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Shabbat Divrei Torah

2015

Vayigash by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

12/19/2015

 

On January 14th, 2012 it was the NFL playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. Vernon Davis, the tight end for the Niners, caught the game-winning touchdown. He came running off the field, and tears were streaming down his face.  Now keep in mind Vernon David is 6 foot 3 and weighs 250 pounds. That’s a big, grown, tough football manly man. In front of national TV, he came to the sidelines and was embraced by the head coach who spoke lovingly into his ear, and then hugged and kissed him. Two grown men showing the world that real men cry.

Now Allie spoke beautifully this morning about forgiveness, about how special today’s parsha is in the reconciliation scene between Joseph and his brothers—the same brothers who so hated him that they sold him into slavery without a second thought.

Here they stand before him, in his own palace in Egypt where he has become a big macher, the viceroy, and he has a golden opportunity to tell them off, to rant and rave, to let them know just how horrible he thins they were to him…and what does he do? He cries. He weeps, real tears. 

I want to spend a moment thinking about those tears with you.

This is the third time Joseph has cried, but its totally different. In the first two instances—in Genesis 42 and 43—he withdraws in embarrassment from his tears. He weeps alone in a room, not wanting his brothers or the Egyptians to see or hear him.

Now, in the reconciliation scene, Joseph weeps out loud. The Torah tells us in verses 1-3 of chapter 45 in today’s parsha: ”Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!" So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh's palace…” 

Rather than himself withdrawing to cry in private, he tells everyone else to withdraw, and sobs. Sobs so loud that all of Egypt could hear. A whole verse is given to the description of the weeping, as it echoes through the palace.

But the brothers are there. They can hear Joseph wailing. They cannot believe it. They are dumbstruck. They cannot speak.

Until verse 15, after a bit of chitchat and asking about his father, Joseph does the one other thing he needed to do: “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”

Biochemist and “tear expert” Dr. William Frey of the Ramsey Medical Center in Minneapolis discovered that reflex tears—the kind we get when something irritates our eyes or when we have allergies— are 98% water, whereas emotional tears—released through either intense experiences pf joy or sorrow— contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body. Volunteers in his study were led to cry first from watching sad movies, and then from freshly cut onions. The researchers found that the tears from the movies, called emotional tears, contained far more toxic biological byproducts. Weeping, they concluded, is a process which removes toxic substances that normally build up during emotional stress.

So its good to cry. Physically and emotionally.

The rabbis even believe that the angels and that G-d weeps. In the midrash on the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, the tears of the angels fall upon Abraham’s knife, so that it could not cut Isaac's throat. In Lamentations Rabbah, the midrash to the Book of Eicha, G-d watches the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, and becomes overcome with grief. The midrash imagines this scene: “In that instant the angel Metatron came, fell upon his face, and spoke before the Holy One: ‘Master of the universe, let me weep, but You must not weep.’ God replied, ‘If you do not let Me weep, I will go into a place where you have no authority to enter, and I will weep there.’” 

And Joseph is not the first man of the Torah to cry; he’s not our “Vernon Davis.” Ishmael cries in Genesis 21. Esau, the big hairy hunter, cries in chapter 27. Jacob cries in joy when he marries Rachel in chapter 29 and cries in sorrow when he is told that Joseph is dead in chapter 37. There’s a whole lotta big men crying in the first book of the Torah.

As a Rabbi, I get the privilege of sharing a lot of tears. But I cannot tell you how many times I also hear apologies. “I’m sorry I’m so emotional.” “Forgive me for tearing up.” Why do we apologize?

At funerals, of course; those tears are often copious and heartfelt but occasionally they are insincere and you wonder, “you loved her so much, maybe you could've told her while she was alive?” And at babynamings, especially grandparent’s tears, and I can see the bubble over their heads “I never thought I’d live to see this day….” and sometimes maybe “and may this child give you the aggravation you once gave me…:” And at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, of course, parents so proud and filled with joy. And weddings? I personally consider myself a failure at officiating a wedding if I don’t produce at least a two-hanky affair. From the father of the bride—the mom’s easy, if she’s not worrying too much about whether the hors d’ouvres are coming out at the right time.

Because Judaism frowns on a tragic outlook on life, crying is often paired with laughter. The Book of Psalms tells us repeatedly that crying is merely a first step toward redemption. Thus we have:  ba-erev yalin bekhi ve-la-boker rinah, which we sing on the high holidays: “weeping may endure for the night, joy comes in the morning.” And the famous verse in Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals we will sing today after lunch: ha-zor’im be-dim'a be-rina yiktzoru, "They who sow in tears will reap in joy.”

There is always hope that joy will come in the morning. Allie maybe thats why Joseph’s brothers are forgiven by Joseph even though they don’t “deserve” to be. Joseph always had hope that things would be better.

Steven, I cried with you when you sat shiva for your dad just last April. And today I cry with joy for you.

Allie, you have a wonderful family who have nurtured you in your Jewish journey. Not every kid can say they studied their parsha as the only Jew in Lund, Sweden. You came to us as new members but have fast become a real part of our community. We look forward to more times of joy with you ahead. 

It is tempting, though, to see this Bat Mitzvah as an exception to the rule, as a much-needed light in a dark world. In the darkest time of the year when we need lots of twinkling electric bulbs to remind us of the light.

I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time in 2015 crying. It has been such a difficult past few months in the world. But that is the beauty of Shabbat coming every week, not just when its convenient; of our having shul every week, not just when there is a Bat Mitzvah; of a family’s continuing commitment to Jewish education and Jewish values not just in the Bat Mitzvah prepatory year, as Allie continues in Chai School. So that, like Joseph, we can weep in front of everyone, kiss, and then turn to the work at hand: talking to each other, creating sacred times, building supportive community, and, as Allie taught us, reconciling people, one with the other.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Vayeshev, Shabbat before Chanukah

12/7/2015

 

By Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Twas the Shabbat before Chanukah and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse, with visions of latkes and Chanukah gelt, we all wished good yontiff cause thats how we felt … 

Oh yes, it’s the “holiday season” again. Starting tomorrow night we’ll be eating latkes and donuts and singing insipid, really bad ‘I have a little dreidle” renditions. Now I admit that I was the Chanukah “one-present-every-night-and-a-really-big-one-on-the-last-night kinda mom when my kids were growing up. That was the family tradition in which I was raised, along with numerous tinselly type window decorations and a huge “Happy Hanukkah” banner across the front door. It made me proud to be so visibly Jewish at the most otherwise-invisible-Jewish time of year. New York Chanukahs were joyous, festive, and somewhat Christmasy, to be honest. My mom tried really hard to compete with the secular culture around us, and most years she won. I have very fond memories of those years, and Chanukah with my own kids was always something of a treat. And while I am generally a Christmas Scrooge (I go grocery shopping with earbuds in, which I never do the rest of the year, listening to Israeli music so I don’t get jingle-belled into oblivion) I never really mind if the “holiday spirit” starts creeping into Chanukah.

Why? This week’s parsha begins with the line “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned.” Jacob’s parents were immigrants but Jacob was a native. Jacob’s parents felt nervous about being strangers; they were merely “sojourners.” But Jacob was already a home-born man, and he felt at peace and at one with the place he lived.


So too do we. While my grandparents spoke Yiddish with a little English peppered in, my parents spoke English with a little Yiddish peppered in; and we just speak English unless we throw in a Yiddish world that is already in the English language and used by every ethnic group: chutzpah, shlep. Most of us think the word "bagel" is Yiddish!  My parents still had to work hard to assimilate into the society around them, but I don’t have to. I’m totally at home in the secular world and totally at home in Canadian society. 

So when Chanukah comes around, and most people around me just assume its the “Jewish Christmas”, I find myself amused rather than angry; its a good sign, its a sign that we Jews are slowly but surely losing our status as “Other”, as strange, exotic non-Christians non-majority. I have to thank living in such a multicultural Toronto filled with Moslems and Hindus and Sikhs also not celebrating Christmas for that push towards sensitivity and inclusion at this holiday-filled time of year.

But, with all that inclusion and comfort level, I still find myself, like Joseph, looking for my brothers and sisters at this time of year. In verse 15 of today’s parsha we find Joseph searching: “When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, "What are you looking for?" He answered, "I am looking for my brothers.” 

In between the blinking lights and life-size plastic Santas on my street I find myself looking for Menorahs in windows. The tradition of actually putting your Chanukiah in the front window for everyone to see does not come from “competing” with Christmas decorations. It is halacha or Jewish law from earliest days to do so, for “pirsuma de-nisa” meaning it is a mitzvah to “publicize the miracle.” But I think its also kinda cool to publicize that you are a “member of the tribe” at this time of year when its easy to feel overwhelmed and undrerepresented.

And of all the Jewish holidays, Chanukah may be the only one which has no inter-communal religious disputes, like who eats rice and who doesn’t on Passover, or whose kashrut is more kosher, and other than disagreeing on whether or not to put matza meal in your latke recipe, this is one of the most “agreeable festivals” in the Jewish calendar. So its easy to feel “at one” with our Jewish brothers and sisters.

But Chanukah’s main message is unique and cannot be found in any other Jewish holiday: to maintain Jewish religious practice in an open and liberal society that values acculturation. Chanukah is the paradigm of the tension between acculturation and assimilation, and that is always our tension as Canadian Jews at this time of year.

In many ways, the Maccabees were in greater conflict with Hellenizing Jews than with the Greeks. While the arrogant universalism of Hellenism demanded that Jews give up their distinctive religious ways, the multiculturalism of Canada asks nothing like that of us. And because of that, we have our zealots too, in the ultra-Orthodox world, and we have our radical Hellenists, in the secular world. We Reform Jews stand in the middle, and we must bridge the gap.

As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote, “… it is not enough to be stubborn or to ignore the surrounding culture. This tactic works only when Jews are isolated. It was not working in the big cities of Judea in the second century BCE,  and it will not likely work well in the highly magnetic culture/society of today….even as they fought the cultural battle, the Maccabees did not simply reject Hellenism. They were profoundly touched by its individualism, its methods of analysis, literary rhetoric, and its theological concepts. They absorbed a great deal, but they gave a distinctively Jewish cast to the outside ideas and rejected many others.

…in general, the Jewish way implies the need and willingness to go into and through many cultures–participating, learning, filtering, incorporating, handling.

Judaism rose to new heights of competence and developed the ability to swim in the sea of Hellenism. The present host culture of Jewry is even more developed, magnetic, and challenging. Jews and Judaism will have to master the field.”

Jessie, I think your family is a good example of those who have mastered the field. Your dad and mom live very Jewish lives and are committed to raising you as a proud—but whats more important— an active Jew. You are a day school student with a deep sense of what it means to do Jewish, not just to be Jewish. This day is such a great simcha not only for your family, whom I have known for ages, but for our shul, because I know you will continue to be on of our Torah readers like your dad. What a great moment to stand here with a family with whom I have so much history—this is the first time at City Shul that I have officiated at the daughter of someone whose mom’s Bat Mitzvah I officiated— at Holy Blossom. Then I officiated at your parents fabulous wedding, and also got to know well and sadly officiate at the funeral of your wonderful and spiritual grandma  Jeraldene. For many years your grandfather Lawrence sponsored a memorial lecture at Kolel. I’m so sorry I didn’t get to name you because I was living in Israel at the time, but I did get to name your sisters Kira and Lily. You and me, Jessie, we are tied together for the long run. It’s actually for families like yours that I started this shul.

Now this morning we meet Joseph for the first time in the parsha. Joseph is tied to Chanukah because he had to master the ability to live in two worlds too, when he went into an Egyptian house as its head steward, and when he was given an Egyptian name and took on Egyptian customs. And then when his father Jacob dies, and he responsibly follows all the Jewish customs and laws, even explaining them to the Egyptians so they will respect what he needs to do as a Hebrew. There is no holiday more than Chanukah, I think, that presents us as happy, acculturated Canadian Jews the opportunity to both settle in the land where our fathers and mothers sojourned, and to go into the field to seek our brothers and sisters. Shabbat Shalom, and Happy Chanukah.

New Members Shabbat

11/27/2015

 

Vayishlach: New Members Shabbat
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

The setting:
Jacob is fleeing from his brother who wants to kill him for stealing his birthright. Its night. Jacob has sent gifts ahead to appease Esau. He crosses the river and wrestles with an angel. He “wins” and also “loses” that wresting match. He “wins” in that he struggles with a Divine being and isn’t zapped. He loses because the angel touches his thigh sinew at the end and so he limps forever; and because of that, in remembrance,  Jews cannot eat the thigh sinew of any meat, and so kosher filet mignon—the thigh meat with the sinew removed— is very expensive. Blame it on the angel. After this wrestling match Jacob meets Easu and they reconcile in a beautiful and moving teary-eyed scene. 

There things about this reconciliation are especially relevant to new members.

But to understand the relevance, I first need to introduce you to a concept. Jewish thinker Rabbi Ron Wolfson has coined the phrase “relational Judaism. “ A relational shul, he posits, is the kind of synagogue where, like Cheers, everyone knows your name. They know what you are interested in and what you aren’t interested in. A relational shul welcomes you warmly and isn’t about how much you pay for your terumah or what the school costs. People join shuls to have such relationships, I think. People join shuls because they don’t want to parachute an unknown Rabbi in for the most important moments of their lives. They don’t want to sit shiva alone. They don’t want to sit at a Bar Mitzvah service and feel like a guest in their own shul. They don’t want to be divided into camps as Jacob divided his people.

So, first—after the wrestle, the angel says to Jacob: "Let me go, for dawn is breaking." But Jacob answered, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."  Said the angel, "What is your name?”

We cannot bless each other—and I cannot bless you—if you don’t know me and I don’t know you and you don’t know each other. Thats why in most services I’ll ask you to turn and introduce yourself. Thats why at Sat services we share what happened to us during the week that we are grateful for. Thats why our Mitzvah group will visit you in the hospital or pay a shiva call or bring you soup if you have a new baby. Even if you say “Don’t bother, its not necessary.” We want to know you. Please, new members, help us be a relational shul. Bless us with your “names” by being in relationship with other members and with me.

Second—at the reconciliation with Esau Jacob offers gifts. Esau refuses and Jacob presses him, saying: “for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favourably.”  A relational shul treats each member as if seeing them is seeing the face of God: every member, every volunteer, every leader, and… the Rabbi. We strive at City Shul to speak kindly and with sensitivity with each other, and to always remember we are all created in the image of God. Some of us are single and some are married—and we will speak sensitively about that. Some have kids and some don’t—and we will speak sensitively about that. Some of us are white and some are black; some are Asian and some are Caucasian; some are straight and some are gay and some are cis and some are trans; some are old and some are older (and some believe “orange is the new black”) and some are young and some are younger—and we will speak sensitively about that. Some are born Jewish and some become Jewish and some support the Jews in their families while not being or becoming Jewish themselves; and we try and see the face of God in absolutely every member, and receive them favourably.

And third—most significant for joining  shul—at the end of the reconciliation, Esau says to Jacob: "Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.”

You’ve joined a start-up shul. Our Bar Mitzvahs meet in a basement. We do potluck dinners. Our prayerbooks are donated left-overs with stickies and loose binding. In ten years from now, if you are with us for the long run—and I sincerely hope you will be— we may laugh nostalgically at what we once were, but for now, you’ve promised to proceed at our pace. You’ve joined a Reform shul that is decidedly eclectic in its Reform-ness, with a a covenant of membership and a Leadership Team that supports its Rabbi to be the deciding religious authority of the synagogue. You’ve promised to start on your journey with us at our pace. That is not to say we don’t listen and pay special attention to the feelings, likes and dislikes, opinions, hopes and visions of the congregants. On the contrary—we pride ourselves on being a grassroots shul where every congregant’s voice is valued, and where every member’s involvement, talent, skill and opinion, thoughts, and ideas makes a huge impact on who we are. But we also pride ourselves on having a clear vision of what principles our shul stands for, and you, dear new members, will be an integral part of clarifying and manifesting those principles in the years to come.

So we welcome you with open arms. We hope you never feel that being a member of City Shul is a wrestling match, or needs gifts of appeasement. (Though we do have a tradition of donating  bottle of scotch if you miss an appointment if you are gabbai.) We hope you feel that you have begun a journey with us that will be spiritually fulfilling, intellectually stimulating, musically uplifting, prayerfully open-hearted, and most of all, relational. With each other, with me, and with the Holy One and the sense of holiness this synagogue strives to offer you.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Lech Lecha by Julie Bowring

10/24/2015

 

This parsha, as in common, is named after its opening line – and in this case, it's a particularly famous one:
 

And G-d said to Abram, Leave your country, leave your kindred and your father's house – and go into the land that I will show you. 
 

This is the moment that Abram breaks with his ancestors, leaves where he is from and starts a new life – one that will lead to his becoming Abraham. It's where, as Rabbi Plaut notes, Genesis leaves the epic and universal stories of creation, flood, Babel, and moves into the smaller, specific family dramas of the Patriarchs. 
 

And in terms of those stories, this parsha is very dense: one could conceivably write several different dvrei Torah without beginning to overlap: the first move into the land of Canaan (later to be the kingdoms of Israel and Judah); some drama with the Pharaoh; the disposition of flocks; and of course the birth of Ishmael and the beginning of the story of Sarah & Hagar, and their jealousy. And we have – repeatedly – the promise of this land to Abraham and his progeny.
 

Leave your country, leave your kindred and your father's house – and go into the land that I will show you. 
 

It's that line, and that focus on a new life that has led to this portion to be sometimes identified as a "convert's parsha" – which makes it appropriate that I, a recent convert, should talk about it. As a recent immigrant to this new Judaic land, it often does feel like arriving in a new place. Things are often kind of foreign – and I only partly speak the language.
 

I think that a lot of people who haven't had the chance to experience conversion feel very drawn to that idea of complete transition. I understand why! It's a thrilling, romantic notion. People kept asking me "how do you feel different?" in exactly the same way I ask new arrivals to Canada how they find the country. I want to share in their adventure!
 

And I always feel a little bad when I have to tell them that it's more complicated than that. How can I say that I "left my kindred"? For a start, my mother is sitting right there! I've come to a new place, but I've done so without stepping away from where I was, and the place I've come to is also, well, far from 'new'.
 

There is a sharp parallel, here, to the impulse that so many of us feel when we approach the story of Parsha Lech L'cha. That story of Abram stepping out into a new place: a land strange and potential and somehow deeply home, a blank piece of parchment that he was always destined to write upon. 
 

But this is not what is written in the Torah.
 

Just like my experience at the mikvah, Abram's entry into the land of Canaan is "more complicated than that". In fact, G'd never tells Abram to go to a 'new' land … he never says it!
And G-d said to Abram, Leave your country, leave your kindred and your father's house – and go into the land that I will show you

 

Not a 'new' land: "the land that I will show you". 
 

And then there is a whole section, right in the middle of the parsha, which serves to reiterate in comprehensive detail exactly how "more complicated than that" Abram's entry into this territory is. It's a story that we often forget because, as important it was to the early readers of the Torah, it's so inaccessible to modern readers that we often just kind of skip it. It is a chapter that I had NEVER read before, which hadn't been included in any children's bible I ever had, and which I had glossed over in my youthful reading of Genesis.
 

It is Chapter 14, and the story of the War of the Four Kings against the Five – and in one of those odd, but serendipitous twists of fate, it is exactly the chapter that we will be reading first today, thanks to the triennial cycle. 
 

Chapter 14 is a break from the family and personal religious drama of the previous and following chapters – suddenly, we're pulled from talking about wives and nephews and pastures and thrown into a confusing mélange of kings and countries and cities – which sparked my historian's curiosity, but which I also couldn't understand without stopping and doing a lot of research to pick apart what is written in these few, terse paragraphs:
 

Chapter 14 opens: 
 

  1. And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, 
  2. that they made war with Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela--the same is Zoar.

For me, this was just a bunch of words. But for the ancient readers of the Torah, this was filled with meaning.
 

I want to take just a few minutes to unpack some of these names, so you get a sense of the depth the story had for its original readers:
 

Of the Four kings listed in verse 1, two are from places which we can identify - 
 

We have first Amraphel of Shinar: Rashi identifies him with Nimrod, the "mighty man" who was supposed to have founded the cities of Babel and Accad in the same "land of Shinar" – (in traditional midrash, Nimrod was also the king who was tried to kill the idol-smashing young Abram before he and his father left Ur Casdim …)
 

But whether Amraphel was Nimrod, or another king, he is clearly identified as coming from Mesopotamia, probably Sumer (later called Babylonia), which was a much more populous and powerful region than Canaan
 

K'dolaomar is named as the King of Elam – which was itself a powerful kingdom south-east of Mesopotamia, on the far side of Sumer from Canaan. Interestingly, Elam was not a Sumerian, Semetic or Indo-European power; they spoke a language that seems to be unrelated to any other, and most of their written records have never been deciphered
 

We can't place Arioch of Ellaser with any certainty – and all we know of the fourth king is that he is supposed to be Tidal, king of Goiim – or the Goyim - literally "nations" – 
Plaut suggests that here it was probably used to just mean "foreigners", perhaps with a sense of "barbarians"; Rashi says that this means that he was a king of a country of many peoples – perhaps somewhere like the historic Mitanni, a multi-ethnic state which dominated northern Syria from around 1500-1300 BCE 

 

So these kings – at least the two whose lands are potentially identifiable – are from powerful, but far away places; in the case of the kingdom of Elam, both very far away and quite culturally distinct from the Semitic cultures which otherwise dominated the Near East in the Middle and Late Bronze Age.
 

In verse 2, we are told that these Four Kings made war with Five Other Kings – Plaut suggests that the personal names for these kings are probably fictitious – especially Bera and Birsha, as he points out that they mean "with evil" and "with wickedness" respectively. (Not my first choice for a baby-naming)
 

But their domains are names that we recognise: All five of their domains are identified at one point in the Torah as being one of the "cities of the plain" of the Jordan River Valley – that "well-watered" place Lot had moved to in just the chapter before.
 

So the War of the Four against the Five is, as told here, a war of Mesopotamian big-shots (ancient and/or mythical, and powerful) versus local guys from the plains (not the hills, which is important as we'll see in a moment). It's like we wrote that China and Russia came to invade Mississauga – not to imply that Mississauga is as evil as Sodom, I mean, not quite ….
Eventually Abram strides into this story.  He's living up in the Central Hills at the Terebinths – that is some big Trees – of Mamre, an Amorite who, along with his brothers, has allied with Abram.  The Amorites are identified in the Torah as one of the many Canaanite tribes, descendent of Canaan, son of Ham the disgraced son of Noah – 

 

But they have also been identified in other ancient sources as a nomadic or semi-nomadic people resident in Syria and the Levant – indeed, by about 1100, all of what would later be called Palestine was known in Assyrian sources as "Amurru"; they also spoke a NW Semetic language, closely related to Hebrew 
 

So Abram, along with other men of the hills who may have been culturally similar to him, rides off to defeat the powerful kings from away, and rescue the people that the cowardly kings of the decadent plains could not – (there's a whole dvar to be written on that topographical rural split in the Torah…)
 

Thus this is a story about how Abram is awesome and people who live up in the hills that became the Jewish heartland are also awesome.
 

But is that all? Why this lengthy and confusing interruption of Abram's family story? There's a lot more detail than necessary – the story could have told simply as "Abram defeated powerful kings from Far Away with just 318 men – or just one man, whose name added up to 318!" 

Scholars are keen to point out that there are some aspects of this story that resonate with later Hebrew history: Plaut points out that Salem (Shalem in Hebrew) is traditionally identified as Jerusalem – thus Abram pays a tithe at the exact place where later Hebrews will bring their tithes to the Temple. And, as in other parts of Bereshit, place names are checked in this chapter which will have significance for the generations of the Exodus and Conquest: K'dorlaomar and the others smite their way through to the wilderness of Paran, where later the Israelites would travel right after leaving Sinai – and back again to Kadesh, the encampment where Miriam and Aaron would die and be buried. 

 

But this parsha is not just telling us the Hebrew history – but also (and explicitly) setting out the pre-Hebrew history of Canaan.
 

This was not a new land which Abram had come into, but one that was already old and well-populated, in which there are many tribes – who are listed out for us in detail, in this chapter as K'dorlaomar and the others rode through "smiting" them, and again at the end of chapter 15. Some, like the Amorites and other Canaanites, were like him, while others, like the Rephaim, the Zuzim and Emim - were said to have been like giants, "great, and many, and tall". These peoples inhabited not just parts of Canaan, but also Edom, Moab and Ammon before (as it is said) G-d destroyed them to make way for the descendants of Esau and Lot. . 
 

This is not a history that the readers of the Torah can ignore or pretend away. It is graphically, exhaustively, demonstrated and placed right in the middle of the parsha:
Abram is not a sojourner in a virgin land. He is the latest entrant into a place of deep history and complexity. And the text rehearses that depth for us when it gives us, maybe not the literal names of people who lived there in the past, but echoes of tribes, kingdoms, empires. 

 

This passage of the Torah is as dense and tangled as my own feelings about crossing my own border. It's complicated! People like me have to tread lightly because I'm stepping into an ancient and populated country. 
 

What rights do I have an immigrant to Judaism? How do I fit in with those who came before me?
 

I can't stride in, like Abram, a conqueror. Nor should I.
 

This is especially difficult for me, because I'm not used to this immigration thing –
I am someone who could, by some, be described as an 'old stock' Canadian. My family came to this continent in the seventeenth century. They came to Canada as loyalists, fleeing the Revolution. My family history is full of stories of intrepid pioneers – I delight in Elizabeth Simcoe's drawings of the nascent town of York, being carved from the thick woods on the north side of the Lake …
but – as a historian, particularly of the colonial period, I am so aware that these thick woods were never virgin woods, but areas in which native societies have lived for millennia,
And G-d said to Abram, Leave your country, leave your kindred
I can't, and didn't. I am literally still standing in my country, upon this soil that is my native land.

 

As a new Jew, I need to step lightly.
As a Canadian, oh how I wish my ancestors had stepped lightly.

 

Indeed, the only reason that there was any place for European settlers to land in Massachusetts is that they had brought  a devastating plague a couple of years earlier, wiping out whole villages, crippling the affected Chiefdoms.
 

We stand knee deep in the ashes of a dying of, well… biblical proportions.
 

And where we are standing right now is on "unceeded Anishnaabe land" – that is, the land of the Mississaugas, part of the Anishanaabe people, from the whom the British (aka my ancestors) purchased Toronto in a rather one-sided deal.  
 

And yet … the Anishnaabe had inhabited southern Ontario for just about a century, having taken over this area from the Haudenosaunee, who we call the Iroquois. And they in turn had conquered this place, a bare fifty years before that, in their terrible war with the Wendat, also known as the Huron.
 

So whose land is it?
 

These details are not to try to absolve Euro-Canadians of our transgressions, deny our responsibilities to aboriginal people – and certainly not to make any argument about whose claim to this land is more legitimate. Obviously, the various aboriginal groups have a strong and prior case. 
 

But the point is that it was never a new land – or a timeless, unchanging land. It's more complicated than that.
 

I know that I am standing in a landscape of blood and betrayal, of kings and chieftains, of warring tribes and conquering states – that is, of epic struggles that invade my own, small, domestic story and put me in my historical place.
 

I know, in the same way that the first readers of Lech L'cha were enjoined to know the history of their land -- and to be aware of how no land is new, no land is timeless, but has already had history written and rewritten upon it like a tattered palimpsest.
 

Parsha Lech L'cha teaches us that these questions are without answer, that before before there was always another before. Lech L'cha teaches us that our transitions are never complete or uncompromised, that we carry our past with us, and take it to a place where ancient things will shape us as we shape them. Lech L'cha teaches us what we all secretly knew: that despite our desire for bright, clean answers and sharp, simple boundaries, we are bound together in time and place and story and none of us will ever be quite distinct. 
 

And I carry that knowledge with me. Into my local park, where the aboriginal drum circle celebrates their faith in the open air. Into this synagogue, where I celebrate my own place in the universe with my family and friends: Christian, Jewish, or miscellaneous. 
 

But if we respect that complexity and revere our connections as well as our distinctiveness, maybe we can have a home together, and perhaps, one day, find the land that G'd will show us.

 

Noach by Eyal Zohar

10/16/2015

 


This week’s Torah portion is parashat Noach. The story of Noach is one we all know. It’s a story we grew up with; one that is entrenched in our popular culture — in colouring books, Saturday morning cartoons, novels, films and countless comedy routines. 

The basic story is as follows: 

Noach is an אִישׁ צַדִּיק (a righteous man) who walks with God. God instructs Noach to build an ark as God will soon bring forth a great flood that will destroy all living things upon earth. Noach gathers his family and two of every animal onto the ark. The rains last forty days and forty nights. The ark comes to rest upon Mount Ararat. Noach releases a dove that returns with an olive branch; a sign that it’s safe to leave the ark. Noach, his family and all the animals leave the ark to start a new life in the new world. God makes a covenant with Noach, in the form of the rainbow, to not destroy the world again. Noach’s children are fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.

This is the story of Noach that most of us recall and have passed down to our children. It is a story of redemption, hope and peace and, of course, lots of cute animals on an ark. It’s the perfect bedtime story — appealing and comforting. It’s no coincidence that the name Noach is derived from the hebrew word נֶחָמָה which means “comfort”.


Yet upon closer examination, this seemingly child-friendly story isn’t as familiar or as comforting as we may recall. As Timothy Findley writes in the prologue to Not Wanted on The Voyage, his novel based on the Noach story, “everyone knows it wasn’t like that.” 

In studying this parsha these past few weeks, I was struck by how much of the story “isn’t like that”. Yes, there are rainbows and doves. But there’s also mass destruction, death, indecency, idolatry and even sexual assault. It turns out that Noach is one of the scariest stories in the Torah. We should read it and tremble instead of reading it and smiling.

So, how can we reconcile the PG version of Noach with the more sinister and often R-rated version of the story which includes, among other things, the depiction of Noach as a profane drunkard who is disgraced by his youngest son?

The answer may be found in revisiting Noach’s name and the notion of נֶחָמָה. After the Flood, God promises Noach, “So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” The natural order of the world, God tells Noach, is a balance between comfort and discomfort. We need to endure the discomfort of labouring in the fields to reap the comfort of the harvest. Similarly, we accept the discomfort of our long harsh Toronto winters so that we can enjoy the comfort of our brief summer season. 

As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented in reference to this pasuk, “year round summer is not good for society. When life is too easy and people have too much time on their hands, society deteriorates.”

And so it was in the time of Noach. Before the Flood, life was too easy and comfortable. It was summer year round. People had too much time on their hands. The result of all this comfort and easy-living was the rise of immorality, idolatry and violence. “And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth.”

The sinister parts of the Noach story remind us of the dangers of being too comfortable. Of taking life too easy. Of resting upon our laurels. As Rabbi Eric Linder notes in his essay, The Comfort of Noach, “Judaism teaches that comfort is a neighbour to apathy.”

We are fortunate to be living at a time of unprecedented comfort. We have all these conveniences: 24 hour grocery stores, smartphones that can summon an Uber at a tap of a button, drive-thru Starbucks and even, this is true, on-demand beauty services that bring mani/pedis right to your door. It’s a great time to be alive!

Yet the lesson we learn from Noach is that too much נֶחָמָה can be too much of a good thing. How can we be attuned to the suffering and discomforts around us when our greatest daily challenge is searching for a strong WiFi signal? Will our comfort be our undoing as it was for the generation of the Flood? Or, can we find grace within our comfort — note that the hebrew word for grace, חֵן, is נֹחַ spelled backwards — and strive to live as צַדִיקִים?

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי־ גֹ֔פֶר, make for yourself an ark of gopher wood, God instructs Noach. The ark is both the physical and metaphorical vessel that carries Noach, and by extension the human race, from damnation to salvation. It is a space of holiness and protection against the forces of temptation and corruption that surround us and the evil inclination (יֵצֶר רַע) that lies within us. 

The ark is also a sign; a warning sign that God instructs Noach to construct right in front of the people. As Rashi notes, 

Why did God burden Noach with this construction? In order that the people of the Generation of the Flood should see him occupying himself with it for one hundred twenty years and ask him, “For what do you need this?” And he would say to them, “God, is destined to bring a flood upon the world.” Perhaps they would repent.

The Midrash says that God specifically wanted Noach to construct this massive boat on a mountain top so that it would arouse peoples’ curiosity. This way people would ask Noach ― "What are you building?" ― and Noach could warn them about the impending catastrophe that could be avoided if they would change their ways. 

Well, over the course of 120 years, the people ignored this massive warning sign which led to their ultimate doom. 

This begs the question: What arks are being built right now, in front of our eyes, that we're ignoring at our own peril? What warning signs are we failing to heed? What actions do we need to take to avoid the fate of the Flood generation? 

I’d like to highlight one ark, a global ark, that is in the early stages of construction that we can not afford to ignore. Last month, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 17 Global Goals intended to address three primary objectives: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix climate change by the year 2030. 

United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark noted: "If we all work together, we have a chance of meeting citizens’ aspirations for peace, prosperity, and wellbeing, and to preserve our planet.”

This particular ark doesn’t include two of every animal but rather sets out 17 specific issues we need to address within the next 15 years:

 

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace and justice strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

The good news is that this modern day ark isn’t being built by one 800 year old man. It’s an ark that we all can and need to build together. 

Where do we start? What tools do we have? As a first step, I encourage everyone here and across our community to go to globalgoals.org. There you’ll find more information about this initiative and ways in which you can take action to help build this ark one plank at a time. I also hope that our Tikkun Olam Committee and our Youth groups find ways to get involved and take action in building this new ark.  

I’d like to believe that, unlike Noach’s neighbours, we will not ignore the ark that is being built before our eyes. Remember, we’re all in the same boat! 

Shabbat Shalom.



 

Shlach Lecha: Tzitzit by Sandy Wynia Katz

6/13/2015

 

Shabbat Shalom. 

I offer this d’var torah in honour of my father’s memory – this coming week marks the first yarzheit since he left us last year.  I’m sure it seems a fitting tribute, on the face of it – and it is.  However, you may not know that my father was a Christian, and not just any kind of Christian – my father was an Orthodox Christian, of the Dutch Reformed variety.  While I returned to the Judaism once lost to my mother’s family, I took with me much of my upbringing including a passion for study, debate and learning, something my Dad and I often enjoyed together (and sometimes didn’t!).  Dad was a great debater, intelligent, well read, calm and sure in what he believed.  I am grateful for the gifts he gave me.  

This is such a rich Parsha, so many interesting points to explore.  Today I’ll be reflecting on the very end of the Parsha, vs. 37 – 41.

 “The Eternal One said to Moses as follows:  Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.  That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.  Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d.  I the eternal am your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d:  I the Eternal your G-d.”

So why this part?  Well, as it happens I have recently begun experimenting with wearing a kipah all the time – almost all the time.  Before studying this parsha I would be hard pressed to tell you exactly why.   My decision is wrapped up in many aspects of my identity – as a Jew, as a woman, as a person who is not quickly or automatically identified as Jewish; as someone who can ‘pass’ as non-Jewish; as someone who explores and wants to push the envelope of expression of my gender, of my Jewishness, of the various concurrent identities I hold.  Not a painful or restless expression but, I hope, as a sign of constant growth and expression.

One of the reasons I couldn’t articulate until I studied this parshah has to do with identity and relationship to G-d, and how I express that here in shul, amongst our Jewish community and in the broader, non-Jewish communities in which I live, play, work.

The Torah says:  “That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.  Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d.” 

According to the Plaut commentary, evidence regarding women wearing fringes was ‘ambiguous’.  Ambiguous works for me. And 'works' as I experiment with this external representation of my Identity as a Jew. 

The Plaut commentary also includes the following:  "When people learn much, pray much, and think ‘I am truly pious’, they transgress the command, ‘Do not follow your heart and your eye in your lustful urge’.  Let them look at the tizitzit and remember who they are.  Chassidic (66)". 

The Tzitzit are a physical reminder to us to remember who we are.  Not to be caught up in our own ego, our own status.  It also flies in the face of 'if it feels good, do it' or 'the purpose of life is to be happy'.   When my father saw evidence of this in the secular world he became worried. He warned me of the world's seduction and shared his concern that it would leave people empty, spiritually bereft. We talked about and debated this often. For me, being raised in a religion where discomfort loomed large as an ideal, ideas of pursuing comfort, happiness, feeling good were very appealing.   Of course as I've grown older and had a little more experience in the world I realize what he was trying to say and how it might apply to me.   There is nothing inherently wrong in 'feeling good' as my father may have believed. But what is the source of 'feeling good'?  Where does our joy come from?  How do we anchor ourselves as Jews in a world that tells us to think only of ourselves and what feels good to us?

Look at the tizitzit and remember who I am.

These days the kipah serves as my tzitzit.  I realize the kipah identifies me as a Jew to non Jews and to Jews as well.  I choose to identify myself and, as such, take on a certain responsibility.  While I am obviously not one to observe all the mitzvah vote and certain,y don't adhere to the letter of the law, it reminds me of my commitment to the spirit of the law, to G-d, to the Jewish people.  I have to think twice about where I eat, what I eat, how I conduct myself at work, in meetings with the children I represent and meetings with the leaders I find myself confronting on behalf of my clients.  In where I seek and find pleasure.

I consider myself an ethical person, yet I do feel weight of the kippah reminding me of who I am, how I am to conduct myself and how I want to present myself as a Jew. 

So what about tizitzit?  I'm curious about tizitzit. Might they find their way on to my body?  As part of my ever growing identity?  Maybe. 

I have mixed feelings when I see orthodox men wearing tiztzit. I look at then and I wish I could follow this particular commandment.  I look at them and know they will never accept me as a Jew, especially if they peep me walking down town, a woman wearing tizitzit. I also know that I don't 'need' these outward displays of Jewish observance in order to be a Jew, live as a Jew, Daven as a Jew.  There are so many mitzvot I will likely never keep. Why do I have to go messing with tizitzit?  

In a recent D'var Torah on this parsha, Rabbi Harry Rosenfeld wrote: 
"While rejecting the ritual mitzvot, our early (Reform) leaders still felt connected to the "moral" mitzvot. By retaining these last two verses as part of the Sh'ma, I believe they wanted to remind us that we must still study and teach Judaism and about our covenant with God and what is required of us to be holy."

I believe that too. I choose Reform Judaism.  And I love this statement: "we must still study and teach Judaism and about our covenant with G-d and what is required of us to be holy."   By rejecting the ritual mitzvot it's not as though we are taking the 'easy' way. There remain expectations of us.  The phrase 'and what is required of us to be holy' is something that we could debate and discuss for hours and days and weeks. 

And yet those tizitzit...they keep calling.   I think I might know why. Before my conversion was final I longed to wear the tallit. My own tallit. To read the blessing, to meditate a few moments before fully donning my own fringed garment, my tallit. And wow - it was not a let down. Although I had been living 'Jewishly' for many years before converting there was something particularly transcendent about the first time I wore my tallit. I gazed on its fringes and suddenly that made sense. To this day, donning a tallit is something I do with kavannah, with intention.  I never rush myself, never see it is as rote - each and every time, this morning included, I don the tallit with kavannah.   It's not mystical or magical....but it's special and its meaningful. 

In a D'var Torah of this parsha from a few years ago Rabbi Loevinger, (formerly of Rabbi Goldstein's Kolel here in Toronto and one of my first Jewish teachers) offered the following:  "The parasha ends with the commandment about the tzitzit, which were to serve as a reminder to observe all of God’s commandments.The midrash illustrates this with a story: A person is thrown from a boat into the sea. The captain stretches out a rope and tells him to take firm hold of it, for his life depends on it. The rope is like the tzitzit, and the captain is like God. The tzitzit provide a lifeline."

I like this. I may envision a different notion of G-d then those who developed the midrash but I connect with this image:  the tizitzit are a direct line to the Torah, to the Jewish people and to prayer, belonging.  

Look at the  tzitzit and remember who I am. 

We should all be able to answer the question, "what do I look at and remember I am a Jew?"

Shabbat Shalom. 


 

Gratefulness Shabbat-Erev Shavuot by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

5/23/2015

 

Today is the 49th and last day of the counting of the Omer.

I’ve been counting every evening since the second day of Passover. It’s an intense and dramatic mitzvah, forcing me to mark the end of every day and the beginning of a new day. It has to be done out-loud, with a blessing. Mental record-keeping is not enough. You have to count verbally. If I forget one night, I can count the next morning—but if I’ve forgotten two nights in a row, I’m done. The counting doesn’t count any more.

Now, we have an Omer-counting device in our kitchen, where we tie a ribbon on a string each night to indicate we’ve counted. But this year after Pesach we just couldn’t find the ribbons and so this year, we had to reallyremember to do it. It was a challenge t remember this one small detail at the end of every day. Not only because I’m getting older, but really because our days are just so full, and at night we generally just want to fall into bed and forget whats ahead.

The mitzvah of counting the Omer, 7 weeks of 7 days, is directly from the Torah, where we are commanded: Us’fartem lachem— you shall count for yourselves, each one of you individually. It’s not enough for someone to do it for you—not your Rabbi, not your Cantor, not your community. You just cannot fall into bed forgetfully for those 49 nights. It is a consciousness-awakening moment at the time when I am most tired, and most likely to want to quiet my consciousness down. But its a kind of daily modim moment, to take stock and to plan ahead.

There are 2 kinds of counting, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, one of he teachers I have been privileged to study with from Machon Hadar, suggests. One is a counting away from something: its been 2 years since I’ve been sober; its been 2 weeks since my surgery, its been 5 years since the divorce, etc. There is a  time for that kind of counting. But its a counting backward, as it were.

In contrast there are times when we count toward something. We count forward. We don’t count down- we count up. This is a count of anticipation, of awareness of what lies ahead. This is the counting of the Omer, and this kind of anticipatory counting brings us to Shavuot, tonight.

We use the expression “ to count your blessings.” It’s no coincidence that Gratefulness Shabbat is on this last day of Omer, Erev Shavuot. We are collectively “counting our blessings” for this congregation and its vounteers. This is a communal modim moment. It is not just a counting backward—”thank you for what you did this past year” but also a counting forward—”thank you for staying active and for being a role model for other congregants in the next year ahead.”

I want to connect this idea of positive counting and gratefulness to an unusual sentence in this week’s regular Shabbat Torah portion. At the end of our triennial portions, we read about the tasks assigned to each tribe. Of course the Cohanim get to be the big bosses, and the Levites get to be the assistant bosses. And then there is the little tribe called the Kohatites. 

We read in verse 15 of chapter 4:  “When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sacred objects and all the furnishings of the sacred objects at the breaking of camp, only then shall the Kohatites come and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred objects and die. These things in the Tent of Meeting shall be the porterage of the Kohathites.”

So, the Kohatites are the “sacred shleppers” that I so often talk about. Every task in a community becomes a meaningful task, even if it is “only” the porterage.

But the Kohatites cannot touch the things they are to shlep until these objects get covered by the Levites. Why?

Verse 17 answers this question: The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 18 Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. 19 Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. 20 But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.”

Those whose job it is to protect the sacred in a community should not have to see it in its vulnerability, in its “dismantling”; when it is down and out, disconnected, and diffuse.

But I’d like to suggest that that’s not leadership. Leadership is not counting away, but counting towards. Leadership is not when a persn says “we’ve already dn that, lets not try again” but whena person says “I’ll try it, maybe it will work maybe it won’t, but I’ll try.” Leadership is when a person is ready to step forward even if there is nothing to portage yet, even if the tasks, or goals, or plans of the community are not yet ready. Even if the community seems dismantled. Thats when a true and creative spirit of generosity is needed most. In my mind, that is the kind of positive counting up that Shavuot symbolizes.

So I’d like to express my gratefulness to all those who have volunteered in one say or another this year, from taking tickets at a door to measuring the door to potaging the door to opening the door to strangers to closing the door during the silent Amidah and everything in-between that door of the shul we are now and the door to the shul we hope to become in the future. 

 

Vayikra, Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat Hachodesh by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

3/21/2015

 

 

A three Torah Shabbat could lend itself to 3 dvar Torahs...but don’t worry!

Nathan you told us how special your Bar Mitzvah Shabbat is, but let me add two more significances to today, even though they don’t get their own Torah:

First: The supermoon total solar eclipse last night: the moon turned new only 14 hours after reaching lunar perigee – moon’s closest point to Earth in its orbit. This moon is called a supermoon and this new supermoon swung right in front of the sun last night. A total solar eclipse occurs when the Moon's apparent diameter is larger than the Sun's, blocking all direct sunlight, turning the day into darkness.Yesterday was the last total solar eclipse visible in Europe until the eclipse of August 12, 2026.

And...second, the equinox, which is today. The time when our 24 hours are divided equally between day and night: 12/12. A time of complete balance. Starting tomorrow we will have more light than dark, having come out of more dark than light. 

The special reading for Shabbat Hachodesh starts with “this month shall be for you the first of all months.” Nisan is the equilibrium between the darkness of the winter and the light of the summer.

Nisan is the first month of the Jewish year. Not Tishre which is the first month of the counting of the year, but Nisan which is the first month of counting that we are a people. It is the month in which we start to identify ourselves as Jews. It is deeply significant that that first mitzvah given to the Jewish people—to sanctify the New Moon—was in effect, the commandment to take control of our time. Slaves cannot plan their day. Slaves cannot decide how to make a month more meaningful. Only free people can wake up in the morning and say, “how will today be better than yesterday” and actually do something out of it. 

Our lives are lived somewhere between supermoon big historical occurances, 3-Torah Shabbats, Bar Mitzvahs which do eclipse everything else for that small moment in time; and the commandment to sanctify the everyday, to mark the months and the moments; to sanctify the normal daily routine time. A month is just a month until we mark it; as free  agents, as masters of our destiny.

Rosh Chodesh Nisan, on the one hand, reminds us that we have 15 days until the Seder. 15 days—Metro was already changing its shelves at Purim so how am I supposed to find that equilibrium? On the other hand, Nisan itself reminds us that there are supermoons we need to stop and pay attention to: the ideals of freedom, of family, of experiencing the oppression of Egypt—and therefore all oppression— as if we ourselves were slaves. In this we have to find the balance between a crazy-making stress around food and focusing on the deeper themes of the holiday on the other.

In taking control of our time, in planning our days as free people, marked and measured as filled with meaning, we can count this month as the beginning of our liberation.

 

Ki Tisa by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

3/7/2015

 


Ki Tisa is most famous for the Golden Calf, but to explain that episode and why the people trusted Moses so much, a remarkable description of Moses’ relationship with God is used in chapter 33, verse 11. It’s a turn of phrase that is very interesting:

"The Lord would speak to Moshe face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” 

Some translations render it “as one speaks with another” because they are afraid of the intimacy that it really intends. Ra-a-hu—the people you live with, care for, in your community—is the same word as in the “golden rule”-v’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha—love your neighour as yourself. 

Imagine having that kind of relationship with God.

I call it a kitchen-table relationship: feeling so close to a Divine Presence that you feel you can sit down at the kitchen table and talk to God one on one, the way you would with your neighbour.

Moses’ first encounter with God required the mediation of the burning bush, where God spoke indirectly and through the bush; but after freeing the people from Egypt—an experience in which Moses and God worked in partnership—Moses and God speak face to face. Later in the book of Numbers, in response to the slurs against Moses offered by his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, God appears to them and emphasizes: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.  And when Moses dies, his soul departs “al pi Adonai,” literally, "by God's mouth" but the midrash suggests it is with a kiss from God that Moses departs this world. The Torah concludes with this relationship: "Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses – whom God spoke with, face-to-face". 

The concept of the unique tenderness that characterized Moses’ relationship with God appears in the Talmud, as well. In Masechet Yevamot 49b, the Talmud describes Moses’ exposure to God as "aspaklaria ha-me'ira" – "clear glass," whereas other prophets beheld God through "aspaklaria she-eina me-ira," or "dim glass." 

The Spanish 13th century commentator Rabbeinu Bachya says that because of this clarity, because of this relationship, Moses’ glow never left him:

“And this light which shone forth from his face never left him from the time that he was on Mt. Sinai. It was with him all his life.”

Oh, to see God that clearly in our own lives, not through a dim glass. Our faces would glow too.

But what if we chose to see God more clearly in the glow of other’s faces? This strange and wonderful line in our parsha about the close relationship between God and Moses suggests that we can see God less dimly in our lives through the way we speak to our friends and neighbours. Because if God spoke to Moses as if with a fellow human being, then surely Moses spoke to his fellow human being as if with God.

If each human being is seen as b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, glowing with the clarity of that Divine spark residing deep within us all—then the way we communicate with each other will mirror that. The way we compliment and the way we criticize will mirror that. The way we think again before pressing the send button will mirror that. The way we post on our public pages or choose not to post on our public pages will mirror that.

Today happens to be The National Day of Unplugging, a 24 hour period – sundown to sundown – the first weekend in March every year. It’s a project of Reboot, a Jewish organization of young artists creating new ways for people to make Jewish values relevant. Let’s look at what we can learn from Moses’ face-to-face, kitchen-table relationship during the Day of National Unplugging, when you and I sit together face to face without Facebook in direct communication, speaking with each other as one speaks with a neighbour, and seeing the glow in each other’s eyes. 

I know we are unplugged for this short period of a service, and especially for the Bar Mitzvah of Hank, although it is probably killing some of you that you cannot take a photo of the moment instead of just being in the moment.  interestingly we have to remind people week after week to keep cell phones off not only during the service, but also during the kiddush, and I can reassure you, after seeing this week after week, that the kids will start taking out their cell phones in another room as soon as they see I’m not around. 

It’s at the Tent of Meeting, where the people gathered, that God spoke to Moses as if with a friend. When we gather here in the synagogue, it is that unplugged Tent of Meeting that allows for the relationship of God as friend and friend as God to grow.

I practice a day of unplugging every Shabbat, in fact, and I have from the bima pitched that idea many times. I do not unplug as an Orthodox halacha of not using electricity or technology. I unplug not to “undoing” something but to “do” something: to see the people I care about face to face, glowing in the image of God. 

If we see each other that clearly, and in seeing each other that clearly, see the Divine Spark manifested within, we might be able to speak with God as with a friend.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Shabbat Zachor by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

2/28/2015

 

In today’s special maftir reading for Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, we are commanded to “remember what Amalek did to you. Don’t forget!”

We think Judaism has an obsession with food, and thats true. But it also has an obsession with remembering. Every holiday is all about remembering, no matter how much we think its about food. Every ritual is about remembering who we are and where we came from. We are commanded today, like on Yom Hashoah, to remember even the horrible things others did to us.

We must remember that we were slaves in Egypt; we must remember the Sabbath to keep it holy; we must remember our enemies like Amalek. Remember: don’t forget! The Torah uses a double imperative, as if fearful that remembering is not enough, as if “not forgetting” is necessary too. Is this a different action, to “not forget?” Is it the same as “remembering?” 

I’m not sure, but if you are dealing with a parent who is in any stage of dementia, you get the feeling that forgetting is an action; that a little more each day is being forgotten not passively but as a process. The root zachor—remember—appears 169 times in the Tanach and scholars argue that the English translation of the word as “remember” is too small in scope. The word zachor implies a level of action. Not just remembering, but also not forgetting. Indeed Moses' last great swan song in Deuteronomy cries out "O Israel, remember and do not forget" like a kind of holy refrain, a kind of parent’s cry “don’t forget me when I am old and when I am gone.”

Jews live and breathe in the world of memory. In his book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes, "Only in Israel... is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people." Memory is incumbent upon the Jew because memory is the beginning of action. Moses begs the people not only to remember, but to act so that the work he started is someday, someday finished. It’s not enough to sing with Barbara Streisand about “misty water-coloured memories of the way we were” without having a map for the way we will be. Memory is incumbent upon the Jews but it is of no value if it doesn’t move us from the past into the future.

So what are we to remember? Ancient facts and figures, seas parting and plagues visited and kings of yesteryear? The way we were back in the shtetl? No. We think we should remember our history, but history is what happened and memory is what it means to us. Remembering history is of value only if it helps us to reconnect to what it means to be a Jew in the present tense, in the present time and space we occupy. It makes sense to go backward only to refashion what we once knew. We can’t really remember our history because at best what we have of it is a reconstruction anyway. “Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal Dreams. We remember the past as we think it was but not necessarily as it actually was; so when we celebrate a past we celebrate what we thought that past might have been rather than what we know for sure it was. In fact, we might well be celebrating what that pastought to have been. I recognize that when I remember my mother doing Israeli dancing with me at camp many years ago I am conjuring a scene that may never have really happened the way I picture it. When I reconstruct the memory of her at her office desk working, I am remembering a productive, busy, and smart woman who ran a whole department. Perhaps in reality she was frustrated, made to feel inadequate, unsure of herself, unskilled. But that is not the way I am remembering at all. Yerushalmi writes, “What is Jewish memory, after all, but deliberately constructed mythical nostalgia that binds one to a past even in radically reinterpreting that past? Jewish memory scoffs at the definition of memory as a first-order photographic capture of experience lived. Instead, Jewish tradition ironically celebrates temporal distance from the actual event being remembered, translating the event into ritual, nostalgia, and myth. Jewish memory is not made more correct by its historical accuracy. This translation of event to practice bridges the chasm of past and future, and renders a specific historical event into an ongoing event of significance.” In other words, the real faith of Judaism is our ability to take a memory and translate it into a ritual which has everlasting value, and is not tied to whether or not a specific event actually happened precisely.

Thats why I always talk to the school kids about the difference between “small t truth” and “big T truth” when they ask me if the Red Sea “REALLY” parted, or if such-and-such a thing “REALLY” happened. It doesn’t matter if it is true with a small t, historically proven and factual. It matters with a big T- what does it teach us? Did Amalek “REALLY” attack us from behind? Our memory is about the strong preying on the weak, and we call it Amalek. It’s the translation of event to practice that Yerushalmi speaks of.

We radically refashioned our memory of what the Temple in Jerusalem was, while ensuring its future, when we invented the synagogue. We radically refashioned our memory of what ancient Israel was, thus ensuring its future, when the modern state was born in 1948 as a democracy. We continue to refashion Shabbat, the holidays, a Jewish home, and in refashioning our memories we both lock them in and free them from shackles. 

Judaism lives in the present only when it reinterprets its past— without losing its memory. But we have to be very careful that we don’t become a people with too much memory: living only in the past, past glories of Israel and past achievements of our ancestors; past ways we looked and dressed and prayed and past rules which made sense then but not now. Florida columnist Jan Glidewell once wrote, “You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present,” and that’s how I sometimes feel at Jewish events. We need as much passion to re-form our Judaism, re-new it, re-think it re-energize it while re-membering it.  We have too much memory if it traps us in the past without a raison d’etre for a Jewish future other than “not to forget.”

Our generation of grandparents may not speak Yiddish, our own parents may have known little of Jewish tradition or culture, and many of our kids are tied with the thinnest of thread to the idea that they are Jewish. The Judaism of memory doesn’t work for converts to Judaism, who didn’t “stand at Sinai” but entered on their own, devoid of Jewish nostalgia from not having grown up Jewish. It doesn’t work for the Jew from a small town, the Jew isolated, the Jew on the margins. A central question for Jews today is do we suffer from Jewish amnesia?

It is incumbent upon the Jew to remember, as today’s portion tells us. But it is also incumbent for us as modern Jews to move beyond memory, beyond the glorification of our remembered victimhood that today’s portion reminds us of. Finding the fine balance between remembering the past while moving away from it is what Shabbat Zachor challenges us with.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Terumah by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

2/21/2015

 

This morning’s Parsha, Terumah, underneath all the numbers and measurements, really is about something very simple: paying attention to details. We buck against all the minutaie and particulars in the parsha, glossing over them and rolling our eyes because they are “BORING.” I want to reframe that thought with you.

I used to like the book Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff (and it’s all small stuff). Now I don’t anymore, I think it might be too superficial a message; the opposite of today’s parsha which could be subtitled “Thou Shalt Sweat The Small Stuff.” I’ve discovered that on the one hand, its good not to stress over every little details, but on the other hand, it’s really good to prepare and be prepared for every little detail. To have the Torah rolled to the right place. To be sure the kid learns the right maftir. To have enough chairs. As humans, we dream and we plan and we make lists; every list we make, from the guests we invite to a party to what we need to buy for school next semester, is like the list we find in our parsha today: precious to those who carry it around, while incomprehensible to those who find it years later.

Chris Hatfield, in his book An Astronaut’s Guide To Life, writes: “Sweat The Small Stuff.“An astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut.” Pay attention to details and anticipate problems. 

Yes, its all small stuff: but piece by piece, those small details make a life, and build a character, the same way the mishkan was built piece by piece, with painstakingly accurate specifications. 

When our kids are young, we love the details. We love the technicalities and the fine points of even the colour that lands up in their diaper after a meal. Every ooh and ah they say, every bubble they blow, every smile they smile, is a small matter we pay close attention to. And we watch careful lest something goes wrong.

In my opinion, our society is under-obsessed with details, not over. We are so information- saturated that sometimes we lose sight of the trees for the forest. We could use a dose of mishkan-building tactics to get us back on focus.

I want to make an analogy to origami.

The process of origami is about paying attention to details, patience, and exactness. Folding just right. Watching corners and how they need to be. Coordinating measurements. It’s a building project not unlike the building of the mishkan which requires a steady hand and a heart willing to hold the specifics.

And now I want to make an analogy to synagogues, to underscore what Ezri said about building a community.

The Torah portion today gives 87 verses of instructions so that the building of the miskan— which is, as Ezri suggested, a metaphor for the building of a community— can proceed in an efficient and harmonious way. Imagine if God had put together a building committee! There would have been endless, time-consuming arguments, the architect would have quit, and the least-talented member would have been left painting the walls. Having a very focused blueprint helps the building of the mishkan become a cooperative and communal experience with everyone following the same plan.

I think that may be one of the unique strengths of City Shul. We see the building of our community as a mishkan where God and community dwell together. We build carefully, slowly, and with a plan in mind. We do not wish to be merely functional, we wish to be visionary. And to be visionary requires attention to detail, which is sometimes “BORING.” 

But what makes a great service great, or a great programme great, or a great project great, or in Ezri’s case, a great dvar Torah great- is attention to details. The Talmud doesn’t say much about what to believe, but it has 63 volumes on the details of what to do. Adam Kirsch writes, “Much of the Talmud...can be understood as a choreography of Jewish life. Just as a dancer must master an intricate series of movements and postures, so the Jew’s daily routine must follow the patterns laid out in the Talmudic tractates: when to pray, what to eat, where and how to move on Shabbat. Usually the follower of a religion is called a “believer,” but the Talmud pays little attention to what Jews believe. What concerns the rabbis is what they do, down to the smallest detail—for instance, which shoe ought to be put on first in the morning.

Yet choreography is not quite the right metaphor here, since the goal of the rabbis is not to produce a graceful or beautiful life, but a holy one. So, Jewish observance can also be likened to a technology—a series of tools that, if used correctly, will produce the desired result... The Talmud, then, would be a manual of sacred technology, showing how to calibrate every prayer, ritual, and action so that it will be most effective. Fundamental to this idea is that the Jewish God is not content with pious thoughts but demands the necessary sequence of actions—just as an airplane won’t fly unless the pilot turns on the engine, even if everyone on board wishes it up into the air.”

I believe one of the greatest strengths of Judaism and one which is still totally relevant in our century, is in its insistence on details—how many cubits high your Sukkah walls should be, or which direction the Chanukah candles are lit in—not so much as a pedantic list of practicalities, but more as a training ground for the rest of our lives in being mindful, in not letting the world pass us by without stopping to notice the small and fantastic details which make up a flower, or a sunset, or a house, or an event, or a person.

There are two things Chazal, the early Talmudic Rabbis, consider microcosms — the mishkan and the human soul. By going through the mishkan in detail, they believed we would have more insight into how our souls should work. 

In English slang we use the expression “the devil is in the details” to mean it is the small details of something which make it difficult or challenging. It is meant as a caution. But I’d like to offer the Jewish take: that God is in the details. Even the smallest fold of an origami flower—the one Ezri made me 2 years ago which is still on my desk as a reminder of this concept—or the mention of how many cubits makes up the ark, gives us an opportunity to infuse the mundane with a sense of holiness and purpose. As Evelyn Underhill, a 19th century Catholic thinker, wrote: “It is those who have a deep and real inner life who are best able to deal with the irritating details of outer life.”

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Parshat Bo by Rob McCready

1/24/2015

 

Today's parsha is Bo. It contains the last three of the plagues -- locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn -- the first description of the rules for Passover, and the departure of the Israelites bearing riches given to them by their Egyptian neighbours. It ends with the directives to set aside the first-born for God.

I'll say it up front: I don't like miracles. I find them hard to write about, because I find them hard to think about. I find them hard to think about because miracles, by definition, are always exceptional. If they were predictable or reliable, they wouldn't be miracles, would they? For the writer of a dvar torah -- or at least for *this* writer -- they generate what are essentially "plot holes". It's like when you're watching the original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, and he turns back time to save Lois Lane. At first you're like, "cool!"...but then later you find yourself thinking, "Wait, why doesn't he just do that for everything?"

The bigger the miracle, the bigger the problem. This parsha has some of the biggest, boldest, plot-holiest (heh heh) miracles ever.

To see what I mean, let's look at the death of the first-born. God kills thousands of Egyptian children deliberately and with elaborate pre-meditation. God makes no distinction between Egyptian familes that might have contributed to the plight of the Hebrews and those that might have been just as afflicted by Pharaoh's rule. But...why? Weren't there alternatives? For goodness' sake, there had just been *six days* of Egyptian-only darkness! Why not leave then?

As with any fan favourite, there are people ready to tell you, "no, no, man...look, it *totally* makes sense!"

Some commentators quote Rashi, who says that the firstborn of even the Egyptian prisoners were killed because they "rejoiced at the misfortune of the Israelites". Rashi goes on to explain that the plague was made worse for the Egyptians because their women were so unfaithful; there were many pairings of women with younger unmarried men, such that an unexpected number of children ended up being *someone's* firstborn.

In her book "In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah", Judith Antonelli appears to agree with Rashi when it comes to the Egyptian prisoners -- calling the plague "democratic" -- but disapproves of his insertion of female infidelity and his patrilineal assignment of first-born-hood. *Her* main justification for the plague is that first-born sons were a kind of cult idol. They were often sacrificed to appease the Egyptian gods, as in many regions at the time. Since God killed both sons *and* daughters, the lesson was that women have the same value as men...as sacrifices, at least!

Other writers point to a Midrash that tells of the firstborn rebelling against Pharaoh for being so stubborn. Each firstborn kills his own father for standing with Pharaoh, after which they are killed themselves by Pharaoh's forces. In this account, God has nothing to do with it at all.

The common implication here is that Egyptian society was morally inferior and thus deserved, needed, or even carried out the 10th plague. To the extent that God was involved at all, it was to teach them a lesson. But, what lesson? Did God teach them that idolizing and/or sacrificing firstborns is wrong by requiring their death as repayment for enslaving the Israelites? Did God teach them that they should end their moral corruption by performing an act so morally questionable that we are *still* talking about it today?

It's hard to use the Egyptians for justification, but what about us? Was it all necessary to get the Hebrews in the right frame of mind to truly leave behind their slavery and follow God?

Remember Indiana Jones? Remember how he fought so hard to make sure the Nazis didn't use the Ark -- *our* Ark! -- to win the war? And he did it, right? Nope. Think about it. What stopped the Nazis? Was it Dr. Jones? No! They *got* the Ark! They *opened* the Ark! Then, they melted...no thanks to Indiana. All that running around, all that digging in the desert, all those *snakes*...for nothing.

...which brings us back to the dead Egyptian babies. To impress the Israelites, right? The same ones that go on to build a Golden Calf very shortly afterward? Yup. Those ones. Turns out, only *two* the people who witnessed that very-impressive 10th plague even get into Israel. Is that worth it?

All of this, everything so far, is just one small part of the discussion of one plague. We could go on like that -- and *have* -- for thousands of years. Each miracle raises dozens of questions, and each answer raises a dozen more. That's kind of appropriate, I guess. For me, though, attempting to explain or justify these miracles in any literal sense is just not satisfying. Instead, I'm going to retreat to the realm of broad allegory with the hopes of gleaning something that feels like insight.

In her dvar on Bo, Rabbi Laura Geller quotes philosopher Michael Walzer thusly on the political message of Passover: “First; that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

When I read Walzer's words, and work hard to pre-tenderize my heart, what I hear in that heart is this: "First; that regardless of situation, we are all still enslaved and enslaving; second; that there are changes we can make to become more free and more freedom-giving; and third; that those changes are only possible through individual and collective sacrifice."

Looking back at the conundrum of the first-born from this abstracted perspective, we can perceive something more meaningful. The parsha ends with the commandment to sacrifice, or offer sacrifice for, every first-born. One's first born is one's pride, it is one's first projection of oneself into the future, it is the first chance for control over what will come. It is an *individual* acheivement: My first born is mine, not yours, not theirs, and not ours. Sacrificing the first born -- the first crops, the first progeny of livestock -- is sacrificing the very entitlement to which we have the greatest and most urgent claim.

That is a breathtakingly foreign idea these days, isn't it? We live in a time and place that encourages aspiration and idolizes ambition, that tells us we should grab hold of whatever comes our way and make sure we get from it everything we deserve. If we manage to get things we don't deserve, even better. In fact, that means we must have deserved them. Most of all, we should never give anything up without a fight...preferably a loud spectacle of a fight that will go viral on YouTube, after which we sue for our share of the ad revenue. Nobody -- but *nobody* -- can tell us that we should ever accept less that what we expected. We're entitled to it. Take advantage, or be taken advantage of. It's a zero-sum, me-first game.

Now, many of you are probably thinking, "I know what he's talking about, but I'm not like that. I *know* people like that, but I'm not one of them.". And, given who I'm talking to, you're probably right. I mean *I'm* not like that either...umm...most of the time. And if I *was*, just for the sake of argument, I would have a *reason*!

*That's* the tricky part, of course. Everyone has a reason. Everyone has something they couldn't have been expected to put up with, or to do without. I fully admit that I know what this feels like. I let myself get frustrated at the most minor of disappointments sometimes. Forget giving up my first born; I've gotten peeved giving up my third soy mocha. I've told my kids for a long time that when I look back on my biggest mistakes in life, the times I really went wrong, the things I really wish I could do over, I see a clear pattern. Each time, I managed to tell myself, "I can't be expected put up with this." Then, I proceeded to be "like that": angry, demanding, inflexible, impatient, unsympathetic, entitled. Entitled to my way, entitled to what I had allowed myself to expect.

Entitlement, it turns out, is the meta-firstborn. It is that which must be sacrificed before anything else. Sacrifice is not the same as loss; it is willing loss for a purpose. Before one can willingly sacrifice something, it must first be sacrificed in the mind, a sacrifice made through the burning of built-up expectations. And, here's the strangest part: If done properly, it is the only sacrifice. Sacrificing your entitlement to what you have to give up - time, comfort, convenience, opportunity - can turn giving-up into giving-back. Once entitlement is sacrificed, all else becomes a mere returning, with thanks, of things briefly borrowed from the universe.

Here I can really feel the connection between sacrifice and freedom. For many of us comfy first-worlders, the slavery we experience is largely internal. It is a slavery to the massive edifices of expectations we've taken on. Some were handed to us, but most are self-imposed. Some are important, but many are tied to the myriad trivial but oh-so-enticing little conveniences and pleasures that surround us. There are just so many things we can't be expected to do without.

Which leads to the other side of the coin. Too many people have owned slaves over time for them to all be evil; statistically, they were just like us. We have to assume, then, that they could not percieve the alternative. They must have convinced themselves that they could not be expected to do without their slaves. Slavery requires entitlement. The external bonds of the slave are mirrored by the internal bonds of the enslaver. The former cannot be freed until the latter frees themselves.

Who are *our* slaves? What are we telling ourselves we could not do without, or could not put up with? Which of our entitlements are we willing to sacrifice to the cause of freedom and justice? It's an important question: We have big problems to solve. Consider just one: 2014 was the warmest year on record. Sacrifices there will be, one way or another. The Pacific islanders living a scant metre above sea level have no doubt about this. Let's remember them the next time we hear somebody saying we couldn't possibly be expected to put up with the risk of some economic turmoil, slower growth, or reduced competitiveness. Let's remember that those economic risks -- exactly those ones -- have always been associated with abolishing slavery. Poverty, mental illness, aboriginal issues, substance abuse...the list of challenges is long. I fear we tell those who have the fewest options to make bricks with no straw while failing to explore our own inconvenient alternatives.

It occurs to me that my problems with the 10th plague boil down to something very similar. A God of miracles simply *had* to have other options. There must have been alternatives that were not explored. It follows fairly directly that God must have just wanted to do things God's preferred way, no matter the cost to others. That just feels bad. If I'm to be consistent about it, though, I have to feel the same way about my own similar failures. I can't perform miracles (yet!) but there's a lot more I could do with relatively little sacrifice.

Maybe that's the lesson in the end: No matter how mind-bendingly miraculous the events of Parasha Bo seem, Parasha Bo actually happens every day. Every day, we have an opportunity to make good on the commandment to sacrifice our first-born, to burn a few of our entitlements and come out of that fire just a bit more free. We have a chance to use that freedom to loose our grip on chains we didn't even realize we were holding, then to reach out, join arms, and march together. It will be inconvenient, and it will feel uncomfortable, at least at first, but expecting things to change any other way is expecting a miracle, and...well...I don't like miracles.

2014

Vayishlach: Dinah's Silence by Noa Ashkenazi

12/6/2014

 

For my D’var Torah of today I chose to focus on chapter 34, the story of Dinah. For those of you who might not know or remember this story, Dinah is the daughter of Leah and Jacob. And while the midrash suggests that Jacob had more than one daughter, Dinah is the only one we know of. A single sister among a dozen of brothers.

The story begins with Dinah leaving the privacy of her tent residence and going “out to see the daughters of the land”.  While being out, she was seen by Shechem son of Hamor, the rulers of that land. Shechem takes Dinah, lays with her and “defiles” her – three acts that are often interpreted as rape.  Shechem also finds Dinah to be the woman he would like to marry.  So Shechem approaches his father and asks him to arrange the two to be married. His father then addresses Jacob, and the two strike a deal of unification of the two nations through marriage. But Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi do not like that deal. While the people of Shechem are still weak from the circumcision they just went through, Simeon and Levi bring their people upon them, storm into the city, kill all the men, take all the women and all the goods they can get, grab their sister Dinah and leave—defying their father’s word and putting their entire family’s future in danger. 

What does this story tell us?

The traditional midrashim of this story often focus on the ever-so burning question of what Dinah was doing “going out”? In the Torah, the feminine version of “going out” can also mean “going out to bad culture” or even “prostitute”. Although the pshat is Dinah going to see the local girls, many midrashim interpret it as indeed going to bad culture; Midrash Tanchumah interprets Dinah’s outing as the act that corrupted her, in other words, she brought the rape upon herself. Rashi adds that indeed Dinah is surely a prostitute being the daughter of Leah, who was herself (perhaps) a prostitute— since Leah too went out, fully decorated in jewels, to meet Jacob. Some commentators found this behavior to be “slutty” as well. And so Rashi suggests that Dinah not only brought the rape upon herself, she did so because she got it from her mom. “Like mother like daughter” we often tell ourselves, convincing the terrified part within us that bad things happen to bad girls, and as long as our girls will be good, nothing bad will happen to them.

This outing, this “bad girls” behavior, can only be a sign of lack of modesty. Rabbi Dalia Marx mentions in her commentary that generations of commentators used this story as a threat over women’s head to be warned of what will happen to them if they will step out of their proper domestic world. What happened to Dinah was a punishment for going out, and it may just be the punishment for any other woman who dares to step out. 

How remote this biblical threat is from our days? Well, let me put it this way: how many of us women heard the phrase “you are not going out like that”? It is too late, you show too much skin, it is not a place for a woman to walk alone, have you completely lost your mind? Moreover, how many of us – men and women- repeat that threat to our own daughters’ ears? 

Dinah’s blame resides in us more than we might think. 

While traditional commentators are often in agreement that Dinah’s going out was the root of what happened to her, they are split regarding what exactly happened to her, and what were the reasons she went out to begin with: Rashi claims that some of the act was rape and some was not, but Ibn Ezra claims that there is no indication that a rape indeed happened. The Ramban not only sees the entire act as a rape, he also praises Dinah for refusing to comply with Shechem.   Rabbi Eliezer claims that it was Shechem who sent some girls to play near Dinah’s tent to tempt her out so that he could kidnap her. 

Modern female commentators are split about this question just as much. While Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is certain that Dinah was raped, she reminds us that we know very little about Dinah: we don’t know how old she was, what she was looking for, or her intentions. Rivka Lubitz, an Orthodox Toenet Rabbanit claims that Dinah, an only daughter among sons, simply went out to seek some same-gender company, and was kidnapped by Shechem. But Rabbi Dalia Marx considers another possibility, which she finds even bolder: that there wasn’t a rape but a consensual sexual encounter. She suggests that the fact that Shechem wanted to marry Dinah, that he was so committed to being with her, indicates that the “shameful deed” was not a rape, but rather an independent sexual choice of a woman getting out of restraining conventions. Interesting to see that this debate - was there or wasn’t there a rape - exists not only in the commentary but also in literary works of fiction and non-religious debates about Dinah’s story. Anita Daimant’s book The Red Tent is a biblical fiction based entirely on the suggestion that Dinah in fact chose to go to Shechem to be with him; that she loved him; and that her brothers enacted revenge not on a rape but to re-establish a power base and to get her back into line. 

Just like us, in our days, when we hear yet another rape story and find it so difficult to understand: did it happen? Who’s word against whose? Proof? Interpretations? And we seem to never know what really happened, make up our mind, choose a narrative. 

Going back to Dinah’s story, I find there is something very fundamental that missing. Rape or love, a prostitute or a naïve child, we have not a shred of Dinah’s voice anywhere to be found. Dinah is voiceless. 

How devastating it is to discover that the first rape story in the Bible has so much in common with today’s rape stories, as if thousands of years do not separate between today and then. From victim blaming and slut shaming, through the inability to fully interpret the story, to the absence of the survivor’s voice. And I didn’t even mention revenge.

We sit in this room and we breathe, and for every breath we take, there is a Canadian woman who is beaten, harassed, raped, sexually assaulted, stocked, trafficked or murdered. Here, in this country of ours, violence against women is as common as our everyday breaths, yet it is more silence. 

Today, December 6, is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. Some of you may know it. Some of you may have noticed the flags halfway on the pole, but otherwise, this day too dwells in the outskirts of silence. But not for me, and not in City Shul.

It was more than twenty years ago when I became involved with the anti VAW movement. I began by offering women the opportunity to break their own silence. Phone call after phone call I’ve heard their stories. Abuse, rape, anguish and pain. I am able to give the statistics a human face and my own desperation some devotion. I’ve learned that sexual violence survivors do not live in the twilight of society; they are here, among us, and they are countless. They are our mothers and grandmothers, our teachers and our doctors, the model smiling from the pages of a magazine and the Olympic champion, and like Dinah – also our ancestors. They are often too weak to lift the heavy load of depression of their souls, and sometimes so brave they can change the course of history with their courage. They were abused and assaulted by their loved ones, by their brother or father, their piano teacher, their boss, their neighbor, the police officer they asked for protection, the cable technician, a fellow student at school, a stranger on the bus, a famous radio host, a member of parliament, a football player, a successful comedian. 

There is no woman in this room who does not know what I am talking about. The fear, the horror, were engraved into us a long time ago. To those who ever thought it is amusing how women go to the public washrooms in groups, think again, because the reason is not funny at all.

I was asked many times how can we stop VAW from happening. And for over twenty years I reply the same: break the silence. Don’t expect the survivors to do so, it is both unfair and unrealistic. Unfair, because those who experience the violence are often weaker than us, and unrealistic because many of us make sure that it will be extremely hard for the survivors to speak. The survivors can never know if their brothers, washed with hateful agenda, will use their rape story to commit a political genocide, or how those who hear the story will interpret it.  And there are also the blame, shame, gossip, and the impossible “justice system” procedures. It is not the survivors’ duty to break the silence, it is ours.

We often don’t want to speak about VAW. For many reasons we choose to keep the silence intact, although there is no other topic that affects our health, safety, human rights and future as it. We hope that pretending that VAW does not exist, or exist elsewhere, will make it go away. It was very easy to ignore Dinah’s story for this D’var Torah and talk about Esau’s and Jacob’s reunion, or Rachel’s death. But if we choose to overlook Dina’s story, if we choose to ignore our national day of remembering, how can we remember, how can we raise our voice in all other days of the year?

And thus I ask you to take Dinah’s Silence and remember it. Remember it every time you feel that a silence is taking you over, preventing you from doing the right thing, saying the right words. Remember Dinah, the daughter of our father and mother who was doomed to silence and was nearly forgotten, and make her story worthwhile. Talk to your friends, children, coworkers. Face your fears, prejudice and doubts. Redeem Dinah’s silence with making room for the words of others. Give voice to the voiceless and they shall give you justice. Ve’emru Amen.   

 

Vayetze by James Brown

11/29/2014

 

In this Parasha, Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves Beer Sheva for Charan, in Padam-Aram where his mother’s brother Lavan lives. On the way, he stops and has a weird dream (about the angels and the ladder), and in the dream he sees God who blesses him and his descendants. He turned the stone he was using as a pillow into a pillar and poured oil on it. He named the place Beit-El, because he saw God in his dream there.

After leaving Beit-El, the Torah says that Jacob "lifted up his feet" and came to Bnei-Kedem (the people of the east).

Why didn't he walk? What does it mean that he lifted up his feet? 

Rashi explains that "his heart lifted his feet and walking became light for him.”

Considering he had just spoken with God recently, one can imagine he was pretty elated.

The first thing Jacob sees there in Bnei-Kedem is a well in the open field. 

There are three flocks of sheep lying around it.

There is a huge stone on the mouth of the well.

Jacob says to the shepherds, Achai, may-ayin atem?" (My brothers, where are you from?)    (?אַחַי מֵאַיִן אַתֶּ֑ם)

(Well, now I'm hooked. Why is Jacob calling these guys, these total strangers, his brothers? 

Jacob is fleeing Esau (his twin brother) so it is strange in this context that he should use this word for complete strangers. Usually, in the Torah, the word “Achai” (אַחַי) means biological brothers or a very close relative, like a cousin. We have to continue with the story to find the answer.)

Jacob and the shepherds exchange small talk :

J: Where are you from? 

S: Charan  (חרן)

J: Do you know Lavan?

S: Yes

J: Is he well?

S: Yes (oh, and by the way, here comes his daughter Rachel)

So THEN Jacob says, "it's still broad daylight, it's too early to round up the animals"

And then he commands them to give water to the animals and go let them graze.

(What??  Now he is *ordering* the strangers to do stuff?)

Back to the story:

The shepherds reply that they can't do what he is asking, because they have to wait until more shepherds show up so they can roll the stone off the mouth of the well.

(Okay so now he knows why they are waiting around, but why did he reprimand them in the first place?

Well, we will learn in a few weeks that Jacob had an amazing work ethic so when he looked at the men he assumed they were avoiding their work. He was planning to criticize them before he spoke.)

And according to Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky in his commentary on the Talmud "Emes leYaakov al HaShas," this is why Jacob called the strangers "my brothers"....

(Okay, there more to it than that.)

Rabbi Kamenetsky says that this is the first time in the Torah that "Achai" is used between strangers.

He says that this is Jacob teaching us a lesson in how to criticize another person when we see them doing something we believe is wrong.  He says Jacob called them "my brothers" to show them that he cared about their well-being and his words were coming from a place of concern and not anger or hatred.

(So what can we learn from this?) 

When you feel the urge to criticize someone and it is not from a place of genuine concern for the other person, they will feel that and not accept your words.

Speak from a place of love and concern, and your words will reach the other person.

Rabbi David ben Yosef Kimhi (קמחי)

-the RaDak is quoted in the Chumash commentary, Shaarei Aharon, that "Achai" is a message about how we should interact with people. It's a different kind of greeting and it doesn't really matter if you are strangers because it's about connection to another human being.

In Israel today you can hear the word “Achi” (אָחִי) everywhere. It’s like saying “bro,” and literally means “my brother” in both Hebrew and Arabic. It is a cultural way of relating to one’s neighbor - almost like family. Like Jacob speaking to the people at the well there is an unspoken understanding between neighbours.

My personal connection with this week’s parasha is that when I joined City Shul last year, I was a stranger. Literally, "ger" (גֵּר) in a Hebrew means foreigner or convert.
I find it very difficult to talk about this...  

I hid my birth religion for years.
So talking about conversion means admitting "out loud, in a crowd" that I wasn't born Jewish -and that is hard.  But I'll try.

When I arrived at City Shul last year I had already studied Hebrew and Jewish history, and read Torah and commentaries for years, but I was *not* Jewish. I never lied if asked directly "Are you Jewish?" but I also never offered up that information freely. I didn't celebrate other religious holidays and I posted pictures of my Chanukiah every year on Facebook, so people were free to think what they liked.
However I always felt like a fraud, like I was pretending or misrepresenting myself as Jewish without explicitly saying I was.


I needed to officially convert.  Fortunately, this was around the same time City Shul was forming.  I had previously been a student at Kolel in 2003, so I recognized our Rabbi's name.  

I said to my partner Levy, "THIS IS THE ONE!"   It took another year for things to come together, but they did. We joined City Shul and I started the process toward official conversion to Judaism.

Like Jacob at the well, I was a stranger, but it doesn't feel like I am in a strange land.
I feel more at home here than I ever did when I was dragged to my birth family's place of worship.  I say birth family because the Jewish people are my new family.

Like Jacob as he left Bet-El, I lifted up my feet as I left the mikveh this past summer, emerging as a new member of the Jewish people.

Finally, who I have always been on the inside is now recognized on the outside.

And I can now say that you are "Achai v'achaiyotai" (my brothers and sisters) because now I am officially part of your family!

Shabbat shalom.

 

Vayera by Terri Gil

11/8/2014

 

This portion of the Torah has been called the story of the first Jewish family, and much like many families, they are far from idyllic.  One could even suggest they need and intervention! Their story revolves primarily around Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that God destroys with fire and brimstone due to its pervasive greed, in-hospitality and cruelty to others.  

Previous to the city being destroyed two angels disguised as men meet Lot, Abraham's nephew in Sodom.  Lot offers shelter to these men and because of this hospitality, his house is surrounded by a gang, demanding that Lot bring out the two men in order that they know them, in the biblical sense.  To protect these men Lot offers, his two virgin daughters in return.  Not exactly a “g-rated story so far.  

Luckily the two guests stop this from occurring and cause the men at Lot's door to go blind.  

The visitors now known to be angels warn Lot to leave the city and to take all his family with him as God has sent them to destroy it.  

Lot is unsuccessful in persuading his son-in-law's and their wives to leave with him.  He is slow to leave the city, and the angels warn him to leave immediately and to not look back to the city.  Unfortunately Lot's wife looks back on their way out of  city and is turned to a pillar of salt.  

Lot and his two daughters escape to the mountain.  His daughters believing they have witnessed the end of the world, decide to cause their elderly father to become intoxicated to lie with him, in order to begin repopulating the world.  These children from their father become the nations of Ammon and Moab.

The varying forms of violence in this Torah portion are disturbing to say the least.  It makes me reflect on how individuals can be effected by the company they keep.  Or how family can effect each other in profoundly positive ways or profoundly negative ways.  We all have had cross roads in our lives when we had to choose who to continue being friends with or what turns our careers should take and those choices took effect on our future and those around us.   Lot's choice to live in the city of Sodom instead of continuing a nomadic life with Abraham may have caused him to choose the ultimate sin of sacrificing his daughters.    

What also struck me about this Torah portion was the lack of female voice within it.  For example, Lots wife is not even given the respect of a name and this nameless woman is also voiceless to defend her daughters threatened sacrifice to the crowd of men in Sodom.  And when she looks back to the city where her other daughters have been left to die, she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Yes this lesson may be to teach one to fear and obey God but do you not feel her punishment was too severe?  

According to the Midrash,  the transformation of Lot's wife into a pillar of salt was not part of the general destruction of Sodom, but rather a special act with its own special purpose: to serve as a monument of memorial, that will remain forever as a testimony to the  overturning of Sodom.  (Sifrei de Aggadeta al Ester – Midrash Panim Acherim nushach 2 parasha 5)  The properties of salt are contradictory, much like the punishment to Lot's wife, on one hand salt preserves and gives life while on the other it causes death.  

Rabbeinu Bachye clarifies “the fundamental issues of the combination of two opposite poles – the attribute of justice and the attribute of mercy.  The world exists by virtue of this combination.”  Much like Lot's wife was not given mercy but was dealt the hand of justice to serve as reminder to those in the future about the errors of Sodom and Gomorrah.  So was Lot's wife given the gift of eternal existence in a sense, as a monument to us the Jewish people.  Some commentaries do not shed Mrs. Lot in such a positive light.  Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) said “she sinned with salt.  On the very night that the angels had come to Lot, what did she do?”  He states she went to all her neighbours and said to them, “Give me some salt because we have guests.” That her intent was to alert everyone to their presence.  In this perspective Lot's wives intentions were not pure and may justify her punishment.  

In preparing for this Dvar Torah I began to research this lack of women's voice within or about the Torah and discovered some very interesting contemporary feminist perspectives.  I was introduced to one of the first Jewish feminist thinkers Cynthia Ozick, she asked in the eighties “ What is the right question” to understand the problem of women within Judaism, and wrote: “The truth is that it would be a blinding mistake to think that the issue of Jewish women's access to every branch and parcel of Jewish expression is mainly a question of “discrimination”...No.  The point is not that Jewish women want equality as women with men, but as Jews with Jews... The nature of the excision is this: a great body of Jewish ethical thinkers, poets, judicial consciences - has not merely one generation but many; in short, an entire intellectual and cultural organism – has been deported out of the community of Jewish culture, away from the creative centre ... And this isolation, this confinement, this shutting off, is one of the cruelest events in Jewish history.” (136-137)  

I think Lot's wife being turned to a pillar of salt is visual expression to that of Cynthia Ozick's words, that of women's perspectives being silenced and excluded.  I have hope that the salt of that pillar has begun to melt away, as women in the words of Dr. Ronit Irshai states “So women start speaking, even in the orthodox movement.  They write new interpretations of Talmudic stories in which they try to give agency and voice to their ancient sisters.”

Women like our very own Rabbi Elyse Goldstein are changing the present and future of Judaism.  In Rabbi Goldstein's words in her book The Woman's Torah Commentary she states“a commentary written by women will contain messages of change within a traditional reverence for an unchanging text.”  In this same text she gives an explanation for the word Midrash that spoke to me “Midrash comes from the hebrew root lidrosh to “examine” or “ interpret” which is the creative process of filling in the gaps.”   That is exactly what I found myself doing as I read this portion I imagined what the women were thinking, what their motives may be.  For example, with the daughters of Lot on the mountain with their father, they did not take a passive role in this portion of the story they took an active role, be it having sex with their father.  They were taking their future into their own hands, in order to survive, to continue on.  Yes their choices were sins but they were done to continue the Jewish people, a courageous sacrifice.  

To many Jewish ethical thinkers women interpreting the Torah at all is considered an unacceptable sin, is this a judgement we women of this generation are willing to endure?

Why is it important that women continue to gain further voice in developing new interpretations of the Torah and Halakhic Tradition?  It is important because these interpretations and laws will effect present day women voice and movements.  We need to all make an effort to have interpretations of the Torah inclusive to all Jews.  

As a resent Jew, the interpretation of the Torah is very new to me, but I think we can all make a difference  to the diversity of the Jewish religious perspective.  For instance each unique perspective adds to the quilt work of this shul. A shul that gives us the ability to speak out and be included in all dialogue within it, but if we were to look more broadly to Jews throughout the world that freedom of speech and identity is not so well established.  Women and individuals who have not chosen a heterosexuality lifestyle still often do not have voice or the status they deserve.  

Our Rabbi asked why the story of Lot's wife resonated with me, was it because I was a Jew by choice?  As you may know Lot's wife was a native sodomite, so she was of a different following then Lot and she found his traditions foreign.  For myself I did not find the traditions of Judaism foreign, in-fact it was more like a home coming.  What I did find foreign was the religion that I was born to, Catholicism.  I think it is primarily Catholicism that made me desire a strong female influence within my religion by choice, because it was absent in my religion by birth.         

I repeat our Rabbi's words “Midrash ... is the creative process of filling in the blanks”, I think we all can have a role in filling in those blanks, in making our Jewish story better, more inclusive. 

I may be accused of being an optimist, I believe the Jewish horizon is changing.  Events like this give me hope, on June 26th, 2014 the first book of Resposa on questions of Orthodox Jewish Law was published by two women Idit Bartov and Anat Novoselsky ordained three years ago to serve as halachic decisors.  The iron curtain is beginning to part, but we still have a lot of hard work to go and fights ahead.     

I leave you with this poem: 

LOT’S WIFE
While Lot advances his campaigns 
She who has no name remains
Turning backward other wise
Witness to torment and demise
Becomes the salt of all our tears
Waiting frozen through the years
She suffers the punishing angels toll
Watches the eons of night unroll 
Her reasonless compassion cries
Those lost are solaced in her eyes
Until the star-flecked darkness spins 
To lilac rose and the new dawn begins

And shattered Holy Vessel’s parts
Restore again in all our hearts 

Amma-MS
Oregon, USA

Bereshit by Lorne Opler

10/18/2014

 

The first thing that leaped out at me when I looked at this week’s parasha is the following.

On day one what happened?   G-d said, let there be light.

Day two?  G-d said, “let there be a heaven in the midst of the waters”

Day three:   G-d said, “let there be a dry land appear”

How about day four?    G-d said,  let there be a separation of light and darkness”

Day five?  G-d said, “ let the waters swarm with creatures…may they be fruit flies and multiply

Day six, G-d said, “Let us make man in our image.”

What’s the operative word?   "Said."   In other words, G-d spoke.

Why is this important and why does this have relevance and meaning to us right here, right now as we sit in synagogue. It tells us about speech and the role that speech plays in our lives.

Now…Think back to a month ago, Sept 18, what were we doing? Getting ready for the HH. Making menu plans. Extending invitations. Grocery shopping for the dinners.  Sending out cards.

And then comes RH and YK and what do we do? We attend services. And what do we do in service?  We pray. And how do we pray?   Through speech.  By speaking.  Just like what G-d did for six days, when he uttered the words, “let there be light, and heaven, and earth, and creatures…”

And that got me thinking about what we prayed.  One prayer we recited on Yom Kippur still stands in my mind over two weeks later — the 44 confessions that constitute the Al Chet.  Do you know that we recited the Al Chet 10 Times during the 25 hour fast?   No other  prayer, to my knowledge is uttered, more times. Why do you think that is? 

Maybe the sages who authored this prayer knew something about human psychology —the more frequently we repeat something, the likelier we are to remember it. Meditate on our errant ways of the past year enough times  ( 10 times and 44 confessions each time equals 440 times!) and perhaps we will better stick to our new year’s resolutions long after the last apple has been dipped in honey.

But there’s another reason why the Al Chet still resonates. Of all the transgressions we confessed to in this prayer, none was mentioned more frequently than those committed by our tongue. through speech — 

For the sins we have committed before thee through:

·         Through speech

·         Through impurity of speech

·        Through foolish talk

·         Through Vulgar talk

·         Evil talk

·         Through lying

·         Through tale bearing

·         Through swearing in vain

In all, 11 different ways that speech can hurt us and harm others. That careless language is so easy to indulge in is the reason why I believe we are reminded of it so many times. 

In a society where trash-talking reality TV commands outsized attention and influence on our lives, what incentive is there for us to show restraint and thought in our own daily discourse? 

Enter the Al Chet to remind us that as Jews, we don’t take our cues from celebrity culture. Indeed, the struggle to guard our tongues itself can be seen as a meta­phor for the larger struggle of being a good Jew. Both are difficult, both demand discipline, both set high moral standards for our conduct. But by raising the bar on our speech, our behavior and our character throughout the rest of the year, we are acknowledging our commitment to the vows we made just days ago.

And how best to remain faithful to those vows when life gets in the way? Here’s a suggestion. After Shabbat, take some time to write down your top three new year’s resolutions. Maybe one of them can include an effort to guard out speech. Insert it into your Passover Haggadah. As you flip through the Haggadah come next March, you’ll stumble upon the note you wrote to yourself six months prior, affording the opportunity to review your progress, acknowledge your accomplishments or get back on track if you’ve strayed from the course.

In conclusion, to tie it all together, Judaism teaches us that all human beings are created in the divine image and therefore we all have a spark of G-d within in us, that connects us to G-d.   If that’s the case. I can think of a better way to honour and elevate G-d, our G-d who created the world through what he said, than by elevating our selves through resolving to watch what we say, and how we talk and speak  in 5775.

 

Fire Pans or Flowering Staff? Korach by Rabbi Goldstein

6/21/2014

 

Rabbis probably look at Korach differently than congregants.

Rabbis fear the "Korach syndrome" of dissenters who plague the Board and Committees, thats for sure.

Everyone focuses on the rebellion of Korach. I want to talk about what happens next.

There are these fire pans which figure centrally in the story. The 250 chieftans bring them with incense to offer- but then everyone gets burned including their pans. Keep in mind this was a coup d’eta because only the Levites are allowed to bring offerings in those fire pans. The fire pans of the destroyed men are gathered up by the very Levites whom they were rebelling against, and plated into the side of the Tabernacle. Forever reminding the people not only of the rebellion and its consequences but also of the “rightful” place of Israel’s “true” leaders.

The text says that God commanded these hammered-on firepans to be an “ot”—a sign—forever. We have other examples of "ot" in Torah that are so positive—the rainbow, Shabbat, brit milah. This "ot" is so negative. But it is a sign.

Something like a museum to failed rebellion, these firepans on the side of the Mishkan.

But the Ha-emek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, takes this idea and spins it on its head. He comments that the fire pans are sacred because Korach and the 250 community leaders were not really rebels and sinners but were people with a love for God who only yearned to get closer. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, takes this thought even further and writes “the holiness of the fire pans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy. Challenges to tradition are necessary because they stand as perpetual reminders that religion can sink into corruption and complacency. Plating the altar with the fire pans of the rebels is meant to remind us of the legitimacy, indeed the potential holiness of the impulse within each of us to rebel against religious stagnation and complacency...”

Which got me thinking to how we mount and display our own failures as individuals and as a society. How many of us have cut a photo in two when the other half of the photo is no longer in relationship with us? As if that part of our history is over and gone and we need no reminders of what we could have done better. Do we keep the exams we failed as reminders to study harder, or do we throw them in the fire at the cottage and firestarter to forever forget them? We make museums to remind us of when we failed miserably as humanity: Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and so on. It is so painful to see our shortcomings, our firepans on the Mishkan.

And what happens at the end of our parsha is amazing.

God tells Moses to collect a staff from the head of each of the 12 tribes, inscribe each man’s name on his staff, inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi, and deposit the staffs in the Tent of Meeting.The next day, Moses entered the Tent and Aaron’s staff has sprouted, blossomed, and borne almonds.

2 reminders in the face of the Israelites to stop their whining: the destroyed and misshapen firepans which had been almost melted by God and now get attached to the side of the Tabernacle, as a kind of weird decoration and warning at the same time; and the flowering staff of Aaron which is the opposite: life itself, blossoming from hardship and symbolizing a leadership not weighed down by those who would rather yell than discuss, rebel than dialogue, overtake and convince and connive rather than democratically discuss and hear and listen.

These are, then, our parsha suggests, two opposite ways of being in community: the firepan way, of infighting and nitpicking and always questioning and being a negative influence, which literally “melts down” a community; or the almond-bearing staff way: the flowering that results from constructive discussion, from the open-minded sharing of differing opinions, from the soul-searching that comes after a failed experiment; from the respect for leadership that good leadership engenders. I’m always working toward our community being the second kind, and I hope you are too.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

Thoughts on Shloshim

6/3/2014

 

Time takes on new meaning when you are a mourner.

My days used to be bounded by what time my work out class is; now they are bounded by what time minyan is. I counted the Omer different last year; this year I count the Omer by what minyan it is, keeping a minyan journal every day of where and when I say Kaddish: Minyan 1 the day after the funeral; minyan 30, today.

The day of my mother’s death moved very slowly- I was walking in quicksand. The shiva moved at a snail’s pace and now I can hardly believe shloshim is ending.

A mourner lives in between 2 worlds- this one and the one their loved one is in. Shiva keeps us in that limbo world, but Shloshim pulls us back, slowly but surely, to live again in this world. At shiva we are curled up like fetuses, craving protection and wating to go back into the womb. In shlsohim we are like babies just learning to crawl. The 11 months will teach us how to walk again. Wen we are done, we will hopefully stand upright and be “among the living.”

Judaism is all about sacred times: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, festivals. Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that Jews do not live in the world of space: cathedrals and sanctuaries. We lost our “space”—the Temple—and so we cling even more tightly to time. 

We Jews seem to start our days backwards: from the night. Our world started in darkness, in chaos and disorder. Sanctifying time brings light and order into the world. The end of shloshim marks the first sight of light. Tomorrow I will see a sliver of the moon, and I will be commanded to know that celebration is once again possible, even if difficult.

Tradition has it that Rosh Chodesh Sivan is the day on which the Jewish people camped before Mount Sinai in preparation for receiving the Torah. When describing this encampment, the Torah emphasizes that it came after the Jews left Mitzrayim, the narrow place. It is hard to imagine leaving this narrow place of mourning, which has become comfortable, but in order to receive revelation, I absolutely must.

When we leave the narrow place, time once again expands.   

In Pirke Avot 2:15 we read,

משנה טו

[יד] רבי טרפון אומר היום קצר והמלאכה מרובה והפועלים עצלים והשכר הרבה ובעל הבית דוחק:

“Rabbi Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

This phrase marks the end of shloshim for me. Hayom katzar. The day is short—but—lets read it differently, with just a twist of a vowel. Katzar=katzir, harvest. 

In the short days of shloshim I tried to reap from the harvest of support of friends, community, and the daily recitation of Kaddish.

In the days ahead, I will take comfort from the words of Psalm 126:5: Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.

 הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה--    בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ.

 

Gratefulness Shabbat: Bamidbar

5/24/2014

 

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
A few summers ago my son went to Kenya to help build a school on a programme called Me to We; and in fact a student in our shul school is doing the same thing this summer. The fact that we parents pay a few thousand dollars to send our kids across the world to volunteer in an exotic location is a sermon for another time. I’m intrigued by the name of the organization: Me to We. The very fact that such an organization exists tells me a lot about the meaning of the individual and the collective in our modern society, and that is actually what today’s parsha is about.

Today’s parsha is Bamidbar, the book of Numbers. And it really is about counting: it’s an accountants or mathematician’s dream. The parsha wants us to pay attention to how many tribal heads there are. How many males of 20 years old and up eligible for army there are. How many Levites there are. The beginning of Bamidbar, the first several chapters in fact, are the details of taking a census of the Israelites as a tribal confederation. This tribal motif in the book of Numbers pushes us toward understanding ourselves as individuals only with a communal context. 

The end of Leviticus is all about the symbolic worth of the individual, where each person is assessed for their “worth” in shekels as individual donations to the Temple: how much for a woman, for a man, etc. The beginning of Bamidbar is all about the value of the community and the integration of the individual into the greater whole of the nation.

The Jewish people are about to enter the land and become a nation. They do so as individual families but within each tribe, and as individual tribes within a nation. Bamidbar is, in a nutshell, Me to We.

And it’s important that this shift to communal identity happens in the desert. In a place where the individual lives or dies based on the sharing of resources and skills. You build the tent; I’ll make the fire. You have water; I have bread. I will hold your hand if you get tired as we cross the desert. If not, one of us will surely perish.

For much of history, holding hands through the desert was taken for granted. We were part of a neighborhood, part of a club, part of an extended family that lived within a few blocks of you; part of a church or synagogue, part of a work union, part of a social class, part of an ethnic group. Today we all have global identities which intersperse, change, evolve, intersect, often syncretistic and a tossed salad of descriptors with lots of hyphens: Jewish-Asian-Canadian-leftist-gay-artist and chef, for example. But what is common to today’s human experience, with all our friends on Facebook and our busy lives in “the world” we still all crave community. If you look at the membership forms for this congregation, which I’ve been privileged to do, you will see over and over again the exact same reason for joining this shul: “I am looking for community.”

The radical message of Judaism in the modern day is not that community ispossible or even necessary; that we already know. The radical message of Judaism is that community is created by an act of will.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a great Orthodox commentator, writes, “A census of this nature makes it clear… that community cannot exist as an abstract idea…”

One becomes a part of community when one moves from seeing community as an abstract concept— “gee, I’d like to be in a  community”—to placing themself within the “inner core” of that community as an act of will. 

That is what we are here for today. To express gratefulness to those who have created this amazing community as an act of will. Who have raised their hands when the census began and said “count me in.” I’m crossing the desert with this tribe, and I will lend my hand to those who do not want to cross alone.

Here, I hope you will allow me to speak personally as a mourner who is still crossing a desert of her own, and who has experienced the healing power of community. Because to truly be in community is to do something very difficult—it is to perform an act called in kabbalistic thought tzimtzum, contracting of the self to make room for the other. In tzimtzum, we purposely let go of a piece of the ego to be totally present for another person. We do not exist at that moment as a “me”—only as a part of a “we.” Comforting the mourner is an ultimate act of tzimtzum, and it cements the me to the we. Anyone who has experienced a loss without the power of community knows this truth; and anyone who has experienced a loss with the power of community has felt that cement form them and mould them. My friend Adrienne told me "Family is those who show show up for you." When members of a community "show up" they become family.

Being in community requires that we find— and failing to find, invent—altruistic motives in our own lives. In this way, community is intended to function as an antidote to both narcissism and to the loneliness that narcissism produces. In reading what seems to be endless verses of boring and thoughtless census, Bamidbar is actually sharing with us the history of how we got here to City Shul, person by person, family by family, tribe by tribe, guiding us to experience gratitude for community.

A midrash in Tanna debe Eliahu asks what G-d wants from us, and concludes with this simple statement: “This is what the Holy One said to Israel: My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you have love for one another, honour one another, and that you have awe and reverence for one another.” That is what community demands, and that is what community gives back. 

I am personally grateful beyond words to those we are about to honour, and grateful to those who are moving from the margins to the inner core, and grateful even to those who have chosen in whatever small way to dotzimtzum and become part of the this community just by “counting” themselves in as members. Thank you all. Shabbat Shalom. 

Acharei Mot by Shelley Albert

4/12/2014

 

When Rabbi Goldstein was asking for volunteers to do Divrei Torah she suggested that today’s parsha, Achare Mot, was something of a challenge.  It does, after all, contain the parsha that is traditionally read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, but that has been removed from that position by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements for reasons that will become clear.  However, not one to run from the thrown gauntlet, I decided to take it up.  I should perhaps warn, however, that the following Dvar Torah contains mature subject matter, listener discretion is advised.

The book of Vayikra, Leviticus, has been called the Priest’s Handbook, because it contains all the detailed procedures related to sacrifice, and more laws than any other book of the Torah.  Achare Mot begins after the death of Aaron’s two sons who drew too close to God’s presence.  It then outlines the complex and dangerous procedure Aaron is to follow on the Day of Atonement (although it is not called that by name), which involves several sacrifices, purging of the Shrine and alter, multiple baths and wardrobe changes, and finally the dispatching into the wilderness of a goat upon which has been confessed the sins of the people.  Apparently the High Priest would host a dinner at the end of the day to celebrate his survival through this ordeal.  This section is traditionally read on Yom Kippur morning.

The parsha goes on to dictate that all animals to be slaughtered must be brought to the Tent of Meeting as an offering, so that the people don’t make offerings to the goat-demons.  The prohibition against consuming blood is then stated, the punishment for which is being shunned by the community.

We then come to an exhaustive listing of the prohibited sexual relationships.  This is the section that is traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon, allegedly because in ancient times the young men and women would spend the afternoon looking for spouses.  The various relatives whose nakedness is not to be uncovered are enumerated, followed by the first of two prohibitions against male homosexual behaviour, and then against bestiality.  We are called on to avoid doing any of these abhorrent things lest we be spewed out from the land just as the Canaanites before us were spewed out for these same behaviours.

So here we find the primary reason most liberal congregations, including ours, have replaced this section on Yom Kippur, namely the hurt it may cause to some members of the congregation. Indeed, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first and only openly gay Orthodox rabbi, writes of how he used to cry in the corner of his shul covered by his talit after hearing this line read on Yom Kippur.

But liberal Judaism's response to this issue is old news, right?   As was stated in a Reform  responsa on this issue from 2000, “a mitzvah cannot oblige us unless it has a ta`am, a rationale, unless it makes sense to us in some fundamental way”.  Thus, Women of Reform Judaism was first out of the block back in 1965 with a resolution calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the URJ and CCAR (the Reform Rabbinate) followed in 1977 with resolutions against discrimination. The Reconstructionist movement began ordaining gay rabbis in 1984 and the Reform movement followed about 5 years later.  In 1996 the CCAR passed a resolution supporting same-sex civil marriage, and in 2000 voted to support rabbis who chose to officiate at same sex Jewish wedding ceremonies.  It wasn’t actually until last year that the CCAR ruled that a union of 2 Jews of the same sex deserved to be called kiddushin, that is, sanctified marriage.  It has been a slow process, and some of the responsas from the 70s and 80s should be read on an empty stomach, but I think that those of us who are LGBT can say that we have found a large and comfortable community in which to express our Jewish identity.

I do, however, worry about the plight of our Orthodox brethren.  I don’t know how many of you have seen the 2001 film Trembling Before G-d by Sandi Simcha Dubowski.  It is a very powerful and emotional look at the struggles of Orthodox gay Jews to be both.  One woman, for example, reasons that if she is a lesbian, she must not be religious, but the very notion of not being religious is almost physically nauseating to her.  Thus the traditional options for Orthodox gays have been to “lie, die or leave”.

Perhaps we should just encourage them to leave and join City Shul.  But part of me feels we should address the sacred texts we have, not the ones we wish we had.  So I’d like to do what Rabbi Greenberg has done and look at the offending line of today’s parsha head-on.  Rabbi Greenberg grew up in a secular household but was inspired to live a frum life in his early teens by a rabbi that took him into his community.  After years of denial and attempts at dating women, he came out in 1999 and in 2004 wrote a fascinating book called Wrestling with God and Men:  Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition.

In it, he describes his decision in 1996 to ask for the aliyah during the Yom Kippur mincha service that includes Leviticus 18 verse 22.   As he read the line from the bima, he felt empowered, and realized that it had never been fully understood.  As he writes, “Until those whose bodies and souls have been tormented by it, who have suffered for years under its weight, are among its legitimate interpreters, how could it possibly give over its full meaning?”

Ve’et zakhar lo tishkav mishkevei ishah toevah hi.  Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is toevah, which is variously translated as an abhorrence, an abomination, a disgusting perversion.  The meaning may be closer to taboo, since it is used elsewhere in Torah in this sense.  The Egyptians, for instance, are not allowed to eat with the Hebrews, as it istoevah to them.  The term is used 122 times in the Hebrew scriptures.  But just to make sure we are under no  illusions, in next week's parsha we read in Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done toevah; they shall be put to death.”  There is, in fact, no record in Jewish history of the death penalty being used for this sin, but as Rabbi Greenberg points out, these lines are at the heart of not just Jewish, but Western attitudes towards homosexuality.

For Torah literalists, this is a tough circle to square.  There would not appear to be much room for interpretation, and so until recently, the Orthodox advice to gay people in their community was either lifelong celibacy or so-called reparative therapy.  But Rabbi Greenberg, after an exhaustive study of the text and subsequent commentary, comes to the conclusion that perhaps this injunction was never meant for inherently and exclusively gay men in the context of loving relationships (and he does present evidence that this text was referring only to men).  Rather, perhaps it should be understood to apply to heterosexual men who use homosexual intercourse as purely a release or an assault.  He finds linguistic support for this interpretation, and suggests that the fact of gay people demonstrating the day to day kadosh of our relationships and families, and the complete absence of anything resembling toevah,  may someday lead to its acceptance by the Orthodox community.  

And there are some signs of change.  A statement of principles published by about 150 Orthodox rabbis and mental health professionals in 2010, while remaining "committed to the halakhic principle of heterosexual marriage as the … sole legitimate outlet for human sexual expression”, essentially rejected reparative therapy, recommended that gay people should be welcomed as full members of the synagogue, and that their children be embraced as well.  It recommended that gay people be encouraged to fulfill all the mitzvot to the best of their ability, just as straight people are.  The famous Orthodox rabbi Shmuley Boteach, while still understanding homosexual acts as toevah, tells gay couples to keep themselves busy with the other 612 mitzvot, and believes that there is much worse toevah that Orthodoxy ignores.

Developments like these gave Rabbi Greenberg a new sense of hope as he listened to the mincha Torah service this past Yom Kippur.  After wrestling with a painful verse of Torah most of his life, he finds the world moving in his direction.  So is it now time to restore this section to our Yom Kippur afternoon?  It would certainly require a bit of editorial comment at a point in the day where there are a lot of other things to talk about, and the Reform alternative parsha, the Holiness Code, is a much more inspiring chapter overall.   Although Leviticus 18:22 may be losing its power to hurt, I’m not sure the positive effort it would take to restore it to Mincha is a worthwhile exercise. 

Today is  Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Pesach when we are urged to start thinking about Pesach and traditionally even read part of the Haggadah in shul.  So quoting from the Reform Haggadah, we read, “Our narration begins with degradation and rises to dignity.”   These words encapsulate not only the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Mitzrayim to freedom in Eretz Yisrael, but also the trajectory of Jewish LGBT people from the “narrow place” of fear and invisibility to the freedom of full communal life.  On Pesach, we are all enjoined to feel as though we ourselves have walked this path.  Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.

 

2013

Ekev, by Robin Roger

7/27/2013

 

One of the great things about hearing Torah portions throughout  your life is that with repetition, they acquire layers of personal meaning associated with the previous times that you heard a particular parashah or a particular phrase, and you develop your own  personal Torah history that creates your own connections between sections, and that gets embellished and augmented with each repetition and addition.  Ekev is a parashah that has personal resonance for me, which I am going to describe later on.  First I will give an overview of the parashah, which is an extremely rich one,  with virtually infinite opportunities for commentary.  Then I will focus on one particular aspect of Ekev that grows out of my previous encounter with this section. 

Ekev takes place in the interlude just before the nation of Israel is about to enter the land of Canaan and take possession of it.  The community is gathered before Moses, who is preparing them for this momentous, highly anticipated event. 

The entire parasha is in the voice of Moses, speaking in the first person.  Though he is making profound statements and issuing momentous exhortations, it has a personal and even a slightly intimate tone, as he recalls some of what he and his people have gone through together to get to this crossroad.  In particular, he revisits his epic experience ascending the mountain to receive the tablets from God, staying 40 days and 40 nights, without food or drink, only to have to  rush back down the mountain, blazing  with fire, in order to handle the  crisis of the golden calf.   He reminds the community that he had to  prostrate himself for another 40 days and nights to persuade God not to destroy them, and that God’s lenience comes with clear requirements.    They must redeem themselves with better behavior and better attitude in three ways :  they must acknowledge that they are sustained by God, by expressing gratitude for their food;  they must be   sensitivite to strangers  by befriending them, and  they must demonstrate their love of  God by keeping his laws, rules and commandments.  The practice  of the first  requirement   is the Birkat Ha Mazon, the grace said after the meal.   According to the food scholar Margaret Visser, the prayer said before the meal is a benediction  and the prayer said after the meal, is a grace,  which means thanksgiving, as in “grateful” or “gracias”. ,Many cultures have a benediction but fewer cultures have a grace as well.    Ours comes from this incident.

Earlier in the service today we recited the “ve-yehavta”, which is taken from Ekev.  It is  a set of instructions of how to fulfill  the third  requirement, to love God by keeping his commandments.  The ‘ve-yehavta’  is a composite of instructions Moses gives throughout Ekev concerning how to love God,   but not lifted intact from any one part of Ekev. Getting a sense of the scene in which these instructions were delivered makes the prayer a bit more dramatic for me,  and  the awareness that this is part of how   Israel makes amends for  the Golden Calf sharpens  my attention.. It’s easy to get lulled by the melodic chanting of the veyhavta, but    this is a serious matter, and not to be taken lightly.  

The life that Moses presents to the Israelites once they conquer the land is almost ideal.  The land  is abundant with fruits, grains, vegetables, oil  and other foods that nearly raise themselves,  water arriving on cue without much human effort, herds grazing and reproducing, and bees buzzing as they produce their honey.   And their victory is assured, according to Moses, not because of their virtue or valour, but because the wickedness of the enemy has motivated God to dispossess them.  This is something to bear in mind, not to be tempted by the ways of the enemy, especially their idol worship.  

The promise of this new life after the taxing transition in the desert and the humiliating years of slavery  gives Ekev an uplifting and even buoyant feeling, as if they are all about to cross the finishing line of a marathon, but within that there is powerful ethical gravity and spiritual guidance.   Don’t let success go to your head, remember it’s often due to external factors such as a merciful God or an incompetent enemy;  don’t let the good times erase the memory of what it’s like to suffer so that you remain sensitive to the suffering of others, especially strangers in your midst—in fact the commandment to love the stranger is repeated 36 times in the Torah, more than many other better known commandments;    however easy or affluent life becomes, remember  that an easy lifestyle doesn’t eliminate the importance of religious discipline and spiritual practice—think about your religious commitments—fulfill the commandments,, transmit them to the next generation.  Being a holy people is an ongoing, never ending state of conscious practice.  , there is no coasting.  

There’s much more to this parashah, which I’ve tried to summarize, and it is well worth reading from start to finish.  However, I’d like to focus on something seemingly small about the parashah, and that is its name, Ekev.  

The last time I heard Ekev was at the Second  Kolel Kallah, held at Geneva Park, in the days before Camp George existed.  That was back in the 90s and the reason I haven’t heard it since is that the Canadian summer rhythm often  means seldom going to services in July or August.  This is one more reason that today’s service is a happy echo for me, a rare chance to study Torah in the summer.  The Kolel Kallah was another opportunity.  As some of you know, Kolel was the adult education centre founded and run by our Rabbi before she started City Shul. For 10 summers it offered a four-day intensive study retreat called Kallah, and there one could learn with any number of wonderful Rabbis and teachers. I attended the first three Kallote and was chair person of the third one.  It brought back the feeling of immersion in Jewish life that I first experienced the summer I went to Torah Corps, the Reform Movement’s study camp for teens, which was truly a life-changing event for me.  The summer everyone else was talking about Woodstock and walking on the moon, I was studying Amos, reading from the Torah, speaking Hebrew every day, and adding substance to my Jewish identity.  If I had to do it all over again, I would still take Torah Corps over Woodstock.  

The Darshan at the second Kolel Kallah was Rabbi Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory,.  Rabbi Plaut was at that time the Emeritus Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple, and a leading figure in Canadian Jewish Life as a commentator, human rights activist, author, and as the primary commentator of the UAHC edition of Torah. In fact, I used my copy of that Commentary , which I purchased the year it was released, to prepare this Devar Torah.  He  told us that when he went to study Ekev that week, he was stopped in his tracks by the very name of the parasha, the word Ekev.  It had never struck him so forcefully before that Ekev comes from the word for “the heel”, as does the name of our patriarch, Ya’akov.  He was named for that part of the body because when he emerged from the womb, he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau.  

Remembering Rabbi Plaut’s emphasis on the word heel, as part of Ya’akov’s name, led me to think about how his name changes to  Israel.  After that he  becomes the father of Joseph, who goes down to Egypt, and  many generations and episodes later, the Israelites are about to emerge from the wilderness in a parasha called Ekev.  The framing by the word heel is striking, it is a heel to heel journey.   What I chiefly remember from Rabbi Plaut’s devar Torah that day is that even a single word of a parasha can be enough to stimulate your thoughts and demand your attention when studying Torah.  

Remembering this, I  considered what  my other associations to the word for heel and the name Ya’akov were, and   it led me to think of one of the most moving and awe-inspiring episodes in the Torah, the parasha V’yetze.   Ya’akov goes to sleep and has a dream in which  angels are going up and down a staircase to the sky, and God appears and tells him he will make him the progenitor of a great nation.  When he awakens Ya’akov utters these immortal words:

Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.


Let me put Ya’akov’s realization another way.  He thought that God was absent  when in fact, God was present.  He was simply wrong concerning God’s whereabouts.  He somehow managed to miss that God was around, and settled down for a good night’s sleep.  

When he realized God in fact was there, he was truly and permanently transformed by the recognition of his own error.  And after that he was never the same again.  So being wrong was the first step to being transformed into Israel.  

Keeping that error in mind, think back to Ekev.  In this parasha we revisit one of the biggest errors ever made by the descendents of  Ya’kov—renamed Israel--  The error of the Golden Calf.  What’ s remarkable is that they make the exact reverse error of Ya’akov.  Whereas Ya’akov thought that God was not there when in fact God was present, the Israelites think that God is present  in the form of their Golden Calf when in fact God was completely  absent from that hunk of metal, and in no way contained by that idol.  In contrast to Ya’akov’s words”  Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it”,  the Israelites, had they been able to formulate their error would have said, “Surely God is absent from this Bovine Statue and we should have known it.”  

Either way, it might seem that Jews are prone to misplacing God.  No wonder one of our names for God is “Ha Makom”-the place.  But my interest here is not in God’s location, but in our errors.  In some ways, the Five Books of Moses can be seen as one long narrative of errors.  Surely we can agree that we get more things wrong than we get right. Adam and Eve get us off to the wrong start,  Isaac blesses the wrong son;  Ya’akov marries the wrong wife;  Aaron’s sons offer the wrong sacrifice;  ten of the twelve scouts Moses sends to Canaan try to offer the wrong information—there are many different kinds of errors, significant and trivial, ethical and practical, ritual and personal.  

My sensitivity to this theme  is heightened by reading a wonderful book called Being Wrong:  Adventures in the Margin of Error.  The author, Kathryn Schulz, calls herself a wrongologist  and examines many different aspects of the ways we err and the ways in which we deal with being wrong.  She also considers how being wrong makes us feel and how agonizingly difficult it can be to realize we are wrong and how urgently we need to restore our sense of self when we are in the zone of error.  Humans really find it hard to be wrong even though we can’t avoid it.  

Judaism devotes  our most solemn holiday of the year to dealing with this.  The fact  that the illustration on  the cover of Kathryn Shulz’s book is an archery target, with an arrow that doesn’t pierce the bulls eye, but is stuck in the “O” of the word “Wrong” suggests an awareness of this, as    the word “cheit” , which means sin, and we repeat so many times in the “al cheit” on Yom Kippur, is a term from archery which means to miss the mark.  

Being Wrong looks at error on an individual and a communal level.  There are some fabulous examples of communities that really blew it, including the nation of Switzerland, who didn’t give the vote to women until 1971, or the hundreds of thousands of Millerites, a movement of Christians who so  fervently believed that the judgement day and end of the world would be October 22 1844  that they didn’t even plant their fields that year knowing they would not need food.  And from Jewish history Schulz draws the example of , the zealots, the sect on Massada that slaughtered its members rather than surrender to the Romans.  Her point is not to prove that the zealots were wrong to resist the Romans, but to look at their absolute certainty that they were right and that murder was justified because of this certainty.   It’s the single minded insistence on being absolutely right and the unwillingness to entertain the possibility of being wrong that characterizes  extremism, and ultimately,  leads to even more serious error.   It’s sobering to consider that Judaism gave the term zealotry to the world.  

In  Ekev, God tells Moses that   the Israelites as a stiff-necked people, meaning that they were resistant to accepting God, and prone to slipping back to slavish, idolatrous ways.  Zealotry is goes beyond stiff necked-ness to absolute paralysis.  Moses  exhorts his people  to stiffen their necks no more.   What would it mean to be a flexible-necked people?  This is a question that’s still worth reflecting on.  In part, perhaps, it would mean to be able to relax our thinking just enough to ask ourselves if we might be wrong—whether it is about where God is located, or whether we can tackle the Canaanites even though they look like giants.  And how are we to recognize when we are being stiff-necked?  Maybe one symptom is a powerful conviction that we are right—feeling this sensation might be just the moment to pause and review, to make sure that we aren’t swept away by certainty. 

In the spirit of a parashah named for the heel, and in preparation for the Days of Awe looming soon ahead when we will be confronting our Cheits, let’s resolve to be on our toes about our own sense of being right, and learn to take being wrong in our stride.  

Counting the Omer

4/15/2013

 

By Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

We are in the period of the counting of the Omer. This counting has many levels, as just about everything in Torah has an agricultural level, then a spiritual level often overlayed onto it by the Rabbis in the diaspora:
Agricultural: from barley harvest (Pesach) to wheat harvest (Shavuot)
Kabbalist: a time of aligning of forces, 7 characteristics which we will talk about at the tables tonight but which are kindness, judgement, beauty, eternality, thankfulness, strength, and dignity.
Historical?: the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students, miraculously ceased on the 33rd day-L’ag B’omer
Spiritual: The Rabbis assign Shavuot a meaning other than agricultural once in the diaspora: Zman matan Toratanu. They see the counting as getting us from Egypt to Sinai- from slaves to Pharoah to servants of God.

We can see these 49 days are a growth period, Like the growth chart we keep on the doorpost to measure how tall our kids get, the 49 days of Omer are a measuring chart for how we grow spiritually, first as a people then as individual people. Historically we grow:

 

  • from dependence on God to lead us with a pillar of fire and cloud and feed us with manna to interdependence with each other where we grow our own food, offer our own sacrifices and encamp by tribes ready for battle; 
  • from immaturity to maturity, where we cry over water and quails to where we cry out for justice for the widow and orphan and stranger;
  • from individual slaves redeemed from Egypt to a community accepting the Torah at Sinai as one (naaseh v’nishma), 
  • from a disorganized group of revelers at the Golden Calf to an organized band entering the Land.
  • from following the master’s law in Egypt to following our own laws at Sinai.


I want to suggest two more: the first is kind of “ecological.” Counting the Omer gives us an awareness of time and season. An awareness of season: We have only 2 seasons (winter and construction but I like to say winter and summer- we get 2 days of spring then its hot, 2 days of fall then its cold) but the countdown makes us aware of the changing length of day and beginning of flowering. Here in Canada these 49 days are can be seen as our countdown to spring. I’m noticing that the day is lengthening-the first week of Omer the time for counting at sunset was around 7 and tonite its already around 8. What am I doing with those extra hours of light? And an awareness of time: We don’t really wear watches anymore because of cell phones so it’s a kind of day-watch; as liberal Jews we don’t pay too much attention to sunrise/sunset so it keeps us at least aware of day”fall”. My only other way of counting time is my work calendar- not very spiritual! The Kabbalistic counting gives us a certain kind of rythym of behaviour; tomorrow is “kindness of kindness” day etc. The way we count gives us a time-awareness: not only how many days but how many weeks are we at?

The second is the notion of counting as daily prayer: The commentator Sforno teaches that the counting serves as a prayer for the future. In other words, each day that we count we are praying that we reach the 50th day. The framer is praying for the wheat crop. How many of us pray every day? For me, its a chance to say a blessing every day for 49 days. I am forced” to acknowledge a gratefulness for having another day. 

In closing, I’d like to leave us with a thought: Samson Raphael Hirsch wonders why we don’t celebrate Shavuot on the 49th day, instead of the 50th. He offers the following: 

It is not the fact of the revelation of the Torah, but

our making ourselves worthy to receive it, that our

festival celebrates.  It is the day before the Lawgiving,

the day on which the nation finally presented itself as

ready and worthy for the great mission to the world, to

be the receivers and bearers of the Law of God, it is

that day which the fiftieth day of the counting of the

Omer represents.  As we have remarked elsewhere, this

Festival, differently to all the others, is not called

after that which characteristically has to be done on it,

but Shavuot, after the counting of the weeks which

PREPARATORILY lead up to it."

Counting the Omer is about a “lead-up.” It’s about the process—the counting—and not the product—Shavuot. Our lives are a “lead up” and we should be counting up to be ready for whatever blessings and challenges the future holds. Shabbat Shalom.

 

Tazria-Metzora, by Anne Sealy

4/14/2013

 

Shabbat shalom.  Today’s reading is a double portion – Tazria Metzora, which in this case, means double the impurity, double the fun.  The portion lays out the ritual restrictions on emissions such as menses and semen, and conditions ranging from leprosy, or tzaraat, which may not exactly be leprosy, to eruptions on the skin, clothes, and homes.  The portions also describes the rituals of purification, which involved, depending on the condition, sin and burnt offerings, being anointed with oils, or being cast out from the camp.   

The portions are troubling not only for the graphic content, but also for the messages it gives about purity and impurity, and who is afforded full participatory membership in the people of Israel and who is literally outside of the camp.  This message resonates extra deeply on today, shabbat itanu, when we focus on inclusion.

With the temple destroyed and tzaraat stricken from most diagnostic guides, many of these prohibitions have little obvious meaning in the present.  The mitzvot of purity are ones that many Reform Jews have not taken on, and, indeed, may find on the surface offensive or irrelevant, with their implication that women are unclean or impure for a substantial portion of their lives.  

These are parhsiot that focus on marginality and exclusion.  In these parshiot, for reasons that we largely reject – accidents of birth, accidents of illness – some among us are separated out.  Many of the responses to this aspect of the Torah are beautiful and thought provoking – d’vrei torah that compare the experience people with tzaraat, to those of people with HIV and AIDS and remind us to be compassionate and inclusive, because stigmatization is still with us.  Other responses probe the meaning of impurity, and reinterpret the restrictions, arguing they acknowledge, for example, the awesome power of reproduction.

These, however, are not what occurred to me.  What occurred to me is an excellent example of why you shouldn’t prepare your taxes and your d’var at the same time.  I was struck by fact that, for the required sacrifices after birth, a woman could substitute a turtle dove for a lamb for her burnt offering, alongside the bird required for the sin offering.  It looked like an income adjusted sacrifice.  In parshiot that seems so exclusive, here was a practical suggestion about making important activities accessible to who all who want or need to take part.

I am not the only one who noticed the option.  Rabbi Dalia Marx calls it a Plan B offering, noting that as a more inexpensive altnerative, it was considered an affordable and appropriate sacrifice for women, those with tzaraat and those who have touched a corpse – the marginal, the impure.


She goes on to recall that Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was also concerned about the affordability of these birds for sacrifice, swearing, when he saw the price increase of a pair of them increase in the first century, “By this Temple, I shall not go to sleep tonight until [a pair of birds is sold] for a dinar!” (K'ritot 1:7).  He declared that women could offer sacrifices for multiple births and miscarriages at the same time.  The price of the doves fell and women were able to attend to their families without making frequent inconvenient and costly trip to Jersusalem.

I disagree with calling the two dove option Plan B and emphasizing it as sacrifice based on marginality.  Calling this option, which was so common markets sprung up to supply it, Plan B suggests that it is less desirable than a lamb, and the sacrifices of able bodied, healthy Israelite men.  We need to recognize the flexibility inherent in the original portion, and in the response.  When we define choices or differences as less then, we cheat ourselves. There is more than one way to be Jewish.  Declaring one way normative or more authentic is at odds with the plurality of Judaisms in our own community and throughout history.

I think we can learn from Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s approach.  Sometimes, we need to swear by the temple, to reject what came from Sinai, to make sure our community and our practices are inclusive and allow all those who want to to participate.  We need to adapt not only our practices, but our assumptions and our expectations about what being an engaged Jew looks like.  As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and the alternative sacrifice itself show us, there is more than one way to get there, even in the midst of what seems like a system built on exclusivity.  Different does not mean less and we need to guard against seeing adaptation as weakening.  

I hope today, on Shabbat Itanu, and the rest of the year, we are able to think critically about when one pair or doves, instead of many doves or a lamb, will not just do, but do well. After all, if it’s good enough for G-d, it should be good enough for us.

Shabbat Hagadol, by Jeff Cipin

4/12/2013

 

Shabbat Hagadol Shalom.  And it truly is a big Shabbat. Traditionally, the rabbi would give a major sermon on two Shabbat mornings. Shabbat Shuvah – between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and today, Shabbat Hagadol – the Shabbat before Pesach. 

For many rabbis, today’s sermon would be an opportunity to review in length the laws of Passover. I leave that to one more qualified – Rabbi Goldstein. My job is to talk about today’s parsha – Tzav. However, Rabbi Goldstein is much more qualified to talk about that also. And not just because she’s our rabbi.  Tzav was the parsha of her Bat Mitzvah…. just a few years ago.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find her Dvar Torah on the internet. 

But I did find something equally interesting – just to digress for a moment - when I Googled “rabbi gives sermon on Shabbat Hagadol”

Right at the top of the list – why look any further - was a sermon delivered by Rabbi Norman Lamm on Shabbat Hagadol, April 2, 1966. He talked about why today is called Shabbat Hagadol and he cited Rabbi Yaacov ben Asher. He was – and look, I learned something worthwhile on the internet - the 14th century scholar of a work called “Arba’ah Turim” – literally “Four Rows.” It’s an important work of Halakhic code that interestingly – to quote Rabbi Wikipedia – “deals only with areas of Jewish law that are applicable in the Jewish exile.” Hold that thought. I’m going to circle back to that eventually. 

Anyway, here’s what Rabbi Lamm said on Shabbat Hagadol on April 2, 1966:
Rabbi Yaacov, author of the Turim, maintains that Shabbat Hagadol is called by this name le'fi she'naaseh bo nes gadol, because a great miracle, nes gadol, was performed on this day; the Hebrews who were yet slaves in Egypt dared to slaughter the lamb - regarded as the deity of the Egyptians in defiance of their taskmasters, ve'lo hayu rasha’in lo-mar la-hem davar — and the Egyptians were not able to protest or rebuke them. Shabbat Ha-gadol, in other words, celebrates the remarkable courage and the heroic conviction of the Children of Israel who reached new heights of fearlessness in their dedication to the Almighty. The nes gadol was not only a "great miracle”, but also a "miracle of greatness" — Jews, heretofore diffident slaves, were able to take such risks for their beliefs, for their God! Perhaps it is best to see this act of bravery and dedication in a larger context. All of the Bible, and all of Judaism, is the story of the dialogue between God and man. So said Rabbi Norman Lamm when The Beatles were still together.

And it’s that dialogue between God and humanity, and the  theme of sacrifices that Rabbi Yaacov mentions that brings me – finally – to today’s parsha – Tzav.  As we’ll soon be reminded when we the Pesach narrative at our Seders, Moses told Pharaoh that the Israelites needed to go to the wilderness to sacrifice to their God. And parsha Tzav demonstrates, Moses wasn’t kidding. 

If you like sacrificing and are a connoisseur of the kind of elitist and not surprisingly patriarchal practices of our ancestors – this is the parsha for you. All the instructions the Aaronide prieshood needed to carry out the sacrifices introduced in last weeks parsha are here. This is the instruction manual for how to do something we haven’t done since the destruction of the Second Temple and are bloody unlikely to do ever again. And “bloody” is the operative word in the rituals that are laid out in this parsha. For although we are forbidden to consume blood, there is plenty of it dabbed here and there. More on that later. 

On the surface, some would dismiss this as pretty boring stuff. It’s seemingly irrelevant, repetitive and irrelevant. But I’m here today to convince you that it’s not irrelevant at all. Though it is still repetitive. 

So with our minds firmly set on the plot rich story of Pesach that we are going to retell on Monday and Tuesday nights before we get to the even richer meal that we will miraculously consume, what do we make of all this sacrificing in the desert?  To crudely paraphrase the Hagaddah, “These two chapters of ancient ritual instruction in parsha Tzav, what do they mean to me?” 

Well, first of all we know that everything that happens in the wilderness is preparation for life in Eretz Yisrael. A civilization is being created from a populace of former slaves. The evolution of Bnei Yisrael is being broadcast live from the wilderness.

They have a god. They have a leader. They have the Ten Commandments. And now in the book of Leviticus, Vayikrah, it’s about to rain commandments. Lots of them. The name of this parsha, Tzav, is the word for command. In this parsha, most, but not all of the commanding is directed toward Aaron and his sons. The opening verse is: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command – Tzav – Aaron and his sons thus: 

And “thus” can be summed up “thus”:You’ve got your burnt offering. Grain offering. Purification offering. Reparation offering. The offering of ordination. And the offering of well-being. 

We’re told what exactly should be offered and how it should be done. Some of the details are actually interesting – in an odd sort of way. Check them out. 

For instance, to me the grain offering almost sounds like they’re making pancakes. Chapter 6, verse 14, it says the grain offering “shall be prepared with oil on a griddle.” Who knew God liked pancakes?  But I think it also says somewhere you can’t include honey in a sacrifice. I wonder what they would have done with maple syrup? We’ll never know because this particular sacrifice of the priestly ordination was to go up in smoke – who hasn’t burnt pancakes before – and it was not to be eaten by the priests. Oh but don’t worry, they got more than their fair share out of the sacrifice industry. 

Some of the details are even stranger. Also in the priestly ordination ritual blood of the second ram is dabbed on the ridge of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot. Moses does the dabbing. Aaron and his sons are the dabbed. 

So although these are instructions for something we no longer do – there is much we can glean from that which God repeatedly in this parsha commands – not strongly advises – but commands Moses and Aaron and his sons to do. 

First of all, it certainly doesn’t appear that either Moses or Aaron and his sons have any of the divine characteristics or status that Egyptian culture attributed to Pharaoh. They are just serving their God. Aaron and his sons do have a certain status and it’s pretty clear the priestly cult is set up to ensure that the offerings of the people help keep them well fed.  But it’s also clear that although the priests are being fed, God is not. Unlike other ancient gods, the god of Bnei Yisrael is satisfied by the symbolism of these offerings. Sacrificing was not intended to literally be feeding god. But it does mention several times that God is pleased by the odors. And it goes almost without saying that although there are many other things in Leviticus that are cringe-worthy at least we don’t have to make any excuses for human sacrifice. We didn’t do it. 

So if we were not literally feeding God, what is the overall purpose, regardless of the category of the sacrifice, of making these sacrifices?  I suggest the purpose is twofold.

One of the words used to describe the offering is “korbun”. To make an offering is the verb “hekriv”. The root is the word “karov”  - to get close. The outcome of these sacrifices is supposed to be a renewed closeness to God. For the community, for the priests and for individuals. 

I also see sacrifices as a form of communication. It was how we talked to God. The rituals are the syntax and vocabulary we were given to do so. 

Which brings me to the offering of well-being. Unlike the other categories of sacrifices that denied anything remotely resembling participation by non-priests this offering was different. Chapter 7, verses 28-30:

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: The offering to the Lord from a sacrifice of well-being must be presented by him who offers his sacrifice of well-being to the Lord: His own hands shall present the Lord’s gifts. 

Now the priests still did the actually sacrificing of this offering but I like to believe this demonstrates an early inclusiveness, a suggestion that anyone can communicate with God. Not just Moses, or Aaron or his sons, or the prophets or our rabbis. Of course we take that for granted now but I was truly blown away to see the idea of a direct line of communication to the Divine has its origin in a place like Vayikra, the book of Leviticus. 

So, this parsha tells us how important sacrifices are. And now its’ time to to tell you how unimportant they are. And I’m not making that up. It’s what the prophet Jeremiah says in the Haftorah. Not the one we’re reading today – because it’s Shabbat Hagadol – but the haftorah that’s read when this parsha does not fall on Shabbat Hagadol.

The prophet Jeremiah is pretty darn sure the day will come when the First Temple is destroyed and the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, the very descendants of those who God took out of Egypt will be exiled. Which means they won’t be able to sacrifice cause they won’t have a temple. So Jeremiah goes on one of his rants. And in this haftorah he rants against sacrifices. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that they are not what God commanded at all. Certainly not what God really wants from us. The haftorah ends with this beautiful verse: 

For I the Lord act with kindness, justice and equity in the world; For in these I delight – declares the Lord.

In other words, the sacrificial offerings – grain, bulls, rams, lambs – whatever, and dare I say even prayer is not enough. It’s when we perform acts of kindness, and create justice and equity in the world that we truly please God. 

And that brings me back to Rabbi Yaacov and his Arba’ah Turim. Remember I said it only deals with Jewish laws that are applicable in Jewish Exile? I don’t know his work at all, but I have feeling that even in the 14th century he had a pretty good idea that there wasn’t any point in worrying about what we might do about sacrifices even if we were no longer exiled. Jeremiah’s rebuke of the sacrifices in this parsha demonstrates that we are a people that can look forward not backward to deepen our communication with God and our need to get close to God. Lehakriv  - to get close – the perfect outcome of a good sacrifice. 

What we’re trying to do here at City Shul is find the right blend of ritual and action. The two go hand in hand and today are the building blocks of what I think of – as we approach Earth Hour this evening - as “sustainable Judaism”. 

Consider the following midrash:At the moment that the Children of Israel, led by Nachshon a leader of the tribe of Judah, went into the Red Sea (before it parted) Moshe stood lost in prayer before God. God said to him: ‘Moshe, my friend (Nachshon) is sinking in the water and you are lost in prayer before Me?’ Moshe said to Him: ‘Master of the Universe, what can I do? He said to him: ‘And lift up your staff’ (Ex. 14:16)” And it’s at that moment the sea parted. Prayer was important but truly the sustainability of the Children of Israel depended on Moses, like Nachson, taking action.

A year ago, last Pesach City Shul started looking for people of action. And here you are today. The journey is continuing. We are building our brand of Judaism. The Children of Israel needed those sacrifices. In his day, Jeremiah could see that a paradigm shift was coming. We must pray, we must act and most of all keep moving forward.

Shabbat Hagadol Shalom.

 

Vayakhel-Pekude, Noa Ashkenazi

4/12/2013

 

Many of the traditional readings of parashot פקודי-ויקהל suggest that these parashot discuss the building of the Tabernacle, the Ark, the table, the altars, and the priestly garments. This – of course – is very much true. There is a long and extremely detailed description of what exactly the Tabernacle looked like, what its accessories looked like, how it was all built, and from which materials. This lengthy description might sound tedious, but it is not. On the contrary: I find it extremely beautiful, full of meaning and glory. 

But alongside the detailed instructions of how to build the Tabernacle, the Parashot embed other instructions: instructions – or blueprint if you will – for building a community.

In this Dvar Torah I’ve decided to shift the focus from the specific instructions of how to build the Tabernacle into the less specific, yet equally beautiful, blueprint for building a community.  

So as a service to this community, let me introduce you to the five-point method for building a community.  The method was used by the Israelites to transform themselves from people to community, and it is still relevant to us today, thousands of years later.  


 

  1. Point 1 - Gather: The Parashot start with Moses assembling the congregation of Israel. The word assemble is derived from the root ל.ה.ק. An act of bringing people together, crowding. It is no coincidence that another Hebrew word derives from the very same root: community. It is indeed the act of gathering together that turns us from separate individuals to a community. 
  2. Point 2 - Faith: The need of common denominator that is strong enough to turn a group of individuals into a community; from aggregation into a congregation. Their joint past, present or possible future, were not enough to turn the Israelites into a community. This was well demonstrated with the fear that Moses had disappeared on Mount Sinai, a fear that resulted in the creating of the golden calf. Faith is this common denominator, the glue that turns us from a group to a community. And thus, Moses, upon his return and after gathering the congregation, presented the people with a common denominator:  the Shabbat, the common day of rest. 

And here we are a few thousand years later; the Shabbat is still our common denominator, the heart of our faith. And while we are not stuck in the desert with nowhere else to go, we still choose to sit here today, together, honoring the Shabbat and its meaning, allowing it to glue our budding community together. 

 

  1. Point 3 - Labour: Gathering and faith may not be enough. Then there are the common goals, the tasks, as the Israelites were called to work on building the Tabernacle. To bring forth their labour. 

No community can exist without labour and no faith is complete without it. It is no coincidence therefore that the words labour, work and worship are all represented by a single Hebrew word: לעבוד. There is an element of labour in our faith, and there is the need of labour to keep a community alive. It is also not a coincidence that God was the one who inserted the building knowledge into the hearts of those who built the Tabernacle. Our labour, our ability to work is indeed a godsend.  A good community always cherishes the labour of its members. 

 

  1. Point 4 - Willing Hearts: But labour alone is not enough, the parashot tell us. There is nothing to labour without intent. 

14 times the word heart appears in the first parasha, describing the congregation members as possessing “willing hearts” or “wise hearts”. To succeed, our will, wisdom and intention must be put into our labour. When building a community we must let our fullest and deepest intentions to guide our labour.

 

  1. Point 5 - Commitment: There is no, nor can be, a recipe for generating commitment. Nevertheless, an abundance of willing hearts (14 times!) can generate nothing less, as the parashot clearly demonstrate. The Israelites were asked to bring their most precious belongings: their gold, silver, brass, jewels, and stones. Their building materials, wood, and wool. There were no quotas that each person had to meet, nor a mandatory demand to contribute. Only the call to bring an offering from “whosoever is of a willing heart”.  And that was enough. More than enough. As the Torah tells us: 'The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the LORD commanded to make.'  They achieved the dream of every community: to having greater commitment than needed. So great was the commitment and the offerings that the ‘the people were restrained from bringing’. Today we would have called it a miracle.

So it took gathering, faith, labour, willing-hearts, and commitment to create a community. Only when those were achieved, only when the foundations were laid, only then the Parashot turn to teach us how exactly the Tabernacle was built, down to every detail. Only after we witness the process of a community coming together to unite behind this exceptional project, only then we get to hear of the wonders of the project itself. And while it was God who designed the Tabernacle, and God who resided there, it was the community who built it.

There is much more that can be said about these Parashot; about the unity of the people, about how the building of the Tabernacle became the righting of the golden calf wrongs, and about how the building of the Tabernacle was also the building of a new identity. 

All those things can be as relevant today as they were then. Because today, a good community can help us build a stronger identity, right the wrongs of our past and unite us.  All we need is to gather around our faith and offer our labour with willing hearts and commitment

Shabbat Shalom

 

Hardening the Heart 

1/5/2013

 

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
Hardening the Heart is mentioned 19 times in the Exodus story, and today, in 4:21 is the first instance. Nine of those instances state that God hardened his heart (including the occasion here in Ex. 4:21), three times it is stated that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and five times we are not told who it was that caused it but it is in the passive “his heart was hardened”.

Let’s look at the two words “hardened” and “heart.” The word hardened is in English but in Hebrew there are three different words used to describe Pharaoh’s condition from its beginning here in chapter 4 to its end in chapter 14: first is kaved which has the idea of ‘to be heavy, insensible, or dull,’ and is used in 7:14; 8:15,32; and 9:7,34- the middle instances. Though here its his heart, the word kaved is also used in Tanach as a dullness of the tongue, the eyes, and the mouth. It’s an adjective of reaction. It refers I think to Pharoah’s emotions: he moves slowly, laboriously, and is a little dull. He finds the Hebrews tedious and running Egypt is a heavy burden on him, so he is hardened to these insignificant little slaves. I think about how we get innured and dulled about the pain of other people when our own issues, our own burdens, weigh heavily upon us.

The next word used is kashah which conveys the sense of being hard, severe, cruel or fierce. There are two occurrences of this term, one in 7:3 and the other in 13:15: the middle and the end of the story. Here I think they are indicators of Pharoah’s actions: ok you are being difficult with me, Israelites, I’ll be difficult with you. We’ve moved past dullness, where you just don’t pay much attention, to intended hardness, a cause and effect. I think about how we seek little ways of “getting back” when someone is difficult with us.

The third term used for hardening is hazaq, which is the strongest term employed, meaning ‘powerful and strong; firm, secure.’ It’s the first term (used here in chapter 4), a middle term in chapter 7,  AND one of the the last terms used in the hardening episodes, in chapter 14. It’s used most frequently—11 times—and it’s about Pharoah’s character. Its the one we recognize in ourselves, unfortunately, when we become rigid, stubborn and obstinate, on purpose. We won’t be moved. 

So kaved is an apathetic heart, kasheh is a spiteful heart, and chazaq is an inflexible heart. Pharoah—and we— have all three. 

But what is the heart in Tanach? “Lev” actually denotes intellectual activity; the heart is not the seat of our emotions in the Bible—the klayot or kidneys are.  The heart in the Bible is the place of our rational processes. So when Pharoah’s heart is hard, its not his emotions, its his intellect. He cannot fathom in a philosophical way why slaves should be free. But given his world, the perceived and accepted role of Pharoah as a god, and the normalcy of slavery, it really doesn’t make sense intellectually for Pharoah to let the people go. So hardening his heart is actually hardening his mind.

And just what exactly hardens his mind? Not G-d, but rather, the idea of G-d, for Pharoah who was raised to believe in himself as a god, our G-d is a concept that hardens his heart. That there is another force as powerful—no, more powerful—than him is inconceivable to Pharoah’s rational process. It isn’t G-d who hardens Pharaoh’s heart — it’s just the idea of G-d. The concept that he isn’t the ultimate authority so pisses Pharoah off that he won’t let the people go, just to prove that he alone is the final word in Egypt. There’s no God pulling any strings here- Pharoah’s mind wants to prove to the Egyptian world that he alone pulls the strings of those pesky slaves.

Thats the power of religion and thats what makes it so threatening: religion says two things we don’t want to hear: 1. we are not in control and 2. we are not the centre of the universe, its creator, or its master. 

So even though the idea of G-d hardening Pharoah’s heart goes against the basic Jewish tenet of free will, it is still Pharoah’s choice to become hardened.

I think Pharoah chose to let his heart be hardened for a simple emotional reason as well as for the intellectual reasons I spoke about. Simply put:there is a deep and perverse satisfaction in being able to say NO. We learn that at a very early age- the terrible twos. I’ve always noticed that people on the lower rungs of an employment ladder say “no” more often, out of some sense of control, and agency, and potency. (Except the Apple store where the motto seems to be we will find a way to say yes.) And the more you push for a yes, often the more resistance you get and the firmer the “no” becomes. Pharoah wants to say no because no is a mightier word than yes- a withholding word, a rigid word, a word that encourages begging and pleading and gives the withholder real power over the asker.

The most basic form of control is to refuse someone else. At our earliest stage as a baby it is our first form of resistance, and at the end of our lives, even in cases of elderly people with dementia, the ability to close the mouth, shake the head, say “no” is what gives us some last sense of self-agency.

But saying no hurts us. Saying yes makes us much nicer people, and much freer people. Saying yes is an amazingly liberating experience. In the end, Pharoah does let the people go, and in freeing them, in saying yes, he actually frees himself. Thats what the Baal Shem Tov teaches when he says each person is a miniature world, and inside that world every person has a little Egypt, and inside every person’s Egypt there is a Pharoah, holding on to his stubborn heart... BUT, the Baal Shem Tov says, inside every person’s Egypt there is also a Moses, waiting for us to be ready to be fre
e. 

2012

The reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers

12/21/2012

 

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein
Last week’s parsha has the whole big story of how Joseph sets up his brothers in Egypt; plants a goblet in Benjamin’s sack so he’ll get in trouble, tries once again to “lord over”his brothers, makes them squirm for how they treated him in the past. He seeks revenge. First he accuses them of a crime they haven’t committed. He says they are spies. He has them imprisoned for three days. Then, holding Shimon as a hostage, he tells them that they must now go back home and bring back their youngest brother Benjamin. He is really into seeing his brothers suffer.

But his brothers are an idea. They don’t really exist for him outside of his imagination of who they were when they sold him into slavery. They are still a concept- people he is angry at. They are not really people yet for him- they are “those guys who were really horrible to me when I was a kid.” But as his own brothers they don’t really exist.

But something huge happens in this week’s parsha. The brothers appear before Joseph, with Benjamin, the littliest brother. They are terrified. And they repent, right in front of Joseph: first they confess to what they had done to him in the past, in 42:21: “Surely we deserve to be punished [ashemim] because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” …Then they express remorse, in 44:16, “What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt…” Then they offer to do better this time, by saying Judah will stay and be a slave rather than going back a second time to their father Jacob without a favoured brother. In 42: 33 Judah, who sold Joseph as a slave, is now willing to be a slave himself to change the future for Benjamin. He cries “now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad….” 

Then they cry. They simply cry. Scared, guilt-ridden, confused, broken humbled, the brothers cry to Joseph— and something shifts inside Joseph. Something really hard, really brittle, breaks in Joseph. Something frozen in him melts in a way it never has before. He can’t play cat and mouse with them anymore. They are real- they are fallible, flawed human beings like him. He sees them for the first time with compassion. He’s been humbled in Egypt, in the prison, by Potiphar’s wife, by his life, by his loneliness. He is moved to be real, to be human, in this tender but terrifying moment with his sibs.

He cannot control himself- he yells for everyone to get out of the room except the brothers. He cannot stop weeping. He reveals himself to his brothers and then, he does something extraordinary. He forgives them. And that is when his brothers become real people, and he, Joseph, becomes fully human; no longer a stoic, polished, privileged and pampered Egyptian prince, but a flesh-and-blood brother and son. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote an amazing article about this parsha called The Day Forgiveness Was Born. I want to share an excerpt from his article because it is so profound. Sacks writes: “Forgiveness is not just one idea among many. It transformed the human situation. For the first time it established the possibility that we are not condemned endlessly to repeat the past. When I repent I show I can change. The future is not predestined. I can make it different from what it might have been. And when I forgive I show that my action is not mere reaction, the way revenge would be. Forgiveness breaks the irreversibility of the past….Humanity changed the day Joseph forgave his brothers.”

Seventeen years later, when Jacob dies, the brothers are once again frightened that maybe Joseph didn’t really forgive them, and will punish them, now that dad is gone. In Genesis 50 they implore Joseph— now that Jacob is dead— to remember his compassion of earlier years. Once again he assures them, and once again, he weeps. He weeps that forgiveness is not automatic, not easy, not assumed. He weeps, and he forgives yet again.

Yes, his brothers earn that forgiveness. This is not Christian “turn the other cheek.” And they continue to earn that forgiveness. They know, and we know, that forgiveness transforms the human condition. To forgive and be forgiven is what makes us b’tzelem Elohim-in the image of Divinity.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Dvar Torah-Miketz, by Karen Brill

12/15/2012

 

This week’s portion takes place in Pharoah’s court during the dramatic elevation of Joseph to the vice-regal office of Egypt.  7 years of plenty are followed by famine and Egypt is prepared, thanks to Joseph’s translation of Pharoah’s dream.  Seven sturdy cows are followed by seven emaciated cows, the scrawny cows eat up the seven sturdy ones; seven healthy ears of grain are followed by seven shriveled, thin ears of grain, the thin ears swallow the healthy ears.

As you know, Pharoah calls on Joseph, delivered from his dungeons, to translate his dream.  At this time, Joseph had suffered 13 years of slavery.  From the status of his father’s favorite son, a pampered youth who told tales on his brothers, a peacock in his coat of many colours, he has undergone a profound transformation. He has suffered near-death at the hands of his brothers, slavery and imprisonment with long hours of solitude.  Through these experiences Joseph has developed a sense of humility, religious sentiment and the spiritual power to divine and lead.

His accurate translation of Pharoah’s dream results in his elevation from slave to 2nd-in-command over Egypt and spares the land from certain catastrophe.  The combination of competence and humility are a compelling standard for leadership. Pharoah describes Joseph as, “a man in whom is the spirit of God ...”

This part of the story is a commentary on leadership.  As a younger man, and favoured son, Joseph taunts his brothers with his dream of becoming their ruler.  His vision of leadership is having power over them.  

By the time he is called upon by Pharoah, Joseph’s vanity has long gone.  Joseph never claims his power as his own, but honors God and makes it clear that he is not a professional soothsayer.  He humbly declares, “Not I!  God will see to Pharoah’s welfare.” His dream is realized yet a young man’s focus on himself has been replaced by a focus on others.  

Ultimately true leadership is not self serving but takes a hard focus on service to others.  This is more difficult than it sounds. During chaotic times showing leadership is messy.  Decisions have to be made with too little information, unpopular actions need to be taken, comforts of today must sometimes be sacrificed for future survival.  Where does a leader, of a family, an organization, a community, find the courage to make the wise and compassionate choices that he or she is called upon to make?  As we see in this portion, wisdom and compassion comes from understanding ourselves and working to resolve inner conflicts.  True power is spiritual power.  Finding peace is a first step to finding the strength to lead our own lives and lead others.

The second part of this story is about Joseph’s position in Egypt and his reunion with his family.

As the 2-I-C, Joseph takes on an Egyptian name and is fully accepted into official society.  He is considered the first Jew to live in the Diaspora.  He becomes the father of two sons, and names the first Manasseh meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.”  ... which really means, “I have never forgotten completely my hardship and my parental home.”This is a reference to a man in conflict, troubled by his unresolved relationships with his brothers and father.   His past would not and could not go away.

But sometimes life hands us a second chance...

Joseph’s brothers come to him seeking grain rations and don’t recognize him as their father’s beloved son who they sold into slavery.  Joseph recognizes them immediately.  At first, understandably, he thinks of revenge, but then sees them, maybe for the first time, as human beings in need of help.

He sets in motion a game of cat and mouse when he decides to detain Simon (the brother who had suggested that Joseph be killed) while the rest return home with rations for their households.  He asks that when they return for more food that they bring their youngest brother Benjamin, the son that is his mother’s. 

As the famine is severe, Jacob reluctantly allows his sons to take Benjamin to Egypt with gifts, and double the money for the mysterious prince. They are invited into the royal house where Joseph inquires about his father’s health. He is again overcome with emotion when he sets eyes on his mother’s son, Benjamin.   At this point Joseph has worked out his feelings for his family and is ready for reconciliation however he again delays revealing his identity

He prepares an elaborate test, planting a treasured goblet in Benjamin’s bag before he takes leave of the city.  He instructs his steward to overtake the men on their journey and accuse the brothers of theft, retrieve the goblet and insist that Benjamin pay with his freedom.   Joseph plays the game of getting even yet weeps with a love that transcends bitterness.  What does this tell us about power?

 If we are constantly mindful of God as the true Source of power and serve him, then power will express the divine attributes of justice and compassion.  But it is difficult to remain mindful when we, like Joseph, carry old wounds.  Whatever is unhealed in us becomes an obstacle to the pursuit of justice, gets in the way of feeling love and keeps us locked in dishonest patterns.

How is power that comes from a spiritual centre different from power that comes from a strong personality or ego? Spiritual power is not about externals, not about Joseph’s status in Egypt, not about what we have or who we know.  It is about who we are.  Spiritual power is often preceded by our worst days and the choice to change ourselves rather than become bitter and isolated.  It is about healing family relationships and being able to express the divine abilities to forgive, show compassion and lead from a place of humility.

This portion on power and leadership was chosen as the Haftarah during Chanukah.  “Not by might and not by power but by spirit alone shall all live in peace.” As we light our last Chanukah candle tonight I hope to be mindful that we are a people who choose faith over military victory or being right, compassion over fear ... and that these choices serve us well as leaders in this world.

 

Dvar Torah, Vayera, by Shelley Albert

11/3/2012

 

This week’s parsha is Vayera, one of those huge, sweeping Bereishit Torah portions that describes many of the iconic stories of our faith.  It’s full of violence and threatened violence, laughter, human foibles and what I would term assisted reproductive technologies.

I wanted to start by briefly reviewing everything that happens in this parsha because it’s so interesting, and then focusing on one section.  It begins in Hebron, where Abraham welcomes three strangers who subsequently prove to be angels or messengers.  They inform Abraham and Sarah, now advanced in years, that Sarah is to have a son.  Sarah finds this quite laughable, which annoys God.  She denies laughing, but in what struck me as  kind of an unGodlike manner God replies, “you did laugh”.  

Then God informs Abraham that He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham argues God down to the presence of ten righteous people being enough to save the cities.  Since the cities were in fact destroyed, we assume that ten were not to be found there.  Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is literally pulled out of Sodom at the last minute by the angels (now only 2) after having offered his daughters to the angry mob in place of these strangers.  His nameless wife looks back at the conflagration and turns into a pillar of salt.  After this, thinking all of humanity has been destroyed, Lot’s daughters get him drunk, and, in the first instance of assisted reproduction, lie with him and become pregnant by him.  One of the sons from this union is Moav the ancestor of David, suggesting no editorial disapproval of the behaviour.

Finally Isaac is born, in another instance of assisted reproduction, to 90 year old Sarah and 100 year old Abraham.  Now Sarah really laughs, which is of course the derivation of the name Yitzhak.  Randall Abramson did a lovely dvar torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah on the subject of laughter, it can be found on the City Shul website.

Her laughter stops abruptly when she sees Ishmael, the teenage son of Abraham and Hagar the Egyptian slavewoman.  Sarah demands that they be cast out, so as not to interfere with Isaac’s inheritence.  Abraham is troubled by this but God tells him to do what his wife says, as she is of course right.  Ishmael almost dies in the desert but God saves him and makes him a great nation also, generally believed to be the Arabs.

The parsha ends with the Akeda, the binding of Isaac.  We are actually reading this section of the parsha today, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk about the Akeda and would refer you instead to the wonderful Dvar torah on the subject on the second day of Rosh Hashanah by Stephen Shapiro, also found on the website.

What I would like to concentrate on today is the story at the beginning of the parsha, Abraham’s welcoming of the three guests.  The welcoming of guests is known in Hebrew as Hachnasat Orchim, and its importance is underlined by its presence in the Shacharit service among the “obligations without measure”, the Gemilut Chasadim.  Let’s look at the text more closely, on page 122 of the Chumash, bearing in mind that all of this was said to have occurred just 3 days after Abraham circumcised himself:  [read text 1-8].  He wasn’t just putting on the kettle!  Now although the reader is given to understand that the strangers are angels, since they appear right after Adonai appears to him, the rabbis felt that Abraham didn’t know these were angels until after they foretold the birth of Isaac.  His hospitality was genuine and eager.  The rabbis felt he was sitting at the entrance of his tent just waiting for a guest to feed.  He ran to greet them,hastened to have Sarah quickly knead cakes (with 84 cups’ worth [3 se’im] of choice flour, no less), then ran to the heard to have a servant-boy hastento prepare a choice calf.  Parenthetically, note also that the meat is served with milk, kashrut came later.

Furthermore, Abraham attended to every need of his guests.  He immediately provided water to wash their feet after a long journey through the desert on a hot day, then had them recline under a tree.  He offered them just a ‘morsel’ of bread so that they wouldn’t feel they were imposing if they accepted his offer.  He waited on them while they ate, and finally, later in the parsha, he escorted them on their way.  He didn’t just welcome them, he made them feel welcome.

The detail with which this mitzvah is described (unlike most of the descriptions in Torah of Abraham’s good deeds) elevates this act above many other mitzvot.   The Talmudic Sages interpreted the first line of the passage to suggest that Abraham interrupted his conversation with God to attend to his guests, thus indicating that Hachnasat Orchim is more important even than experiencing the Divine Presence.  

Why this importance?  The constant Biblical injunction that we welcome the stranger since we were strangers in the land of Egypt is certainly part of the story.  Furthermore, by so honouring our guests we are recognizing the Divine aspect of each individual.  Welcoming guests into our homes forces us to take the time to break down barriers and build community.  And by performing this mitzvah at the local level, perhaps we learn how to accept and include those we consider ‘strangers’ in the larger society.

So hopefully I’ve convinced you that Judaism considers Hachnasat Orchim one of the most important mitzvot.  Whether or not we actually apply it is another matter.  We are building together a new, cool shul from the ground up, as the rabbi says, so we’re all newbies for now.  But it’s too easy to fall into the pattern of the ‘in-group’ that excludes newcomers.  It’s rarely conscious; we are all busy, we are often shy.  But people with important roles in the shul can be somewhat intimidating to outsiders, unless a conscious effort is made to make them feel welcome, anticipating and attending to all their needs.  As we create an exciting new community that rewrites the old shul rules, let’s strive to avoid cliques and factions, and welcome our guests and strangers into the heart of our congregation.  Shabbat shalom.

 

Tue, 17 October 2017 27 Tishrei 5778