that some sins – gossiping, for example, or ripping someone off, or murder – just don’t dissipate or resolve themselves. The ripple effect from the smallest of these sins can be huge.  We can distance ourselves from our own transgressions, or try to abandon our mistakes - but that doesn’t stop the domino effect of our actions.

That isn’t to say there isn’t a role for forgiveness when we harm each other.  Judaism is big on forgiveness, where warranted.  

Even so, the burdens and impacts of our transgressions never really go away.  They just move somewhere else, to a “wilderness”.  Our sins become the noxious contents of a parcel without a tracking number or a known destination.

We no longer have a Temple or high priests or animal sacrifices, and we no longer send literal goats out to a literal wilderness, but every year, a metaphorical Azazel goat - or maybe now it’s an Azazel 18-wheeler transport truck, or whatever -  still gets loaded up with a lot of nasty cargo, and shuffles off into today’s wilderness:  the landfill site; the sky; the world wide web; that country whose name we can’t spell or pronounce or locate on a map; the entire universe; and also our own back yards.  

Who decides what gets loaded onto the Azazel goat?   

Not humans. We are not in a position to decide which of our sins are deliberate or impactful, and which are inadvertent or inconsequential; it would be a conflict of interest if we judged ourselves.   I think that this is why the Temple priests picked two identical goats and cast lots on them:   to symbolically to separate the kinds of sins without applying legal or religious analysis or judgement.  The guys running the Temple wanted to indicate that none of us – not even a priest - gets to decide or judge how our sins are to be characterized and understood for their effect on the universe.  Only a “Higher Order” can determine such things.

Every year, without fail, we read the Torah portion about the Azazel goat.  Every year, without fail, as the Azazel express drives out to the wilderness, we ought to be thinking about the mysterious fate of the goat and its cargo.

We’re human and by nature humans do stupid things, inadvertent or deliberate.  But we also have free will.   It’s within our control to try to create less stuff for the Azazel goat to carry.  

How can we do this? 

Here’s my simple answer:  DO GOOD.  Good words, good thoughts, good deeds.   Just as we have the capacity to do boneheaded and evil things, humans have at least the equal capacity to do good things.   And, very simply, more time spent doing good means less time spent doing bad.  

We’ll likely never put the Azazel goat out of business, but we can certainly create less cargo for it.

Gut yontif and Tzom kal.  Good holiday to you, and an easy fast. 

Tikkun Middot by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 22, 2015

Kol Nidre Sermon

A priest an imam and a Rabbi were having a conversation about what they want to be said at their eulogies. The imam says “I want them to say I was an obedient servant of Allah.” The priest says “I want them to say I denied myself the pleasures of this life for the kingdom of Heaven to come.” The Rabbi thinks for a minute and says “ I really want them to say—wait, he’s moving!”

It’s worth paying special attention to the words we use to describe ourselves.

Each Saturday morning, dozens of enthusiasts follow Robin McKee through the Hamilton cemetery, Canada’s oldest  municipal cemetery, to hear him interpret the unique stories hinted at by a few words chiseled into granite or marble. How many of you have been to Paris and gone to the famous Père Lachaise cemetery where posted at the entrances are maps pointing visitors towards the most famous graves, Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, and on every path there are monuments which make you stop and stare? Or gone to see Golda Meir’s grave on Mt Herzl or Naomi Shemer in the Kinneret Cemetery, where her stone bears only one thing: her signature, in her own handwriting?

Game show host Merv Griffin’s tombstone says “I will not be right back after this message.” Rodney Dangerfield’s says “There goes the neighbourhood.”  Or my personal favourite in a Maryland cemetery: Here lies an Atheist, All dressed up with no place to go.

How do you describe someone’s essence in 5 words? Mother, grandmother, loving, dedicated, dimpled? I remember my mother’s dimpled smile could light up a room. How do I describe that on her gravestone? “ She had great dimples”?

A few weeks ago I was doing unveilings in Pardes Shalom and I started reading the tombstones carefully: an occupational hazard. One tombstone said “The King of Shmooze.” The one next to it said, “We’ll always have Paris.” What long and interesting stories are hidden behind those words?

How can we distill a lifetime of achievement, a lifetime of relationship, a lifetime of being into a phrase?

It’s worth paying special attention to the words we use to describe ourselves.

In essence: what will be the few adjectives and nouns that will portray our core when our day is done?

Throughout the high holidays, we describe G-d in 13 words. You’ll know it if I sing it:

1 Adonai

2 Adonai

3 El

4 Rachum

5 V’chanun

6 Erech apayim

7 V’rav chesed

8 V’emet

9 Notzer chesed l’alafim

10 Nosei avon

11 vafeshah

12 v’chatah

13 V’nakeh

“The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in compassion and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”

It’s  known as the shlosh-esrei middot, or the 13 attributes. When Moses prayed to “know” God, these 13 traits were what were revealed to him as God’s “character.” These 13 things are thought to be the Divine Attributes of Mercy with which God governs the world.

Its not really a prayer, though we sing it all during our high holiday prayers. It’s an enumeration of qualities. Qualities that the Jewish tradition holds forth as the ones through which the world should run.

The Talmud in Masechet Rosh Hashana tells us that God promised that the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy will never go unanswered; God instructed Moses, “Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them perform this ‘order’ and their sins will be forgiven.”

It’s not that this list has some magical power to forgive us, no. It is that this list is meant to be is a checklist of words by which we could—we should— describe ourselves. In Jewish philosophy we call this בצלם אלהים, known as Imitatio Dei—or trying to be Godlike. In other words, if we hold God as the highest ideal, then ideal behaviour stems from imitating what characteristics we hold forth as ideal. The Maharal of Prague points out that the Talmud does not say that the Jewish people should “recite this order” for their sins to be forgiven, but that they should “perform this order.” This means that we are to emulate these middot in our own lives, to manifest them. 

Kindness. Compassion. Patience. Merciful and gracious, speaking truth, forgiving now and forgiving into the next generations.

We know this. None of us wishes to have the words “mean” or “grumpy” or “abrupt” or “kvetchy” or “difficult” on our tombstones. That’s why we are here tonight.

Tonight we are to ask ourselves: what are the 13 attributes I can list which describe my innermost chracteristics? Do I wish to have “successful business person with no time for family, friends, or community” on that list? “Driven personality always critical of others?” “Pessimist who always sees the glass as half-empty?”

Many Reform Jews know the phrase tikkun olam: social action and projects for societal betterment. It literally means “repairing the world” and it’s practically a mantra in the Reform movement. I’ll be speaking about Tikkun Olam tomorrow morning especially in the light of the Syrian refugees, so thats a shameless plug for you to come back! But tomorrow’s impassioned Haftarah plea for social justice by Isaiah “…to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house, to clothe the naked” is immediately followed by this line: “Umi’b’sar’cha lo titalam.” The words are translated in the Bible as: “Never hide yourself from your own kin,” but it literally means: “Never hide from your own flesh.” Never run away from your own essence. Face yourself. This is called Tikkun Middot— inner repair. Though Tikkun Olam is the hard work of bettering our society, Tikkun Middot is the hard work of bettering ourselves.

Judaism puts great stress on character development. This is Tikkun Middot. Put your own oxygen mask on first, then turn to the world around you.

In so many ways, the work of tikkun middot must precede the work of tikkun olam, or at least coincide with it. Rabbi Jan Katzew writes that some of us may be so drawn to fixing the outside world that we neglect the inner world of our own, the inner self that needs personal change but whose change is much harder to affect. And so Jewish tradition offers us a partner to tikkun olam, a partner that has too often been neglected – the process of internal mending. Whereas acts of tikkun olam are social and public, acts of tikkun middot are personal and private. As tikkun olam confronts the incompleteness and imperfection of the world around us, tikkun middot addresses the incompletion and imperfection of our inner self.

This is the tikkun which is much harder to do. The Alter Rebbe of Navaradok said it best: “The problem with people is that they want to change overnight –and have a good night’s sleep that night, too.” 

Tikkun Middot challenges us to think about which 13 personal characteristics we would want the world to repeat about us. It is this idea that strikes me every time I am at a cemetery, and this idea animates Yom Kippur. Because on Yom Kippur, the day we dress in white and wear the kittel, the shroud; the day we wear non-leather shoes like at a shiva; the day we fast and experience, if you will, a mini-death, we are asked: which set of qualities will you be remembered by?

Last April, NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a brilliant essay on this question, positing we all live two sets of virtues: the resume, and the eulogy. He writes, “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful…We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

Arianna Huffington commented on Brook’s talk and wrote, “You almost never hear things like: "What everybody loved most about her was how she ate lunch at her desk. Every day."

Or: "He didn't have any real friends, but he had 600 Facebook friends, and he dealt with every email in his inbox every night.”

On your resume it might say conscientious, hard-working, flexible; it might even say team-player. In your eulogy it hopefully will say loving, kind, caring. Your resume says you are skilled. Your eulogy says you are a mensch.

Huffington continues: "I have found that no matter how much a person spends his or her life burning the candle at both ends, chasing success, and giving all at work, the eulogy is almost always about the other stuff: what they gave to the world, how they connected to other people, how much they meant to the lives of the people around them, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, ways they changed the world with both large acts but also small ones; their small foibles and funny anecdotes; what made them laugh."

Two weeks ago, the world lost a great musician, our friend Jacques Israelivitch, who graced our bima for ten years playing Kol Nidre for us on his violin. The world knew him as a master musician. I got to know him, ever so slightly even, as a person, as a father and husband, brother and son; as a Jew and a Frenchman, as a man who enjoyed a good dinner and a good laugh. His resume speaks of the musician. His eulogy spoke of the man.

Let me give a counter-example. In the last two weeks, two movies about Steve Jobs came out. One is a resume movie: Steve Jobs, the visionary. The other, The Man in the Machine, is not so flattering: Steve Jobs, the man who parked in handicapped spaces, and reduced people to tears in the office.

And perhaps the most provocative example: our patriarch Abraham. His resume would list iconoclast and first monotheist, founder of the Jewish people and rich powerful leader. His personals however do not sound so good: disobedient child, absent husband, and religious fanatic who almost killed his own son.

"I'm always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I'm listening to it," George Carlin once joked. We may not be listening to our own eulogy, but we're writing it all the time, every day.

If we don’t do Tikkun middot, character development, we may not like what it says.

Jonas Salk, who will forever be remembered as the inventor of the polio vaccine, taught something else. He once wrote: “our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” 

Imagine what your children will tell their children’s children about you. Imagine what your friends will remember and tell their friends who will remember. Imagine what words you want used to describe you in a personal ad to the world. Imagine what this congregation will say about you long after this Yom Kippur.

Regina Brett writes in the Cleveland Jewish News: “Some people hate funerals. I find them comforting…Every eulogy reminds me to deepen my dash, that place on the tombstone between our birth and our death.”

Alfred Nobel was a person who got to read his own obituary. Nobel had hundreds of inventions to his credit, most of which had to do with weapons and explosives. His most famous invention was dynamite. When his brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper mistakenly printed the obituary that had been prepared in advance for Alfred. The title was “The Merchant of Death is Dead.”  Alfred Nobel did not want to be remembered as “the merchant of death.” So he set aside almost his entire fortune to create the Nobel Prizes that are still awarded to this day—and that is what he is remembered for.

The Yom Kippur liturgy deliberately highlights this existential fact of life, namely the reality of our mortality, so that it can be the catalyst for personal change, Teshuva.

We say that G-d opens the Book of Remembrance, but the record speaks for itself, because each of us has signed it with our own deeds.

I’m sure many of you read the bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie abut the Brandeis professor Morrie Schwartz who agreed to be “followed” by his student Mitch Alboim as he died slowly of Lou Gehring Disease. I personally was privileged to study with Morrie at Brandeis, and took several classes with him, and remember clearly the Shabbat dinner at his home where he, a staunchly secular Jew, had a good debate with me, a 

Jewish studies major with her eye on Rabbinical school. I remember exactly what his living room looked like. But mostly I remember how he held his wife’s hand warmly smiling at her every few moments, prodding me to go on, listening as if he really wanted to hear what I had to say.

In the book, Mitch asks Morrie about living with the knowledge you are dying. Morrie answers, "Do what the Buddhist do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks 'Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?' He turned his head to his shoulders as if the bird were there now…"Mitch. Can I tell you something?"
"Of course," I said.
"You might not like it."
"Why not?"
"Well, the truth is, if you really listen to that bird on your shoulder…you might not be as ambitious as you are."

I realize that now that my kids are in their 20’s, I spend a lot of talking with them about their resumes, reminding them to think about community service and volunteering, to do some foreign travel because it looks good, maybe get a summer internship, and take a leadership position in their schools. In essence, to make them desirable to an employer.

I don’t want to use the phrase “building their eulogy” but I want to be sure they take as much time developing a strong moral character, a solid Jewish identity, to seek out loving partners and worthy companions, and to cultivate being trustworthy people. Will they live lives that will inspire others to be like them?

Not so easy when you are looking for that first job, and all around you others are resume-focused. Brooks makes the point that we ought to be having conversations with all the young people whose lives intersect with ours about taking these precious years to create a moral compass. 

Charles Spurgeon, a 19th century preacher, wrote, “Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” In the 21st century we could write, “Carve your name on hearts, not on a c.v.”

Our confessional this Yom Kippur should read:

For the sin of developing powerful resumes without living powerful lives.

For the sin of looking at resumes for skill sets, without searching for integrity in those who wrote them.

For the sin of compensating those with marketable skills, without compensating those with high moral convictions.

For the sin of spotlighting our professional accomplishments while dismissing our personal shortcomings.

For the sin of padding ourselves on paper without prodding ourselves in life.

1 Adonai

2 Adonai

3 El

4 Rachum

5 V’chanun

6 Erech apayim

7 V’rav chesed

8 V’emet

9 Notzer chesed l’alafim

10 Nosei avon

11 vafeshah

12 v’chatah

13 V’nakeh

13 words. “The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in compassion and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”

Every time we sing that over these holy days, let us reflect: what shlosh-esrei middot, what 13 attributes, will be recited about us?

Shana Tova.

The Limits of Forgiveness by Rabbi Julia Appel
September 15, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Sermon

The news came in that June morning. The previous evening, a young white man armed with a gun sat in Bible study with a circle of black church-goers at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina for over an hour, before turning on them, murdering 9 and wounding another. Among the dead were four pastors, including the senior clergy of the church. Throughout the rampage, the man shouted racial epithets.

It was shocking. I held my newborn baby in my arms as I watched the funeral for the dead, watching President Obama’s eulogy, seeing the empty chairs of those slain. It was shocking for so many reasons, not the least of which was that this happened in a house of prayer, during prayerful study. The clergy had died teaching in their own sanctuary.

Then, two days later at Dylan Roof’s bond hearing, some family members of many of the victims took turns speaking. Each said they forgave Roof and stated that they prayed for God to forgive him.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was impressed. What devotion, and cultivation of a forgiving spirit, to be able to say that so soon after the murder of a loved one. And I could see how psychologically it could help them to heal, and also to connect with their Christian faith. And it tapped a power in the situation where otherwise they might feel powerless.

On the other hand, I was angry! This murderer does not deserveforgiveness, not now since he has not shown any remorse, and maybe not ever! It was almost unjust to forgive him. Had he repented? Would he make the same choice again, if given the chance? 

Knowing that their Christian faith was central to their act of forgiveness, I wondered if my own reaction was due to my Jewish faith. I wanted to know: What did Judaism say about forgiving the seemingly unforgiveable? Are we required to forgive? Are we transgressing if we don’t forgive?

Our tradition says a lot about the flipside of forgiveness: on atonement, on repentance, during this season. We actually begin atoning during Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, when we add a special Psalm to our prayer services, asking to dwell in God’s presence. Ashkenazim start reciting special penitential prayers, including the heart of Yom Kippur’s confessional service, the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. 

We are now into the 10 days of Teshuvah, of repentance, of turning and returning, that mark the spread between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The gates of repentance are always open, our tradition says, but they are open a little bit wider during these days. And Yom Kippur is literally the Day of Atonement.

Its origin is in the Torah, which says that Yom Kippur atones (yichaper) for our sins, cleanses us of them once a year. 

For sins which required sin offerings, restitution, and repentance, Yom Kippur was often the final necessary step formalizing the person’s completion of the process of teshuvah, repentance.

Today, we experience the day not through pilgrimage to Jerusalem, animal sacrifice, and priestly incantations, but rather through gathering in synagogues, offering sacrifices with our words, reciting our own incantations of forgiveness. 

The central one is a quote from the book of Exodus. Moses is pleading for God to forgive the people Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf. God appears to Moses, telling him to say, 

“Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet, notzeir chesed laalaphim, nosei avon vafeshah v’chata’ah v’nakei” – “The Lord, The Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” 

Jewish tradition came to see this passage as a formula given to us by God, for us to say so God will forgive us.

And so we say it, several times throughout Yom Kippur and during the special pre-holiday selichot services. We pray for God to forgive, and we hope God is generous and quick to forgive.

If we obtain forgiveness, we can go into the new year with a clear conscience. 

The catch is: God can forgive for sins against God -- violating the laws of kashrut or Shabbat, offering the wrong sacrifice during the time of the Temple. But sins against other people, God can only forgive us once we’ve gained forgiveness from the person we wronged. Theft, cheating, insulting, betraying, being haughty. We are supposed to make amends before we get to our seats and crack open these maroon books on Yom Kippur.

Our tradition says a lot about how to repent. But as much as we are repenting, we are also forgiving during this season. After all, if everyone’s apologizing, someone has to do the forgiving. We none of us are perfect, and we none of us have made it through this year without someone hurting us, insulting us, or worse, God forbid. 

So what about how to forgive?

First, let’s look at the traditional Jewish process of teshuvah, making amends. Then, let’s look at the tradition around forgiving others. And then hopefully we’ll have a little better idea of forgiveness, especially in the most difficult of situations.

So, first, teshuvah -- popularly translated as “repentance,” more accurately it means “turning” or “returning,” from the Hebrew root SHOOV. The word “apology” is a Greek root, from the Greek tradition of defending oneself in public against charges – hence we have apologetics, the rhetorical practice of defending a philosophical stance. The Greek apology was a word act. The Hebrew teshuvah is a multi-stepped process. 

For the classic Jewish take on repentance, we turn to a foundational collection of Jewish law from the 12th century – the Mishneh Torah, by Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon of Spain and Egypt. One of our greatest Jewish legal and philosophical minds, deals with our topic in a section of the Mishneh Torah aptly entitled Hilchot Teshuvah, the Laws of Teshuvah. 

What do you do when you have sinned against person or God, according to Maimonides? By the way, I’ll be using the word “sin” in this discussion, which is the proper translation of “chet,” as used in the sources, but please translate how you need to in order to relate to it: transgression, injury, offense, wrong, injustice, insult. They are all reaching for the same concept: I did something I shouldn’t have. It’s the thing I did.

First, give up the sin. Work on yourself so that you no longer want to do it, so that it’s no longer part of your habits. 

Second, resolve to never do the sin again. And no cheating: don’t hold onto an asterisk of “well… unless…” This, Maimonides colorfully describes, is like a person immersing in the mikveh – the purifying ritual bath – while still holding the defiling object. (For example a dead lizard) You can’t repent with the intention to sin again when the time is right.

Third, regret it. And make up for it. If against another person, you first make restitution, financial or otherwise. For example, for theft, return the object or its monetary value.  Then, gain that person’s forgiveness. For a transgression against God, or after you’ve attained forgiveness from your fellow, repent before God – through prayer, charity, and confession.

Your repentance is truly complete if, when faced with the opportunity to sin again, you don’t, because you have repented. It can’t be circumstantial – I didn’t steal again because I was on crutches and couldn’t run away fast enough… Not that we must face the exact same opportunity again, but this is saying we only know for sure we’ve fully repented if we make a different choice the next time.

It’s helpful, Maimonides tells us, to confess publicly, and to be specific in your apology. If you’re having trouble, change your name to show you’re a different person from when you committed the sin, or exile yourself from your home to humble you. 

Maimonides does briefly instruct what to do if the you’re not forgiven. Come back again, with three witnesses, and apologize again. If still they don’t forgive, come back with six, then with nine. If they still don’t forgive you after these 3 additional attempts, you are not supposed to come back to the person. You’ve done your duty.

Our tradition says a lot about how to repent. But what’s the traditional Jewish understanding of how to forgive? Should we forgive before someone has repented? Are we allowed to withhold forgiveness when we don’t think someone is sincere? Are there some things that simply cannot be forgiven?

I want to thank Rabbi Mark Dratch for his excellent collection of sources addressing this question – he founded an organization called JSafe that addresses domestic abuse in the Orthodox community.

First, forgiveness is very important in Judaism. The Talmud teaches that one who forgives others is forgiven for all her sins. Theologically, the Talmud even sees forgiveness as one of seven things created before the world itself. It is foundational. Being forgiving is one of God’s central characteristics, especially during the high holidays.

But it turns out that in the Jewish legal tradition, there are in fact certain circumstances under we are not required to forgive.

In Hilchot Teshuva, Maimonides stresses that we should strive to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, and if we withhold forgiveness when someone asks, we are sinners. However, other traditional sources claim there are cases where we not required to forgive.

The Mishna actually says, if asked for forgiveness, if a person doesn’t forgive, he would be stigmatized as cruel” (Bava Kamma 92a) – cruel perhaps, but specifically not a sinner. 

There are stories in the Talmud praising sages for forgiving people even when not necessary. One is of Rabbi Nehunia ben Ha Kaneh, who when asked to what merit he ascribed his longevity, answered that every night before he went to sleep, he would forgive anyone who had wronged him.

This shows it’s praiseworthy for sages and tzaddikim to be so forgiving, because it is beyond what is required. Regular people are not expected to be so forgiving.

There are two clear categories in our traditional sources in which we are not required to forgive: 1) when the perpetrator has not fully repented and 2) when the sin itself is in the category of unforgiveable.

First, when the perpetrator has not fully repented. This makes a lot of sense. Forgiveness, as a legal action, completes the process of teshuvah. If the person hasn’t completed that process, he is simply not at the step yet where we forgive him. This is the person who hasn’t made restitution. Or she hasn’t confessed fully, shown understanding that she was wrong. Maybe he never apologized in the first place.

A famous textual example is Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, as the kinder alternative to their initial plan to kill him. Later, Joseph has become the second in command in Egypt, and his brothers come to him for food rations, not knowing it’s him. 

When all is revealed, the brothers do ask for forgiveness. But Joseph never forgives them in the Torah text. Commentator Rabbeinu Bahya says it is because the brothers did not fully and properly repent. Indeed, his brothers seem more hungry and afraid of revenge, than repenting because selling him into slavery was wrong. After all, they don’t seem to have looked for him in the intervening years.

One thing to remember, in the case of the unrepentant person: Before we say we don’t have to forgive, Jewish tradition teaches we are ideally supposed to tell someone they’ve have hurt us, and give them the opportunity to make amends. This is understandably difficult, making ourselves vulnerable to the very person to whom we may wish to appear strong. But for anyone who has ever done this, whether with a roommate about dirty dishes or with a spouse for an offense that has been simmering, you know how important the step is.

Another version of the unrepentant perpetrator is one who continues to sin and repent, sin and repent. Injure and apologize, injure and apologize. This is often the case in situations of domestic abuse. This is not a full process of teshuva. Even if the person has made amends for isolated incidents, they are part of a larger transgression, whose teshuva is not complete. Our forgiveness is not required.

The second category we are not required to forgive is transgressions that are unforgiveable. It’s not what you’d first think. Legally, it’s cases where the person wronged can’t be identified or restitution can never be made. Slander, since the gossiper can’t find everyone who heard the rumor to explain it was inaccurate; receiving stolen property, since the thief can’t know the original owners to repay them. Although, the sources are clear that if people do these things, they should still repent and attempt to rectify as best they can.

There’s a related legal category of sins that we think of as unforgiveable, but technically the perpetrator’s death atones for them. These are violating a negative commandment (“you shall not”) whose Torah punishment is death. Murder, rape, kidnapping, also idolatry, breaking Shabbat in public, rebelling against parents, and witchcraft – later rabbinic sources modify some of their punishments. Since, we no longer have a Torah legal system to impose capital punishment, for these sins, only the perpetrator’s natural death atones, nothing before. Even if a victim or someone related to the victim “forgave” the perpetrator, the perpetrator would be accountable for it for the rest of his or her life as though unforgiven. 

So, to summarize, in our tradition, forgiveness is foundational to God’s vision for the world, a perpetrator has clear steps to take in a process of teshuvah, and a person wronged should seek to forgive, although under certain circumstances she is not required to do so. 

Apology and forgiveness can have massive ramifications, for wrongs done on a national scale, a political scale, or between peoples or communities. Here there may also be limits to forgiveness, but there may be even more dire results to not forgiving.  In these cases, successful reconciliation is not just for individuals’ sake; it may be intrinsic to the health of the nation.

South Africa. Rwanda. Canadian residential schools. American slavery. The Holocaust. To name a few. All of which have lasting, resonating impact on the lives of all involved, and their descendants. I don’t pretend to have nearly enough time today to properly explore these larger cases; I seek humbly to touch on them, to prompt our further reflection. 

The first three undertook truth and reconciliation processes, which are so challenging precisely because they deal with the question of how to make restitution, and how to forgive, for the most horrific wrongs.

I am thankful to Leora Schaefer at Facing History and Ourselves for directing me toward the following sources. 

Sometimes the repentance offered falls short. A tragic chapter in the history of this country is when the government took indigenous children from their families and placed them in residential schools, to assimilate them into dominant Canadian culture. Many were neglected, abused, or even murdered. The ensuing generations also suffered the inheritance.

A 1998 bureaucratic apology and $350 million in reparations were seen by indigenous community leaders as insufficient.

A class action lawsuit was settled in 2006 as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which among other things called for a high level, public government issued apology, a reparation program, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose work commenced in 2007 and which three months ago finally released its report.

In 2008, in a special session of parliament, Prime Minister Steven Harper issued the official government apology for the residential schools. He said it was wrong, that the government bore the responsibility, that Canada apologized and asked for forgiveness. 

In the months that followed, though, indigenous communities and others began to feel the government did not demonstrate full repentance; that the words needed to be accompanied by specific actions. Indeed, now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report has come out, just last week all provincial and territorial premiers met with indigenous leaders and pledged to implement the 94 recommendations of the report, acting provincially where the Federal government has dragged its feet. An apology is a beginning. But action must also follow, as we have learned this morning.

Some remarkable stories of forgiveness emerge, too. In April of last year, for the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, The New York Times Magazine featured excerpts from a photo essay being exhibited at the Hague. Each photograph portrayed a survivor and her perpetrator – always a woman survivor, as the men had invariably been killed first. Each pair had undergone a reconciliation process, culminating with the perpetrator asking for forgiveness, and the survivor granting it. They featured quotes from each. Here are just two. 

Jean Pierre Karenzi Perpetrator Viviane Nyiramana Survivor

KARENZI: “My conscience was not quiet, and when I would see her I was very ashamed. After being trained about unity and reconciliation, I went to her house and asked for forgiveness. Then I shook her hand. So far, we are on good terms.”

NYIRAMANA: “He killed my father and three brothers. He did these killings with other people, but he came alone to me and asked for pardon. He and a group of other offenders who had been in prison helped me build a house with a covered roof. I was afraid of him — now I have granted him pardon, things have become normal, and in my mind I feel clear.”

Dominique Ndahimana Perpetrator Cansilde Munganyinka Survivor

NDAHIMANA: “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”

MUNGANYINKA: “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”

The past cannot be undone. But in these few cases, as examples, widespread work on reconciliation can yield better understanding by individuals, of how to fully make amends, of how to potentially forgive, even when no one would blame them if they didn’t. It’s not just the personal relationships at risk in these cases; it’s the fabric of society. 

And maybe it always is, no matter how small the reconciliation.

We most of us have our own forgiveness story or two – a wrong done to us that we have struggled to heal from or to forgive, perhaps successfully or perhaps not. For some of us it has defined our lives, for others merely a chapter or a paragraph of it. 

I want to tell you a small example from my own life, but one that I struggled with for several years. Junior year of college, one of my best friends confessed his feelings for me. I realized I too had feelings for him, and over several weeks became excited to start this new stage of our relationship. But in that time he had also, without telling me, started a relationship with another girl. In the end, he decided to be with her, and said he was sorry if that caused me pain. 

The betrayal I felt was so intense. Over summer break, I wrestled with my feelings of hurt, confusion, grief, and also the question of forgiveness. In the fall, he again apologized, but still without any sense that he’d been wrong. I stopped speaking to him, we graduated and went our separate ways. It remained a painful wound.

A few years later, I suddenly received a long apology letter from him. This time, it included most of Maimonides’ check list. He apologized, said he now saw that what he did was wrong in addition to careless, he detailed what he had done, he expressed remorse and shame. And he asked for my forgiveness. Because he was marrying her, and it pained him to know that his happiness was built on my suffering, even if those feelings had long faded.

We were both coincidentally to be in Jerusalem the following month, and so I met him in a café. When he walked through the door and began the conversation, as though my forgiveness were guaranteed, my heart hardened. I felt he had finally properly repented and perhaps deserved forgiveness; his letter had moved me, but I just wasn’t ready. And, if I am going to be honest, maybe, now that I had the power to withhold forgiveness he asked for, I enjoyed that power.

I did forgive him, eventually. Three years after his letter, six years after he had betrayed me, the time had come, and I forgave him. Because I was getting married now. And I wanted to let go of all past romantic hurt. I never told him, though. Maybe I should.

Our tradition says a lot about repentance, and also about forgiveness. I come back to my initial reactions to families’ forgiveness in Charleston. And by the way, I am not at all judging the responses of those family members who forgave, nor those who didn’t forgive.

I think my anger was because it felt un-just to forgive someone who didn’t repent and surely would do the same again if he had the chance. I came to increased Jewish observance and ultimately the rabbinate through my activism, spending many years thinking about justice. 

But sometimes, frankly, my sense of injustice blinds me to the fuller picture. I learned this while serving as a chaplain on an Alzheimer’s floor in Boston. One of my residents confided that her nurse was stealing from her. I was outraged and told my supervisor, who compassionately explained that paranoia is a stage of Alzheimer’s progression. And then, as a good chaplaincy supervisor does, she turned our conversation to me: she noticed that injustice got me exercised more than other situations; the feeling that someone was being taken advantage of. In this case, my sense of injustice blinded me to the full reality, which was much more complex.

For my own stories of being wronged, I often dwell on the injustice of the situation, which prevents me from healing, let alone forgiving. 

At this time of year, the liturgy encourages us to spend a lot of time, at least the hours we are in synagogue, praying to God, asking God for forgiveness, even when we don’t deserve it, maybe especially then. We want God to put aside what is maybe just, and to be compassionate with us.

Amazingly, that’s what God wants too, according to a remarkable midrash:

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosei:  From where do we know that the Holy Blessed One prays?  As it is said, “I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in the house of My prayer” (Isaiah 56:7).  “[The house of] their prayer” is not said, rather, “[the house of] My prayer.”  From here we know that the Holy Blessed One prays.  

Ok, so now we know that God Godself prays! Surprising enough. But listen to this.

What does God pray?

Rav Zutra bar Toviya said Rav said:  “May it be My will that My mercy will overcome My anger, and may My mercy prevail over My other attributes so that I will deal with My children with the attribute of mercy and for their sake not extract full justice.”  (Berachot 7a)

God Godself has to pray that God’s own judgment not be clouded by justice to the point that opportunity for mercy disappears. And it’s not that God wants to abandon justice. Rather, it’s a tipping of the scales, a resting of the finger on the side of mercy, even when not required. Mercy does not negate justice. But that tipping does make God a merciful God, not a vengeful God. God wants that for Godself, according to this midrash.

And if God can pray for an extra measure of mercy, can’t we? 

Maybe we need not start with full forgiveness as our goal. Maybe that’s not realistic, especially in extreme circumstances. 

But maybe we can start, for those cases where we don’t think we’ll ever forgive, by praying to want to forgive. Please God. Let me want to forgive this person, even though I don’t want to. Please God, let my quality of mercy tip the scale a little. May I have a little more rachmanus on others and may they have a little more rachmanus on me. Then maybe we can get to the point of praying, please God, may I actually forgive this person. And maybe somewhere inside the scales are tipping.

Activating that merciful part of us does not abandon justice. But perhaps it makes us closer to the kind of people we want to be.

Consider what happens when we are not required to forgive, but we do. What kind of person do we become if we choose, like the sages of the Talmud, to be forgiving? What kind of person do we become if we hold on to these hurts, longer than we maybe need to? 

For some injury, it takes years or even a lifetime to work through. And for some situations, it is dangerous to forgive if that brings us into interaction with a person who could continue to hurt us. But in the majority of cases, we might ask ourselves, has this person possibly made amends and I was too upset to notice? Or, yes, maybe she does not deserve my forgiveness at all. She doesn’t even think what she did was wrong! I am not condoning her behavior, but maybe I want to let this hurt go, I want to heal, I want to move on. I want to do this for myself and no one else. I want to cultivate a forgiving heart. It’s hard. It’s maybe impossible. But please God. May I find the strength to forgive.

Some wrongs may in fact be unforgiveable. For some of us, that’s clear, and I would say it’s healthy. But this week, I want to challenge us to check those unforgiving places, the things we haven’t forgiven. Make sure that they really are unforgiveable. And if they aren’t, if there’s a tiny bit of movement, a glimmer of flexibility, see if maybe you really would like to forgive, someday. And if maybe you really would like to forgive someday, maybe that’s worth the first prayer. We can’t all be Rabbi Nehunia ben HaKaneh, truly forgiving anyone who hurt us every single night before we go to bed. But please God. May I have the strength to want to forgive.

Shanah tovah.

Life-Saving Doubt by Jeff Cipin
September 15, 2015

Second day Rosh Hashana Dvar Torah

I'm going to pick up where we left off one year ago today, the 2nd of Tishrei -  or if you follow that crazy calendar that keeps moving around – it was September 26. At the end of Jessica Wyman's excellent D'var Torah something she said made me think “I want to do this D'var Torah next year.” I mulled it over for three days – very biblical – and then emailed Rabbi Goldstein with my request. For some reason she said yes, and Hineini. Here am I.  

But between then and now my mind has definitely wandered while attempting to put down on paper what I had already decided I wanted to talk about a year ago. 

While in the thick of writing this I made a trip to Costco the day before Labour Day. Even though it was 30 degrees outside I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the display of winter gloves and earmuffs by the entrance. However, I was a little taken aback by the little nativity scene for sale. On September 6. Really? But of course that got me thinking about the Akedah, the story we read today about the near sacrifice of Yitzchak by his father Avraham. At Costco. Is there anyone here who can imagine setting up an Akedah scene on their front lawn for Rosh Hashanah? Anybody? Nobody? Why not? The story presents many fine iconic and very visual possibilities. One of which – in my mind at least – shares one thing in common with the nativity  - because the Akedah definitely includes what I consider a “birth moment.”

And that actually ties in with another mind wandering experience. One that occurred at City Shul Shabbat services the day before my trip to Costco. Though I should have been focusing on the Torah reading du jour, I started thinking about the Akedah. It dawned on me that Avraham and Yitzchak must have started their 3 day journey on a Sunday morning. Why? Because the Akedah needs to take place on Tuesday so that a 3 day return trip gets them home before Shabbat. Now if you’re wondering did Avraham observe Shabbat – the sagely consensus is yes. After all, Bereshit 26:5 states "Avraham listened to My voice, observed My safeguards, My commandments, My statutes and My teachings”. Rashi claims that our patriarchs and matriarchs kept all 613 commandments, which were given of course centuries later at Sinai. Even though they prepared for the angels that visited them a lovely dish made with milk and meat. But that's not what I'm here to talk about on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah.

So, I have Avraham and Yitzchak making it home for Shabbat. But no, I didn’t speculate on the reception they received from Sarah, but rather I had Yitzchak do a little time travel. 

Oh look, there’s Yitzchak at City Shul on Shabbat morning. And, when we get to our “Modim” moment, our regularly scheduled opportunity during the repetition of the Amidah to publicly state what we are grateful for, Yitzchak puts up his hand and waits for Rabbi Goldstein to call upon him. As usual people are grateful for new jobs, new grandchildren, finishing this, starting that. Yitzchak waits patiently until it’s his turn. The rabbi points at him. He stands and takes a deep breath. “My modim moment...” He hesitates. Heads turn. Nobody recognizes this stranger. The rabbi wonders if he’s shul shopping. Perhaps he’s single, someone else is thinking. Another deep breath. “I’m grateful that on Tuesday my father had a split second of doubt and didn’t slit my throat. Now I know he loves me.” “That’s beautiful”, says the rabbi, noticing the service is running late. “Anybody else?” 

The Akedah basically boils down to this: God decides to test Avraham, telling him to offer his son as a sacrifice, and ultimately Avraham does not. Note that although the Torah tells us it's a test – wink, wink, nudge, nudge God has no intention of letting Avraham actually sacrifice Yitzchak -  Avraham obviously isn't told it's a test. Meaning the non-sacrifice of Yitzchak is the only logical outcome. Why? Because not only has God's covenant with Avraham already been established several times, God explicitly mentioned the continuation of the covenant with Yitzchak when making his birth announcement. But when God instructs Avraham to head off to the land of Moriah and sacrifice Yitzchak, Avraham does not have a snappy comeback like, “Wait a second, rememberest what Thou saidest in Bereshit 17:21?” Other than “Hineini” - Here am I - Avraham says nothing at all. Which is very disturbing. And that brings me back to last year's D'var Torah.

This is what got my attention: Jessica concluded by saying, “Abraham is bound to his faith, bound to his God, bound to his commitment such that even the possibility of sacrificing Isaac can be rationalized.

That sort of rationalization is potentially extremely dangerous.

Avraham's rationalization gets him out the door and on his way with his donkeys, servants, a bundle of wood and Yitzchak. That rationalization enables him to build an altar, lay out the wood, to somehow bind his grown son, and lay him on top of the wood. And then the Torah say s:

And Avraham stretched forth his hand and picked up the knife to slay his son.

Everything up to that point has been rationalized. God asks, and Avraham's faith obliges him to obey. Is that not his obligation as the other party to the covenant? He's asked to sacrifice his son and the deed must be done. Faith and duty must prevail. And they do. Almost. With the knife in Avraham's hand the intention is clear. Suddenly, an angel in heaven calls out his name. Twice. The angel doesn't say “Stop!”. The angel says “Avraham, Avraham.” Avraham chooses to stop and simply reply, “Hineini”. Here am I. There he is indeed. With that knife in hand and Yitzchak bound  on the altar - the possibly willing victim about to be murdered. Though Avraham says nothing further, he does stop. The grave and irrevocable consequences of his next action have become immediately apparent.

I like to think that in THAT split second, faith has been tempered by reason. Quite simply, the obedient and faithful Avraham, in my opinion, at that moment, experiences something just as profound as faith … doubt. And that moment, for me, represents the “real” birth of Judaism: A RELIGION WHICH ALLOWS FOR DOUBT. Most importantly, it is a landmark moment witnessed and indelibly etched into the memory of Yitzchak. Bound and lying on a pile of wood but alive, GRATEFUL THAT HIS FATHER LISTENED MORE TO HIS REASON THAN TO HIS FAITH. 

If, as Sandy pointed out in yesterday's amazing D'var Torah, the banishing of Hagar and Yishmael was not Sarah's finest hour, the outcome of the Akedah I would suggest is pretty much the opposite. This is Avraham's finest hour. He passed the test. A test that was really staged not for his benefit – he dies next parsha – but to demonstrate to Yitzchak that absolute faith is at the very least problematic. 

I celebrate Avraham's doubt. I believe it's not his weakness but his true strength. Why? Because faith without doubt leads to fanaticism. Of all the lessons of the Akedah, that is the one that resonates most with me right here on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah. And although it's a lesson our ancestors contemplated and struggled with many years ago, I'm afraid it's one that's too easily ignored today.

Faith without doubt is so deeply flawed. It's what has set the stage for the widespread and systematic sexual assault of Yezidi women by ISIS fighters. Survivors say their assailants tell them that Islamic Law condones their obviously unlawful and barbaric actions.  And unfortunately it's also the same flawed faith that in July led Jewish settlers in the West Bank to set fire to a Palestinian home. An 18 month old boy is dead. His parents and four year old brother are severely burned. But I imagine the arsonists had little or no doubt that burning down that house was justified. In both cases, extreme rationalization. In both examples - and we could all come up with many others – horrible atrocities continue to be perpetrated in the name of various religions. Unreasonable faith. Just in case the Akedah's warning against fanatical faith is not clear enough in the Torah, Yitzhak Arama, a 15th century Spanish rabbi and author of  “Akedat Yitzhak” a Torah commentary named for today's portion, spells it out: “A person should not say that if God commanded me to sacrifice my son I would do as Avraham did.”

If that was true in the 15th century, and clearly stated by a rabbinical authority, shouldn't  that message would be just as clear today in the 21stcentury? 

The sort of rationalization that Avraham engaged is just wrong. Because if you trot off to a mountaintop, build an altar, put your son or daughter on it, raise your knife and hope for the best there’s a very good chance an angel will not call your name and prevent you from becoming another religious fanatic. 

This is a time of year when we are full of doubt. In our liturgy we ask, “Who shall live and who shall die?” even as we praise God knowing that we'll only know the answer to questions like that next Yom Kippur. Let your faith be strengthened by your doubt as I believed it strengthened Avraham and Yitzchak. To doubt is perhaps one of the most authentic ways to be Jewish. That's the deeper message of the Akedah, and why Yitzchak would come to City Shul to share such a chilling Modim Moment. He is grateful not for his father's faith, but for his doubt. He owes his life to it. 

Shana Tova.


The Power of Prayer by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 14, 2015

Day One Rosh Hashana Sermon

A Sunday school teacher once asked her class, "Why is it necessary to be quiet in shul?" One little girl raised her hand and replied, "Because people are sleeping.”

I get it. Because I went to shul every Shabbat with my parents, and my father would, as if on cue, fall asleep the nano-second the Rabbi started his sermon, and wake up the nano-second he said "Amen." 

I get it. Because before City Shul, the most significant prayer experience I’d ever had was in a church.

A black Baptist church, to be exact. When I was a congregational Rabbi in Boston, I did a weekend pulpit exchange with the local Baptist minister- he came to my shul on Friday night, where he preached, and then I was invited to his church on the following Sunday to preach. So here we are on Friday night, and all during the service his people are going “halleluyah” “amen” “right on” (“Barchu et Adonai hamvorach...yeah!”) Then the minister gets up to give his sermon, and all his people are sitting on the edges of their seats. He begins to speak and the fever rises, they are shouting out hallelyuah all over the place. But my people are all polite Jews, sitting quietly, nodding in agreement every now and then, puckering their faces when they don’t agree. One by one you see his people put down their hands and listen politely. From that minute on, his sermon just got duller and duller.

So now Sunday comes and it’s my turn. I start my sermon, and all of a sudden I see my people in the front row start to react, “halleluyah” “amen” right on Rabbi!”

My favourite memory from that weekend was when one of my congregants asked the minister what time the services would end. He looked at her incredulously and said “no one has ever asked me that before.” Jews wanna know what time kiddush is, what time the shofar will be blown, what time is yizkor. We arrive a half-hour late if it’s Reform, an hour late if it’s Conservative and towards the end if its Orthodox—just in time for kaddish and kiddush! Today we have among us our friends from St Anne’s Anglican Church and The Reverend Gary van der Meer. Gary emailed me last week to remind him of what time services would start today. Here is my reply: “Gary, that’s a complicated question. Services officially start at 9:30 am. Most people come in between 10:00 and 10:45. The Torah is read at around 11:15. I give my sermon at 12. Don’t be too early, but don’t be too late.” That’s what really should go on Bar mitzvah invitations because mostly the start time is just a suggestion.

I understand deeply just how challenging the whole Jewish prayer experience can be. Prayer is not easy and it is not second nature to most Jews, even Orthodox ones who seem to pray “easily.” I recently started a dialogue blog with Rabbi Ed Elkin of the First Nareyever, called Downtown Dvar—you can find it on under that title— and in our first post I imagined how today must feel for a lot of folks here:

“…they’ve entered an alien world where everyone stands up and sits down as if on cue. It’s a three-hour Italian opera with no subtitles, no programmes and no plot. It’s a parade of people who all seem to know each other pecking on the cheeks, saving seats, and sharing inside jokes.”

I get it. It’s long: like when the Rabbi noticed a man getting up and leaving during the Torah reading. The man returned just before the Kaddish and the Rabbi asked where he had gone. "I went to get a haircut," the man said. "But," the Rabbi said, "why didn't you do that before the service?” "Because," the man said, "I didn't need it yet."

I get it. The Hebrew word for worship is avodah—and though it refers back to the earliest form of worship in the Torah, the sacrificial service, it also means “work.”

And the Hebrew! Many of us feel like we going to some foreign country without knowing more than a few words of the language— we feel like tourists in shul. Couldn’t we do more in English?

And the words! Others have written them centuries ago and they’re supposed to be meaningful to us today. Wouldn’t a couple of Mary Oliver poems suffice?

And the G-d language. Father and King, patriarchal images from so long ago.

And the whole G-d concept. Many of us are so unsure abut what we believe, if we believe anything at all. 

So why pray? The inconvenient truth is that the bulk of what we do in shul ispray. Yes there’s a little Torah study, and a little singing and a little eating, but mostly— it’s prayer all the way down. We could choose to create a shul that’s just Torah study—we tried that with Kolel and it didn’t foster community. Or we could create a shul that’s just singing—in Israel they do that at the Tel Aviv port, secular Israelis coming together with guitars and the old folk tunes for an hour on Friday night, a little hava nagila and some David Broza, and they call it Kabbalat Shabbat. Or we could create a shul with just eating—that’s called a Chinese restaurant. Or, we could build a shul with no praying at all—there are such shuls, called Secular Humanist. There’s no prayer or worship in a Jewish Secular Humanist service.

Now I’m not suggesting you all leave City Shul to try a Secular Humanist group—in fact, some of you have actually come to us from such groups because a certain traditional  spiritual piece was missing. We chose to create a Reform synagogue where prayer is central. It is my belief that praying is the one Jewish act which best fortifies an individual, and best forges together a community. And thats what we are here to do together at least for these Days of Awe. How can we make the prayer experience as awesome as possible? 

Let’s start with thinking about what prayer isn’t.

Prayer isn’t magic. I know that the mi sheberach prayer, the prayer we say for the ill, may feel like an incantation against illness. So many people in my Rabbinic life have challenged me when their mi sheberach isn’t “answered”—especially when a loved one succumbs to their illness. To them I answer what my friend Shira Shelley Duke stood up and said the last Yom Kippur of her life, at our Kolel service—and some of you may remember this moment. She turned to the congregation and said, “ I know I won’t be written in the proverbial Book of Life this year. So why bother saying mi sheberach for me? Because every mi sheberach you say weaves a hammock of comfort for me to lie on. I put my head down on that hammock of comfort every night, going to sleep feeling remembered.” Rebbi Nachman of Breslov, who himself suffered from bouts of serious depression, said,  “Life makes warriors of us all. To emerge the victors, we must arm ourselves with the most potent of weapons. That weapon is prayer.”  But unlike TV evangelists who tell you the blind can see again and the crippled walk again with just the right prayer, prayer for Jews is meant to help those who are struggling find strength to face the challenges ahead, and to remind those who aren’t to be a caring community for them. 

And prayer isn’t rational. Jonathan Zimmerman, in his article in Tablet magazine “An Atheist’s Synagogue Search” writes: “Who really wants to pray from a book that has nothing disagreeable in it? Who wants to follow only rituals that make intellectual sense?… There is a poetic richness as a non-believer participating in this tradition, in being an “Israelite” named for a mythological story about wrestling with a fictional deity that birthed a very real people…” Our truths are not scientific. Our truths cannot be “proven” through a microscope, just like love, or beauty, or poetry, can't be proven through a microscope.

Prayer is not a statement of belief. The goal of prayer is not to make theological proclamations, although the early Reform movement tried to do that when they insisted on standing majestically for Shema, “the watchword of our faith.” The prayerbook is merely a key to open the possibility of the mysterium tremendum—the feeling that there is more to life than just what we see and what we hear and what we know. When Jews say “I can’t pray words I don’t believe” they are expressing a more Christian view of what prayer is than a Jewish view. In Judaism, prayer is simply supposed to help us do what poet Mary Oliver says is our “work” in her poem The Messenger: “…mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”

We know that prayer really isn’t to “get” something. You can’t ask God for a new bicycle, or for a Blue Jays victory (and let it be known as a New Yorker I’m experiencing intense dual loyalty in the Yankees vs. Blue Jays games next week, two of which are on Yom Kippur!! I’m personally experiencing the old joke of the Jew who says to his Rabbi he’ll be missing Kol Nidre to be at the game and the Rabbi suggests thats what VCRs are for, and the Jew says you mean I can tape Kol Nidre???). God isn’t a cosmic vending machine, or the great giant Jewish Santa Claus in the sky. You can ask for patience, fortitude, a keener sense of justice, greater compassion, healing, and courage, but prayer is not asking for a red sports car to appear on your doorstep tomorrow.

The most important thing is that prayer isn't literal. It’s all metaphor. Maimonides taught way back in the 12th century that all prayer language is “k’ilu”—as if. Symbolic. Just like a person is not really “as big as a house” God is not really a “Father and King.” Rabbi Toba Spitzer says it this way: “Instead of asking, ‘Do I believe this?’ we can ask of a prayer, ‘Where is this trying to take me?’”

So prayer isn’t magic, or science, or theology, or a gift list, or literal. Whatis prayer supposed to be?

Most important: Prayer is supposed to help us express gratefulness. 13th century mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart von Hochheim wrote, "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”Yehudim— the Hebrew word for Jews— comes from the same root asModim- we are grateful. In prayer we are supposed to become a grateful people.

Prayer is supposed to help us reach beyond the selfan antidote to the ego and narcisism of the secular world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The focus of prayer is …the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts…” In prayer we are asked to ascend higher than ourselves and outside of ourselves; in short, to be more than ourselves. Before the invention of the GPS, we had to stop and ask for directions. Prayer makes us do that.

Prayer is supposed to help us express longing. It is not to answer our longings but rather to give voice to them. Where else in the world can we freely share our yearning for companionship, our existential loneliness, and our need for the other? Where else in the world do we get the space to express our joy in being, our wonder at the universe, our hopes, our fears, our failures, our aspirations?

Prayer is supposed to help us become more reflective people, giving us the gift of time to think and the responsibility to use that time to take stock of our lives. When else do we give ourselves the opportunity to subdue the churning in our heads and the constant white noise of our daily lives? The Journal of Science put out by Harvard University reported a study in which people of all ages were asked to sit in a room with nothing in it for 10 or 15 minutes, to “spend the time…with their own thoughts…Half reported the experience as being less than enjoyable to downright unenjoyable. Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser calls this “too busy to bow down.”

Specifically for Jews, prayer is supposed to connect us with our past. Thats why its still in Hebrew. Abraham Geiger said at the very inception of Reform Judaism in 185O, "The significance of the prayers consists not alone in their content but also in their traditional forms, in the language they have bequeathed to us." Think of the mourner's Kaddish, written not even in Hebrew, but in Aramaic. Much if not all of its strength lies in the cadence of those strange sounding 'Yitgadal v'yitkadash shmei rabba"... Would a mourner really feel comforted by standing up and saying “Hallowed and exalted is the name of God amen...”? It’s a mantra, and though we don’t ask you to sit in a lotus position or breathe out of each nostril, there are moments of mantra in a service that are meant to carry us away only by their sound. Kol Nidre, Avinu Malkenu, the Shema. The sound the language our people has prayed in for thousands of years. The words that Jews have been saying for millennia. Wherever you go, whatever synagogue you find yourself in, the Shema will sound the same. The Amidah will remind you you are a child of Abraham and Sarah, Issac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. That you got here somehow, not from nowhere—even if you converted, you stood at Sinai. The words are like Shakespeare or the Hippocratic oath or the national anthem—historic words that are meant to place you directly into history.

And of course, prayer is supposed to connect us to each other. Pure and simple. Even if you don’t sing a single tune, even if you don’t know a single word, when you say “Amen” to my mourner’s Kaddish, you have reached across a gap of solitude to hold my hand. Even if you don’t know me and I don’t know you, when you sit next to me and turn and say “Good Shabbos” or “Shana Tova”, I am no longer existentially alone in this universe. 

And, last but definitely not least, prayer is supposed to lead to action. Prayer isn’t meant to change the universe, it is meant to change us. That is why the Talmud requires that every place of worship have a window, (ok leaving out the basement of the Wolfond Centre!) so that our prayers are part of the world, and so that the world is part of our prayers. Prayer is supposed to remind us, to goad us, to prod us. Praying for peace—what did I do this week to bring peace? Praying for healing—who did I visit this week?

Lofty goals, no doubt. But prayer still doesn’t “deliver” for so many people. It’s true that there are some people so attuned to spirituality, so comfortable in services, so well-versed in the prayerbook and its choreography that services for them are a no-brainer. But for others, is there some way to bridge the gap between what prayer is supposed to be and what it often is?

Let me suggest some ways we can.

First, if we cultivate gratefulness in our everyday lives, we will have a modim moment to report. Dr. Alan Moranis, a teacher of the Jewish practice of Musar, writes on gratitude: “Imagine a prayer of thanks springing to your lips when the driver in the car next to you lets you merge without protest, or when the water flows from the tap, or the food is adequate…” I know its easy to feel gratitude at the birth of a child, at a beautiful sunset at the cottage, while canoeing on the lake. All of these experiences are actually prayer experiences, its true. But we aren’t always at the lake or in a canoe or giving birth; prayer is the small and normative opportunity to express the unimaginable awe of being at other times of our normally mundane lives.  

I encourage us all, especially between now and Yom Kippur, to let prayers of thanks spring from our lips for small and wondrous things and moments, and see how it feels.

Second, let’s cultivate what we can give to the prayer experience, as much as what we can get from it. I encourage everyone to let go of their childhood memories of decorous services “performed” by the Rabbi and Cantor, and if you find yourself reading the prayerbook as if it was a yellow pages, stop yourself and ask: how can I be more fully present while I am here? Abigail Pogrebin challenges us in her article called “High Holiday Services are Boring. Here’s How We Can Fix Them” in Tablet magazine with the following: “What if we made our experience deliberately more demanding—working harder to find resonance in the liturgy, reading in advance about the Unetanah Tokef prayer so it will mean something when we recite it during services? Before attending an opera, one reads the libretto. Before visiting another country, one dog-ears the guidebook. Why not prepare for synagogue in the same way?” 

I encourage us all to prepare for Yom Kippur. Read up on the great themes. Approach the people we need forgiveness from, and those we need to forgive. Buy a yartzeit candle now for yizkor and set pictures up around it of the loved ones you’ll be remembering. Buy a new white tablecloth for the pre-fast meal. Find something white to wear for Kol Nidre. Put a coin in a tzedakah box every day of the next 10 days.

Third, let’s cultivate the meaning of the Hebrew word for prayer: lihitpalel. a reflexive verb meaning: to judge oneself. When we are attuned to judging only ourselves, the Rabbi, the Cantor, and the other congregants—whatever they are doing or wearing—don’t matter. I encourage us all to remember we stand in self-judgement only, and, without beating ourselves up, take these 10 days to reflect on how the faults we find in others reflect our own failings. Lets come to Yom Kippur in a  spirit of self-judgement rather than judgmentalism.

Fourth, let’s cultivate connection to the rest of the people in this sanctuary. Who needs more solitude in this isolated society? Community doesn’t form instantaneously; it takes effort and the willingness. The community of regulars has to be invested in reaching out as much as the community of newcomers need to be invested in reaching in. 

The Reform movement uses the phrase “audacious hospitality.” However Rabbi Mark Miller, writing after the Biennial in which Rabbi Jacobs used this catch-phase, warns us against “audacious superficiality.” We still need to invite each other for Shabbat dinners during the year (and here I will audaciously add including the Rabbi and her family in some of those invitations), we still need to visit each other more when we are in hospital or sitting shiva, we still need to be sure those who need lift to shul get one and those who need a festival meal get invited,  (and here I will audaciously add there is a sign up sheet for our Mitzvah Group in the hall, which does such things and should expand to do more of these kind of things and which, I think, should have 50 volunteers not 15), we still need to greet each other and newcomers warmly at services (and here I will audacious add there is a sign up sheet for our ushering corps in the hall, which does such things and which, I think, should have 50 volunteers not 15), we still need to engage our youth in spiritual not just social endeavours, and we still need to actively make sure our shul is a diverse community of straight and LGBTQ, white and those of colour, Jewish-Jewish and intermarried, those with solid financial standing and those of limited means, young and old, couples, families, and singles. I encourage us to be actually audacious.

And last, let’s create or find a new prayerbook for City Shul which reflects joy, sincerity, simplicity, and traditional content with creative forms; a prayerbook which includes our own unique City Shul perspective with an expansive and inclusive embrace. Ultimately while we are saying the fixed prayers that our ancient Rabbis found meaningful, we need to be sure that we are inserting our own kavannah, or personal intentions, into the traditional form.

I encourage anyone whom this sermon has touched to come October 19th to our New Prayerbook Open House discussion; I especially encourage those who find prayer difficult to come because it is your voice we need to hear when choosing or creating our next prayerbook. And I encourage anyone with the slightest interest in this project to join the Task Force—there is a sign-up sheet in the hall.

The “unintended consequences” of being here today, according to The Gerontological Society on Aging, are that people who pray experience lower levels of depression and anxiety; display lower blood pressure and have fewer strokes; and say they generally feel healthier. But the intended consequences are deeper. They are, in these beautiful words by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to the Koren Sacks Siddur, the following:

“… prayer works on us in ways not immediately apparent. As the sea smoothes the stone, as the repeated hammer-blows of the sculptor shape the marble, so prayer—cyclical, tracking the rhythms of time itself—gradually wears away the jagged edges of our character, turning it into a work of devotional art. We begin to see the beauty of the created world. We locate ourselves as part of the story of our people. Slowly, we come to think less of the “I,” more of the “We”; less of what we lack than of what we have; less of what we need from the world, more of what the world needs from us. Prayer is less about getting what we want than about learning what to want. Our priorities change; we become less angular; we learn the deep happiness that comes from learning to give praise and thanks. The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today.”

May the prayers we say today open our eyes to the wonder of the world, open our ears to the still, small voice of God, and open our hearts to those around us.

May the prayers we say today build a world this year that is less angular and more deeply happy. Even if you fall asleep once in a while. Shana Tova.

On Sarah and Babies by Sandy Wynia Katz
September 14, 2015

Rosh Hashanah 5776 
Dvar Torah 
First Day

It is an honour to share some words of Torah with you this Rosh Hashanah.  The Rosh Hashanah parsha has left me with mixed feelings for many years and I hope to share with you, learn together and perhaps sit easier with this parsha in future years.

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the story. Here it is how it is presented in an online article on Judaism and Infertility:

“God told her husband, Abraham, that he would father descendants who would outnumber the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). Sarah knew all about the prophecy and as she became old and still no baby arrived, she encouraged her husband to be with her maid, Hagar, so he could have children with her. Sarah utilized Hagar as a sort of surrogate, giving her the opportunity to bear children with Abraham. However rather than expressing gratitude to Sarah, Hagar taunted Sarah and demeaned her for her inability to conceive. “When [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes (Genesis 16:5). Three angels and one miracle later her son Isaac arrived (Genesis 21:1).”  Mazornet Infertility

A story of pain, of jealousy, of promises fulfilled and a story of a relationship between two women permanently severed as a result of all that pain and jealousy.  Also a story of healing.

Commentators and essayists debate the meaning of the relationship between Sarah and Hagar.  Should Hagar have been smug towards Sarah?  Hagar, the powerless, had the one thing Sarah craved and which G-d promised her:  a child of her ‘own’.  The power imbalance was tipped on its head.  If we think about it and look through the eyes of each of these women, we see them for what they are:  human.

Hagar:  poor, enslaved, finally elevated through giving birth to Abraham’s offspring.  Hagar - the mother who was expected to have this child and hand him over to be loved, cherished and parented by another person.  We don’t know Hagar’s feelings about this arrangement and we can’t imagine her willingly entering into that sort of agreement but what choice did she have? 

Sarah:  promised by G-d that she was a blessed woman and would be the matriarch of countless descendants.  Reaching 90 years of age, the Torah tells us, and still no baby.  Reluctantly, it seems, Sarah concocts a plan so that Abraham’s destiny can be realized.  Yet once reality sets in, jealousy makes an appearance.  

As a person who shares the ‘infertile’ label with our matriarch Sarah, I can attest to feelings of jealousy, bordering on rage and the deepest and most painful of sorrows.  I am embarrassed to tell you the frequency with which I looked upon the pregnant bellies of others and felt deep envy and pain so searing I wanted all pregnant people and babies to be banished from my sight.  So while I’m uncomfortable with Sarah’s reaction – she’s our mother, our beloved matriarch – I also get it.  Sadly, the two women, whom we would have hoped to be a shining example of mutual support, grace and all those good ‘female’ traits, were pitted against each other. Pitted against each other by a patriarchy, which claimed women’s “usefulness” lies in her ability to produce a child. Both women bought into that message, and it destroyed what could have been a sisterhood.

In her sermon last Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt, notes:

“I've always been uncomfortable with the story of Sarah sending her slave and Abraham's other son into the wilderness to die. In my unease, I follow in the footsteps of our sages. Judith Plaskow teaches that our sages were torn between reverence for Sarah as our matriarch, and concern for the powerless, including the slave-woman Hagar. Torah clearly teaches kindness to strangers and to slaves -- and yet Torah also shows us Sarah demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out. What can we do with this tension?”

Some would hold Sarah to a higher standard. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote in a recent essay entitled Why We Read Sarah and Hagar at Rosh Hashana: On the Abuse of Power; 

“Other Jewish commentators work hard to find some other explanation for Sarah's actions, but at the end of the day, I'm not sure it's appropriate of us to justify the ways in which a woman with geographic and ethnic privilege and a higher class status disenfranchises a woman who is, literally, a stranger without resources because the woman with power doesn't want to share her son's inheritance with the son she had, earlier, encouraged her husband to sire. Can we perhaps just admit that this is not Sarah's finest hour?”

The article Biblical Barreness: Infertility and Judaism is refreshing in that it begins to acknowledge the pain that is infertility.  “As each woman coped with infertility, the Torah records and validates an array of emotions, among them jealousy and depression.” 

Sadly, the relationship that existed between Sarah and Hagar was permanently damaged by jealousy.  Like our mother Sarah, I felt envy. I too have been less than gracious to others who have been blessed with children.

Yet While I was jealous of others, I never blamed G-d for the overdose pain and jealousy. G-d just didn't seem to figure into the equation. Wait.  Did I just say that?  Here in this shulurch and on Rosh Hashanah no less?  But it’s true.  When I was in the throes of pursuing motherhood I didn't have much time for G-d. 

I had to go for daily blood work, daily ultrasounds, daily meetings with doctors and nurses, daily phone calls advising me of how my body was doing. Daily drug injections; drugs to my legs, my stomach and a big needle in the tuches every night. Partner, friends, parents, family, holidays. Synagogue?...sometimes.   One year we spent every statutory holiday and quite a few Jewish ones in the clinic.

And then I had a job. I had to go to work every day.  I traveled all over Ontario. Shot myself up in a sketchy motel in Moosonee once. Flying in bush planes worried about the growing baby inside me.

Where could I fit G-d into a schedule like that?  I was far too busy riding the endless cycle of hope and despair to make time for G-d.  

And while I was too busy for G-d and contemplating their role in all of this; the meaning of it all - I found time to get very uncomfortable with Judaism.  Maimonides speaks of the greatness of having children "whoever adds a soul to the world it is as if they have created an entire world.”  I’m a big fan of Maimonides and find this inspiring.  I also find it soul crushing.  This attitude pervades Jewish life, Jewish ritual, and Jewish communal experiences.  

It seemed that all areas of life that once brought joy were now reminders of the pain of loss.

Take Shabbat for example: 
Eshet Chayil?  Could not hear that without absolutely falling apart.
The Shabbat table seemed empty.  No blessing our children.

Go to Shul - see all the families. Oh hello, Shabbat Shalom. Do you have children?
No. None of my babies made it. I had seven brutal miscarriages. 

Or really: smile and say No, not yet.

What could the pain of failed cycles, of seven failed pregnancies mean?  What meaning could there be in seeing my baby's heartbeat only to find out a few weeks later the baby died.  Where could I take my pain?

I finally turned to G-d and wailed: how can this happen? What could be the deeper meaning of this??  And how will I ever heal?

I had to find hope.

This is life: Full of joy. Full of pain. Full of bitterness. Full of healing. Full of hope. Tikvah. Hope is the thing that, along with drugs and therapy, lifted me out of the depths of depression. 

As Hagar and Ishmael were banished from their community, I too felt banished from the Jewish community.  Resentful that the community was not there for me, that there was no place for me, I was tempted to stay away.  At the same time I yearned to belong and I knew somehow the answer to my healing could only lie in a Jewish community that would feed me – body and soul.    

My healing is here, bound up with your healing and with the healing of our community, near and far.  By creating the intentional community that is City Shul we work hard to ensure that we value all who come.  Here at City Shul those of us who are childless are part of the family.  We can participate in committee work, classes, volunteering.  

When I enter the City Shul doors I am valued – just walking in.  Your race, your gender identity, your definition of family, the people you love, the way you dress or the colour and shape of your kippah – no assumptions are made.  You and I are valued here.  This is a community where a childless woman with a blue Mohawk can give a D’var Torah on Rosh Hashanah and share her innermost feelings.  

This is a community that holds events just for adults.  A community that recognizes that adults want to learn and grow.  That adults, even parents, have other things to share and talk about.  A few years ago Steve and I attended a City Shul event.  We were seated with two other couples and not once did the topic of children (or grandchildren!) come up.  That may be the first Jewish event of my adult life where that has happened.  That is our community.   And you know what?  Our community also includes lots and lots of amazing children and youth!

So we can take our pain, our imperfections, our parts that need repair and healing and we can bring them together and build something together.  We can take our joy and our hope and share it with our community.  In that, there is healing and there is hope.  

Shanah Tovah!  May we all have the sweetest of New Years.




Talking about Talking about Israel by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
October 14, 2014

Yom Kippur Morning

“Hamas is an evil empire”. (Tear sheet of paper) No, I don’t want to start that way.

“Of course, Israel has a right to defend itself.” (Tear sheet of paper) No, I don’t want to start that way either.

“The United States should get involved and pressure Israel…” (Tear sheet of paper) No, not that either.

“The Palestinians should unilaterally declare their state…” (Tear sheet of paper) OY.

Talking about talking about Israel is tearing us apart. (Tear sheet of paper) YES.

I am not going to talk about Israel this morning. I am not a political pundit, nor a journalist, nor an expert in foreign policy; and I do not want to analyze what happened this summer, or in Gaza, or in the West Bank. I know only this: it has been the most difficult and tense summer I can remember, and Israel has been on our minds and at our dinner tables and around the proverbial work water-cooler in an intense and sometimes heart-wrenching way that it has not been before. For those who wish I would take sides this morning, who want me to come up with definitive statements that clearly and unequivocally defend Israel or clearly and unequivocally critique Israel: you will be disappointed. For those who wish me to use large and politicized phrases like “massacre” “terrorists” “genocide” ‘Islamicists” “jihadists” “the world hates us” “innocent civilians” or “growing world anti-Semitism”: I will disappoint you. I apologize in advance—after all, that’s what Yom Kippur is about—if I offend anyone or everyone, but even talking about talking about Israel is bound to do that.

Talking about Israel has become a minefield for us as Jews, both among ourselves and among our non-Jewish friends or family. One of the Jewish Forward’s top stories this summer was about the executive director of the United States’ largest LGBT synagogue resigning in an angry e-mail which was circulated via social media. In his e-mail, the director claimed that his synagogue had been more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians than to the risks facing Jews in Israel. The response online was vitriolic. The Rabbi was labeled a “Kapo, Arab-lover, Jew-hater.” The director’s resignation concluded, “In the end, I would actually prefer the synagogue take a position of silence on the conflict rather than to support the enemy from the bimah.”

Rabbis recently interviewed by the New York Times said that many were anguishing—as I was— over what to say about Israel in their sermons during the High Holy Days. If we defend Israel, we risk alienating Jews who are detached from Judaism and the Jewish state altogether, and those leftists who feel comfortable among us. If we say anything critical of Israel, we risk angering those who believe we should be publicly always staunchly and clearly supportive, and those centrists and rightists who feel comfortable among us. My colleague Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this the “Death by Israel Sermon.”

Rabbi Ron Aigen from Congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal wrote, “It used to be that Israel was always the uniting factor in the Jewish world. But it’s become contentious ...even trying to be centrist and balanced and present two sides of the issue... is fraught with danger.”

A case in point: Last year, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California tried and failed to organize an event exploring how to have a dialogue about Israel. “It was just too contentious,” said Jonathan Freund, vice president of the board. “It was kind of ironic,” Mr. Freund said, “because we couldn’t in the end figure out how to talk about how to talk about it.”

Peter Beinert, the darling of the Jewish left and J Street, who always and often speaks about Israel, called on Rabbis in an op-ed in Haaretz, NOT to speak on Israel at all.

But silence is really not a good option. The call for silence rather than debate, discussion, and dialogue signals despair. And trouble ahead.

As does the call for one unified voice. 

On July 25, Paul Estrin, the president of the Green Party of Canada published a pro-Israel blog on the party’s website entitled “Why Gaza makes me sad.” His comments criticized Hamas. The article was eventually removed from the website but not before some online commenters issued threats about his personal safety. He planned to fight for his right to express himself and have an opinion that diverges from other members. Instead, those with whom he worked called for his resignation, which he gave.

And the Hillel of Brandeis University, my alma mater and known for its sweeping embrace of all things and all people Jewish, in all shades and variations, voted against including a campus chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace in its organization. In December of 2011 Hillel’s international body published guidelines that say Hillel “will not partner with, house or host” groups or speakers that do not agree with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”, including any that support the BDS campaign. The Brandeis chapter of JVP insisted it supports only boycotting those goods produced in Gaza and the West Bank, not Israel proper, and it is not anti-Israel.

Whether or not you agree that Estrin was not abusing his authority as President of the Green Party, and whether or not you agree with the politics or tactics of JVP, there is no doubt that tempers are running hot on this issue. 

There has been a tear in the fabric of the Jewish community over this one; a tear so real we hear it and we feel it. Where it used to be so easy and so clear— David against Goliath, the miracle of the return to the land, the spiritual connection Jews feel to the land, our history in the land, our Jewish roots and the very meaning of our Judaism as tied to the land—all these are no longer givens.

And we just can’t seem to find a way to talk about it. 

In August The Times of Israel put up a general call on their English and French websites asking readers, “Is this a watershed moment for our community?” More than 400 individuals commented on Facebook within a day of the initial call. I’ve chosen 3 of the responses just to share the angst that talking about Israel has created:

Ilana, an Israeli living in Berlin, wrote, “On everyday level I hide. No longer go to the synagogue close to my home, I don’t want my neighbors to know. Postal packets from Israel are no longer delivered to the house. I avoid answering where I’m from when asked — make it into a joke. Politically — I hide. The people who know I’m from Israel give a long lecture about how I fit into their idea of a “good Jew” and the subject was closed. I don’t feel up to handling the world’s issues with Jews anymore.”

Sonya from Ohio wrote: “I am estranged from my son as a result of this. He is a college student and, in public forums, accused Israel of inciting WWIII. I had to remind him that he is a Jew and challenge his thinking. It will divide many households, to be sure, but I will not be silent, even if my son no longer wants a relationship.”

Bryan from Johannesburg, South Africa said it most succinctly: “Never has been as bad as this.” 

There is a palpable tear in the fabric. A kriyah tear, like in the black ribbon or clothing of a mourner. A tear over our heart that we wear visibly. We have lost our innocence about Israel. We have lost our ground, our clarity, our assurance. We have lost our agreements, our shared assumptions, our communal cohesiveness. I think we are in grief over those losses, and we are wearing the torn ribbon in a state of communal shock.

This summer was the summer of emotionally exhausting news articles about marches in Europe and marches in New York ad marches in Jerusalem and marches in Toronto. Tunnels and accusations of using human shields and then military explanations about how Hamas was not using UN schools and then more accusations that Hamas was using UN schools and then being barraged with the number of Facebook posts we are supposed to read that divided the world into good guys and bad guys, us and them, topped with hysterical email subject lines in all-capital letters : “IF YOU READ NOTHING AT ALL ABOUT ISRAEL, READ THIS!” or “COPY AND SEND THIS TO EVERY HUMAN BEING ON THE PLANET THAT YOU KNOW, THIS IS A MUST-READ!”

Why has talking about Israel become so hard? Why does it feel that we are either shouting at each other in capital letters or else ducking into a dark corner praying fervently that someone will change the subject?

I’d like to suggest three reasons.

First:  your opinion on Israel seems to have become a litmus test of who you are as a Jew. This summer I was sent article after article telling us that if we really loved Israel, if we really wished her well, we would drop everything and go over there in the middle of the war and volunteer. Don’t just support Israel from the sidelines, we were told, as a comfortable Diaspora Jew. Don’t send messages of love and concern, if you are really sincere, you’ll bring those messages over there yourself. Are you a supporter? Prove it, by going over there in times of war. 

I was personally sent the message, “Before I purchase tickets for high holidays, I need to know where you and the shul stand on Israel and this summer’s terrible incursion into Gaza. Did you support it or criticize it? If yu supported it, I can’t join you for the holidays.” Is City Shul left or right enough? Prove it by what you say in your sermon.

And not just Jews, non-Jews as well. Every church I know has to have a visible “stand” on Israel-Palestine, and your “stand” will define how you are perceived as a Christian. And for leftists of any religion or none at all, Israel is the ultimate litmus test. Ellen Willis, who was the founder of New York University’s cultural reporting and criticism program, wrote as early as 2003: “...leftists tend to single out Israel as The Problem that must be solved…” “True” leftists, especially university professors, attest to their leftist credentials best with Palestine in the spotlight of their articles. Alan Krinsky wrote in The Huffington Post, “Israel continues to be the demon poster-child of the Left…” And to make matters worse, the Left’s gripe this summer was too often with “The Jews” or “The Israelis”, instead of with the “current Israeli government.” And the Jewish right’s gripe this summer—just as broad and sweeping; it was too often with “The Palestinians” and not “the Palestinian leadership” or “the Gazans” and not “Hamas.” It’s hard to talk about a demon or an angel with any accuracy.

Second, every conversation about Israel feels like it has to be a win-lose proposition. One side must be right and one side must be wrong. Are you FOR or AGAINST? Is Israel a horrible colonialist monster or the only democracy in the Middle East? Is Israel good or evil? Are the Palestinians terrorists or victims? No subtlety allowed, no grey. If anything we should have learned this sumer, it is that the situation is unbearably complicated. Yes Gaza is a nightmare of poverty and corruption with human beings who live there...and, not BUT, and, yes Israel is under constant threat and siege...yes and yes, you are right and you are right and you are wrong and you are wrong...Don’t say it’s easy, if just the Palestinians would do this or that, if just Israel would do this or that...Neither side wants to give in or give up because they are both playing a win-lose game. We come in with all our fixed preconceived notions, looking for “proof texts” for our already-formed opinions in order to make the other side see that it is losing and that we are winning. 

It’s like going to a mayoral debate. We all kind of know who we are going to vote for anyway, so why do we go? To be convinced of our original opinion. Called “confirmation bias” it is a phenomenon where we favour information that confirms our hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. Also called “myside bias” both “sides”—and even calling them “sides” is a win/lose proposition— search, interpret and selectively recall information to prove what they already believe. It’s hard to talk with people waiting to prove that you are wrong. And it’s equally hard to “preach to the choir”—that is, to only speak with people with whom you agree.

And third, our language is not only electrically emotionally charged around this discussion but it’s also usually inaccurate. We use sweeping statements like “Everyone wants peace” when it’s just not clear that everyone wants peace. When it seems that fundamentalists on both sides are doing everything in their power to prevent peace. Statements that begin with “of course” aren’t helpful because there are no givens. And how do we frame our conceptions of the conflict anyway? In the Diaspora we are Westerners and so we “think” in Western concepts but not everyone else does. And loaded words like occupation, genocide, ethnic cleansing, holocaust, Nazi, self-hating Jew, bleeding heart liberal, knee-jerk leftist, right-wing fundamentalist, apartheid, victim, and imperialist are all flawed, historically problematic, and are meant to be conversation-stoppers, not conversation-openers.

This fall, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, the UN speeches of both Netanyahu and Abbas brought us once again to see just how burdened the language of discourse around the Middle East is. Abbas tried to get the UN to push through a resolution that would somehow end the conflict by reiterating that East Jerusalem will be the new Palestinian capital—a kind of non-negotiable on the Israeli side. And with a return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel. And then Netanyahu, declaring that “the old template for peace must be updated,” asserted that Hamas is virtually identical to ISIS and denied that Israel is occupying any land at all.

Ari Shavit got it right when in his book My Promised Land he writes, “On the one hand Israel is the only nation in the West that is occupying another people. On the other hand, Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened...Most observers and analysts deny this duality. The ones on the left addresses occupation and overlook intimidation, and the ones on the right address intimidation and dismiss occupation…” It is hard to talk when our language is lopsided, distorted, and when the speaker and the listener are conceptualizing completely differently.

So how can we talk about talking about Israel?

Ok, it won’t be easy, but the first way is to prepare ourselves for some very difficult listening. The whole “hasbara” effort is not to teach us to listen but to teach how us to speak, how to answer, how to “win” in the battle of wits. We spend a lot of time speaking at each other. Listening is going to be frightening because we’ll be hearing things we won’t like or agree with or even be able to stomach. Listening requires intense courage and patience and an opening of the heart to hear another’s story as if it is true— because it is true for that person, even if not for us.

And it won’t be easy, but the second way is for those of us who have been talking about Israel since 1948 or 1967 to just shut up for a minute, and let a younger generation work out its angst itself. Stop lecturing 20 and 30 year olds about how they “should” feel about Israel and give up the talking stick and let them have it for awhile. They aren’t inheriting the Israel of Golda Meir and Paul Newman in Exodus; the kibbutzniks in tembel hats and Israeli circle dancing on a Saturday night. They aren’t, and that’s a tough reality but it’s their reality, and they will have to work it their own unique relationship with Israel as we did ours. They will continue to wrestle with it but we cannot throw heavy punches to knock them out of the ring. As long as they are in the ring, wrestling, they are engaged.

And it won’t be easy, but the third way is what Jewish tradition teaches in Pirke Avot, where it introduces the term mahloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven—what Rabbi Melissa Weintraub has translated beautifully as “sacred disagreement.”

We once were masters of sacred disagreement. The Talmud itself is structured as one large debate, with variant voices across centuries sometimes, calling out to each other and passionately arguing while maintaining respect. Our greatest strength as Jews lies not so much in our ability to create times of communal harmony but rather in our ability to weather the storms of adversity even when they are from within.

Pirke Avot continues: Mahloket l’shem shamayim--an argument for the sake of heaven— will stand forever. Such an argument weathers the tests of time and proves to be out of love for Judaism and the Jewish people. Rav Yonah comments on the participants of this kind of “good” argument will live long enough to continue to have many more good arguments! The shining example of this are the schools of Hillel and Shammai, whose arguments “stand forever” and whose debates we still study today as “sacred disagreements.” And of this sparring pair the Talmud says “elu v’elu: both present words of the Living G-d.” It will not be easy, but we will have to relearn the art of sacred disagreement, without tearing each other apart.

The truth is: there are be tears in the fabric which can be re-sewn, if we are willing to live with seeing the seam where the rip once happened. 

Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in Haaretz, just days before Rosh Hashana: “...I am, like many of us, a confusion of emotions. I am angry and fearful, grieving and grateful, proud and ashamed and, despite everything, hopeful....I believe we will persevere. I believe this because Jewish history – events we ourselves have witnessed – insists that despair is always premature...Most Jews instinctively know that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes – security and morality, realism and vision, particularism and universalism, self-defense and self-critique.

This year especially, I will pray that we have the wisdom to hold together as a people, despite the growing pressures on us to fragment and turn against each other.

Most Jews share the same hope – of a strong Israel at peace with its neighbours. We will continue to argue about the best way to achieve that – but as partners, aware that there are no easy answers, that none of us can speak for the totality of Jewish wisdom, that we need each other’s insights to be a whole people, that we cannot thrive without being a whole people.”

I will live this year with the hope of repair of the torn fabric, of tikkun. I’m so proud that City Shul has inaugurated this first year of our shul’s Israel Engagement with 3 programmes on Israel that we have crafted to be both open and reflective. From there, I hope to stand with those who are prepared to become sewers and menders and stitchers; with those who are brave enough to gather the torn sheets and use some tape of love and listening. 

Shana Tova.

Dvar Torah by Jay Waterman
October 4, 2014

Yom Kippur Morning

The Parsha for Yom Kippur describes the process of ritual purification in preparation for the atonement which will be required of the people of Israel for their sins. Many of these rituals are concerned with the clothing to be worn and the cleaning of the garments and of the person. In the parsha these requirements are visited upon Aaron as the high priest or “cohen” to be performed symbolically on behalf of his people although God relays these instruction to Aaron through Moses. The parsha also prescribes the sacrifice (burnt offering) of a bull and a ram but most interestingly the selection of two goats, one to be sacrificed to the Lord and the other to be designated to be sent off into the wilderness Azazal after other rituals and sacrifices.

Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated individual. Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness (Leviticus 16:21-22).

At first it may seem appealing to be able to cleanse ourselves individually and collectively of sin and guilt by having them carried away by the “scapegoat” or to totally expiate such sins by confession and the deprivation for a day by fasting. But many learned and devout scholars have expressed discomfort with these passages. While disclaiming any pretension to being either learned or devout I offer a humble “me too”. My simplistic take is that it can’t be that easy.

Atonement must mean more than confession and giving up eating for a day. I cannot believe it was intended that we are then left free to return to the sins, the transgressions and especially the wrongs we have intentionally or unintentionally inflicted upon others. In addition there must be a resolve to try to avoid repeating or continuing these. Maimonides, the noted Jewish philosopher, asks “how does one know when one has achieved true repentance?  Only when you are faced with the same exact opportunity to sin again, and you do not”.  We know we will fall short and have to do it all over again next year. It’s probably more coincidental than symbolic that Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team starts out each year pretty close to the time of Yom Kippur with the idea of winning the Stanley Cup and comes back next year with the same hope. But the point is that in addition to observing the rituals and repeating the prayers of Yom Kippur each year the effort to try to do better must be part of the atonement.

But I’d like to try to consider the message in what I hope you will agree with me is a somewhat deeper level. And this is where the idea of the scapegoat becomes important. I don’t think it necessary to recount how in our language, English, the positive meaning of freeing ourselves from the weight of guilt of the past somehow evolved into blaming a person or a group so as to relieve ourselves from blame or responsibility. We all know how often throughout history Jews as well as others have been “scapegoated” for real or imagined ills and suffered the most horrific reprisals.  

But it goes even further than that. Labeling of the scapegoat may be seen as absolving ourselves of even the need to ask ourselves if we share any of that blame or could have done anything to prevent harm or can do anything in the future to keep a particular harm from continuing or recurring. 

Let’s consider possible examples. We are all aware of affirmative action initiatives meant to level the playing field in opportunities for members of minorities or disadvantaged groups in such matters as employment and admissions to academic institutions. And we probably all know someone who rightly or wrongly blamed their failure to get a job or an opportunity on affirmative action benefitting a competitor. Blaming or “scapegoating” the idea of affirmative action might have the effect of relieving the aggrieved person from asking whether they were in fact right for the position or could have presented themselves more effectively. On the other hand it might lead one to reject the idea of affirmative action as a general policy without asking if a well motivated but imperfect policy could be improved.

Or consider with me if you will the situation of aboriginal peoples in Canada. Many efforts involving many millions or even billions of dollars have been spent or some might say misspent over the years to redress the injustices inflicted upon them and to address the consequent problems they now face. And it’s understandably frustrating when the result of these efforts seems minimal and progress slow. And in addition we have also seen unfortunate examples of corruption where a few leaders divert what was intended to benefit the whole of their communities to their own personal use and aggrandizement. Some of us, and I’ve heard this sentiment expressed, may then be tempted to write off any further attempts and use the misconduct or ineptitude of a few to label a whole group as unworthy of further efforts and expense, surely a classic example scapegoating in the modern and undesirable  meaning.

I have given these two instances as illustrating what I believe is the danger to our own thinking when we assign blame. It is not only extending what might be rightly or wrongly blamed on some within a group to labeling a whole group. For ourselves it relieves us of accepting our own responsibility whether as individuals or part of a group for what we have blamed others or to participate in seeking to make things better.

Let me conclude by suggesting that on such issues as hopefully in all things, when we confess our weaknesses and cast away the blame, the spirit of Yom Kippur and atonement, requires us to ask as well what we can do differently to make thing better. Can we cast away our need to scapegoat along with the goat itself over the cliff?

Shana Tova

Kindness by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
October 3, 2014

Kol Nidre

My favourite movie scene  from Jimmy Stewart’s “Harvey” is the one in which Elwood P. Dowd says to the doctor in what was then called “the asylum”: “My mother used to say Elwood—she always called me Elwood—in this life you can be oh so clever, or so pleasant. Well for years I tried being clever, Doc. I recommend pleasant. You can quote me on that.”

Right after American Thanksgiving in 2012, Jenny Johnson, a Houston-based comedy writer, found herself caught up in a vicious Twitter spat with songster Chris Brown. The feud began with Johnson calling Brown a “worthless piece of...” and it escalated when Brown called her some equally tasteless things. It ended with the singer apparently deleting his account. Many of Brown’s 11.6 million followers retaliated swiftly and decisively with a torrent of angry tweets against Johnson. Some posted vulgar insults, others death threats. One Brown fan wrote that she wanted to “stab 1,235 needles into Johnson’s eyeballs.”

Welcome to the age of uncivil discourse. Neither clever nor pleasant.

The loser on the TV show The Apprentice has been insulted with 86 different ornery phrases in the course of one hour. The pretty but too short redhead gets booted off the island while the “survivors” cheer. The struggling single-dad chef who tried and tried gets sent packing because he wasn’t able to plate his grape-jelly squid-stuffed cannolli with the secret ingredient of cabbage just right. As Homer Simpson memorably put it: "Man fall down. Funny." Naming-calling and insults come with a laugh track which gives us, the viewers, the cue that the nastiness is all in good fun, and if we don’t like it, then we are just old fuddy-duddies, and party-poopers.

Welcome to the age of mean TV. Neither clever nor pleasant.

Many of you may have seen the Facebook “Leprechan” who wouldn’t give up his TTC seat to a woman with a headache, cursing her and refusing to move his backpack which took up a seat. Ever gotten the finger as you try and get onto of off the Allen at rush hour? Just last week I was called a “stupid b…(lank)” on my bike and I didn’t know why so I caught up to the guy at a red light and said, “Hello. What is it I did to annoy you so much?” He explained what he thought I was doing that was so terrible—trying to pass him at a yellow light—and I said, “Fair enough. But is there a nicer way you could have told me?” He said “NO” and sped off. And don’t get me started on the “pleasures” of air travel. 

Welcome to the age of road rage on steroids. Neither clever nor pleasant.

I spoke last year about how busy we are, how stressed we are, but now it seems we have become not just a busy, frenetic society, but a mean society as well. Why? What happened to Toronto the Good?

I don’t think anyone here in this room is intentionally mean, but we’ve all had our nasty moments. Perhaps our meanness is a protective layer, an outward cloak masking an inside fear. Or maybe a wall of zoned-out self-absorption as a product of a society where we struggle to maintain our own unique identity. Perhaps we are mean when we are sad. And are we meanest when we feel the most disconnected from others?

We all know we should be kind. We aren’t bad people and we aren’t stupid. Kindness is like mom-and-apple-pie. But there is a breakdown somewhere between what we know—that we could be nicer—and what we do. So why is it so hard? Let me suggest 5 reasons.

First, because we have whole industries of people paid to be kind: nurses, funeral directors. Rabbis and priests and ministers. Sales clerks. It’s certainly much kinder to tell a woman “Yes that dress looks fabulous on you” rather than “are you kidding? A size 6? You are bursting out of the seams and look like a beached whale.”  But it’s also a better business strategy. That makes it difficult to distinguish between real kindness and professional duty.

Second, we have all experienced kindness with ulterior motives. It looks good on your resume to volunteer. We become cynical and we wonder, “is this genuine?” An article written in Psychology Today by psychologist Deborah Khoshaba defined authentic kindness as "a decision to respond to the needs of others, rather than a compulsion to act good." Adults don’t get signatures for community hours so kindness with an agenda makes us suspicious of kindness without an agenda.

Third, most of us can be kind when we are asked to: when someone requests a favour, or when we are called upon by the shul, the Rabbi, a neighbour we know to lend a hand; or when we have the time. But being kind when we are stressed, wound so tightly we can hardly breathe, overworked and overwrought—that is genuine kindness. But it makes us exhausted just to think about it.

Fourth, being kind is perceived as sissy, wimpy, a lack of strength. My friend Rabbi Tina Greenberg was quoted in a Toronto Star article just last week, in the Education section, on this very topic of kindness. “Popular culture says sexy can’t be kind”, she says, “that to be cool you have to have a brush of cruelty about you…” So much in our material culture suggests that we should have “an edge” to “beat out the other guy.” To win the girl. To win the race. To get the gold. Actually my favourite moment of a tennis match is when the winner extends his hand to the loser, but nobody cheers for that.

And last, the entitlement mentality that's become so pervasive in our society that tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that only our happiness matters, and that, most significantly, we are entitled–yes,entitled—to do anything to achieve our own success or the success of our children. Even if it means calling out a teacher in public, or challenging a community leader in public, or sending a nasty email with many cc’s to make sure everyone knows and the recipient is richly shamed. 

The Star article I mentioned focused on the work of parenting expert Karyn Gordon, who designed a programme two years ago to teach parents how to foster empathy in their homes. The article admits, “While it’s praiseworthy that every Ontario school must now have an anti-bullying policy– and dozens of anti-bullying programs grabbed the spotlight this week during National Bullying Awareness Week — school programs to foster kindness will do little if children go home to a cutthroat wider world.” To underscore how important it is for adults to set an example, Professor Debra Pepler, a psychology research professor at York University, suggests every Canadian adult should watch a 90-second public-service clip from Australia that shows children mimicking an adult who is giving another adult the finger; being racist to a sales clerk; and walking by a mother struggling with spilled groceries and a stroller, without offering to lend a hand.

These vignettes are not examples of outright meanness—we’re not pushing old ladies down the stairs—but they are, in a way, worse. Because we end up living on top of a subtle undercurrent of meanness, so light we don’t really perceive it, so ephemeral we don’t really feel it. It exists as a kind of white noise in our atmosphere. But it builds up underneath our foundation and can erode it. 

How are we subtly mean? We all know how deliciously good it feels sometimes to give a “dig” (a “grizcher” in Yiddish) to someone who we feel “deserves” it. With a passive-aggressive smile. With a little sarcastic remark. The Greek root for sarcasm, sarkazein, means to tear flesh like dogs. Dr. Clifford Lazarus wrote in Psychology Today, “...sarcasm is actually hostility disguised as humour. Despite smiling outwardly, most people who receive sarcastic comments feel put down...hence, it’s no wonder that sarcasm is often preceded by the word “cutting” and that it hurts.” 

And we all know how deliciously good it feels sometimes when someone gets less, or is humbled, or is unlucky like us. Called schadenfreude, it is pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others; the feeling of that tinge of delight when we see another fail or suffer misfortune, especially in the same areas that we are also failing in. Even the Tanach knew about this phenomena, in Proverbs 24: "Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when your enemy stumbles." The Torah commands us to lift up the fallen donkey of our enemy. But we don’t follow this Biblical advice. Like in the joke where an angel appears to Yankle walking down the street and says to him, “This is your lucky day, Yankle, you can have anything you want, and in unlimited quantities. The thing is, whatever you get, your neighbour gets twice as much. “Oy, that’s crazy” thinks Yankle. “I should get riches but my no-goodnik-neighbour Moishe should get twice as much? Let me think what I should ask for.” He comes up with a solution and says to the angel: “Alright.  I know what to ask for. I want to lose sight in one eye.” 

And we all know how deliciously good it feels sometimes to get an extra measure of kindness because we have an “in”, we have a name, we are “someone special;” we have shlep, proteksia.  Abraham Joshua Heschel tells a story about Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rebbe, on a train traveling from Warsaw back to Brisk. Some men on the train, not realizing who he is, try to get the rabbi to sit in on their card game. When he refuses, they are angered by his attitude, and push and insult him. When they arrive at the town, the men see a big group assembled to meet the rabbi, and they realize who it is they have insulted. The next day one of the men comes to see the Brisker. and apologizes profusely. But the rabbi refuses to forgive him. The man goes back again and again, trying to apologize, but each time the apology is rejected. Finally the man asks the rabbi isn’t it true that Jewish tradition insists sincere apologies must be accepted? “Yes,” said the Rabbi, “but I cannot accept your apology because your transgression was not against me. Had you known I was the Brisker Rebbe, you never would have insulted me. Your transgression was against the ordinary person you thought I was. You need to apologize to all ordinary people, whom you were so willing to insult.”

Being kind is a container for certain behaviours. We can’t just theorize about being kind; we actually need to concretize our ideals into actions. We need to practice the opposite behaviours of the low-pitched nastiness we find ourselves sometimes doing.

So, first, the opposite of sarcasm is what Stephen Carter in his book Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy calls “bounded discourse.” Speech that is fenced within the borders of civility. There is an adage: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates; At the first gate, ask yourself, is is true? At the second gate ask, is it necessary? At the third gate ask, is it kind?” This year, can we pledge to ask ourselves these questions before we hit the “send” button of our mouths?

Second, the opposite of schadenfreude has been suggested in a Yiddish word: to fargin, is to have ungrudging pleasure in someone else’s good fortune; to be deeply happy for each other’s happiness. This Yiddish word has actually been Hebraicized in modern Israel into lefargen: to encourage, and feel proud of another person’s achievements and successes. This year can we pledge to “lefargen” each other?

And third, the antidote to being kind only to “special people” is to go out of your way to be kind to the ordinary people you meet every day and usually simply ignore. My father of blessed memory advised me not to go on a second date with someone who is nice to me but not nice to the waitress. There is a true story which was told by Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern, the mashgiach of the Kaminitzer Yeshiva in Jerusalem. A meat packing plant had a Rabbi as its kosher supervisor. One day, at the end of his shift, he went into a freezer to perform a routine inspection. The freezer door, which he had propped open, slowly started to close until it latched and trapped the Rabbi inside. All of his attempts to call for help were muffled by the thick insulated door. After a few hours he was exhausted and nearly frozen to death. Suddenly, the plant’s security guard appeared at the door of the freezer and saved the Rabbi.

After the Rabbi regained his faculties, he asked the security guard what had prompted him to look inside the freezer. The security guard answered, “Every day, hundreds of workers pass me on their way into work and again on their way home. They all pass by with barely a nod in my direction. You are different. You  greet me with a hearty, ‘Good morning,’ on your way in and a sincere, ‘Good evening,’ on your way out. I look forward to those greetings every day. Today I was waiting and waiting for my ‘Good evening.” When so much time passed, I knew you must still be in the building, so I came to look for you.”

Can we pledge this year to be kind to the average person? To the Joe Jew who walks into our shul for the first time? To the person who is a little lost or fearful of being in a Jewish setting? To the people we meet along our day who sell us tokens and newspapers, pack our groceries, collect our garbage?

You see, what is extraordinary about kindness is that it literally transforms the recipient and the giver. One of my favourite stories is told about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach as he sat in a dingy restaurant presided over by a sour-looking waitress. The woman was unusually homely and unpleasant. After taking the order, the waitress returned, roughly put down the breakfast and returned to the counter. But after taking one bite of the muffin, Reb Shlomo summoned her back. “My most beautiful friend,” he said to her gently, “are you by any chance the person who baked this muffin?”

“Yeah I am, what about it?” she muttered. “I just want you to know that this is the most delicious muffin I have ever tasted in my life.”The woman gave a hint of a smile, thanked him and started to walk away.

“And I also want you to know,” Carlebach continued, “that I have eaten muffins all over the world, but none as wonderful as this.” The woman smiled more broadly and thanked him. But Reb Shlomo still was not finished. “And truly I have to thank you because I was so hungry, and you did me the greatest favour in the world by so expertly baking this muffin, which is surely a taste of the World-to-come.” By now the woman was smiling broadly, eyes twinkling and a dimple showing: “Well gee, thanks a lot, it’s very nice of you to say so. Most people never comment when the food is good; you only hear when they have a complaint.”

Reb Shlomo went on to ask the woman about all the ingredients. He listened attentively and was specific with his compliments, commenting on the muffin’s airy texture, its buttery and fragrant quality. “Watching Reb Shlomo extol the virtues of a muffin,” remarked an observer to the scene, “I was filled with a mixture of amazement and amusement. But then I saw the woman, and I was taken aback. The homely woman was no more. A few minutes with Shlomo had done the trick. She was transformed. She had become beautiful.” 

For the days I was writing this sermon, I tried to be as kind as possible. Do I look better?

“We are made kind by being kind,” said social philosopher Eric Hoffer. I know all about the movement for random acts of kindness. It’s easy and fun to pay for coffee for the guy standing behind you. It’s easy and fun to give an umbrella to someone walking in the rain. There’s no reason for us to not do these things, as Aesop said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” But what I am talking about is a shift in personal and communal character. What qualities should we be cultivating within ourselves to become intrinsically kinder people, which will result in a kinder society? 

In the Talmud (Yevamot 79a) we read, “the three outstanding characteristics of Israel are kindness, modesty, and compassion.” Modesty and compassion are the middot—the qualities—that lead to kindness.

One cannot be kind if one is not modest, and one cannot be kind if one is not compassionate.

Kindness in Hebrew is chesed. Psalm 89:3 reads olam chesed yibaneh: “The world is built up through chesed.” 

Modesty in this Talmudic text, uses the Hebrew word bayshan-shy, and nottzniut-modesty of dress. Modesty is not concerned with hushed voices or long-sleeved dresses; instead it is about the fine-line difference between self-worth and self-arrogance. Maimonides understands bayshan as the quality of awe at the smallness of us versus the greatness of the world. Modesty is the ability of make the ego contract in encounters which demand full presence for someone else.

And compassion in Hebrew is rachamim, which comes from the root rechem, which literally means womb. Compassion is ability to see each human being as if you yourself gave birth to them. 

Kindness, modesty, and compassion.

Allow me to close, friends, by sharing with you how I learned the largest lessons of compassion from the woman whose womb I came from—my mother, who passed away in May. I learned it the hardest way of all, as an adult caring for her through her steady loss first of memory, then of speech, then of movement, then of all independence, because of dementia. I learned compassion the hard way when at first she repeated, then made mistakes, then couldn’t understand, then shut down. I learned compassion the hard way when I fed her, when I changed her soiled underwear, when I stroked her cheek to get her to smile. I learned modesty when my needs became secondary. And I am being painfully honest with you when I tell you I was not as attuned to these qualities of modesty and compassion before my mother’s illness. 

And then I received compassion and kindness back, double what I had given, during the week of shiva and afterward. It is profound what a community of kindness can do when it lives up to the standards it has set for itself. 

If you have ever suffered a loss of any type, if you have ever felt alone, in any way, if you have ever been the recipient of kindness yourself, you will know of what Naomi Shahib Nye speaks in her poem entitled “Kindness”:

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness...

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and

purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

We can be oh so clever, or oh so pleasant. I recommend pleasant. And you can quote me on that.

Gmar Tov.

The Akedah by Jessica Wyman
September 26, 2014

The Binding of Isaac, the story of the Akedah, is certainly one of the best-known stories of the Torah. It has been recounted so often that rereading it, at least for me, both opens and forecloses many of the questions that have been asked of this parsha over time: questions of blind faith, of human sacrifice, of the “Hand of God” intervention that, ultimately, removes the threat of physical harm to Isaac with the promise of multiplication as reward for adherence to the word of God. 

And yet, among the things entirely hidden in the text of this parsha is the story of Isaac himself. What do we know of Isaac? We know that he is the only child of Abraham and Sarah, conceived and born in their very old age. We know that Sarah laughed when first told she would have a child when already beyond her childbearing years, and that she laughed again after his birth (hence his name, Yitzhak). We know that Isaac was circumcised and that he was weaned. We know that he was loved by his father. We read that he is well-versed in the mechanisms of sacrifice, asking Abraham where to find the animal for the offering when he sees fire and wood on Mount Moriah at the place of sacrifice but nothing to be slaughtered.

But that is all. We do not even know Isaac’s age. In some interpretations, he is a boy, in others he is claimed to have been 37 years of age. We do not know how he took the exile of Ishmael in the previous parsha. Did he return the love of his father? Did he share, as a youth, Abraham’s faith in God? 

I am an art historian by profession and so, when contemplating this familiar and strange story, I turned to images to help me think through this narrative. I encountered many that are familiar, the style of which you may be able to envision yourselves even if the images themselves are not known to you: paintings in which billowing clouds and dramatic lighting show to full emotional effect the moment at which God’s angel intercedes in what would have been the killing of Isaac by Abraham. Isaac’s body, that of a youngish man, muscular enough certainly to at least struggle powerfully with if not overcome his aged father, lies in varying states of docility with only occasional suggestions that his presence on the altar is less than willing. In most pictures Isaac’s hands are bound; in a few he is more fully tied. In several, Abraham’s hand is already holding Isaac’s head back, throat stretched and exposed, often pushing Isaac’s face away (sometimes even having wrapped his eyes) so that the son would not have to watch his own father draw down the knife. A few images show Abraham and Isaac walking together on the way to the mountain, carrying wood for the offering that has not yet been procured. A notably small number of images depict the moment after the angel’s intercession, when Abraham would be able again to embrace his son.

To my surprise, I also encountered a large number of images depicting a video game called The Binding of Isaac. In that narrative, Isaac is a child who lives with his mother who is instructed by a “voice from above” to remove all evil from her son. She does so by taking away his toys and games, typical punishments, then by locking him in his room; then she is told by the voice that further proof of her devotion is needed and she is to sacrifice him. Through a crack in his door, Isaac sees her approaching with a knife, and escapes through a trapdoor into the basement where he can be seen lying on the floor and crying, contemplating his humiliation, his rejection, and his possible death. The game itself involves monsters, “bosses” and weapons, alongside the very adult themes of zealotry, trauma, and abuse. 

While there is obvious indebtedness to the biblical story, the video game conveys a strongly anti-religious message: prior to her attempt on her son’s life, the mother passes her time watching Christian broadcasts on television and when the voice speaks to her, she is not just eager but enthusiastic to proclaim her devotion and fulfil even an odious though supposedly divine request. I will perhaps stretch credulity here by connecting this idea, so very 21st Century in its incarnation, to the writing of the 19th-Century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in his book on the Akedah titled Fear and Trembling. What strikes me particularly about Kierkegaard’s writing are the characterizations of the ethical versus the religious, and of belief versus faith. 

Kierkegaard suggests that Abraham knew that to kill Isaac would be ethically wrong, but that his following through on the command of God was religiously right: in other words, he had faith that although God would put him to the test, he would not hold him to its consequences, to the End in which Isaac’s slaying would be required. In this respect, Kierkegaard says, Abraham’s faith in God is borne out by the testing – a faith that is more than belief: Abraham has faith that he will not have to kill Isaac, even though he believes that he will have to kill him. 

And so it is perhaps important that in the reading of this story so little is known of Isaac. He is central to the narrative, yet he is also its blank slate, the surface on which the declaration of faith becomes fixed. His agency, his subjectivity, would distract us from the central motif of Abraham as suitable patriarch. 

As a reader of the story, I can see that Isaac as an individual is somewhat beside the point. As the parent of a small child, I cannot; in the video game previously mentioned, the attempted murder of the son is even harder to bear as we see the child Isaac, simplified comic-type character though he is, happily drawing and playing. The things that make our children individuals are what make them, as us, human. They are the reason for setting standards and for deviating from them. Faith in their personhood – a very post-biblical notion – is foundational to the raising of a person as we know it now, when children are more than just bearers of a family name or economic contributors. In modern parenting, it has been said that we don’t care for our children because we love them, but that we love them because we care for them. For all that we project ourselves onto those we love and those whom we wish to colonize through our love, the love itself is shaped by the ways in which its conditions are tested. 

For Abraham to have loved Isaac, he would have had to see him as more than a blank slate. Would he have loved Isaac more had he resisted or pleaded or run away? Did he love him because of or despite his acquiescence? Was Abraham’s faith, though it met the approval of God, shaken by the requirement that he offer up his beloved son? I am glad that the Torah tells us so little of Abraham’s internal reckonings, of the trauma of being given such an order, so that I may leave open the interpretation of his actions. A prayer in Rosh Hashanah’s Zikhronot service includes a plea to God to remember the Akedah, to remember how Abraham “withheld his compassion” in order to follow the will of God. I see this withholding as a virtue in a hypothetical sense, but it is not one to which I aspire. Abraham adhered to the letter of God’s law and will, but he made no exception for his own heart or for the hearts of those for whom he cared. 

In this sense, although the parsha is about the binding of Isaac, perhaps it is really Abraham who is bound – in a way even stronger and more lasting that the physical tying of his son. Abraham is bound to his faith, bound to his God, bound to his commitment such that even the possibility of sacrificing Isaac can be rationalized. For the purpose of biblical narrative, this is how we need Abraham to be. In our own lives, in this new year, perhaps we can use this story and its discomfort to contemplate our own bonds of love and faith, and the spaces between them.


Authentic Reform by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 26, 2014

First Day Rosh Hashana Sermon by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
A man buys a car and goes to the Orthodox Rabbi and asks, “Can I have a bracha for my new Lamborghini?” The Orthodox Rabbi replies, “sure, but what’s a Lamborghini?” So he goes to the Conservative Rabbi, and asks, “Can I have a bracha for my new Lamborghini?” The Conservative Rabbi answers, “a blessing for a new Lamborghini? I’m sorry- we bless something new only after the Reform movement takes the heat for blessing it first.” So on he goes to the Reconstructionist Rabbi who answers, “You want a blessing for a car? You have a gas-guzzling car instead of taking the ecologically green subway? No way.” On he goes: the Jewish Renewal Rabbi makes up a new tune for a Lamborghini: ay ay yay yay yay Lam-bor-gi-ii-ii-ni-ni-ni…,” the Humanist Rabbi explains the car using its historical and cultural context, and the Chabad Rabbi names the car Menachem Mendel and insists the Messiah will soon be driving in it. Finally he goes to a Reform Rabbi and asks, “Can I have a bracha for my new Lamborghini?” to which the Reform Rabbi replies “Sure, but what’s a bracha?” 

Oof, that hurts. But most Jews have very little or real knowledge about the denominations of Judaism but they do know, however, which shuls they wouldn’t be caught dead in. Jews who are not connected to any synagogue usually just identify themselves with the last synagogue they were in; or, having practiced no Judaism at all since they were children or their children were children, they say "Well, I guess I'm Reform. VERY Reform.”

The average Jew joins a synagogue not based on its tenets, or the movement it belongs to, but on whether they like the rabbi, whether they enjoy the services, and—most important—whether they feel welcome by the community. Generally lay-people leave it up to their Rabbis to debate platforms and come up with definitions as to what Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Traditional Egalitarian, Modern Orthodox, Neo-Orthodox, Classical Reform, Traditional Reform, Humanist, Secular Neo-Chasidic Feminist, online Jewish, culturally Jewish, not-Jewish-but-kinda-Jewish-because-I-have-Jewish in-laws, seeking to be Jewish, Jewish-by-choice, Jewish-by-surprise, or any other jumble of names might mean. 

But here we all are, in a “Reform” synagogue. Whether you are a member of City Shul or not, you chose to spend the holiest days of the year in a Reform setting.

So let me take a quick and unscientific survey. Please raise your hand if at any point in your life you identified yourself or would have identified yourself as Orthodox? Conservative? Reconstructionist? Reform? None of the above? All of the above?

I don’t know how many of you know this, but I myself have been “all of the above.” I grew up in the heart of the Reform movement with a family who kept kosher and went to shul regularly, and a mom who worked for the national Reform movement. When I left home I thought all Reform Jews kept kosher and went to shul regularly. Imagine my shock when I found out I was wrong… so in my university years I rebelled and became Orthodox but after a few years it became clear it wasn’t for me. We regularly attended a Conservative shul for the five years we lived in Boston. When we moved back to Toronto we joined the Reconstructionist synagogue, where we still attend whenever we can. 

I have been around the denominational block. I am, I admit, a “cross-denominational dresser.”

With such an eclectic congregation, and a Rabbi who hasn’t flown the Reform flag for so many years, it’s fair to ask: why not be totally independent of any movement affiliation? Why not do our own thing, just be “City-Shul” Judaism? There are several other downtown congregations who do that. The big buzzword today is “post-denominational Judaism.” Why have we chosen to identify officially with a denomination at all? It seems so last-century.

Here’s why: because a shul should be more than just its own self. It should be a sum greater than its parts. Congregants should feel as if their community expands beyond Toronto. The shul should be able to offer more resources than just its own Rabbi and its own small staff; it should have access to advice, friendship, professional collegiality, useable curriculum, idea banks, conferences that enrich and enliven, resources for growth and stimulation, online and print media, and a communal influence whch goes beyond its own doors; a chance to be “big” even if you are small, to be a liberal voice of Judaism for Toronto and all of Canada, and to affiliate with a plethora of camps, youth groups, programmes and people who will be inspirational and influential for our future as a shul.

That’s why a denominational affiiation makes sense for a shul. But Reform? Let’s be honest: the joke I told earlier has a cruel amount of truth in it. You have all met Reform Jews who are shockingly ignorant and apathetic about being Jewish. You may even have met—as I have—Reform Rabbis who embarrass you by their actions, or by their lack of knowledge or lackadaisical attitudes. You’ve met Reform spiritual leaders with no spiritual gravitas. Some of you remember the cathedral-like sound of organs and choirs. And some of you remember growing up hearing about “The Church on the Hill”— a large Reform Temple which, in the old days, had nary a yarmulke or tallis in sight. In fact, you had to request a tallit from the usher who begrudingly went into a box behind the closet and fished you out an old one. Though its radically different today, many of you still harbour those memories.

So, why Reform?

Having experienced all the movements, I’m also an equal-opportunity critic. As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has said, “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”  And he’s right; every movement has its blindspots and deficiencies as well as its strengths.

Orthodoxy: I value their insistence on discipline and commitment, but there is just not enough individuality and too much “group-think” and conformity. Though Modern Orthodoxy does respond to contemporary thought, in Canada the mainstream Orthodox maintain their rigidly binary categories of Jew and nonJew, woman and man, Shabbat and weekday, holy and profane, kosher and treif in a world that is ever more diverse, living in grey hues, and coloured in rainbows. I feel there is often “spirituality by rote”: now we dance because now is the part the Rebbe says we are supposed to dance. Having lived in that community, I felt as if some of the Sepia-toned image of peace and tranquility surrounding the many children round the Shabbos table was sometimes a calculated and projected one when there were non-Orthodox guests present.  And telling women they are actually more holy than men and that’s why they are sitting behind a curtain and don’t count in the minyan doesn’t mesh with intellectual honesty. 

The Conservative movement: is very thoughtful, and is generally very learned, but it is so slow. I’m from New York: it’s in my DNA to go fast. And it seems like Conservative Judaism eventually does what Reform Judaism does anyway— ordaining women, ordaining openly gay and lesbian Rabbis— but does so 10 years after the Reform movement has already done it and has been beaten up by the first public outcries about it. I value the Conservative movement’s insistence on local Rabbinic authority, but I have trouble dealing with the huge differences between individual synagogues: in one women get aliyot and in the one next door they don’t. And too often for Conservative Jews the rabbis are the real Jews, while they themselves don’t practice the traditions they expect their rabbis to preserve. 

The Reconstructionist movement has given the world the very attractive and relevant notion of Judaism as a civilization; of Judaism not as a supernatural experience based on G-d but as a rational one based on humanity. But because of that, the intellect is fully satisfied but the heart often goes hungry in Reconstructionist settings—Reconstructionists think a lot, ponder a lot, discuss a lot. The movement does not have a strong God concept, or an expectation of mitzvot as more than cultural experiences. It’s just not mystical enough and with all due respect, it follows the Jewish renewal movement too closely sometimes in its experimental and sometimes ritually easygoing manner. 

Way too often we Jews think of these movements as on a ladder: Reform on the bottom, Conservative in the middle, Orthodox on top,—and no one seems to know where Reconstructionist goes—with the notion that each of us should strive to go "higher." “Oh, Reform- that’s less than Conservative but more than Reconstructionist, right?”  The Reform inferiority complex that many of us carry inside feels that really, truly it's better, more "Jewish" to be Orthodox or Conservative. Friends, if you feel another movement is more authentic, you need to actually be where you think a Jew really should be. It is not a compliment to see Reform as a “way-station” to a “better” kind of Judaism. It is not authentic to abdicate your own authority as the bearers of an authentic Judaism, saying “At least they are keeping Judaism alive.” 

Friends, if you are ever embarrassed in front of traditional family or friends to be a Reform Jew, or to say you belong to a Reform congregation, or to say you spent high holidays in a Reform synagogue—please listen especially carefully to what I am about to say. And if you aren’t: you can be a role model to others. 

I know the Reform movement I grew up in, and many of you remember, was overly concerned with decorum and aesthetics; and there was little talk about God and mitzvot. I know many of the traditions were looked upon with disdain as primitive or outmoded. I remember asking my Bat Mitzvah class teacher about kashrut. Not only did he know nothing about it, but he actively discouraged it. External traditions such as kipa and tallit were not only actively discouraged but were in some cases forbidden. I still recall my confirmation teacher in my temple in New York when a boy from Florida had joined our confirmation that year from a Conservative synagogue. He wanted to wear a yarmulke for his confirmation. The Rabbi flatly refused to allow it. Now, this was the late 60’s and we were teenagers—and I was in the class.. So on our confirmation day, each one of use, girls included, hid a yarmulke in our robe. We lined up in the back of the sanctuary and as the organ began to play “God is in His Holy Temple” we dramatically took out our yarmulkes, put them on, and marched down the aisle, to our delight and the Rabbi’s horror. The Reform Rabbis I grew up, and perhaps you did too, with were more concerned with not looking Orthodox than with what was a positive Reform Judaism could offer.

My generation of Reform Jewish kids became disillusioned with sterile services that separated worship from worshipers. Some of us went to Israel, perhaps toyed with a yeshiva, became religious. But some of us decided the ultimate rebellion would be to go to Rabbinical school. From this generation of Reform Rabbis, myself included, the Reform movement began to understand people’s profound need for structure, for ritual, for traditional formulas, for familiar symbols. As my colleague Rabbi Dow Marmur has written, “ not want new religions, but a formulation of the old to which they can respond now... the quest is for the traditional symbols and established practices…no community can live on words alone.” 

Reform began to understand that ritual is the drama whereby we transform a religious idea into a tactile, sensual experience. Reform began actively searching out new ways to make Jewish ritual that works in a modern, egalitarian, developing context. And that is the Reform Judaism we at City Shul seek to emulate. This is not your father’s Reform, or your grandfather’s Reform—unless your grandfather is a member of City Shul! We, as a Reform synagogue, have the right— and even the obligation— to keep re-forming Reform.

And this is where Canadian Reform is so unique, with so much promise: with its insistence on tradition and its respect for boundaries which are time-tested while being as inclusive as possible. I understand that it makes folks bristle sometimes when we say “no” to certain requests, or we ask people to do certain things; when we don’t automatically say “yes” to every request or say “sure, we are Reform, anything goes.” When we say no milk with meat at the shul picnic, or when we require the children of non-Jewish mothers to convert; when we require circumcision for adult males who wish to convert; when we don’t do weddings on Saturday nights in July at 6 PM. When we ask folks to put on a kipa when they come up to the bima or ask people to stand through a long silent Amidah; when or establish any standards or bottom-lines, we aren’t “turning Orthodox.” We are being authentically, Canadian Reform. 

So when someone challenges you on being a Reform Jew, tell them these things about you:

That you want to belong to a movement that does not tolerate injustice: to live in the world, not despite the world, not in ignorance of the world, not blind to anyone’s suffering but our own. Reform Judaism does not have a morbid fascination or worship of our sufferings. 

That you want to belong to an intellectual movement, a movement that doesn’t approach the text with a preconceived notion that it is infallible and therefore no chronology, no editing, no redacting, no sociological reality, no bias of the times found its way into our sacred literature.   

That you want to belong to a movement that takes great pride in the accomplishments of the Jewish state of Israel but still actively struggles for Israel to live up to its prophetic founding ideals. For Reform Judaism Israel is not the only place for a Jew to live, and though we are, by the tenets of our movement, deeply pro-Zionist, we are also pro-Diaspora, and we are not required to be silent about conflicted feelings towards those things in Israel or about Israel with which we disagree. 

That you want to belong to a movement that always did, and will always, grant full religious equality to all Jews regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. Some movements insist "their" women are equal- on the other side of a curtain.  Some “allow” women to the Torah for their Bat Mitzvah but not for any Shabbat after it. Some “tolerate” their LGBT members and treat them with “compassion.” In this area Reform is unequivocal, unambiguous, and unapologetic. 

Tell them you want to belong to a movement whose teachers and Rabbis are real people, not myths; whose leaders are not symbols, and not messiahs (though it might do my ego some good to be that revered!) but real men and women whom hopefully congregants can trust, relate to, and admire without being afraid of.

Tell them you want to belong to a movement with real regard for upholding traditional forms but no mandate to hold on to those which oppress, delegitimize, or strangle the human spirit;  a movement which welcomes dialogue, debate, and even disbelief while demanding struggle, sincerity, and a search for authentic spirituality. 

Tell them Reform Judaism was never a “justification” to do nothing.  Tell them Reform Judaism is freedom to, not freedom from.

And then remind them that Judaism has changed and evolved for the past several thousand years, so in this way, Reform may be the only truly “authentic” movement! When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the centre of Jewish worship and it’s priesthood was destroyed, the Judaism we know today, Rabbinic Judaism, was born and literally “re-formed” Biblical Judaism into a Judaism which could live in an urbanized, diaspora setting. Reform sought to once again “re-form” Judaism, as our ancestors were always doing.   

Tell them Moses did not celebrate the same way as Abraham. Moses Maimonides did not celebrate the same way as Moses in the desert. Tell them you cannot live as your ancestors lived, because they couldn’t live as their ancestors lived and so on and so on down through all the ages of the Jewish experience. Tell them you don’t want to be a relic.

And after you tell them all that, acknowledge the challenge: that though we are statistically the movement which will continue to attract the most people, we are also the movement which has and which will continue to attract the least committed, the least active, the least identified, and the least knowledgeable. 

I want you to be able to tell them that you belong to a movement of thinkers and do-ers. And so, to be true to these Reform Jewish ideals—and they are ideals— we have a personal challenge this year: City Shul is being viewed with intense interest by the larger national Reform movement. We are the first Reform synagogue to have a covenant of membership, which asks our adult members to not just write a cheque but to come to services other than high holidays, and come to an adult education event, programme, or class; and to come to a social action programme or take a volunteer opportunity at or through the shul in the coming year.  This covenant is not a “policed” expectation but a hope, and an opportunity—because being the same Jew next year as you are this year is not Reform. 

I want you to be able to tell them you personally changed the face of the Reform movement with your learning, your commitment, your participation, your interest, your thoughtful way of being Jewish. 

Tell them you know what a bracha is. And if they happen to have a Lamborghini, tell them you’ll be happy to bless it, if you can take it for a ride—on Shabbos—afternoon—after services.

Shana Tova.

Sarah & Hagar by Jonathan Wyman
September 25, 2014

First Day Rosh Hashanah

The Torah reading today is Bereishit chapter 21 verses 1-34.

We read that God remembers Sarah, who conceives and gives birth to Yitzchak when Avraham is 100 years old. On the 8th day after his birth, Avraham circumcises Itzchak. Isaac grows, and Avraham makes a great feast when Itzchak is weaned.

Later…Sarah sees the “Son of Hagar the Egyptian” … “Metzachek”, playing.  A few verses earlier Sarah said “Tzchok asah li elohim”  - God has made joy for me. But here the same root implies that Ishmael is mocking Yitzchak.  Or according to midrash Ishmael may have been worshipping other gods, or committing sexual indiscretions, or shooting arrows at Yitchak threatening to kill him.

Whatever the transgression, Sarah asks Avraham to exile Hagar and her son.  Avraham is not pleased – this is his son that Sarah wants banished.

But God tells Avraham -  Don’t feel badly about this; “Shma bekola” -  listen to Sarah because your descendants will come through Yitzchak. So Avraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael, sending them away with few supplies. When they run out of water Hagar prays and God tells her that he’ll make Ishmael a great nation.  God shows Hagar a nearby well, saving Hagar and Ishmael.

Now the Torah reading changes direction: Avimelech sees that God is “with” Avraham and requests a treaty, which they seal with an exchange of flocks and cattle. And they name the place Beer Shava – because that’s where they swore “nishbeu” their treaty.

Lots of thought-provoking material, but there’s one verse that particularly challenged me. Avraham is concerned about Sarah’s request that Hagar and Ishmael be banished – in response God tells him:

אַל יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל הַנַּעַר וְעַל אֲמָתֶךָ 
Don’t worry about the boy (Ishmael) or your bondwoman Hagar:

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ
Everything Sarah tells you – listen to her voice.

כִּי בְיִצְחָק יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע
Because your descendants will come through Itchak.

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ
Everything Sarah tells you – listen to her voice.

Poor Avraham. Isn’t that how he got into this mess?  Just a few chapters earlier in Bereishit 16:2 the barren Sarai said: “Please go in to my maid (Hagar); perhaps I will obtain children through her." 

The Torah doesn’t tell us whether Avraham thought Hagar was cute, nor does it it doesn’t report Avraham saying “I don’t think that’s a very good idea.” Instead we read:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אַבְרָם, לְקוֹל שָׂרָי
And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

If listening to Sarai a few chapters earlier didn’t work out so well, I understand Avraham’s concern in today’s reading.

Rashi wrote that this verse tells us that Sarah was a greater prophet than Avraham.

Shmuel Bornsztain, the second Sochatchover Rebbe added that prophecy is an emotional experience, an emotional connection with G-d. Sarah was greater in prophecy because she was more in tune with her emotions.

Sarah knew, saw or felt something that Avraham didn’t. So there were important reasons that Avraham should listen to her.

Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the instruction to listen refers to the quality of her voice. Listen to the quality of what she is saying, not simply the content. What is really being communicated? What may look like anger may be a need for more loving attention and support.

Well if this is behaviour that we’re supposed to emulate – I’m in trouble. It doesn’t matter who I substitute for “Sarah”.  Meredith (my wife), my children, my colleagues at work, the guy on the street near my office who asks me for change for coffee. This deep listening is very, very challenging.

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People explains why: Most people don’t try to listen - they seek to be understood. We often ignore others completely, pretend that we’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. Why does this happen? Because we listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. We listen to ourselves as we prepare how we’re going to reply. We filter everything through our life experiences and decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating. 

Guilty as charged.

When God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given, Solomon replied: lev shome’a, “a listening heart”.   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the choice of words is significant. Solomon’s wisdom lay, at least in part, in his ability to listen, to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what was being left unsaid as well as what was said.

Sacks notes that another of our great leaders, Moses, was “slow of speech and tongue”. Why would God choose to lead the Jewish people a man who found it hard to speak? Perhaps because one who cannot speak learns how to listen. 

Our traditions guide and instruct us through the daily repetition of:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohanu Adonai Echad.

A call to listen.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, Founder and former Dean of Aish Ha-Torah, wrote that the word Shema, implies a deep level of listening. To achieve this level of active listening, the listener must focus and pay attention, comprehend and verify what is being said by asking questions.

Which sounds a lot like Sakichi Toyoda’s “5 Whys”.  Toyoda suggested that to find the root cause of a problem, you need to ask “Why” 5 times. Each iteration peels back another layer and gets us a bit closer to the heart.

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein points out that the Shema’s invitation to active listening is followed immediately by the word V'ahvata: when we listen, we can love.

So on this Rosh Hashana, I invite us all to: avoid judging, probing, advising or interpreting using our own frame of reference.

Let’s just listen.

Let’s really, deeply listen to what others tell us through both their words and their actions.

We just might learn something about ourselves.

Shana Tova.



Leaders with Reptiles by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur Morning

(NOTE: I take out a large basket filled with plastic snakes and put it on the table for everyone to see.)

The Talmud, in Yoma 22b says: One should not appoint a leader for the people unless a heap of reptiles hangs behind him, so that if he becomes arrogant, we can say to him, “Hey! Turn around!” 

There’s my heap. My human frailty, my impatience, my abruptness, my tendency to strong opinions. Believe me, I carry these reptiles—this treif, this unclean animal that makes all who touch it impure—I carry these reptiles around on my back, so everytime I get too huffy, I want someone in this congregation to say to me, “hey, turn around!”

I could not serve this congregation without the self-awareness of my own limitations, and thereby have nothing but compassion for the limitations of my congregants. And the converse is also true: I should be judged by reasonable expectations, as one with reptiles on my back, by others who also have reptiles on their backs.

Herein lies the first paradox of leadership: in the mind of the populace, the leader is expected to be mythically perfect; yet in order to be successful, and to connect with those the leader is striving to lead, a leader must be acutely aware of their own imperfections.

It’s been quite the year for leaders with reptiles on their backs.

Headlines in the Globe and Mail scream: Putin warns against U.S. strike on Syria. President Assad is busy gassing his own people.  Leaders debate whether to get their hands dirty.  Mayors in San Diego and Toronto are accused of crimes.  Parliament is prorogued because ‘nothing is working out.’ The Senate is being...well, the Senate. Israel is distributing gas masks because if the U.S. fires on Syria then Iran is going to fire on Israel.  A Toronto Police officer shot a young man 9 times and after the young man was dead another officer tasered him. Two Canadians languish in a prison in Egypt, one an ER doctor and the other a film director and professor. In Quebec you’d better not wear a kip as large as the one I’m wearing today. The President of the student union at St. Mary’s University in Halifax was part of a frosh chant extolling non-consensual sex with minors.   

And herein lies the second paradox of leadership: are leaders supposed to be just regular guys, judged no more harshly than anyone else, allowed to do the crazy and zany things everyone else can do, or are they exemplars, role models, people we can “look up to”?

People occupying positions of leadership dither, violate, subjugate and obliterate populations and in more cases than not they seem to get off unscathed.

Allegations of our mayor smoking a crack pipe appeared on news- stands throughout the entire world and the amount of circumstantial evidence would have buried anyone unlucky enough to live at Jane and Finch. 

In a police raid dubbed “only after sundown” in Brooklyn, New York last week, five Orthodox drug dealers were charged with selling hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of heroin, oxycontin, cocaine and methamphetamine.  They were observant and would mass text their clients “We are closing 7:30 for Shabbos and we will reopen Saturday at 8:15 so if u need anything you have 45mins to get what you want.” Where were their Rabbis that Friday night?

Pamela Gellar, a well-known anti-Islam agitator, who has said things abut Islam we would never tolerate a Muslim saying about Judaism, was invited to give a talk in Toronto by a Thornhill synagogue and its Rabbi, who, by the way, is also a police chaplain and who, by the way, is a member of a Jewish sect some of you actually support. The police department made the Rabbi un-invite Gellar saying she “was in conflict with the values of our organization which supports a safe, welcoming and inclusive community for all.”  But the Rabbi wasn’t happy and Gellar excoriated the Toronto Board of Rabbis for having the “chutzpah” to criticize her message.

There is a $380 million dollar lawsuit against Yeshiva University for covering up sexual abuse at its high school. The lawsuit was placed by 24 former students who claim they were inappropriately touched by two Rabbis over years, and the subsequent “massive cover-up of the sexual abuse of … facilitated, for several decades, by various prominent Y.U. and [high school] administrators, trustees, directors and other faculty members.” One of the Rabbis continued to work at the school even after the staff was made aware of inappropriate activity; the other, George Finkelstein, was hired by a Jewish day school in Florida who were never made aware of his history. When questioned about this, Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of YU answered, “Y.U. did not inform the Florida school about Finkelstein’s (inappropriate physical) wrestling (with young boys) because “the responsibility of a school in hiring someone is to check with the previous job. No one checked with me about George.”

The litany of abrogation of duties that are expected to be performed by our leaders did not start this year, last year or ten years ago. The great John F. Kennedy—my childhood hero— was, we found out, a womanizer.  It just seems that it is worse.  What makes it even worse is the sense of fatigue that comes with the constant barrage of being ‘let down’ by our leaders over and over again.

The issue isn’t that we judge harshly or that we are unfair in how we evaluate our leaders. We hold those in positions of power to a higher standard, and we should,  because these are people whose roles authorize them to act in our name and on our behalf. They tarnish all of us when they tarnish the office we have given them.

And here is the most startling piece of all: most of us don’t give a care about how our leaders live, as long as they build our subways and clean our water and keep our streets relatively safe. We allow them and even applaud them their indiscretions: they are regular guys! 

Here the operative word is GUYS. Do we still labour under that sexist double standard that would fry a female politician caught with her panties down but wink-winks still at the male politician who gets it on in the office inappropriately with a female staffer? 

The Toronto Sun may snidely and sarcastically call us “moral zealots” which it did, but I still believe that, as Jews, as citizens of Canada, and as people trying hard in the next few hours to acknowledge and lessen the reptiles on our backs, we have the right, and the responsibility, to ask tough questions not only of our leaders but of ourselves, of our apathy and fear and hesitance to speak out.

We depend on our leaders to set an example because we need as many backstops as we can muster to a cultural shift that finds almost anything acceptable.  Our moral compass has tumbled unencumbered, and it is our young people who have suffered most.

They looked up to us as parents, teachers, clergy, politicians and leaders to define the limits of living the good life – instead they have been treated to a bevy of uncertainty, laxity, and disbelief.

With Facebook as the great mediator, Kanye West as the latest orator, and twitter the 140 character limiter, we no longer think anything through for very long.

Dr. Oren Amitay, Professor of Psychology at Ryerson University, was recently interviewed on CBC Radio in the aftermath of the Saint Mary’s frosh week scandal where young men and women chanted the now famous chant humorously suggesting raping young girls.  He was asked specifically why young women would participate in the chant.  He clearly replied that feminism was the new four letter word.  He said that peer pressure—even when the subject matter is totally repugnant— is the new culture.  New heart throb Robin Thicke laughed when asked whether it was sending the right message when he did a photo shoot of Rihanna laying across his lap with his hand in the air in a mock spanking.  He claimed it was just fun and that everyone knows it.

“Everyone” does know it because, says Dr. Amitay – this is the new real for young people. They believe that because so many people that are specifically famous—this generations “leaders”— say it’s okay.   

I am not suggesting for one moment that because we have a bad role model as a mayor or because Syria is on fire that Kanye and jay z are running things and in danger of drafting cultural norms for the citizenry of our communities.

I am suggesting that the trickle down of leadership with values and honour is at stake and in its absence we potentially have a vacuum that will affect how our century progresses and the choices and stances we take to preserve the ideals that we hold dear.

We need to believe in our leaders again and we need to trust them.

Let’s not make this a political discussion, though. Frankly, I don’t care if you voted and will vote again for Ford. I want to know if you care that a leader can lie, cheat, steal, commit adultery, forge, use illegal drugs, sleep with their staff, text inappropriate remarks to their constituents, or do anything else as long and it might not “hamper” their ability to lead.

And thats where the conversation gets religious.

The Zohar, the book of Jewish Kabbalah, records that Rabbi Jose said “Israel was exiled and The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because its leaders were corrupt.  The spiritual state of the leaders of the Jewish people will become the spiritual state of all Israel. As the leader, so the generation.” 

As the leader, so the generation. That’s us, folks.

Far from turning around to look at the heap of reptiles we have politicians contending that the reptiles don’t exist and that what you see is an illusion caused by enemies of the leader. 

The Torah says that when the Jewish people sinned, G-d told Moses “lech red ki schechet amcha”: “Descend! Your people are sinning!” Now that the people are sinning you too must descend from your greatness. Get off your high horse, Moses, and go be among the people to lead them back to the moral high ground. But I don’t think God meant for Moses to have a few beers with them on the Danforth or dance round the calf with them.

The Zohar continues, “If a leader has not perfected himself before ascending to leadership, his people will not reach perfection.  If, however, he elevates himself first, his people will become elevated.”

There is, I would submit, no evidence of such a search for perfection in any contemporary leader today.

Perhaps the more important question we must ask ourselves as part of the dialectic that exists between the people and leadership candidates is: What is it that we must look for before electing a leader?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of Great Britain, offers seven principles for leadership, all based on Jewish sources. They work for any leader of any or no religion:

1. Leadership begins with taking responsibility. 
2. No one can lead alone. 
3. Taking responsibility must be driven by vision. 
4. Leaders learn.
5. A leader must believe in the people she or he is leading.
6. Leadership involves timing and pace.
7. Leadership is stressful and demanding, and a leader must be able to handle that stress.

I suggest that if we held up many of our leaders to all, or even any of those 7 principles— vision, responsibility, team-work, learning, timing, faith in the people, and ability to handle stress—they would fall sadly short.

But then, what would we do?

That’s the crux of the matter for me. The lack of interest from our community in raising a voice about the mediocrity of our leaders and our own apathy about who leads us and how they do it is not befitting the people who once heard and heeded the prophetic call.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “If the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail. Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues. And... if you read the words of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics.”

Years ago in this community the Reform congregations were the voice of morality, the voice of Jewish conscious. You could count on a Gunther Plaut to speak up for refugees. You could count on a Jordan Pearlson to travel to the Vatican and meet with the Pope. Some of you will even remember Rabbi Abraham Feinberg who served Holy Blossom in the 1950‘s and 60‘s. He spoke out against racism including Canada's wartime treatment of the Japanese and discrimination against blacks in Canada. He lobbied for fair employment and housing practices in Ontario. An outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament, he chaired the Toronto Committee for Disarmament and was the vice president of the Toronto Association for Civil Rights. Feinberg's political activism led to surveillance by Royal Canadian Mounted Police intelligence officers. An RCMP file eventually released to his daughter contained 1,100 pages on his “suspicious” activities. In 1969 he sang "Give Peace a Chance," with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their Montreal hotel room. Those were my role models of what a Jewish leader is supposed to be.

In my teenage years I marched on Washington for pro-choice and anti-war with Reform Rabbis under the Reform movement’s banner and it made a huge impact on my decision to become a Rabbi. In my first years here in Toronto Rabbi Arthur Beilfeld started Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger here in Toronto and he was founding chair of The Campaign Against Child Poverty.

Those were my role models of what a Jewish leader is supposed to be.

None of these leaders did this in a vacuum.  They had driving, interested and well-versed congregants behind them pushing them forward. The sense of connection between leadership and community was full and in perpetual motion.

I want it back.  I want it back for City Shul.  I want it to start here.  I give you my pledge today and I hope I have yours.  I will check my back with rigour for heaps of reptiles and I ask you to ask me to turn around should you believe I am not on track.

But I am advocating that we speak more as a community and that we do so thoughtfully and not across party lines.  I am advocating that we foster a community based on issues of care and transcendence and that we start a new trend by giving space to discussion that fosters a need and a wish to do more tikkun olam. And that we, at City Shul, become a voice for moral concern around our leaders and our community.

In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “We are free. We are responsible. And together we can change the world.” Even with some reptiles on our backs.

G’mar Tov.

On Ritual by Robin Roger
September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur

 In Achre Mot God instructs Moses on   three ways in which Yom Kippur is to be observed.  The first and longest section concerns  the correct procedure for the high priest,  Aharon, to approach God  in the Shrine, in order to enact the proper rituals and sacrifices. 

The next  section describes a ceremony that takes place outside the shrine,  where the community gathers.  This is the ritual of transferring Israel’s sins onto the head of a  goat and sending it  into the wilderness  to carry  them away. 

Finally, God decrees that  the community should establish an annual day of atonement on the 10th of Tishrei. It is declared a  day of self-denial or self-affliction, as well as a complete Sabbath.  

Because of its depiction of  sacrifice and ritual from ancient times that were never to be performed again, the Reform movement replaced Achre Mot  with a different Yom Kippur parasha.  So some of you may not be that familiar with this one, as was the case for me.  It has stimulated a lot of  thoughts about the nature of ritual and how it can help us atone.

It’s striking that the  entire parsha is concerned with  performing rituals, and mentions nothing  about saying prayers.  Prayer and ritual can’t be neatly separated in contemporary Judaism,  but in the Achre Mot,  they are not merged.By   ritual I mean  performed actions and gestures, as distinct from  recitation or singing of  words.   When I was growing  up in the baby boom years of Classical Reform Judaism, ritual was  minimal to the point of non-existent, for example there was no procession with the Torah,  and even prayer was quite constricted.  Services were an exercise in decorum, a real strain for a kid, (please note the goat reference).  

There was no stimulus to even think about ritual, let alone enact it.  But in Achre Mot, atonement is virtually all   ritual.    In the first and longest section God goes into painstaking  detail about  how Aharon  should dress, what sacrifices he should make, how many drops of  ram’s blood he should sprinkle, how the goat should be selected and so on and makes no mention whatsoever of what words  he should utter. A great deal more is said about what he should wear than what he should say.  In fact, this section reads like an ancient version of that show on the learning channel, What Not To Wear.  

What Aharaon is not to wear are the   the garments of the High Priest  described   in Exodus  which are multi-layered, colourful, ornamented with gold and precious stones,heavy  and designed to be impressive.  Instead he is to be entirely garbed in linen, --a tunic, breeches next to his flesh, a sash and a turban—all of which he is to don after he has bathed in water.

The simplicity of this attire  must be significant.  To me it is about how intensely  intimate and private , Aharon’s encounter with God is. Extra layers and ornaments  block   intimacy  which is about moving closer  and making powerful contact.  This intensity might be necessary because Aharon is not only atoning for himself, but trying to effect teshuvah for his entire community.  When he emerges from the Shrine, the transformative effect of his experience would be palpably felt by others in his presence. He has to make himself as open and accessible as possible to God.  

Also, these lighter and more flexible garments would make it easier to perform such motions as sprinkling incense on coals, or gripping the skull of a goat while  or slaughtering a bull—they are like spiritual work out clothes.  When we put on our work out clothes, we feel more contact with our bodies, and this is how I imagine  Aharon felt in his simple linen garb. This made me realize   how embodied  ritual is , and that this is what gives ritual its force.  It is visceral, and it bypasses words and registers in other parts of us. When ritual hasn’t been part of your religious experience, as it wasn’t in my upbringing, it seems disconcerting and artificial. But once it is understood as another form of expression, like dance, or like the postures in yoga, it seems like the partner to prayer that makes the religious process complete.  This doesn’t make it easy to acquire or to feel comfortable with, but it does make it approachable.  

Of course the rituals we practice today are far less dramatic, but they still involve bodily gestures, and we also need to be properly attired for it. I’m not speaking of how we appear, but of how our clothing functions. We  need to be able to  bend the knee, or even  get down and put our foreheads on the floor in the Quor’im Gdol,  or lift a scroll for Hagba or  carry one in a Hakafa,. Modern clothing tends to allow easy movement, but fashion isn’t designed by  Rabbis. The first time I was asked to carry a Torah  I happened to be wearing red lipstick, and as the scroll was  placed in my arms I had to swivel my neck sharply to avoid leaving a big kiss mark on the cover and then make it down the steps of  Bimah  and around a large sanctuary  without looking forward. After reflecting on Achre Mot, I have resolved  to come to services dressed for action. A shift of wardrobe may seem trivial  but teshuvah is not only about grand gestures. 

We no longer have a  High Priest to transfer our sins onto the head of a  goat for us.  Things have evolved in a way that requires us all to perform our own rituals, even though we do have Rabbis and Cantors to lead  us.  We all have to do our share, and this can involve acquiring skills that take time to master.  City Shul has already helped me with this, by teaching me Torah trope so I can help with Torah reading.     I think returning to ritual is an excellent kind of teshuvah, though certainly not the only kind and I urge everyone to seek training in these skills if they need it.  

Today is the tenth of Tishrei, and yesterday, the 9th, was my father’s 35th Yahrzeit.   He  was a  founding member of  Temple Sinai, and  was very much opposed to antiquated and mindless ritual especially if it was used to justify smug parochial self-satisfaction.   Even so,   I  welcome  the rituals we have retrieved in Reform Judaism since his tragically early death even though he would be somewhat chagrinned.   In the Al Cheyt prayer we confess to the sin of showing disrespect for our parents—my father would elbow me in the ribs when we got to that part.    I feel that being a founding member of this Shul, honours his founding of Temple Sinai, and expiates me from that cheyt.   I hope that all of you will feel at peace with your ritual choices, whatever your parents practices may have been. 

 Gamar Hatimah Tova.  

Kol Nidre Intro Poem written by Michaela Buim and Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 13, 2013

Why are we here?

It's an unanswered question for a reason because each season makes us happy because of the soothing change of weather.

See God made us all a different temperature so our smiles can shine in different lights

but the thing is 

if you live every day in the snow you're going to get cold

we were built for so much more than to grow up only knowing one familiar smile 

we are every season 

we are every day of the year

and without each other, it's just another Friday

Community is the antidote to the loneliness of change 

changing yourself for the aspiring child on the inside

it's the day the weight steps back off your shoulder 

the gray spot tiring you from the inside out disappears.

Let your insides shout into a chorus of forgiveness 

you live this year as a dawn of a new each jew in this room supports you.

In a community like this slowly building so powerful and righteous,

We need to be able to admit it, we did it.

We need each other on this holy day,

to rejoice and sing a song to melt away our sins under the power of good.

Fix our Broken wounds

No human is a new man or woman without first remembering

promises of love and courage that will not fall but will stand tall.

We did it: we admit it, we broke down cowtowed looked around everywhere but where we needed to be

We promised and forgot promised and meant something else completely promised nothing and then promised too much.

This day isn't just fighting through the pain of empty bellies

But fighting to build ourselves 


Kol Nidre is a beating drum its a hum its forever and its fantastic.

Why are we here? 

Let the tune tell you and spell it out for you in high notes and low notes and notes you didn’t know you knew.

Just a few

is all it takes to make you feel

you are at home.

The Shofar of Painful Redemption by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 13, 2013

Kol Nidre

A story of the Baal Shem Tov: Every year before the High Holidays, the Baal Shem Tov, the great master of Hasidic Judaism, would hold a competition to see who would blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso—as good as our ba’al tekiah Peter Schure!— but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot — secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the heavens.

All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. Finally his time came to audition before the Baal Shem, but he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn't remember one of the secret prayers he had practiced for all those years. He couldn't even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Baal Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how utterly he had failed this great test, and his heart just broke in two. He began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.

The Baal Shem looked at him and said, “you’re hired.” 

“But I don't understand”, the man said. “I failed the test completely. I couldn't even remember one of the secret prayers.”

So the Baal Shem explained with the following parable: “In the Royal palace on High there are a thousand doors – each one with its own special key. The kavanot I taught you were delicate keys to allow you to open each of these doors. But if you lose the right key to the right door, an axe will open them all. A broken heart is an axe that opens every door.”

On Yom Kippur, all of us want to be flawless shofar blowers, who know the secret prayers which will unlock those heavenly doors. But instead of keys, all we have as our tool is the axe. Sometimes our only key is tears.

Who among us has not experienced heartbreak, large or small? Who among us has not had a moment in their life when the walls came tumbling down or the world froze or questions went unanswered or nothing made sense? If you have never once been the “owner of a broken heart” then you are rare, and the sound of the shofar will not make you weep as it makes me weep with an equal measure of joy and sorrow as the old year leaves behind all its mistakes and failures and disappointments and a new year is created with everything possible.

But even if you are that rare human being whom pain has never visited, you are still here tonight pressed close and tight with those of us who have experienced loss, fear, need, insecurity, loneliness, frustration, misunderstanding, doubt, and a host of other minor and major challenges for which our only tool was an axe. 

If you are that unique person who has only experienced full joy and full satisfaction this past year, we ask you to share our longing over these next 24 hours, as we hold on to each other, performing these ancient rituals which somehow bring us comfort and mysteriously hand us keys we didn’t know we could have. We come together each year, we saints and sinners, those who have gained and those who have lost, those who have triumphed and those who have fallen, those with hope and those for whom hope had to be pulled out of the dark abyss kicking and screaming; we come to hear the same pleading tones of Kol Nidre and to feel the same mixture of relief and pain; to cast the same backward longing glances at the year that is ending and to hope the same hope that this new year will be a good one. That is what makes us a holy community for the next 24 hours, a community preparing together through hunger both physical and spiritual to go through a process of acknowledgement and to experience great and deep moments of weakness, together. We don’t lock ourselves alone in a room to cry for 24 hours, to feel sorry and lost as we could and perhaps should. We don’t sit alone in a dark confessional booth, pouring out our broken hearts to a silent and unknown human being— no, instead we sit crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, literally rubbing off each other’s experience, in an ancient ritual reminiscent of what our ancestors did thousands of years ago, as if we and they can bridge the gap across millennium and maybe they can hand us some of the keys which will open heavenly doors. But we know they, like us, had axes too, and they cried, and they failed, and they stumbled, and we will too.

On Yom Kippur we wait for the sound of that final Messianic shofar, the great one tekiah gedolah that ends the fast and starts the new year in earnest. It is Abraham’s shofar from the ram caught in the thicket  but in truth it is Isaac’s shofar—the shofar revealed only after Isaac has been bound. The midrash says that a tear from the angel sent to rescue Isaac fell directly onto his cheek, leaving a scar never to be erased. That is why, when Isaac is about to die, the Torah says his eyes were dim. Isaac carried that scar for the rest of his life and it changed the way he saw things. But still he lived on, scars and all. Rabbi Dan Goldblatt writes, “Isaac is a whole different kind of role model. Isaac is the one almost disposed of, sacrificed, and yet he perseveres. With all of his...woundedness, he marries and raises two children... Maybe we are meant to return to this story every year on Rosh Hashanah not because of Abraham’s last-minute decision not to sacrifice Isaac, but because we learn that Isaac...was able to overcome this horrific decision and make a life.”

Isaac picks himself up—utterly changed and scarred inside forever—but he rebuilds his life. And we blow his shofar of painful redemption.

The story of Isaac’s is not the only shofar in the Torah, though. On Mount Sinai, when Moses ascended the smoking quaking mountain and brought down two tablets, he heard the sound of a shofar growing louder and louder. After that blast he stood from afar and saw the people dancing around the Golden Calf and he smashed the tablets he had brought.

We say that he smashed the tablets in anger. But the midrash (Pirke deRebbe Eliezer) suggests that when he beheld the calf, all his vitality ebbed away from him and he just had to push the tablets away like a person for whom the burden of carrying such a heavy load becomes too much. The commentator Rashbam says that Moses whispers: "I could not muster enough strength".

Sometimes the tablets break just because we cannot muster the strength; we are too exhausted to keep holding them.  They slip from our hands from the burden of holding someone else up, or holding ourselves up, or holding our little piece of the sky.

Another midrash (Yalkut Shimoni #393) suggests when Moses saw the Children of Israel sinning with the Golden Calf, the words themselves flew off the tablets. Without words, the tablets became too heavy in his hands and they fell down to the ground, shattering.

Sometimes the tablets break because we feel we have no words, because silence and pride cuts us off, because we feel alone and misunderstood, because the explanations all just fly away. 

But the the holy tablets with God’s words etched on them do shatter, and you’d think those shattered tablets would need to be buried, like a Sefer Torah which is no longer useable. But they were not buried, or thrown away. In fact, the Talmud teaches us that "the second set of the tablets and the broken pieces of the first tablets both rest in the Ark." (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 8b). 

Our ancestors carried around both the broken set and the "perfect" set at all times; both were placed in the Ark of the Covenant which marches at the head of the procession of Jews travelling through the desert. The Hasidic commentator Haemek Davar teaches that the positioning of an ark containing broken tablets at the forefront of the Jews when they are on the march, commanded them to look forward rather than constantly looking back. The broken tablets would take them ahead, not behind.

What a strange and wonderful idea. The tablets are cracked open so new words can be carved onto old stone.

That’s what Leonard Cohen means when he sings “...Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything /That's how the light gets in.”

And we blow the shofar of Moses’ painful redemption.

Rabbi Yakov Bieler, a modern Orthodox thinker, writes, “The broken “Luchot” represent a breaking down of what is already known, in order to allow for a reconstruction... As long as people think that they remember or know all that there is to be known, that there is nothing more to think, say or do, then the possibility for change...will be virtually non-existent.  Sometimes it is important to wipe the slate clean, in effect to break and forget in order to begin again...”

This is our spiritual work, starting tonight: to acknowledge our brokenness in order to begin again.

This is our spiritual work, starting tonight: To look deep within, staring fear and loss and insecurity in the face, recognizing it, acknowledging it, staying with it for a moment more, then moving past it.

This is our spiritual work, starting tonight: To take risks that will open us, pierce us, and even break us. As Anais Nin wrote, “And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

This is our spiritual work, starting tonight: to take the journey of transformation from broken to whole alone. Elizabeth Lesser, author of Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, writes “(It is) like the loneliness a caterpillar endures when she...begins the long transformation from crysalis to butterfly. It seems that we too must go through such a time, when life as we have known it is over—when being a caterpillar feels somehow false and yet we don’t know who we are supposed to become. All we know is that something bigger is calling us to change. And though we must make the journey alone, and even if suffering is our only companion, soon enough we will become a butterfly…”

This is our spiritual work, starting tonight, as Jews: to take the journey of transformation from broken to whole in community.

Judaism will help us do this. Our tradition teaches on Rosh Hashana the world is judged by din: strict justice, and on Yom Kippur the world receives rachamim: loving compassion. That is why people wear white: we are already forgiven by God and by each other if we’ve done the hard work of asking for forgiveness over the past 10 days. But on this night, we come to forgive ourselves. All our traditional images tonite and tomorrow are of God literally rising from the seat of judgement and going to sit on the seat of mercy- so we can too. We are to fill ourselves with compassion for ourselves so we can be compassionate to others. We are to exercise midat harachamim, the attribute of mercy, on ourselves and on others.

Because at some point we have all been, or will be, that hapless shofar blower. We will stand in front of an overwhelming experience and we will cry. Let us be kind to those who do not hold the keys that unlock all doors. 

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov teaches “all the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear at all.” Let us be kind to all who walk that narrow bridge. 

Kol Nidre: vows that have been broken. Let us be kind to those who broke and were broken by their vows.

Now when the phoenix is combusting, burning to ashes in order to be reborn, you cannot be so callous as to reassure it that indeed it will live again. One can only really appreciate the process of healing only after one has passed through it. “This will make you stronger; this will bring you closer to God, this will make you appreciate life more” may all be true later, and may come with the best of intentions, but when someone is in the midst of struggle, the best we can do is be as kind as possible.

The Jewish tradition forces you to sit shiva- to sit. You cannot rush the process of healing.

But you can soften it with hope.

Rebbe Nachman also wrote, “It would be very good to be broken-hearted all day. But for the average person, this can easily degenerate into depression. You should therefore set aside some time each day for heartbreak... But the rest of the day you should be joyful.”

Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning”.  The word in Hebrew for "endure" —yaleen—really means "to lodge, to sojourn," as one does for a little time. Weeping is like a stranger - a wayfaring person - who lodges for a night only. It is not a permanent house guest. Laboker rina- joy moves toward the morning. It’s not always there in time, but we wait for it, and when it comes, we must be ready to welcome it.

Joy comes in the morning, if we open our hearts to the possibility of joy. Some people see their scars and all they remember is the experience which inflicted the wound. Others see their scars and call to mind that repair has begun. Tonight we pray to see that repair has begin. If we challenge ourselves to rise from the ashes, to fly from the disintegrated dust of the caterpillar, to grow branches from the split open acorn, to move from the seat of judgement to the seat of mercy, we will hear the shofar differently. We will hear the one long clear blast that comes after the broken notes, the blast which says tekiah: I was whole...shevarim: I was broken... teruah: I was shattered...tekiah gedolah, I will be whole again as redemption without so much pain.

Gemar tov.

Akedah by Carly Ziniuk
September 6, 2013

Shanah Tova. On this second day of Rosh Hashanah services, you’re the dedicated ones, so you’ve got some pretty high expectations for this D’var Torah and I’ve got arguably the most difficult Torah story for a parent to try to explain: a pile of expectations here on this brand New Year filled with potential and the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, a brief window on the challenges between parent and child.  

While everyone outside is talking about the Film Festival, in here our movie trailer for this difficult story goes something like this: Abraham and Sarah have this miracle child Isaac, born of their old age, their hope for the future. Then, God tests newly committed monotheist Abraham by asking him to present Isaac as a sacrificial offering. Abraham gets ready: wood – check; knife – check; we’re off! At the pivotal scary movie scene, Abraham raises the knife, cue the super stressful music, and just as he is about to kill his treasured son, an angel tells him to spare the boy. As a reward for not withholding his beloved son from God’s request, the angel blesses Abraham, “making his descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands on the shores.” The angel goes further, all the nations of the Earth will be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Harps and clouds show up in our movie now.

Abraham has no inkling that things are going to work out so perfectly. In fact, many commentators assert that the rescue and blessing occur only because Abraham was willing to kill his son without hesitation. Rabbi Plaut’s Torah commentary indicates Abraham would have found the command to sacrifice his son legitimate for his time and experience, especially after having just experienced what Pirke Avot calls the Ten Trials of Abraham. Abraham had to be ready to expect anything.

Anita Diamant and Karen Kushner in their book How to Be A Jewish Parent call the story one of the most powerful and problematic in the Torah, and refer to Abraham’s test as terrible. As a Jewish parent aspiring to be like Abraham and Sarah, how do I reconcile this terrible expectation of parents with this powerful sign of faith? What expectations did Abraham have for his parent God? How can we bear God’s expectations of Abraham?

Rabbi Brad Artson considers Isaac’s steadfast faithfulness as the potential sacrifice and as such sees the story about the child rather than the parent. What expectations did Isaac have for his loving father? What does Isaac’s steadfastly faithful trod up the hill, without complaint, say about him and about his parents?

The Torah asks me to see myself through their experiences, but I can’t even begin to really understand who Abraham was even after reading and rereading the story. I know first-hand how foolish it is to judge a parent’s character from a child’s behaviour. I try to scrape together any context for how to understand these parents. Can I judge who they were, based on my expectations of what a good parent should be?

The Torah gives little specifics beyond walking up the hill and raising the knife. In the end, we have no clue what happens when the camera wasn’t rolling. All we know is everyone‘s doing what they’re told. As a parent, rule-obedience is so lovely when our kids do what we say without asking or arguing. Thinking for yourself gets lots of lip service, but really, when we see obedient children we assume they have very good parents. But the Akedah leaves us with no clue at all for what Isaac expected for his own life. 

Watching Isaac walk placidly up the mountain with his dad would convince us of Abraham's terrific parenting skill. What a docile and obedient child he got! That’s not good luck, that’s good breeding! If Isaac went whining, kicking and screaming like the naughty kid in the candy aisle of the grocery story, while we cast disapproving glances at their harried parent, the bad father Abraham would have gotten what he "deserves" for his laissez-faire, lackadaisical parenting. 

Is Abraham then a reflection of God’s goodness because he followed obediently? Does Isaac’s passivity indicate that Abraham was a “good parent”?  If Isaac had rebelled and fought against his sacrifice, if he had argued, would we be sitting here talking about Isaac being a good son or a wicked one? Would Abraham be a “good parent” for teaching his son to think for himself, or a bad one for being too lax? 

Each year, I envision myself in the starring role of Abraham, not pleading for my child. I try to put aside my judgements, but I can’t stop thinking about loving mother Sarah, not even on the cast list for this scene, screaming both at God and Abraham as they trod up the hill with her beloved boy the sacrifice. I’m despairing for all the things they could do better as parents. Could we consider that Isaac was himself beyond the “control” of Abraham, Sarah, and God? Let's for a moment see Isaac as a person with his own identity, rather than as Abraham’s child, an extension or result of his parenting.

There’s not a parent here, and probably not a child either, that doesn’t know that parents have a lot of expectations and subsequently a pile of judgements. When that bundle gets plunked in your arms, following the amazement, wonder, and exhaustion, quickly comes the expectations, then shortly after - the judgements of others. When our own first beloved child was born 11 years ago on Rosh Hashanah, the expectations seemed to outnumber the stars of Abraham’s blessing. With our two boys, those outside expectations began to resemble recommendations, advice, suggestions, criticisms, and then judgements near equal to the sands on the shores. From the outside, people look at our brilliant, active, curious, and tremendously patience-requiring children and infer our parenting ability from the boys they see in front of them. Few people try to learn about any context for who they are and who we really are together as we experience our own challenges, and we have had many more judgements than conversations. 

People judge so much from the few scenes of child and parent relationships shown in the movie theatre of public life. As members of City Shul, we have come to this, our new spiritual home with the hope that this shul will be different. That our differences and our challenges will be compassionately viewed, patiently understood, and maybe even one day celebrated. As everyone here today views the many little movie clips from the lives of other families on Shabbat, during family programming, and holidays, we each have a unique opportunity this year to create truly memorable scenes in their films. Though the stakes are thankfully lower than Abraham’s near-sacrifice, the need for understanding is just as great.

Dvar Ruchani 5774-Kohenet by Anne Matan Gilbert
September 6, 2013

B’shem Hashem – From the Bedtime Sh’ma 

Oh holy name of God of the one who wrestles with you Every move I make, it feels like you
When I'm stuck, your strength pulls me through When I look ahead you light my way 
While you heal the wounds from my past
and every time I begin again, I feel you close at last. 

According to the Sfat Emet, Rosh Hashanah can be understood as the moment right before the change. Rosh = before Shanah = time/change 

I offer, therefore, that in this very moment in time, we are suspended inside an opportunity to dream this new year into being. This is the very moment of choice before transformation. 

The Netivot Shalom, a 20th century Chasidic commentator teaches in his sermon about the 3 weeks leading up to tisha b’av that when we plant a seed, the shell/outer layer & in fact, most of what makes up the seed, completely decomposes. All that’s left is the tiniest life essence, the kusta d’chiyusa. Only once that drop of life is laid bare – it blooms into the green, living thing it was meant to become. 

Similarly, scientists have discovered that when a caterpillar is completely ensconced in its chrysalis, it doesn’t simply grow wings and burst forth. The caterpillar deconstitutes itself almost entirely into a goo. Once again, only a tiny amount of the original caterpillar remains and that is what grows and transforms into a butterfly. 

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Nora Neale Hurston says in her 1937 novel, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”  The 10 days of awe between sundown on Erev Rosh Hashanah and the closing of Neilah are a time for us to reflect on the year that came before – was this a year of shedding our shells to prepare for new growth? Or was it a year of blooming, rooting, and growing? Was this a year spent like goo in a chrysalis? Or was it a year in which we took flight. Was this year that we are leaving behind a question or an answer? 

This time is also an opportunity for us to look ahead to the year that is just beginning, right in this very moment. What kind of breaking down or breaking out do we anticipate for the year that is starting, sprouting, or enfolding us? 

And beyond the anticipation, if we allow ourselves a moment of rest, a deep breath and some yearning, what can we imagine, dream and bless ourselves into this year? How far does the dream feel from what we can permit ourselves to anticipate? What small or giant obstacles impede the dream? 

Judaism offers us rituals to help us move forward on the path to achieving our dreams. We have slichot, a chance to atone with pleas for forgiveness in beautiful poetry in the days or weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. And once we get here, we have tashlich, when we transfer the stuff of our shamed and guilty consciences into bread or notes and send them out to float away or disintegrate in the water – letting go of the vestiges of regret that anchored us in the missed opportunities of last year. 

This process of letting go to open up is not an easy one. New beginnings are hard. That’s why we sweeten this one with honey. And that’s why our tradition brings us to shul on these holy days - to fess up together, to ask for forgiveness together, to invoke God in our lives together, to commit to make changes together – witnessed and supported by our community. Not one of us has been perfect. Most of us feel trepidatious about stepping forward into this new year and starting this cycle as our imperfect selves all over again. This process of renewal is hard. So we don’t do it alone. We pull the fresh new year toward us with the sounds of others’ voices singing with reverence of returning to God, to ourselves, to each other ringing in our ears. In case we can’t bear to hear our own voices, at least we can be lulled by those of our neighbours in the next pew. 

We are very good at spending this time beating ourselves up for our mistakes. Literally beating our breasts! Our personal and communal consciousness needs a jolt, a reset, a shake of the shoulders, a tenderizing of the heart. We remember our follies, our shameful moments, our missed marks and we wallow a little in them. But we should take care not to be so hard on ourselves that we become overly meek and forget our capacity for good. 

Chasidic Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha, Poland in the late 18th century taught that: “Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: ְ I am but dust and ashes, (this part seems to be easy for us) and on the other: bishvili nivra haolam, The world was created for me. (To this we respond, “for ME? Yeah ,בשבילי נברא העולם right. He must mean somebody else.) 

He goes on to say “from time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.” 

Spiritual teacher, lecturer and author, Marianne Williamson, in her book, A Return to Love tells us famously that: 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
...We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone...” 

Ok. So now we know we are on the verge of something great. Maybe we could create a whole new self out of some essential parts. If only we knew how. 

Soul Caller, Amy Oscar tells us that the most important question we can ask ourselves is:
What are you hungry for? (A.K.A. What do you want?)
Now we all know that sometimes this is the hardest question. We tell ourselves we don’t know what we want. We can find ourselves in this moment of potential and then, we hold ourselves back from wanting what we want. We say things like, ““I will want that when I know I can get it.” “I will allow myself to reach for the things I know I’ll be good at.” “I could never really have a life like that... so I won’t bother to try.” or “I don’t want to disappoint myself.” 

Hunger/wanting is a healthy part of life. “We hunger for food to fuel the body; puzzles and information to stimulate the mind; experience to nourish the soul; connection to feed the heart.” 

This year, allow yourself to be hungry. Allow yourself to imagine being nourished. If you don’t even allow yourself to imagine it, if you don’t ask God or the universe for what you need, if you don’t pray for the transformation, the new, the whatever it is you most long for... if you can’t even allow yourself to envision the You that you want to be and the life you want to live, how will you recognize the change when it comes? 

Amy teaches that” when we can take the exquisite risk of allowing ourselves to sit and feel our emptiness – without rushing to feed it, bury it, squash it. Let ourselves want what we want - and experience the way that it feels not to have it. This is soul hunger. The most powerful force in the universe. It will provoke and propel us to make a decision. to be brave enough to proclaim (even to ourselves): THIS is what I want. And suddenly, we’ll be standing at the most powerful place in the universe: the ONLY transformational moment that exists. This moment. 

And in this moment, we have turned around, returned to ourselves and the power and promise of the dark place right before we break out into the light. We have done teshuvah. Find ourselves face to face with God. Ready, or at least a little closer to being ready, to shout out our longings, our prayers, our hungers, or maybe even whisper them so only we can hear... we say them to ourselves and in the way that words, like magic, have power to create the world, God hears. And tender shoots and vibrant wings unfurl. 

Break into pairs for these 2 questions and a blessing: 2.5 min per person per question (total 15 min) – invite anyone people to share with the group if they choose. 


  1. 1. What am I hungry for? 
  2. 2. In what ways is my life out of alignment with my soul’s longing? 
  3. 3. Give your partner a blessing to help her/him nourish his/her soul. 

Let’s come back to our seed for a moment. In one of my favourite books, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (no relation) she writes: 

[Zen Buddhists] say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time. Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into the tree. Everybody can see that. But only a few can recognize that there is another force operating here as well - the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity. In this respect, say the Zens, it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it was born. 

Holy Shechina, who rests here and in the wide, wild wilderness - the place of speaking and I pray of hearing: May we merit to receive the blessings of this year in our kishkes and marrow, in our blood and in our breath. May all that we will learn and all that will push, stretch and challenge us be for a blessing.
May these blessings nourish and flow through us, bringing strength, healing, energy, and openness. 

And most of all, may we be blessed to let your light in.
Help us to open up.
Help us to see and recognize and claim the gifts you have bestowed so we can see ourselves as You and those who believe in us do; as powerful, giving, and successful.
May we be blessed to know and digest your gifts:
Parnassa, health, happiness.
And may they be shared generously with our family, friends and community everywhere.
Home and wholeness - שלום, joy and laughter - שמחה, lovingkindness and healing - חסד, holding and grace – רחמים ... and may we all merit to be oak trees, calling our truest selves into being. 

Amen. Shana Tova. 

Sarah & Hagar by Anne Sealey
September 5, 2013

Shana tovah. It’s that time of year again – not just time for honey cake, but time for teshuvah.  Over the High Holidays, we are supposed to come to terms with the more difficult moments of the past year, the kind of moments where you think to yourself, “how could I”?  Even if we felt justified at the time, we all have moments where we wish would have acted differently.

This year, it feels like I’ve been doing double duty.  Not because I’ve had a particularly sinful year, at least I don’t think I have, but because I have been trying to come to terms with today’s reading, which left me asking that question of Sarah.   

In this reading, Isaac is born to Sarah and Abraham.  At the feast celebrating Isaac’s weaning, Sarah sees Ishmael, Abraham’s other son by the slave Hagar, playing.  Sarah goes to Abraham, asking him to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, so that Isaac will not have to share his inheritance.  Abraham is unhappy, but after God assures him that Ishmael too will father a nation, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away.

When their water runs out, Hagar lays Ishmael under a bush, afraid to watch him die.  An angel appears, telling Hagar that God has heard Ishmael’s cries and will keep his promise to make Ishmael’s descendants a great nation.  The angel shows Hagar a well she could not previously see, and they are saved.

The text most associated with the “How could they?” moment during the High Holiday is the Akedah, the near sacrifice of Isaac, but many of the themes of tomorrow’s reading are present today.  While Sarah doesn’t hold a knife to Ishmael’s throat, I struggled with the fact she sent him and his mother into the dessert with few resources.  I wanted something more compassionate, a little nobler, especially after her harsh treatment of Hagar in the previous weekly parsha.  I asked myself, “How could she?”

Commentators have debated at length whether Sarah’s actions could be justified.  Nachmanides called Sarah’s insistence on Ishmael’s banishment her “great sin.” 

Rambam says that both Sarah and Abraham sin in their treatment of Hagar, beginning from when Sarah’s mistreatment causes Hagar to flee years before while she is still pregnant with Ishmael.

 This may be part of why the story is so troubling: Sarah has two opportunities to make her peace with Hagar, and doesn’t.  Maimonides tells us that true repentance is having the opportunity to repeat the same mistake and not doing it.

But Sarah does, maybe that’s part of why I find Sarah’s behaviour so disappointing.  

Others argue that Sarah, this time, acts in the best interests of her family. Sarah is only acting for her son’s protection, telling Abraham she doesn’t want Isaac to have to share his inheritance with Ishmael.  

Other commentators say that Sarah was acting to protect Isaac from physical or spiritual danger at the hands of Ishmael.  The Hebrew, mitzaek, which usually means playing or laughing, is often translated as misbehaving.  Rabbi Akiva held that Ishmael was behaving in sexually inappropriate ways.  Rabbi Ishmael claimed Ishmael was an idolator.  Rabbi Azariah had it from Rabbi Ishmael that Ishmael used to shoot arrows at Isaac.

Some commentators emphasize, as the text does, that it is all part of God’s plan. Abraham certainly uses this as his reasoning for agreeing to cast out Ishmael and Hagar.   Tikva Frymer-Kensky explains that Sarah is only acting to bring God’s plan to fruition – Sarah believes that it is her son by Abraham, not Hagar’s, that will fulfill the promise for a great nation.

Despite these explanations, I am still sympathetic to Nachmanides.  Sarah’s behaviour seems a great sin from a woman otherwise known for her hospitality.  That she meant well and God condoned her action doesn’t seem enough.  The commentaries written on the Akedah show we don’t let Abraham use that excuse without being challenged.  We shouldn’t let Sarah and we shouldn’t let ourselves.  Even though we can come up with many reasons to explain, excuse, and even empathize with Sarah’s intentions, we want better actions.  I don’t want to have to hope that God will put it right in the end. Judaism, after all, emphasizes action over intention and challenges us to do better.  

Maybe this is why we read this text during this holiday. If we can face our ancestors and ask, “why?”  and “how could they?” when they act in a way we find less than ideal,  maybe we get the practice we need to ask if of ourselves the rest of time.  As I struggled with the question of how “how could I possibly end this dvar?”, Rabbi Goldstein offered the following wisdom. "how could I" is the first question we must ask ourselves. "How can I do it better next time" is the second question we should ask ourselves. And the final question we ask is "how can I not have to ask "how could I" again next year”.  If we can ask ourselves these questions, hopefully ahead of time, but even as part of reflection, we are in a better place to take ownership over what we think and do.  Best wishes for a good, happy, and thoughtful new year.  Shanah tovah.

The Cult of Busy by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 5, 2013

First day Rosh Hashana

Earlier this year I received a document via email—maybe some of you did too— entitled How To Succeed at Work. Here is its advice:

  1. Always walk with a document in your hands: People with documents in their hands look like hardworking employees heading for important meetings. People with newspapers in their hands look like they are going to the washroom. 
    2. Use the computer a lot. When you get caught by the boss just claim you're teaching yourself to use new software.
    3. If your voice mailbox has a limit on the number of messages it can hold, make sure you reach that limit often, even if you have to call yourself. "Sorry, this mailbox is full" is a sure sign that you are in high demand.
    4. Have a Messy Desk: Build large piles of documents around your workspace. If you know someone is coming to your cubicle, bury the document you'll need halfway down in an existing stack and rummage for it when they arrives.
    5. Appear To Be Working at crazy times: Send important emails at unearthly hours (like half past midnite, 6.30am, etc.) and especially on public holidays. (But NOT on Jewish holidays!)
    6. Creative Sighing For Effect: Sigh loudly when there are many people around, giving the impression that you are under serious pressure.

I don’t know about you, but I am guilty as charged. And I would add a number 7: whenever anyone asks you how you are, do not answer “fine.” Never answer “great!” Answer, “BUSY. Very busy. Extremely busy. Buried. Swamped. Yup, I’m really...busy.” 

Author Scott Berkun coined the phrase “The cult of busy.” He writes, “When I was younger I thought busy people were more important than everyone else. Otherwise why would they be so busy? I had busy bosses, busy parents, and always I just thought they must have really important things to do. It seemed an easy way to see who mattered and who didn’t...This is the cult of busy.”

We have all been duped into joining the cult of busy. We are its leaders, its preachers, even its messiahs. And like most cults, we have been initiated through lack of sleep, poor eating habits, and repetitions of meaningless mantras over and over again.

But like most cults, it is attractive and fulfilling in its own way. In Tom Krieder’s article in the New York Times, The Busy Trap, the article that generated a lot of surveys and news articles and reports on busyness, he writes: If you live... in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are... It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”

It’s true, we’re proud of how little time we have for our families, our hobbies, our communities. Busy is a competitive sport- who has less time, me or you? Jews used to love competing for who has the most trouble- “you think you got tsuris??” But now busyness proves our worth, our productivity, our sense of our place in the world.

There really are two kinds of busy, though. Retired people will boast about how busy they are: doing ceramics, visiting grandkids, travelling. They seem so happy in their busyness, because they are busy doing what they want to. Because they are able to finally reprioritize and make time for what’s important. They are positively busy instead of positively busy.

But for many of us, our busyness is a drug, and we use it dangerously. We overprogramme on purpose. We stretch ourselves to prove something. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we will admit that often we use our excessively hectic schedules to escape ourselves. To escape the one thing we strive to cope with over these holy days: our inner life, our minds, and our spirits.

Gabor Mate writes in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, “When we have nothing to occupy our minds, bad memories, troubling anxieties, unease or the nagging mental stupor we call boredom can arise. At all costs, drug addicts want to escape spending “alone time” with their minds. To a lesser degree, behavioural addictions are also responses to this terror of the void...”

We are addicted to busy, I fear, to keep ourselves from the demands of our quiet inner selves. Thus, like any addict, we crave also the paraphernalia and technological tools which help us keep the busy high. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with technology, with using iphones and blackberries and facebook. I do, and I think they are all valuable tools, and I wish more peope of my generation would be less afraid to use them. But it’s weird—instead of using technology to save us time so we can do other things—talk to our kids, take a yoga class, come to services, visit a friend, walk in the park, you name it—we just use our newly freed up time to use more technology, to make another call, to send another email, to post another status update.  We use the time-saving power of technology to save us time to use more technology!

Do we have a wish to avoid inactivity at all costs lest we be left alone with our minds unoccupied for a moment? Left alone with time for self-doubt, regrets, realizations, perhaps resolutions, reconciliations?

In his book on ADHD Scattered Minds, Mate goes even deeper on this theme and writes, "...there are three things human beings are afraid of: death, other people, and their own minds. Terrified of my mind, I had always dreaded to spend a moment alone with it. There always had to be a book in my pocket as an emergency kit in case I was ever trapped waiting anywhere, even for one minute, be it a bank lineup or supermarket checkout counter..."

Twitchiness ensues when we are left outside the distraction loop. We scramble for something to read. We search another website. No one just sits. We become bored in nano seconds. We are, as a nation, the first world of disquiet.  We are constantly looking for that 'drug' in the form of anything that will take us away from us because we are perpetually scared and discomforted by the reality that we are indeed - alone.

Alone.  Frightening word.  Alone.  Do you ever suddenly become aware as you are going about your day alone in your house or driving your car that you are a person - alone. Watch yourself at that moment. It becomes creepy for us. We immediately try to forget ourselves. We fill the quiet of alone with white noise so we have no aloneness to lead ultimately to a discovery of the self. 

In the cult of busy, running around like chickens without a head leaves us without heads that can reflect, analyze, and face demons.

In the cult of busy, arriving late and leaving early to meetings is a sign that we must be significant and needed, instead of facing the frail and limited human beings we all are.

In the cult of busy, there is no time to face the uncomfortable pain that life sometimes and inevitably visits upon us. 

In the cult of busy, we never have time to face ourselves. There is no time for teshuva, for repentance, for the discipline that religion demands.

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has coined the term “homo accelerandus.” He writes, “This is what we have become. This creature has a great many encounters, but does not really experience anything... He has a great many contacts but no relationships, since he is unable to linger because he is always ‘in a hurry’…Homo Accelerandus has everything but lacks the one essential to enjoy that everything: time.”

Interestingly, Homo Accelerandus usually lives a middle class life. Let me point out that this is definitely a “first world problem.” Again, Krieder writes, “Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

The middle class cult of busy has been called the “Yuppie kvetch” by Jordan Weissman, associate editor of The Atlantic. He writes, ...All of this seems a bit counterintuitive. After all, one of the perks of being rich is that you can afford to pay people to take care of life's necessities in order to free up more time for life's pleasures. A nurse and a Google engineer might work the same hours. But the engineer can afford a babysitter and maid. Nice in theory. But in practice, hiring help only makes a marginal difference... You can't pay somebody to sleep for you. You can't pay somebody to read Proust for you. Or go to the opera, or go to the movies, or go to a ballgame... If you're rich, it's time that's scarce. If you're poor, it's money that's scarce.” 

We who generally have enough to make our rent and buy some groceries say “time is money.” But if time is money, we are going broke.

When we value someone’s worth as a human being on how much they can squeeze into a day, what value do we place on someone who cannot physically or mentally do that? What value do we place on people who attempt to do enough to keep up with everyone else, but fail? What judgements do our cult leaders place on those who work less than 80 hour weeks because they physically or mentally cannot, or spiritually will not?

In the cult of busy we don’t have time to volunteer or do gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness, or give tzedakah, or give the time and effort it takes to create the kind of humane society we once were. We don’t have the time to lift up the fallen, or heal the sick, or free the captive, or clothe the naked or do any of the other things our Yom Kippur haftarah will command we do because we are Jews.

Nearly 30 years a study was conducted at Princeton University, designed to figure out the conditions under which good people would do good. Two psychologists asked a group of theology students to walk to another building on campus to give a short speech. Meanwhile, the psychologists had arranged for an actor to be stationed on the path between the two buildings, slumped over, coughing and obviously in bad shape. The two experimenters had led half the students to believe they were late for their speaking appointment, and half that they had ample time.

Only 10 percent of those led to believe they were running late stopped to help. Of those told that they had plenty of time, 60 percent stopped to help.

It takes time to stop and help.

The cult of busy is keeping us from building the kind of community we all really crave. It’s keeping us from making the difference we all want so badly to make.

As a Rabbi, I know the cult of busy is winning in the Jewish community because so few of us allow ourselves the luxury of Shabbat, the one time we are commanded to take time.

To be frank, I’m just perplexed about that. Why don’t more of us take a day off a week to remind ourselves that we aren’t machines? To be “unbusy” without self-blame? To not produce anything without guilt? Just what is it we are striving to do in those few 24 hours? 

I’m just really perplexed because so many people over the last few weeks have told me they meant to check out City Shul all year long, but they were so busy this whole year. Now if you tell me you you don’t believe in G-d- I get it! You don’t like to pray- I get it! You don’t like services-well, I’m a little hurt but I get it! But if you’re too busy to create the community you joined because you wanted to create the kind of community you would join- I just don’t get it.

Now let me hasten to add that I am not advocating an Orthodox Shabbat. Drive in a car, turn on and off the lights. Go to a farmer’s market, bike to the beach. Yes I am a Rabbi and you heard me correctly. I’m simply advocating lowering the “shlep” factor of our lives one day a week. 

There’s a group of secular folks, not all of whom are Jewish, who have created something called The Sabbath Manifesto.The Sabbath Manifesto was developed in the same spirit as the Slow Movement, slow food, slow living, by a small group of artists, writers, filmmakers and media professionals who, while not particularly religious, felt a collective need to fight back against our increasingly fast-paced way of living. The idea is a day-spa for the mind. 

A day of unplugging without tweeting about our unplugged experience.

A day of no distractions from outside to distract us from our insides. 

One day a week we can stop answering the question “how are you” with the word “busy.”

One day a week to detach our sense of inner worth and self-esteem from the frequency and amount of our online activities. To be still without having to go to an ashram for a stillness retreat. 

There’s a scene in the film Beyond the Clouds where an archaeologist hires some tribesmen to lead him to an site deep in the mountains. After they had been moving for some time the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.” 

That’s the kind of living the cult of busy promotes. The kind of living in which we move so fast our souls have no time to catch up, on purpose: so we don’t have to face them.

We need to be willing to teach ourselves this year to unlove our stress and unlove our busyness. 

We joined this cult and we can exit it ourselves today. In the midrash on tomorrow’s Torah portion Isaac goes willingly up the mountain to his own sacrifice and even fastens the cords himself. As Abraham is about to slay his son upon the altar, an angel of God calls out to him twice, but he doesn’t hear him the first time—so in a rush is he to get it done. So unwilling to hear the voice of his inner angel that he has to be called a second time, lest he automatically slaughter his son while he is “busy” fulfilling what he believes to be a Divine command. The midrash even uses the word “zarez” to describe Abarham- frenetically rushing.

Thats why we need to stop and hear the shofar, just like Abraham needed to stop to see the ram. The shofar shatters the altar of busy we have erected. I know when our member Peter blows the shofar today we will experience a moment like no other; a moment of absolute stillness and full attention during which the cult of busy will have no sway over us, will hold no attraction, and will exercise no power. The shofar is the sound of blowing away the need for pinging sounds to make us feel called. The shofar is the sound of our beating hearts when we slow down and ignore the distractions that are keeping us from hearing it. The shofar is the sound of being busy just being, because, as the great Bob Dylan sang, “He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying.” 

This year, lets be busy being born.

Shana Tova







City Shul Torah - Kol Nidre Pledge by Kim Beckman
September 27, 2012

We have all waited such a long, long time for the City Shul.   My profound yearning, and perhaps yours, has been to find a progressive, spiritual community in the place where I live.  Equally important to me and my family is a synagogue that is prepared to meet us where we are – struggles, skepticism, seeking and all.   That, for us, is what the City Shul is.  

Downtown Toronto also holds a profound place in our family’s history – some of our parents and grandparents were refugees from the Holocaust who lived their first days of true freedom on the streets just outside these doors, the streets that my children have always called home.  

What that first generation risked to come here, for the ability to freely practice their religious and spiritual beliefs, remains beyond comprehension for most of us.  Only a few of those brave souls remain with us.  Our family is blessed to have our remaining survivors with us tonight.  For them and the others we loved who did not live to see this day, as well as those who perished for no reason other than what they believed in or who they loved, it is our task, indeed it is our responsibility to put down Jewish roots of our own, with our own true voices, here in the place where freedom is all we have ever known.  

Our community gathers tonight to worship with a borrowed Torah.  To create our link in the chain, from those who came before us to future generations, the City Shul will establish its collective voice by commissioning a Torah.  Ours will be the first Canadian-made Reform Torah in the world that is created by a female Soferet.  The scribe will join us in the coming year through study and community celebration as the Torah becomes a reality. The last letter of the Torah will be written at the City Shul and the last page will be sewn with us present in a final communal celebration.  

We are honoured and moved by a generous lead donation for the City Shul Torah from the Sherkin family which moved our Torah from wishful thinking to achievable reality. The donation was made by members of the extended Sherkin family in memory of their beloved husband, father and grandfather, Husky. Many members of the Sherkin family belong to other synagogues but it was their collective desire to assist a synagogue without a Torah to obtain one.  To the Sherkin family we extend our deep gratitude.  

Now, we need your help.  This Torah, our Torah, will be our heart and soul, a testament to our courage and our commitment to each other. Your donations will create an enduring legacy of learning and celebration. 

Kappores by Fran Bleviss
September 26, 2012

Yom Kippur

The Scapegoat

When I first contemplated Rabbi Goldstein’s invitation to prepare a D’var Torah for today, I felt equal measures of wonder, awe and dread, emotions fitting for Yom Kippur. Once I got past the dread, I began to think – to think about a High Holyday ritual about which my mother used to speak when I was a child, and which had delighted and puzzled my childish mind. The ritual is called Kapparah or in Yiddish Schlogapuris.  Schlogapuris involves swinging a live chicken over your head while a Hebrew formula and blessing is recited to cleanse you of your sins and to cast those same sins onto the chicken in exchange. In my mind, it was one thing to swing a live chicken over your head to absorb your sins and absolutely another to give that chicken, full of your sins, to a poor family – didn’t they then in eating said chicken, get stuck with all you had repented from?

Since I am almost grown-up, I decided to explore the ritual of Kapparah, or Schlogapuris. This led me to a Sholem Aleichem story, “Kapores” which takes place in a nineteenth century Russian village, where residents are preparing to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

A boy overhears some chickens planning a strike. The chickens are sick of being used for Kapores. When all of the chickens run away, the women try to coax them back with grain, the men try to get the back with force, and the rabbi tries to negotiate. The chickens (being Jewish chickens) ultimately ask, “Where is it written that Jews must perform Kapores?” thus putting the humans on the theological defensive. Finally, the boy pleads, “Without Kapores, I will never be able to make my Papa proud.” To this a chicken responds, “Boychik, for this you need a chicken?”

Thoughts of those chickens and Kapparah lead to the Hebrew root of Kapparah: Kuf, Pay, Raish, the root also of the word “Repentance” or “Atonement”, our primary task during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and especially during the prayers we recite with awe and dread on Yom Kippur.

And this of course led me back to our Torah portion of this morning Leviticus 16, chapters 1-24 which deals with the sacrifice of a bull and the two goats brought to Aaron in the temple.  Aaron chose by lot the first goat to be sacrificed and made a burnt offering to the Holy One. The second goat became the “scapegoat”, a word coined by William Tyndale, the 16th century translator of the English Bible. Aaron put his hands upon the head of the “scapegoat” and confessed, with the acknowledgment of the congregation, their collective sins and wrong-doings. The goat was then led into the wilderness for Azazel. There has been much scholarly discussion of whom or what Azazel was meant to be, a devil-like figure or simply the wilderness itself. Rabbi Gunther Plaut suggests that during the period of the Second Temple, the goat was pushed over a cliff by its erstwhile shepherd, to be dashed to bits, thus taking with it all the sins of the Israelites. Alternatively, the goat is taken to the wilderness and left there to wander, bearing eternally the sins of that ancient congregation. The second version is clearly more benign, and to a 21st century mind, both more appealing and more plausible, simply because we can never be entirely free of our actions.

Sadly, although almost every language has a term for “scapegoat”, the word has been perverted by humans, terrified of the demon “other” and has come to mean permission to target and even kill another human branded a scapegoat. Several recent events in Israel tragically fit into this category. In one horrifying incident, several 12 and 13 year olds, children of settlers across the Green Line, hurled a Molotov Cocktail into a taxi, badly burning a Palestinian family on its way to a market. 

In our own Canada there is the example of the Harper government scapegoating all refugee claimants in a misguided attempt to eliminate false refugee claims. Refugees presently in Canada, and those seeking refugee status in embassies abroad have been denied medical and dental benefits to save the government money.

To quote several doctors who wrote feelingly of the problem in The Vancouver Sun in June:

“It's been said that the best measure of a society is the way that it treats its weakest members. Clearly, our government has undertaken a program of scapegoating the weakest and most voiceless among us, in a way that seems very un-Canadian.”

The issue is, in fact, the excessively long wait times faced by refugee claimants, a situation easily rectified by an expedited process of hearing refugee claims. Clearly, although this would require more staff in a time when our government is cutting costs, it would ensure that only the deserving got to stay here. The doctors ended with a fine thought, appropriate for Yom Kippur::

“We have been Canadians for just 145 years, and human beings for 12,000 times that. Obviously, we are human beings first - and our responsibilities as human beings do not end with ourselves, and our responsibilities as Canadians don't end at our borders.”

In the words of the esteemed Rav Soloveitschik (as shared by Rabbi Goldstein during a retreat several Sundays ago), the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur demands of us that we turn to face ourselves, so that we may contemplate our sins and wrong-doings of the past year, to 

see them clearly, and not only to take action by making apologies and amends as we can, but to lay bare our souls, full of flaws as they are. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s words, we must “Take arms against a sea of troubles/ And by opposing, end them.” Would that Hamlet or we could really have a goat, a chicken or even the modern equivalent, a bag of money, swung over our heads to absolve us of sin.

 In investing our sins in an animal, we take action, metaphorically speaking, but that is not enough. No formal ritual alone can do our moral and spiritual work for us.

We must acknowledge that, like the Biblical “scapegoat”, we carry those sins wherever we  go, knowing that being human, we are likely to sin again. Perfection is not the human condition, but the Divine condition.

Nonetheless, we can, as Rav Soloveitschik explains, explore the flaws in ourselves that lead us to unpleasant words or actions. We can make them, in his words, into “seeds of virtue”, each fault transmuted into positive energy and a way of freeing ourselves to do good in the world. A person who cannot bring herself to spend money out of fear of not having enough, might see real need around her and decide to donate generously to a charity. Or a busy gossip might come to see what harm her talking is doing, and use that gift for conversation by volunteering at a cancer clinic where people need support. 

On a more personal note, at a meeting prior to a recent trip to Japan, I took an immediate dislike to a woman I thought a total know-it-all. I certainly was not going to spend time with her. As we travelled together, I realized that my reaction was defensive – don’t I, after all, know almost everything about everything? She did, in fact know lots about Japan, having travelled there previously. In deciding to honour rather than resent her knowledge, I walked with her through a lovely misty bamboo forest in Kyoto, only to discover that one of her dearest friends is the wife of someone who has known me since I was six years old. I was so moved by having to travel thousands of miles to make this discovery, I burst into tears and hugged her. And I still enjoy her company. And reflect what a magnificent world it would be for all of us if we could resist the urge to make a scapegoat of someone else!

Most importantly, in the words of Stanley Rabinowitz’s translation of the powerful prayer “Unetanah Tokef”, we can actively practice …Teshuvah (repentance and return), Tefilah (study) and Tsedakah (charity). 

For, “Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tsedakah …

Have the power to change the character of our lives.

May we resolve then to turn from our accustomed ways, 

And to behave righteously/ So that we may truly begin a New Year.”  

Shana Tova.


Religion for Atheists by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 26, 2012

Kol Nidre

A Jew, A Catholic, and an atheist are rowing together when their boat springs a huge leak. The Jew looks skyward, and says “God, if you save me, I promise I’ll sail to Israel and spend the rest of my days working the land you gave us.” The Catholic looks skyward, and says, “God, if you save me, I promise I’ll fly to the Vatican and become a priest.” The atheist says, “Guys, if you pass me that one life preserver, I promise I’ll swim to shore.” “Yes but how will you spend the rest of your days?” the Jew and the Catholic ask. “Well,” says the atheist, “I’m not sure, but I can tell you one thing: I’ll never go out rowing with atheists.”

Although polls differ, between 25 and 30 percent of all Canadians say they are atheists. If we look at our own shul demographics, the beliefs survey I sent around last month had 32 percent saying they had very strong doubts, and 20 percent saying they were clear non-believers. So if you put together the strong doubters and the strong non-believers you have 52 percent of the responders saying they are not believers in the classical sense of the word. That means half of us don’t want to go out rowing with the other half. 

So it’s understandably difficult to be standing here tonight charged with the task of bringing all of us together under the banner of “the holiest night of the year.”

Yet even those who did not believe said in our survey they felt a sense of meaning and spirituality in the holidays, in life cycle events, when they are in nature, when they are with family, when they hear music, when, as one responder put it, “I stop long enough to notice the marvel that life is and the beauty of the earth that we live on.” 

And what's more significant- those who call themselves non-believers are here tonight.

Perhaps it is because in Judaism, where there is no catechism and no creed you must profess when you walk in the door, it is easier to come to synagogue for other reasons: family, community, tradition, the music, the learning, the kiddush (well, not tonight.) Perhaps it is because the three great themes of these 24 hours transcend supernaturalism and grab us all by the kishkes: and they are humility, gratefulness, and forgiveness. Perhaps it is because even the most skeptical among us is willing to take just 24 hours of a whole year—one day in a whole year— to quietly examine their life through the tools of a tradition which asks us to turn around and face ourselves--teshuva—and answer ourselves-teshuva

But perhaps it is one thing more: the realization of the value of religioneven for a non-believer.

This summer I read a very thoughtful book called Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion, by Alain de Botton. In this book, he asks, “What if religions are neither all true nor all nonsense?” In the past few years we’ve seen a plethora of books excoriating religion for all its ills and painting those who do practice some form of religion as complete idiots. Botton argues that while for him the supernatural claims of religion are false, religion still has very important lessons to teach the secular world. Religion's deep appeal is that it addresses legitimate and longstanding human needs which science and strict rationality do not address. In other words, even for the rationalists among us, religion—and here of course I want to relate to Judaism in particular—need not be an exercise in superstition and fundamentalism but rather an important part of a rational life. How?

Botton suggests the world’s religions are packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies; insights into how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, inspire travel and reconnect with the natural world. They promote morality, train minds, and encourage gratitude. They offer role models who are not only film stars or rock singers but courageous, loyal, generous and unselfish. They have texts which offer well-structured guidance into how to live, texts which spark the mind and which deal poetically with the confused inner side of us, our frailty and our vulnerability and our fears, texts whose main thrust is to teach wisdom. 

As Botton puts it, religions are “repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try and assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life...we have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don’t go on pilgrimages...we resist mental exercises. Strangers rarely sing together.”

That rings specifically ring true for me as a Jew: Judaism inspires us towardtikkun olam, making the world a better place. Judaism requires, values and instills intellectual discourse and critical thinking. Judaism offers time-tested rituals which  do not rely on technology or wealth or talent but which console, spark discussion, lend meaning, and bring comfort. Judaism teaches us to be both gentle on ourselves and demanding on ourselves. Judaism offers a narrative of improvement, a hope that it can and will get better or that we can and will make it better. Because Judaism teaches that humans did not bring the planet into being, it is not ours to control or own. As Botton writes, “Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place.” 

And because we were strangers, and because we were slaves, Judaism’s central themes are freedom for all, and reaching out to the stranger, creating a sensitivity in us that is felt by others. Inside this shulurch, we are able to, as Botton puts it, “lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought...insane.” And those strangers sing together. 

Many of the books that trash religion make a point of how much evil has been perpetrated in the name of religion and in the name of God. I know so much of what happens in our own lives- personal tragedies, natural disasters, seem impossible to explain in the light of a Loving and Compassionate God. Our responders felt most distant from God and spirituality when they saw terrible things happen, as one responder put it, “When I witness the ugliness of humanity…” Yet I also know that so much good- charity, art, literature, works of great beauty, majestic architecture, and whole social safety networks like old age homes, schools, and hospitals have also been created in the name of religion and God. 

And we can point out how horrible, abusive, and power-hungry some religious leaders can be. I know that ministers, priests and even Rabbis have done horrific things I’d rather not name. I believe in God; I just don't trust anyone who works for him. But I also know so many religious leaders who have inspired the world, who have moved mountains and melted guns and turned swords into plowshares because of their belief that God has commanded us to do so:  I think of Rabbi Gunther Plaut and Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King in Selma Alabama, saying “My feet were praying.” 

Sometimes on a search for religious meaning we are sent into places filled with “nurishkeit” which can drive not just a non-believer but also a believer into incredulity. Futile exercises like the “Bible codes” which put God in a computer, trying to prove that God knew several thousand years ago that Yitzchak Rabin would be assassinated, put that secret in a code encrypted in the Torah, and then patiently waited till the computer was invented so we could find the secret out in a seminar makes us look stupid. I hope you never find yourself in a place with people who don’t read Hebrew scanning the text of the Kabbalistic Zohar with their eyes closed to be “healed by the vibrations of the words.” And I hope never to attend a conference of Jewish creationists who count the world as really, truly 5,773 years old.

Friends, I know all the wrongs of organized religion—which is why I prefer Judaism, because its a very disorganized religion.

And of course, the main reason so many people find it hard to see the beauty and enduring value in religion is because of its God-centredness, it’s belief in a Supernatural Being. I know how hard it may be to believe in a Deity that split the sea and a world in which people dressed in fig leaves lived to 930 years old; the Deity that our prayerbook offers us and we were taught about in Hebrew school: all-seeing, all- knowing, all-punishing, kind of like a Jewish Santa Claus except year round. The one that takes out a quill and writes us in the Book of Life; the old man with a beard on a throne in heaven. 

I can’t prove God exists, and I don’t want to convert or convince anyone. Woody Allen once said, "If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank." I agree that would do it for most of us. For some of us, our belief in a Higher Power is tested often but still rings true. For some of us, those beliefs are not inimical with modernity but metaphors and images we find deeply comforting, artistically nourishing, and intellectually challenging. For some of us, we have felt a Presence that we can’t explain rationally in our lives since we were little. And some of us are moved to search for that Presence even if we don’t feel it. But that is not to say that those who do not believe nor ever even wish to search for a Higher Power cannot find Judaism richly rewarding.

So what can we do together, as moderns, as believers, as searchers, as seekers, as non-believers, as doubters, as skeptics, all of us together in the same boat? 

We can reject fundamentalism that demands we dismiss science, and instead see science as a partner in spirituality. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. The world needs science to understand the world that is, we need religion to understand the world that ought to be.” We can share the scientists amazement at how large and unique our world is. We can think about how small we are in the universe, and just how fabulous it is that every circumstance for the last few 4 billion years has created the environment that can produce our unique genetic code. 

We can talk about tradition, and affiliation, and tenets; we can share our passion, our sensitivities, and a tangible expression of how we live out our values. We can talk about wonder, and awe, and gratitude. We can talk about our relationship with each other as a reflection of religious values: how we see a glimpse of Divinity when we allow ourselves to see it in the faces of humanity. 

We can take religion’s most redeeming qualities, the gifts that science cannot give us: community, stability, family, tikkun olam, rituals, connection to something greater than ourselves, responsibility for our families, our neighbours, our planet, our bodies and our souls; sanctifying time, creating beautiful space, self reflection, self improvement, hope, meaning, and purpose and in those find spirituality that enriches our lives as Jews.

We can understand that because human language is so limited, we don’t need to get trapped in it: trapped in the one dimensionality of the prayerbook and in the anthropomorphism of the Torah, in God’s hands and ears and even heart because we read them with scientific eyes. As best we can, we can be thinking about prayer as poetry, as powerful and creative metaphors of faith, hope, and wholeness. Of the Book of Life as the book we write our own names in, to be remembered, to matter, to change.

And we can “Pray as if everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on you.”

Once a week we can rest, because rest is a good thing. Once a year we can think hard about being better human beings, about loving more and being kinder, taking a quiet 24 hours to do that. Once in a while we can turn off our Blackberries and experience a sense of why monasteries were built. 

We can try and disable our rational switches and turn on our emotional switches. I’ve often wondered why, when I was growing up, Reform Jews were so bad at singing hymns. It’s because they read ahead to see if they agreed with the words. We can learn the Hebrew mantra: an ancient mantra, designed to relax you (Sh….ma…), designed to connect you to your ancestors long gone (yisgadal v’yiskadash shemay raba) designed to enliven you (v’hair eynenu); designed to be moving even when wordless (yadaidai). 

And we can just show up. You may one day be the 10th, the minyan-maker for a friend who believes, who wants to say Kaddish. Like the joke about the atheist in the restaurant who asks the waiter “What’s this fly doing in my soup?” The waiter says “Praying.” The atheist says, “Thats not funny. I can’t eat this. Take it back.” And the waiter says, “Aha! You see? The fly’s prayers were answered.” Your being present may be the answer tosomeone else’s prayers.

I believe that we all have a soul— whether you call that spirit, mind, psyche, imagination, heart, selfhood, transcendence, essence, whatever—a part of us that deeply needs to be fed and sustained by religious ideals. I pray that this year, Judaism will be the tool that each of us can turn to, in one way or another, to feed and sustain that inner piece of, no matter what we believe its source is. And I hope that is a prayer that even the non-believers among us can “Amen to.”  Shana Tova


The United Church and Israel by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 26, 2012

Yom Kippur Morning

On a lovely spring day in June, a group of dedicated City Shul volunteers known as the location task force finished its three months of looking at scores of locations, and began to agonize over whether or not to hold our first high holiday services in a church. Some of us remembered wistfully the plastic flowers in basketball hoops at the North JCC, and then we recalled the hotel ballroom last year with its basement entrance and the sound of the kitchen crew clearly shouting about the ham during the silent Amidah. We agonized: what to do about the iconography? And we knew that the altar—which would be our bima—does not face east: we figured that one out. But we breathed deeply, paid the utterly reasonable rental fee, and signed the contract. We started planning with the church’s administrator, a prince of a man named John, and every request was cheerfully granted. We were being made to feel right at home, and the chemistry was perfect.

And then, on August 17, just a week before we would move our ark and reading table and apples and honeycake in, the United Church of Canada—of which this church is a member— passed a resolution advocating a boycott of Israeli goods produced in the settlements over the Green Line.

And on August 23, in Rabbi-time really just days before the holiday, CIJA—the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the successor to the Canadian Jewish Congress which I once was a Board member of—published its response 
calling for a Jewish boycott of the United Church, specifically, imposing “an  immediate moratorium on all dialogue and partnership activities between the institutions of the Canadian Jewish community and the United Church of Canada, its regional conferences, local presbyteries and individual congregations…” and concluding with “We ask the rabbinic and lay leadership of the Canadian Jewish community to respect the highest degree of solidarity with this moratorium.”

O-M-G. Emails started flying. Letters to the editor in the Canadian Jewish News suggested everything from specifically buying the very products produced over the Green Line ( a “buycott”) to the entire Jewish community boycotting anything made in Egypt, Syria and Turkey. One couple asked for a refund of their previously purchased high holiday tickets. Rabbis start writing letters to CIJA saying they will not accept the moratorium since they themselves did not initiate it and had no part in discussing or accepting it before CIJA proclaimed it. And now its one week before Rosh Hashana. An emergency phone call between CIJA and all the Rabbis of Canada- of all denominations, the one and only time I think we all spoke together—is called for Sept. 6. The Rabbis debate, and at the end, after its own Board meeting on Sept 14, in Rabbi-time just hours before Rosh Hashana, CIJA retracts its call for a Jewish boycott of the United Church and instead writes, “The..Board...concluded that dialogue efforts and engagement with the United Church at the local level should continue and indeed, intensify. Local Partners will be asked to work with Rabbis and other local community partners to define and implement strategies in their respective communities...We believe that this approach offers a remarkable opportunity for meaningful Jewish community engagement, and we strongly encourage you to consider how best to invite and empower your constituents in this collective undertaking.” 

Later that same day I picked up the phone and spoke with the minister of this church, Reverend Hans van Nie. I opened my heart to him, and told him how vulnerable some of us felt about this new partnership, and how tender some of us might be just walking into this building. He was remarkably attuned, and admitted that his own position is multi-layered. We decided to sponsor a dialogue between the two of us and between City Shul and Trinity/St Paul on this very issue on Oct. 22, 7:30 PM, here in the sanctuary, to which you are all invited. This will not be a typical nice-nice interfaith gathering where we all share just how similar we are, hold hands and end by singing kumbaya. This will be an open, honest dialogue and it might get raw and it might get emotional and it will be real. I am not interested in advertising this; I am not interested in filling the sanctuary with folks bussed in to shout their indignant replies or setting up picket lines. I want to foster dialogue. Why?

Because dialogue and debate are Jewish values. It’s enshrined as a core principle of Jewish legal thought that minority opinions are recorded on every page of the Talmud, right alongside majority opinions. “Why?” asked the rabbis. “Because there may well be truth in what today is a minority opinion that will one day make it a majority opinion.” It is a core characteristic of Jewish texts that they are almost always engaged in argument. The Mishnah uses the explicit language of dispute ("… these are the words of Rabbi X. But Rabbi Y says…") as its primary mode of expression. These days of repentance command us, even if you are hurt, even if you are disappointed, even if you are angry: never close the door on dialogue. Keep talking. Keep debating and even disagreeing. Release old hurts and open your heart to talk to even those who once tread on it.

So here we are, in a United Church, on the holiest day of our Jewish year. Let’s analyze their resolution, consider our own reaction to it, and then ask where to go from here. I welcome your comments after the holiday by visiting our website where this sermon will be posted and where you can post your comments and we can have an online discussion among us.

Last May, Rabbi Michael Dolgin of Temple Sinai and I were asked to represent the Toronto Board of Rabbis and present a paper on our views to the working group of the United Church dealing with this issue, the group that would eventually recommend this boycott to the General Council (which is 350 churches meeting in August). That working group travelled across Canada consulting church members and various outside partners including Muslim and Jewish organizations. In addition, it made a two-week trip to the Israel and the Palestinian territories to see the situation on the ground first hand and meet with both Palestinians and Israelis, taking suggestions from Rabbi Dolgin and I about people and organizations over there with whom to meet. 

In essence, the report concluded that it was a moral duty for the Church to take a stand against the expansion of settlements as a key obstacle to finding peace. This, it was pointed out, is fully consistent with what is Canada’s official policy.

Our aim as Rabbis was to help them avoid and decide against a boycott. We thought then—and we still think—the boycott is a punitive, not positive response, that it is a hand-slap felt more here than in Israel. We knew then that we may not be able to convince them, so three other things became crucial for us. 

First that the language of “apartheid” not be used. That advice was taken and noted in the resolution and is crucial since the term “apartheid” is loaded, inaccurate, and intentionally provocative. 

Second, that the Church not accept or join the BDS movement (boycott, divest and sanctions) which does not differentiate between boycotting Israel as a whole and the West Bank as a part, which calls for a comprehensive boycott of all Israeli businesses and products. Indeed the Council confirmed the direction of the working group report that the church does not support the formal Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign. The United Church is not proposing a boycott of the country of Israel. It will seek to identify products that are produced in the illegal settlements and encourage United Church members not to purchase them. Keep in mind that most of the settlements are considered illegal by the UN because those territories were captured by Israel in a war in 1967 and are hence seen as being subject to the Geneva Conventions, which forbids construction on occupied land.

And the Church will not require its members to participate in the boycott of settlement products. On its website it states, “As in all such matters, the United Church has never required agreement with its policies. Instead it invites from its members study, prayerful discernment, and personal action.”

Unfortunately, the boycott will also involve Israeli products which employ Palestinian and Arab-Israeli workers. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics released data last month showing the number of Palestinians employed within Israeli settlements is 15,000 and growing. Plus the Church did not encourage a positive response such as recommending its members invest in start-up West Bank firms and businesses, or a call to buy specifically Palestinian products, such as the Palestinian olive oil being sold right here at Fiesta Farms.

And third, we pressed that the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state with secure borders not be debated. Indeed the Council affirmed continuing support for a two-state solution, which is what most liberal Jews support and about which I have passionately advocated from my High Holiday pulpit before— and they maintained the decade-long policy of the United Church affirming Israel as a Jewish state. The definition of Jewish state was purposely pointed, as "a homeland for the Jewish people and a democratic state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or gender." While that is a definition I think most of us could agree with and many of us are working toward, it not so subtly suggests a critique toward specifically Jewish rights in Israel. 

The resolution also denounces aggression and incitement to violence toward the state of Israel and its people — though it doesn’t prescribe any actions against those who do so.

Perhaps most difficult and most emotional for us was that while the Council affirmed that it does recognize Israel as a Jewish state, it expressed “regret” for calling on Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a prerequisite to peace negotiations. The Church’s website notes, “Palestinian Christians, in particular, challenged the church to rethink this issue. They argue Palestinians have already recognized Israel's right to exist but that Israel itself has not defined what it means by the term "Jewish state." Palestinian Christians have expressed their desire that the new Palestinian state be secular and democratic...” While that may be reassuring to us, the deeper issue of defining Israel as a Jewish State has really not been resolved by the Church, nor has it made manifest its willingness to do everything in its power, including training its Palestinian Christian partners in the West Bank to insure a secular, democratic Palestinian State.

The resolution debate lasted seven hours. It prompted strong opposition from United Church members right up until it was approved. This is not the first time the Council debated a resolution on Israel. Boycott proposals similar to the recent working group’s report failed to receive endorsements at the 2006 and 2009 General Councils, as they were filled with inflammatory language the councils found problematic; inflammatory rhetoric absent from this latest report. In the months since the working group’s report was released, it has spawned intra-faith griping among United Church members. Some church members have suggested the report teeters too close to anti-Semitism. Last month, nine Conservative and Liberal senators, all United Church members, accused the church of taking sides on the issue by effectively blaming Israel for all the region’s problems. So this is not a unified response. 

And exact details of how the boycott will be applied have not been determined. Now, more than ever, this sensitive time period is the time for renewed dialogue. The time to listen carefully, compassionately, and willingly to what the United Church is trying to accomplish and how they see things through their own lenses while asking that they listen carefully, compassionately and willingly to our perceptions, fears, and hopes.

A joke has it that on the sixth day, God turned to the Angels and said:  "Today I am going to create a land called Israel, it will be a land of green mountains, sparkling lakes, forests full of all kind of trees, high cliffs overlooking sandy beaches with an abundance of sea life." "I shall make the land rich so to make the inhabitants prosper, I shall call these inhabitants Israeli, and they shall be known to all the people on earth." "But Lord, asked the Angels, “don't you think you are being too generous to these Israeli's?" "Not really, God replied, just wait and see the neighbours I am going to give them."

We didn’t choose our neighbours in the Middle East nor even in Toronto but they are, whether we like it or not, our neighbours. 

So where do we go from here? 

First, it is obvious that a settlement boycott in Canada will have negligible impact. 

Second, let us admit that from our comfortable armchairs in Canada it is nearly impossible to do anything or say anything that will make a significant difference- not us, and not the United Church. Only Israelis— those who daily work and live and breathe and eat and defend the State there— will have to live with the consequences of their government’s actions. Not CIJA and not me and not you and not the Christian evangelists whose end-of-day theology includes support for expansion of settlements and the borders of a pre-1967 “Greater Israel.”

Third, it is time for Diaspora Jews to stop seeing Israel as a black-and-white “either it's all perfect or its all rotten” ideology and embrace its reality, warts and all.

And it is time for Diaspora Jews to stop reacting as if Israel is the sum total of our Judaism. Like the story told of an Oxford University professor who asks his students to write a paper on the elephant. The French student writes, ‘The elephant and his love life.’ The Japanese student writes, ‘Making a better elephant.’ The American student writes, ‘Elephants and the war machine’ and Canadians write: The elephant: a federal or provincial responsibility? But the Jewish student writes, ‘The elephant and the problem of Israel.’ We tend to see everything as about Israel, and defensively so. We ask how politicians vote on Israel and then ignore their vote on every other important issue: abortion, gay marriage, global warming, healthcare, social safety nets, the economy, taxes, you name it; as long as they are staunchly pro-Israel. We need to stop being one-issue voters; it won’t help Israel and it won’t help us.

And most difficult, most painful- we must formulate a liberal Jewish response toward the settlements. On June 26 Eric Yoffie, the past president of the Reform movement, wrote in Haartez: “The disconnection that mainstream North American Jews feel towards the Jewish state is driven by the settlement movement...which continues its fanatic, unrelenting drive to expand into every corner of the territories. The only way to re-engage North American Jews and Israel is for the Israeli government to stand up to the settlers - now.”

Yoffie was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.

He writes, “The settlement enterprise, long the central issue of Israel’s internal politics, has become the constant, harping theme of political discussion about the Jewish State, causing concern, dismay, and confusion among even the most committed North American Jews…” The Reform movement has consistently spoken out against an expansion of settlements and has passed its own resolutions condemning them.

Since the mid-1990s, the settlement population outside of the major settlement blocs has risen from about 35,000 to over 80,000. More than 350,000 Jews live in what they call Judea and Samaria. With an annual growth rate of 5 percent, they can expect to reach 400,000 by 2014. When I lived in Israel two years ago I myself saw the way the settlements carve the West Bank into swiss-cheese, making one contiguous future Palestinian State there an impossibility. I know the problem of who will claim East Jerusalem and the rise of what we can call “settlements” around it to close it in as a Jewish demography. As Jay Leno once joked about the “road map” to peace: “The bad news is the Israelis think the road goes through the West Bank, and the Palestinians think it goes right through downtown Jerusalem." But Jerusalem did not appear in the Church’s resolution and it is a thorny issue that goes beyond the scope of this discussion.

What is at stake for us as Jews, what has been called to the forefront of our consciousness by the United Church resolution, is whether or not we can move our beloved Israel into a position of seeing just how much 40 years of expanding settlements tears its own soul apart. An Israeli tourist lands at Pearson. At the customs desk the officer asks: "Occupation ? " The Israeli answers: " No, just a visit. " To have the world view us as occupiers is in many ways unthinkable, and when the United Church hold that mirror up to us, it stings. 40 years of being soldiers around those who loathe your presence, of being border patrol, of manning checkpoints, and—lest we say it too loud—of being occupiers has had a devastating affect on a whole generation of Israelis. Ask my four young nephews in the IDF— all of whom love Israel as I do and defend it with their full hearts— if they want to spend their army days and if they want their government spending millions of dollars protecting settlers, and they will tell you no.

The United Church of Canada expressed a hope and commitment to be able to contribute to justice, even in a small way, that leads to peace in Israel/Palestine. More importantly, the Council wrote, “In order to do this justice, peace and human dignity work, we call on United Church members to continue to deepen and strengthen their relationships with the Jewish community; to identify the importance of trust-building programs between Palestinians and Israelis by encouraging stronger connections between United Church programs and organizations that build understanding between Palestinians and Israelis; and to exploring and supporting initiatives for increasing connections in Canada between Palestinian Canadians and Jewish Canadians. An agenda of Jewish-Palestinian Canadiandialogue is an agenda I hope the United Church and City Shul can work together on.

Today is a day of forgiveness, when we read about scapegoats being cast off cliffs. There are no scapegoats here: not Israel, not the settlements, and not the United Church. Dialogue is our only hope of not being pushed over, any of us, over anything in our lives: whether family, or work, or relationships, or Israel. Let us be stalwart and steady in our resolve not to be pushed, and not to push in return.

Sacred Community by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
September 19, 2012

A few years ago, on February 7, 70-year-old Vincenzo Ricardo of Hamton Bays, New York was found dead in a chair in front of his television, which was still turned on. The medical examiner said the man apparently died of natural causes. Police found Ricardo's body while investigating a report of burst pipes. The only thing particularly strange about this news item is that Ricardo’s body was found a full year after he died. His home's dry air had preserved his body from decomposing. Ricardo had lived alone since his wife's death a few years before, and they had no kids. Neighbours say they assumed he was in a hospital or nursing home and hadn't thought to check on him. He was dead in his chair of front of the TV screen for a year, and nobody knew- not even the guy paying the cable monthly.

I have a prayer: Dear Lord, please don’t let me die in front of a TV and stay there for a year before someone notices. Or at least let the reruns of MASH be good ones..

We hunger for community, and we die for lack of it. There’s a story in the Talmud about Honi the Circle-Maker. He’s the Jewish Rip Van Winkle- he goes to sleep for 70 years and wakes up and goes to his old stomping grounds, his old study hall where he hears the scholars say, "The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Maker, for whenever he came to the study hall he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had.” Honi started to scream "I am he! I am Honi!"  But the scholars didn’t believe him or engage with him. They just ignored him as an old man dreaming. He had no context for coming back to life, no community to welcome him back. Without his community, he was existentially adrift, misplaced, not really awake. Wake up for what? Distressed and distraught, he prayed for mercy, and he died. From this the Tamud teaches: o chevruta o metuta, “Either companionship or death.”

Because without community, we die inside a little each year, slowly slowly, a spiritual death, a loneliness so intense we fill it with movies and video games and drugs and alcohol and casual sex and meaningless parties and TV shows where we throw one another off islands to prove just how alone we can be.

Thats really why I moved downtown, to tell you the truth, not only because downtown is hipper, cooler, and younger than I will ever be again. But because—and here I don’t want to overstate the comparison but— because people downtown have front porches, not just back decks. I talk to my neighbours since we don’t have a big driveway separating our houses. There’s a yearly shared street garage sale. We live in ‘hoods down here. We shop locally. We don’t go on highways to see each other. I see my neigbours in the store and the farmer’s market, I hope, in the shul. 

I think downtown people understand community.  Because of that are in a unique position to understand, and in fact redefine, Jewish community.

School communities, club communities, work communities, religious communities are where humans learn the skills needed to be with other human beings. The ideals of justice and compassion, fair play and hard work, truth-telling and sharing are nurtured in communities. We cannot imagine being more than just ourselves in anything but a community. The communities in which children live have a fundamental impact on their development. Communities create the early environments that set the course for children's futures.

We had community when we were kids. We scratched our knees together and somebody’s mommy or teacher put a bandaid on and we all went back out to play together. We had community when we were in high school or university. We shared secrets and failed tests and new loves and bad food together. We held each other up when we slid and we cheered each other on when we scored. We’ve keep searching since childhood for those communities again. We all need, like Honi—and therefore seek it as he did when he first woke up—communities of shared practice and shared values, communities that will serve us and that, eventually, we will serve in return. 

Twenty years ago we had what sociologists call “traditional communities.” But please don’t wax too poetic about those communities, though. They could be stifling, oppressive, and restrictive. Still today there are communities which often squash the individual, demand compliance, make unreasonable demands, and shut out those who don’t fit in, who don’t agree, who don’t measure up. Yes we want community- but at what price? We cannot and do not want to recreate the communities of the 1950’s so moving forward, what are the challenges that we will face in creating a new paradigm? 

According to John W. Gardner of the Stanford Business School 5 major changes must take place in the building of contemporary communities. 

First, the traditional community was homogeneous. We all pretty much stayed in our little enclaves; Christians went to church and Jews went to synagogues and frankly we didn’t know what Moslems were and we certainly didn’t know any. Today, society is entirely diverse. A new paradigm of community must embrace diversity.

Second, the traditional community experienced relatively little change from one decade to the next and resented, fought and denied the little that it did experience. Today change is the modus operandi of society and a desirable outcome. A new paradigm of community must embrace change.

Third, the traditional community commonly demanded a high degree of conformity. Women wore dresses and men wore pants; boys wore blue and girls wore pink and even in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when my kids were born the nurses found it scandalous that we dressed our newborn boys in yellow. In the very individualistic free 1960’s everyone listened to the Beatles and wore bell bottoms. Because of the nature of the world we live in now, a new paradigm of community must foster individual freedom.

Fourth, the traditional community was often unwelcoming to strangers. Newcomers didn’t “fit in”... kinda like Toronto when I moved here in 1983. Our values require that our new paradigm be inclusive and welcoming.

And fifth, the traditional community could boast generations of history and continuity. You belonged to the same synagogue your parents did, you lived in their neighbourhood and you went to their alma mater. Today our paradigm must be to continuously build a “shared culture”.

I am not going to cry to you the familiar Zoomers battlecry that internet and facebook have “destroyed” community— because in fact leveraging technology for the community—excellent websites, facebook groups, enewsletters—will help us build an even tighter connection to each other. Technological tools do not replace community; they can actually forge it. The Jewish community are such late adapters it’s ridiculous. I am not afraid of Facebook, and I think the people in my generation who proudly boast they don’t use it are just too chicken to learn a new thing—-and I’m using Facebook to create dialogue among City Shulers. (If you are not on our group, you should be.) 

Technology is not the real challenge no matter how much naysayers cry about “virtual” communities. To move from facebook to face-to-face is not all that hard. The real challenge in creating community is the move from, as the Kielbergers put it, “me to we”. We must ask ourselves a tough question: are we willing to loosen the grip of our insistent individuality and our belief that our own personal fulfillment and individual future is the only thing which matters; that we have a Divine right to our own desires at the time of our own choosing in the manner that only we can decide? There is always a tension between the needs of the individual— im ain ani mi li, if I am not for myself who will be for me?— and the “greater good” if I am only for myself what am I?--v’im ani l’atzmi mah ani. It’s so easy in our culture—and in fact rewarded— to work hard on the individual part and neglect, ignore, run from the obligations and responsibilities of being in community. But our religion is a communal one, folks —we require 10 to pray, we don’t go up mountaintops to gaze at our own navels but build Community Centers, schools and mikvahs to gather people in. I once was about to convert a young woman until she said to me, “I love Judaism, its Jews I don’t like.” Believe me I can relate sometimes but you can’t have one without the other.   

The Hasidic master Reb Noson taught the paradox of Jewish community. The more people move into a neighbourhood, the more congested it gets. The more people enter a room, the more crowded it gets. Space becomes tighter and tighter. We aren’t comfortable, we don’t like it. But in kedushah, in holiness, when another person joins the minyan, the prayer gets better and grows dynamically. Each person who joins a minyan increases the power of the minyan. The more we are, the tighter the spaces between us, the higher w are elevated, symbolically above it all. If we want real community, we must be willing to surrender a little of our own space in the name of holiness.

Ask most Jews why they go to shul and they will not say because its a commandment, they will not say they go to pray; they will only rarely say they feel an obligation to “make the minyan.” They will say they do it to be with other Jews. Its like that old joke- two Jews go to shul every single Saturday.  After 20 years of this, one Saturday the Rabbi finally asks them, “Hey, Goldberg and Schwartz, why do you come to shul every week?” Goldberg answers, “Why, Rabbi, I come to shul to talk to God.” Schwartz answers, “Rabbi, to tell the truth, I come to shul to talk to Goldberg!” 

Yet with centuries of positive Jewish teaching about the centrality of community, many a Goldberg or Schwartz among us here today has not found it in their Jewish lives. We go to Israel and think we feel it, and then lose the feeling when we come home. We go to a wonderful Jewish lecture or a beautiful synagogue event and we know the faces, we know the names, but we just haven’t connected on a soul level. So today, Rosh Hashana 5773, we come longing to rekindle a feeling of belonging. To belong is to give context to our lives. To matter is to give meaning in our lives. Today on this holy day, on this very first City Shul high holiday service, I would like to acknowledge this unique and I would daresay historic opportunity to build a completely new paradigm of “Jewish community” together, one of context and meaning. We won’t have the chance to be “new” very much longer, and so let’s do it now before “we’ve always done it that way” becomes a mantra.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “The most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

Let us be daring and do just that: create a stable community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.

The Torah commands us 36 times—double chai—that we must reach out to the “stranger.” “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  Let us create a community where there are no strangers, no insiders and outsiders, no “in crowd” and no periphery. Let us create a community where it is safe to be anonymous, where you don’t have to join a committee or put your name on a sheet outside, but where you feel valued and welcomed just for being there. Let’s create a community where those who buy a ticket and come only for the high holidays feel integrally a part of our community, get a hug and a “welcome back this year!” smile and not a “ only come once a year, who the hell do you think you are?” cold stare.

Let us create a shul whose members—young and old—ask, “how can we serve?” Not “how can I get into the in-crowd by volunteering for this or that committee?” Capitalist countries thrive precisely because of the potential of personal gain. The idea of service to a group or an ideal is paradoxical to Western culture at its very core, which is obsessed with earning "stuff" as a status symbol— and then Judaism suddenly instructs us to give of our precious little free time for a concept: the “shul.” In our culture synagogue is just another service-for-fee; hey I paid my dues, what more do you want of me? Aren’t you supposed to give me front of the line tickets? Doesn’t membership have its privileges? Can we create a community where of the privileges of membership will include the honour of serving, of giving back, of being present when needed? 

Let us create an “invitational” shul. I still live the old myth of a Jew being invited to Shabbos dinner by another Jew anywhere you go. It’s not true anymore. Especially not in a liberal shul. What a difference it would make if we were a “do you need a place for Shabbos dinner or lunch?” kind of shul, especially for first-timers who walk in, for tourists who just find us through the hotel, for university students without family in Toronto, for those who feel disenfranchised and uninvited. Let’s start today: anyone who needs an invitation to a holiday lunch, and anyone who is happy to extend an invitation to their holiday lunch, please meet each other at the front, right here at this table, at the end of services after shofar.

Let us create a community who take Tikkun Olam—the commandment to make the world a better place as a Jewish imperative—seriously, as a foundational concept and foundational practice. We will feel each other to be true friends and companions when we work side by side to teach literacy, protect women, clothe the naked and feed the hungry, educate children out of the cycle of poverty, and fight injustice together as a shul, wherever and to whomever it rears its ugly head. 

Let us create a community with a mission. Mission: one of my favourite words and one that the Jewish community usually shuns. I’m a Jewish missionary and I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t go door-to-door (yet) but I’ll offer you Judaism if you come to my door. (And by the way, I’ve done that with a Jehovah’s Witness or two. ) If we are proud to be Jews we are allowed to share that pride with our non-Jewish neighbours and friends whenever they enter our shul, without an agenda to convert or convince. We won’t do a mail drop but let us be sure to welcome the one who just “drops in” not only to see what our shul is about, but who is placing on tentative toe in the waters of Judaism. 

Guy Kowaski, the author of 10 books on creating and maintaining successful businesses, writes, “Create something worth building a community around...Frankly, if you create a great product, you may not be able to stop a community from forming even if you tried.” We have a great product: Judaism. It’s beautiful and rich and juicy and intelligent and compact and zippy and gives you a great return on your investment. Problem is: most Jews don’t know that! And certainly many religious schools don’t act as if thats true. Let’s create a community—and a school— where the value of our product is obvious.

Let us create a crowd-sourced community, a shul where members lead services, visit the sick, teach songs, tell stories in the nursery, cook the apple crisp for the family dinner, deliver divrei Torah and lead discussions, teach Yoga before services, invite us to sign petitions, research and find a cemetery section, tutor Bar Mitzvah, not because they are “helping the Rabbi” but because they are creating their own shul. 8You’ll notice those “Create-A-Shul” posters all along the hallway. Each of you got a sheet of nam tags and a honey stick. If you are ready to get involved, find the sheet or sheets that call out for your name and put it there- we’ll contact you with details after the holidays.

Let us create a community which values questions, and dialogue; which welcomes and analyzes criticism, which foster dialogue across competing opinions, and refuses ever to badmouth or denigrade the “competition” whether thats another synagogue, another religion, another Rabbi, another member who doesn’t share your outlook. 

And most of all, let us create a community of purpose. While I may never agree with the politics of Pastor Rick Warrens of Saddleback Church, he wrote a book entitled The Purpose Driven Church which helped me a great deal in my thinking about City Shul before it even began. A purpose-driven shul sees its Rabbi as Warren puts it as an “equipper”, see all its members as “ministers”, and see its goals as no less than transforming lives.

To transform our lives, we will need, my friends, to create a spiritual community. A community that closes it eyes and sings from the inside, that meditates and is silent during silent prayers, that offers reflections and thoughtful comments, that opens its heart to new tunes and doesn’t sit passively waiting to be entertained during services. That is willing to learn and try and experiment and sometimes flounder or even fail in this service or that event. That sees the building of a “community of commitment” as a holy task. As a covenant.

I think—I hope—I pray there are folks here who are ready to have their lives transformed by the power of such a community. 

Rabbi Uri said: “The myriads of letters in the Torah correspond to the myriads of souls in Israel.  If one single letter is left out of the Torah, it becomes unfit for use; if one single soul is left out of the union of Israel, the Shechinah- the Divine Presence- will not rest upon it…”

Our new little shul will be commissioning its very own Torah, written by Canada’s only Reform female scribe this year. That’s a physical Torah. Today, we form a Torah of souls.

A community is a creation- an act of will. We have begun to write a Torah of souls, sewn together by experience, with both great strength and great gentleness, lest a page tear.

Community is joyful, painful, inspiring, infuriating, and…the list is endless.  It reflects back to us who we are as individuals, as families, as persons of traditions and as persons creating newness.

So please take one moment now to look around and see the verses each face in this room writes, calling our Torah into existence…turn around and introduce yourself now to someone you do not know...and welcome them to our new community. Shana Tova.

Day One dvar Torah by Randall Abramson

Today’s Torah portion is multifaceted
Nearly every one of the 34 lines could be the subject of a full dvar Torah
Though the story requires some suspension of disbelief
The Reader’s Digest version is:
As promised to Sarah and Abraham by God, Isaac, Yizchak in Hebrew, is born
On the 8th day, Abraham circumcises Yizchack
Abraham was 100, but thank God still had a steady hand
Sarah, 90 years old herself, breast feeds Isaac
Then begins the first soap opera

Isaac grows up, Sarah sees him playing with Ishmael, Abraham’s son from Hagar, their servant
But Sarah doesn’t want Ishmael to be equal with Isaac
Hagar and Ishmael are then cast out
And they nearly die of dehydration in the desert but are saved by an angel when God hears Ishmael’s and Hagar’s cries for help
Abraham and Abimelech, chief of the Philistines, have an exchange and make a pact so Abraham can remain there peacefully 
Tune in again tomorrow to see what tests God might have in store for Abraham

Line 6 in today’s portion grabbed me, not just because I didn't want to read further
There are many interpretations of line 6, but I prefer the translation that
Sarah says upon the birth of her son, "God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me."
They named their son Yitzchak from the root קחצ – meaning laugh
Yitzchak translates to “laughter” or “will laugh”
Sarah’s reaction to bearing a child isn't mere tears of joy but outright laughter. And a hearty laugh for all to join in with—All mothers must know the feeling.

I see a few lessons here:
As we know, life is short--it's unlikely many of us will live to 100, so we shouldn’t forget to enjoy the ride
While it’s clearly ok to cry, sometimes you need to let it out or, like Hagar, be noticed
But, most importantly, like Sarah, we can't forget to laugh

Life is filled with ups and downs
Though there are typically way more ups, it often doesn’t feel that way

Since I like to make finance analogies when given the opportunity, I liken life to the stock market
On any given day the typical odds of an up day are about 53%, meaning nearly half the days are downers
Over 3 months though, the odds of being up exceed 60%, 12 months 67, 5 years nearly 80%, 10 years 89, and 20 years or more, 100%

We should all be Yitzchaks
Through the use of laughter we can cope with those shorter time periods when we suffer from the adversities thrown our way knowing that better times lie ahead.
Milton Berle referred to laughter as “an instant vacation.”
It’s even been shown that laughter truly can be the best medicine.
Now I get to use my faux medical degree, the one I got from my Jewish mother who specializes in second opinions
Laughter has been shown to:
Reduce pain by producing endorphins.
Strengthen immune function by producing T-cells, interferon and immune proteins, globulins.
And, decrease stress—laughter significantly lowers cortisol levels and returns the body to a more relaxed state.

Norman Cousins, a professor and author, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, describes how watching comedic movies helped him recover from serious illness. He essentially laughed his way out of the hospital on more than one occasion.

Coming back to the high holidays
Should we laugh on Rosh Hashanah—on the Days of Awe?
At a time when we are considering morality, spirituality, holiness and our own mortality?
As we repent our way to a clean slate, there’s nothing wrong with using laughter as a coping mechanism.
Even in our darkest hours, or perhaps especially then, we need humour.
Remember the controversial, though Oscar winning movie, Life is Beautiful
Roberto Benigni jokes his way to survival, even mistranslating German soldiers barking terrifying orders

Harold Schulweis, an extraordinary Rabbi whose services I had the pleasure of attending at Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles said that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are complimentary and contradictory. Amongst other things, on Rosh Hashanah we think of life. On Yom Kippur we confront death. I personally see little to laugh about on Yom Kippur.

He notes, while “the opening lines of the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah speak of life--Sarah giving birth to a son, "and his name was Yitzchak--laughter." On Yom Kippur the first sentence of the Torah reading deals with death.”

He speaks of “Everywhere there are people who see their lives as empty, worthless, dreamless. Families are unraveling, anger deepening, the will faltering. There are times when we cannot pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, when we cannot will to will.” 

But he suggests, “a paradoxical wisdom: Lose yourself in order to find yourself, forget yourself in order to remember yourself. This sort of nullification of the self is a form of liberation…Yom Kippur provides a balance to Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah alone, without Yom Kippur, places the whole world on our shoulders: we are successful, willful, and triumphant. We need Yom Kippur to humble us, to remind us of our limitations, of our hubris, pride, and arrogance.”

Charlie Chaplin, who didn’t appear to say very much at all, said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.”
In other words, to get through it all, we require our sense of humour.
Yes we need to be introspective, to confess, to forgive ourselves, but also to laugh at ourselves our situations and then press on, remembering to smile, to laugh out loud, and to try to bring out the same in others.

Unfortunately, Sarah was incapable of laughing off her situation
That led to the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael
We are all certain to experience ups and downs this year
Personally, in our community and, yes, even with our brand new shul

So how can we all be Yitzchaks?
In many ways, even in the Days of Awe
We’ll laugh particularly when we’re in awe, like right after Peter’s lengthy tekia gadola
We may chuckle at the absurdity of some of the antiquated prayers
We’ll laugh, if we know what’s good for us, at the jokes in the Rabbi’s sermons
There’ll be an authority telling us “it’s not a laughing matter” but sometimes it’s hard to control
We may laugh nervously as we rush to get here in time for Kol Nidre
Or a full guffaw when we recognize a friend we haven’t seen for years who’s also come services
And hopefully we’ll allow ourselves to let it out

There’s a proverb, “If you are too busy to laugh, you’re probably too busy.”
Which is only bested by, the Yiddish proverb which translates to, “What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul.”

In other words, it is even ok to enjoy services! To smile at each other throughout these holy days, even when we’ve misplaced our tickets or it’s too hot in here or that we realize we’ve morphed from a gymnasium, to a conference hall, to Jews sitting in a Christian church in the 21st century singing Jewish prayers from the second century.

So a Priest, a Reverend and a Rabbi all serve the students of a University. 
And they regularly get together to talk shop. 
One day, they agree that preaching to students isn't difficult.
A real challenge would be to preach to a bear.
They decide to do an experiment.  They’ll go out into the woods, find a bear and attempt to convert it.  Seven days pass, they get together to discuss their experience. The Priest, whose arm is in a sling and is on crutches, says. "I found a bear.  I began to read to him from the Catechism.  The bear slapped me around so I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and, Holy Mary Mother of God, he became as gentle a lamb." 
The Reverend who was in a wheelchair, with both legs in casts said, “I used my best fire and brimstone but the bear slapped me around. So I wrestled it into creek and baptized the bear. And just like that, the bear became as gentle as a lamb.”

They both looked down at the Rabbi, who was in rough shape, lying in a bed in a full body cast.
The Rabbi looked up and said, "In retrospect, circumcision may not have been the best way to start."
Shana tova

Day Two dvar Torah by Stephen Shapiro
September 19, 2012

Shanah tovah. Today’s torah portion, from Genesis Ch. 22, is that of the Binding or Akedah of Isaac, one of the most evocative moments in the Book of Genesis and one of the most infuriating. In brief: G-d calls on Abraham to take his son, “your favoured one, Issac, whom you love” (G-d is quite specific on this) to the top of Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering to G-d. Abraham, uncomplaining, takes Isaac up Mount Moriah and binds him to the altar. Isaac, uncomplaining, lets him. Then, at the last minute, just before Abraham strikes with the knife, an angel calls to Abraham and tells him not to sacrifice Issac. G-d then declares that because Abraham did not withhold Isaac, he will bless his descendants and make them numerous. Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son, and the two of them return home—never to speak of it again.

Saying that this story is problematic is a little like saying that water can, from time to time, be wet, or that Jews are, on occasion, argumentative.

Jews have been struggling with the Akedah and what its message might be since the days of the Mishnah. Recent interpreters include Woody Allen—in whose version G-d declares that it proves that “some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice”—and Robert Zimmerman’s (ok, Bob Dylan’s) “Highway 61 Revisited,” where when Abraham refuses to sacrifice Isaac, G-d says “You can do what you want Abe, but the next time you see me comin' you better run.”

The midrashic tradition has some even more radical interpretations of what happened up atop Mount Moriah. In some versions, Isaac demands to be bound tightly so he doesn’t flinch and ruin the sacrifice. In others, Abraham tries to sacrifice Isaac but the tears of the angels watching him blunt his knife [Midrash Rabbah]. The most bizarre are probably the midrashim where Issac actually dies under the knife, in one case the boy being reduced to ash and reconstituted by the touch of the morning dew. 

What these sources share, from Midrash Rabbah to Woody Allen, is the urge just not to reframe or refocus, but to rewrite the story of the Akedah. Instead of asking the conventional question, “What can we learn from this?” or “How can we expand our understanding of this what happened?” they come to us and say, “Forget what you think you read, here’s how it really went.” 

That seems like an unconventional response because, in general, the “failures” of our forefathers and foremothers make perfectly good fodder for discussion. Jacob’s dubious behavior towards his brother Esau, Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph, Joseph’s own treatment of his brothers: these are all “teachable moments” for Jews. In progressive circles, even acts of G-d, G-d’s-self, are not beyond criticism: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the petulant treatment of Moses, the affliction of Miriam with leprosy.

Why is the Akedah different? Why does it demand not just interpretation but full-scale revision? We certainly seem to have a visceral reaction to the Akedah that isn’t there for so many other Torah stories.

The content is one aspect of it. There’s an existential horror involved in the sacrifice of a child by a parent that’s very tough to explain away by references to tests of faith or obedience, or the claim that one or both sides was just pretending and never planned to go through with the sacrifice.

But: I can’t claim to speak for anyone else, but I think a lot of my reaction is because of the ultimate passivity of the human actors in the story. G-d commands, Abraham obeys, Isaac complies, and Sarah is omitted entirely. Only a few chapters earlier, Abraham argues for a full ten verses with G-d over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, bargaining G-d all the down until G-d promises to save the city if only ten innocents can be found within it. Plucky, argumentative Abraham, the man who midrash says smashed the idols in his father’s shop, who was “distressed” at the prospect of expelling his son Ishamel from his camp, seems nowhere to be found in the Akedah story.

As for Isaac, his question “Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burned offering?” (22:7) is either the most passive-aggressive response possible to being led to slaughter or a question so guileless that his later failure to tell the difference between his son Esau and his son Jacob wrapped in a goat pales in comparison.

Historically, Reform Judaism has seen the Torah as a guide to ethical living rather than as a source of non-negotiable instructions. With that perspective comes the obligation to make informed choices about our religion and to be engaged with our spiritual lives. That obligation to be engaged comes right from Sinai, where—when the people of Israel accept the Torah—they say “na'aseh ve-nishmah”—“we will do and we will understand.” Not just to do or to understand, but both.

In this context, the passivity of the Akedah story rankles—perhaps even more than the idea of child sacrifice. No one in the story—Abraham or Isaac, G-d or angel—stands up to say “na'aseh ve-nishmah”—we must both do and understand. Even the rabbinic literature recognizes the problem: no one in the Akedah is “all there,” not even G-d. That’s why it’s better to tell the story of Isaac’s death and resurrection than of his almost sacrifice—a true martyrdom that proves G-d’s power rather than be left with the Biblical text’s “sacrifice interruptus.”

As progressive Jews, we should resist the impulse to “write away” the problems of the Akedah and to replace passivity with confidence, guile, or sacrifice and resurrection. Instead, we should take embrace our discomfort as exactly what it is: a refusal to be passive, to be “absent” when the critical moment comes. Never presume that G-d will provide the sacrifice, or that angels will weep. Every day, we should commit ourselves both to do and to understand.


Fri, 23 February 2018 8 Adar 5778