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Honoring Life and Honoring Death

15/11/19 12:29:47 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

The cave of Machpelah, the traditional burial place of Abraham and Sarah in Herbon.

Last week I gave a talk on the history and traditions of burial practices and cemeteries in Judaism.   I described the fascinating artistry of gravestones, and many of the traditional symbols that were used on gravestones to describe those who died.  We also discussed the important mitzvah of kevod ha met, honoring the dead, and the incredible lengths that we go to take care of the body from the time of death until burial. 

In Jewish tradition most communities have special groups that take care of the dead, preparing and cleaning the bodies for burial, and also acting as a supportive resource for families as they enter the time of morning.  The work of the Hevra Kadisha, is an ancient practice, and for those who participate, it is one of the most meaningful Jewish acts in which they participate.  Here in Montreal most synagogues do not have their own Hevra Kadisha, since this is instead done by the funeral homes, but in many ways I believe we are losing a key aspect of Jewish practice by leaving this holy experience to others.  

Scholars believe that the first Hevra Kadisha was formed in the 4th century CE, but that the first group formed to serve the entire Jewish community in a similar way as is done today was created in 1564 in Prague.  Before the Holocaust,  European cities had hundreds of established burial societies, which were wiped away as the Jewish communities of Europe were destroyed.  Most major cities in the United states even today often have multiple groups, often organized by individual synagogues or through the denominations.  Throughout the generations, the Hevra Kadisha have provided a way for Jewish communities to honor the lives, and the deaths of their members, while providing a way for families to be supported throughout the mourning process.

Our parsha this week brings us through this cycle of life and death, joy and sadness. Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah” actually begins with the description of the death and burial of the first matriarch, Sarah.  Abraham’s first act after Sarah’s death and his initial mourning for her is to search for a place to bury her.  He searches out a burial place, and insists on paying full price so that the burial plot can remain in his hands for future generations.  And then after Sarah is buried, the cycle of life continues.  Abraham immediately proceeds to send his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, he meets Rebecca they are married, and Isaac finds “comfort after his mother’s death“(Gen. 24:67).  The parsha ends with the death and burial of Abraham in the same cave that Abraham purchased for Sarah.

What ties all of these experiences of life together is hesed, compassion and kindness.  The deep and never-ending respect and love that Abraham had for Sarah in her life is reflected in his respect of the burial process and her memory.  Abraham could not resume his daily life until he had not only mourned properly, but also given her a proper burial.  As the Hevra Kadisha does today, Sarah is accompanied to her grave with the utmost compassion and care, without any expectation of reciprocity.  The mitzvah of tararah, of caring for the body, providing a proper burial and caring for the mourners is one of pure hesed, compassion, as it honors both death and life, and creates the holy space for the community to heal and grow.

And as in the parsha, death can inspire us to live a fuller and more meaningful life.  After Sarah dies and is buried, Abraham proceeds to find a way for his son to experience the same kind of love and connection that he did with Sarah.  The hesed, the life is carried forward even as Abraham continues to heal.

When a person dies and is lowered into the ground, it is common for the mourners to say: “Remember that we are only dust”.  The dust of death, but also the dust of life.  What is most important is that we carry each other through all stages of life’s journey with hesed, with love and compassion.  This how to build a community that will last throughout the generations.


Parshat Vayera- Not Saying Too Much

11/11/19 02:07:43 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

A fence for wisdom is silence.

Pirkei Avot 3:17

The Jewish people are known for being good talkers.  We argue, we ask questions, we find something in the world that need fixing and we kvetch about it and talk about it until something is done.  But our tradition also teaches us that there is an important place in the events of our daily lives and in our conversations to hold back our words and to be silent.  Amazingly, in the discussions about the ethics of speech, we are even allowed to hide the full truth from others if this means we can create a more peaceful conversation or relationship.

In this week’s parsha, Vayera, God tells Sarah that she is going to give birth to a child.  Sarah, who is quite old, thinks that the idea of an elderly woman such as herself having a baby is difficult to believe, and she laughs.  She says to God: “Now that I am old, and my husband is also old, how can I have a child?” A few moments later, God retells this conversation to Abraham, but leaves out an important detail.  God asks: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Can I really have a child, now that I am old?” But Sarah said that both she and Abraham were old!  Rashi tells us that God was not being forgetful, but instead was sensitive to Abraham’s feelings and changed Sarah’s words, mipnei darchei shalom, for the sake of peace.  (Abraham has good reason to be a bit sensitive about his age--remember he was nearly a hundred!)

The original source of the concept of mipnei darchei shalom is from Mishnah Gitten 5:8.  Here various laws are listed that we should follow, not necessarily because of their practical value, but instead so we do not create more problems or arguments--“for the sake of peace.”  One of the often cited cases from the Talmud that explains this idea says we should “feed the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor, and visit their sick along with the Jewish sick” (Gitten 61a).  Yet what does this mean? Are we feeding the non-Jewish poor and visiting the sick simply so that people are not suspicious of our good deeds, or judge the Jewish community for only caring for their own?  Shouldn’t we be caring for all people, simply because it is the right thing to do?

In this case, the Talmud is telling us that in any given situation or encounter we have with another person, we need to move beyond our own needs and feelings and above all think about how others will react.  Sometimes we might do this because of a genuine compassion for another person, or sometimes simply because we don’t want to start a fight. Yet either way, we should never say or do something while only taking our own needs into account.

These ideas again bring up the remarkable flexibility of Jewish practice and reminds us that Jewish law and practice always must be used within the reality of life.  While Judaism stresses honesty as one of the most important character traits, and one which is necessary for maintaining strong relationships and community, sometimes the truth can actually makes things worse.  I am sure that we have all been a situation where we knew that telling someone the truth would hurt another person’s feelings or would make a situation more difficult or painful. Even answering the question “How are you?” truthfully can sometimes lead to difficult and unnecessary conversations.  Sometimes “for the sake of peace” we must hold back and not say all that we can say.  

Does our tradition tell us to lie?  Maybe not, unless it means saving a life.  But leaving out a fact or stretching the truth--there is a place for this, if it means maintaining peace between people.  

In our relationships, as in our lives, we need to know when to speak up and when to hold back our words.  Honesty is important, but so is respecting other’s feelings. When we put effort into taking this additional step, we are not only guarding our tongues, but we are also doing our part to bring peace to each other and the world. 

Pro Israel /Pro Peace-Reflections from  JStreet

31/10/19 01:14:38 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

I admit that I have been a bit quiet about my connection with Israel since I began working at Dorshei Emet over three years ago.  While I have always had a strong connection with Haaretz, and have many stories of my time in the country, as the rabbi of this community, I felt it was very important to “test the waters” before I chose how to speak about this important part of our culture and history. We are a diverse community in so many ways, not only with Israel, but with politics, with Jewish ritual, with social values and so much else.  I wanted to make sure to get to know the views of people in the community so I could know how best to speak about Israel and create a connection to the people and the place that would fit who we are. 

I have always seen myself as a centrist Israel supporter, but also someone who believes deeply in the values of the Reconstructionist movement, a supporter of human rights, and of interfaith dialogue.  When I said that I was going to attend the JStreet convention in Washington DC, I was surprised at some of the comments I heard. Some people had heard that Jstreet was anti Israel, or pro-BDS, others simply did not know much about the organization.  While I don’t necessarily expect everyone to entirely agree with JStreet's vision, I think it is valuable that I report back on my experience at the conference and what I am reflecting on as I move forward.

The conference had over 4000 people in attendance (including about a dozen proud Canadians), with people from all denominations and from many different backgrounds.  There were over 1200 student leaders, elder activists, scholars and leaders from all walks of life listening and learning from each other. 

I can say with pride that every single person I met at the conference was pro-Israel, and had personal stories and experiences to share about their connection with Israel on many levels.  But the overarching theme of these conversations was how people at a certain point began having trouble holding onto to their love of Israel and watching what Israeli policies were doing to Palestinians and to the core values with which Israel was founded.  To have been taught that Israel is the Biblical land of the Jewish people, and then watch basic human rights being denied to other people living on this land for many was simply shameful and untenable.

One of the most inspiring parts of the conference was hearing the diversity of speakers at the panels and workshops.  There were Israeli politicians, from Knesset members and mayors to former prime minister Ehud Barak who spoke strongly about how they have seen Israel move uncomfortably to the right, and how they fear this is affecting Israel’s security.  We heard from North American rabbis and academics who spoke about the Biblical sources of a vision for human rights in Israel, and educators who discussed the psychology of victimization and oppression. We heard from Palestinian leaders, who proudly spoke about their dream of a Palestinian homeland in the West Bank, even as they described the need for this country to be next to a safe and stable land of Israel.  And of course, we heard from many of the US presidential candidates who spoke about their policies with regard to Israel, and how the current administration has affected the peace process. (Our own Member of the Tribe, Bernie Sanders got a standing ovation, and while it was a familiar feeling to have someone who sounded like my zayde up on stage, to be honest he impressed me the least of all the candidates).

So what are my main takeaways from the conference?  I know more than ever that I am not alone in having a love for Israel and also a passion for fighting for human rights and a stable and safe homeland for two peoples.  I know that there is a place for me, and so many others in the Jewish community, to support yet also question and challenge what the government of Israel does, and to step back from believing that always siding with Israel no matter what is the most Jewish way to be.  I can be against the occupation of the West Bank and the settlements, and also for a more stable and ethical Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. I can share a deep and passionate love for the culture, the language, the faith and the people of Israel and hope that like the love I have for a member of my family, I want Israel to always be better, and to not accept when some things do not change.

I recognize that the Montreal Jewish community is both more traditional and in general more to the right with Israel issues.  Yet I think it is time that we open up to fit our liberal Reconstructionist values with our values with regards to Israel. We are a Reconstructionist synagogue, a community who holds to the belief that we should be inspired and led by Jewish values and tradition but also work to building a more ethical, inclusive and modern Judaism.  The values of JStreet and other pro-Israel and pro-Peace organizations are closely aligned with the values of our movement, and I believe are values which can inspire many people of all generations who have felt that the vision of the mainstream Jewish community does not fit with theirs.  

We can all know that Dorshei Emet prides itself on being a community of diverse opinions and ways of thinking about Judaism, Israel and values, and I would hope that JStreet supporters can continue to sit next to more right-leaning Israel activists and people on all sides of the spectrum as we explore our connection with Israel by continuing to share our own stories, to challenge each other, and to continue to ask questions. I hope that there will always be a place for many viewpoints when it comes to Israel, and I hope also that our conversations can continue to be rooted in the highest of Jewish ethics and values.      

May this just be the beginning of the conversation.


Highlights of JStreet's vision:              

For too long, pro-Israel advocacy has defined this conflict in zero-sum terms, as “us versus them,” a conflict in which there can be only one winner. But being pro-Israel doesn’t require an “anti.” Israel’s long-term security actually depends on fulfilling the aspirations of the Palestinian people through a two-state solution.

We must distinguish between criticizing the policies of the government of Israel and questioning Israel’s fundamental right to exist as a Jewish homeland.

Strong and vibrant debate has characterized the Jewish tradition for millennia. That’s why we believe it is necessary to engage with those with whom we disagree.

Those who believe there is only one acceptable view on Israel — theirs —should not be allowed to impose constraints on what constitutes acceptable speech in the Jewish community. Closing the doors of the Jewish community to those who question American or Israeli policy puts the intellectual integrity and the future of our community at risk.

We believe vigorous debate about Israel and American policy will not  only engage younger American Jews across the political spectrum, but will increase participation in the broader Jewish community among all generations.

These values are central to who we are as a people: the principle that you don’t treat someone the way you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself, basic notions of justice and freedom, the pursuit of peace, and tikkun olam —seeking to make the world a better place.

We believe that we must work for Israel and a Jewish community that lives up to the best of these values and traditions.

A World Without Us-Kol Nidre 5780

15/10/19 03:36:17 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Kol Nidrei 5780

There is a popular genre of apocalyptic literature that imagines what would happen if human beings no longer lived on this earth. Some of these stories are simple science fiction or fantasy, classic tales of alien takeovers, war and destruction.  But a growing scientific consensus about the path our world is taking, has taken these myths and turned them into a much more real and horrifying possibility. Alan Weisman in his book, The World Without Us lays it out for us with shockingly clear detail what would happen if we no longer here.  If we for whatever reason, through war, disease or environmental catastrophe, left this earth clear of human life, it would only take a few decades for visible signs of our centuries of civilization to begin to disappear.  

Think of it, our beautiful city of Montreal, the tall skyscrapers, the tailored parks, our residential neighborhoods with our nicely painted houses and manicured lawns, all gone.  First go to the sidewalks, cracking and filled with weeds and then the buildings--windows falling, the bricks and elegant curving stairs slowly turning to dust. Trees move in and wild animals begin to take over, wandering through the remnants of our human existence as if they were mere rocks in a field.  Our gardens with our nicely planted flowers and vegetables, begin to go wild, and the soil which has been tilled and tailored for generations, begins to reclaim its natural balance again. Slowly over the centuries, the buildings start to crumble, the bridges fall, and the oceans, the air and delicate ecosystem reclaims its strength.  Millenium pass, and all that is left to remember that we were here, are the ruins of our attempt at civilization--mounds of plastics and trash, some lingering rubble, a brief blip in the history of our planet. The heartbeat of the earth is strong, and whether we like it or not, it is clear that the earth in a very real way, would be just fine without us.

This scenario has been on my mind recently.  In this year of so much deep discussion about the climate crisis, from the marches and protests and the movies and articles, this new reality has made its way to the top of my list of worries.  As I have taken in all of the problems that the world has thrown at us, and all that we have brought onto our society and the environment, I have no choice but to ask some difficult questions. How many times can I explain to my children why people are so cruel to each other, why there is war and suffering, why so many are willing to care only about themselves and destroy our earth and all the precious resources we need for our survival?  How often can I watch politicians and businesses, leaders and members of our society so blatantly put aside the needs of the people who need the most help, lying, manipulating, cheating and stealing, and head down the path of creating only more suffering and pain. How long can I watch the Amazonian rainforest being destroyed, to plant the crops, and use the water and resources that could feed all the worlds hungry instead be fed to animals who themselves spend their lives in torturous factory farms just so we can eat their flesh and milk, while according to a United Nations report, their methane fills the atmosphere with more chemicals than all the cars, buses, trains and airplanes on earth combined. ("Livestock's Long Shadow: environmental issues and options". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome 2006)   The summers are becoming hotter and hotter, the storms are raging, and the ice is melting fast.  

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a devout optimist, and someone who finds hope and goodness in most of what I experience in people and in life.  I do know that even in the midst of all of this, these facts are tempered by the reality that we do statistically at least, live in a more peaceful world, there is less violence and societies is more stable than at any time throughout our history. And I want to think that people are inherently good, and that our world is on the right track.

But recently, it has been harder to hold onto this belief.  I know that at least the science is true. I see the facts in front of me, to strong to ignore.  But I hope we can all do better than to head down the road of darkness, and instead stand up and search for the light.  If the world would be better off without us, then on this Yom Kippur, we have no choice but to fight back and prove the world wrong.

On Yom Kippur we are told that we stand between life and death, we stand precariously before God, the mystery of life, before our family, our friends and our community, and most of all before ourselves, taking into account all that we have done, and all that we have not done in the past year.  We tap our chests, and recall our sins our mistakes, for the problems we have caused, but also where we have stood by and not acted when we have seen problems in others, in our society and our world.  

We fast, ridding our body of one our most humanly pleasures, and we spend the day in prayer, pushing us past our limits as a day full of words and songs confront us at our most vulnerable.  Removed of many of these earthly pleasures, we try our best to bring our prayers and our thoughts heavenward, moving past our our needs and desires, yet also using these same prayers to bring us back earthward, asking us to fix the brokeness most close to home in our relationships and in ourselves.  And as a final nod to the seriousness of this day, it is traditionally to wear, white, symbolizing purity, but also similar to the simple garb that we will wear after we have breathed our final breath. Between life and death. Looking back, and heading forward. While we are told that this is a day of profound opportunity, since we remember that we all have the power to change, it also is a day that when taken seriously can only lead to a bit of fear.  As Harold Kushner says so succinctly, “The core teaching of the holiday is pretty straightforward: We’re all gonna die”.

This year, even as I send my prayers heavenward, with my thoughts on the earth, I have been guided back to the stories, the mythology of our Torah.  In our Torah, in the story of our people, our journey as caretakers of the earth begins in the book of Genesis. From a world of tohu va vohu, without form a void to the creation of life and plants, we move to the story of the garden of eden, and onwards into the story of relationships, family and community

Of course for some, this story is the literal rendition of the first days of creation, but we often choose to see it as a story ripe with symbols and important lessons for how we choose to live in partnership with the earth. 

In Genesis's first chapter, humans are at the top of the food chain. God tells Adam:

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ

P’ru urvu u’milu et ha aretz v’chivshuah

"Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”(Genesis 1:28). As Rabbi Arthur Waskow humorously said during his talk just a few days ago on the Climate Crisis--done!  Filled and subdued--now on to the next steps.   Thankfully, in Chapter two we are given this statement: 

וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן לְעָבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשָׁמְרָֽהּ:

God placed Adam in the garden to till it and guard it-- l’ovdah u’lshomra (Genesis 2:15).

This is where the real work comes in.  As any gardener knows, tending even a small patch of earth involves a delicate dance and a careful hand to hold onto the life that is planted.  To till and to guard, to be Shomrei Ha Adamah, means being constantly on duty and to see in front of us what needs to happen to continue to take care of the delicate ecosystem of the earth’s symbolic garden.

It is easy to put out there all of the Jewish commandments and ethical values which call on us to care for the environment.  At its core, Judaism is an earth based religion and culture, created from an agriculturally rooted world, of farmers shepherd and desert wanderers.  Halachah, Jewish law gives us the basic commands of bal tashchit, to not waste, of tsar ba’alei chayim, compassion for animals, of the protection of fruit trees, of creation safe healthy spaces free of noise and smoke, and other ethical commands for a just society which clearly necessitates a deep and real compassion for the environment.  In fact, it is often pointed out, that Judaism more so than the other major faiths, has been an environmental movement from its inspection--rooted in the land, and as was stated in Genesis, with people commanded to be shomrei adamai, protectors of this land. 

Neal Joseph Lovinger uses the term Deep Ecology, to describe the Jewish understanding of our role in the world.  He writes:

“Deep ecology often employs a language of rights, extending them to all creatures.  But Judaism also speaks of responsibilities, of the individual and the community to each other, to Creation, to the Creator.  We are responsible to each other for how we spend our time, how we spend our money, and how kindly we act towards each other. To creation, we owe our respect and restraint; our ethical laws teach us that this world is all that we have and that we must treat it as a treasure entrusted to us.  To the Creator, whether experienced as a personal God or the deep spirit within all life (or both)we owe gratitude for the beauty and pleasure of living in a world that so amply sustains us" (Ecology and the Jewish Spirit pg. 39,40)

But today, it is not our ancient laws of reducing waste, or creating quiet spaces that should control our understanding of our place in this world.  With the rate of environmental destruction that we see in front of us, it is instead the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh, the commandment to do whatever we can to save a life that is at stake.  With rising sea levels, worsening natural disasters, pollution and more deadly hot days, people's lives are at risk.  Current estimates show that millions of people and entire ecosystems around the world will not be able to survive the next century.  Yes, we can joke up here in Canada that we could use a bit more warmth in our winters, but to turn aside and ignore this reality is as cruel as ignoring the death cries of a fellow human being who lies in front of us.

Taking us back to creation, the Talmud tells us that:

“Adam was created alone to teach that anyone who destroys one soul, it is as if they destroyed an entire world. And anyone who sustains one soul, it is as if they have sustained an entire world."

(Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a:13)

And we can’t forget that core commandment:

לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ

You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.  (Leviticus 19:16)

What in God’s name are we doing if not then ignoring the cries of millions?

Our tradition has ensured that we do our best to live ethical and connected lives, and so much of what we do and what we say reminds us to always work to create a more just world.  We know we should care about each other, and not ignore suffering of any kind. But unfortunately, our communal story also begins with a story of the deepest of shame, an example of hearing the warnings thrown at us and ignoring them.  By this point in our history we should know better.

In the mythical story of Noah, we encounter a people so sinful that God decides the only way to fix the problem, is to create a flood and destroy the world.  A midrash tells us that part of the reason Noah was commanded to build the ark, an impossibly large and difficult task, was that in the 120 years it took, people would ask questions or show some concern and change their ways.  Alas, the people ignore Noah and his building project, nothing happens and the flood destroys the world. The refusal to accept the need to change was so strong in fact, that one midrash says that at the beginning of the flood when the waters started rising up, the people pressed their own children upon the rising waters in order to dam them up. The story concludes with a verse from Job: “The womb did not remember it was her child.” (Job  24:20) Unable to think of the future, and refusing to accept any responsibility for their actions, they would rather throw their children to their deaths than make a change.  

We have seen the ark, and for too many of us, we choose to look away. This midrash shows a people that were willing to risk the lives of their own children in order to save themselves.  We have received the warnings. The science is clear and the effects--the storms, the heat, the economic and social damage is growing worse every year, and we are in a very real way throwing our children to their deaths. And what happens to the people who point out our hypocrisies, or stand up and tell us what we need to do to save our lives.  Until recently, they like Noah, became the outcasts. The tree huggers, the hippies, the crazy vegans, the people who simply take things too far and don’t know how to have fun. Even in the past few weeks, the Swedish climate activist Greta Tumberg, has been confronted with endless harassment and mockery by right wing climate change deniers who called her nothing but a childish pawn of the left.  We all fear truth, especially as the name of the film tells us, the inconvenient truth, but we can no longer run away with our hands over our ears if we want to pass anything on to our children.  As Greta herself said in January to the adults at the World Economic Forum. “I want you to act as if the house is on fire because it is”.

All of this, is why our culture are faith is modeled after the first jew, Abraham, not Noah.  Noah was an obedient follower, and he did manage to save humanity, but he was no activist. While Noah was willing to spend 120 years quietly building an ark, he never once stood his ground an argued with God about the destruction that was about to occur.  He never once reached out with compassion to the masses who were going to die, or tried to speak to them to get them to change their ways. No it was Abraham who was the Jew--he fought injustice with strength and intention and ensured that each person was cared for too.  Now it is our turn.

But the unfortunate fact is that, at least from an environmental perspective, the earth really does have no need for us.  Not only would the plants and the animals survive, but they would thrive. If we all left this world today, if our homes did lay empty if our fields lay fallow, if our cities and streets were cleared of human life, it would take time, but the world would revert back to a more peaceful place.  While much about the current state of our world can be left up to interpretation, this fact is unfortunately hard to deny.

But this is not how I want to think, and as Jews we don’t tend to hold such a pessimistic view.  We are seen as partners in God's creation, and we are here to “tend” the earth and improve it through our actions not destroy it.  Through a life of ethical action, through mitzvot and intention we bring goodness and hope into the world. In fact the very notion of tikkun olam is based on the idea that the world we are given is broken, but that it can only be “completed” with our help.  In the Kabbalistic understanding of creation, God contracted the divine self to make room for the universe. The divine light and power was contained in special vessels, or kelim, some were broken and scattered in this moment of creation.  Our goal, through tikkun olam is to search out these broken shards, the brokenness in the world, and through ethical acts and acts of compassion and healing, we can bring these pieces, along with their light back to their original source.  

But beyond this mystical idea, we are told that the world in which we live, with all its imperfections, needs us to “improve it:”  It is up to us to create a just society, and sustained by peace and compassion. It is up to us not to accept the cruelty, the sadness and the pain we see in front of us, but to do all that we can to fix it. While with all that is going on in the world, the level of pessimism we might feel is real, the entirety of Judaism, from its laws to the practice of holidays, to the very words we chant tonight, remind us that we do matter.  Our actions, make a difference and the world needs us for its survival.  

While the news that we read each day might make me lose hope, it is new life that thankfully recalibrates my belief in humanity.  

A few weeks ago, I officiated at a baby naming.  Holding the baby, this new life, eyes open to the world and full of potential and possibility, I paused for a moment.  Reflecting on my own three children, thinking of the world that they are inheriting, all of the problems and the suffering I hesitated for a moment.  Of course this new life was a blessing, but what kind of world were we bringing this life into? A world of suffering and challenge? A hotter planet and a world of pollution and darkness?  Then I looked down in my rabbis manual, at a little slip of paper with a quote that I often pull out when I need a heavy dose of hope. The words attributed to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov..

Hayom bo noladetah, Hu hayom bo hechlit  ha kodosh baruch hu she haolam eino yechol lehitkayem biladeicha. 

"The day you were born is the day God decided the world could not exist without you".

Fine, biologically, scientifically, the world doesn’t really need us at all.  But whether through the miracle of creation, or the millions of years of evolution, we are here, and the only way we can see it, is that the world needs us as much as we need the world.  If all of the atoms, the sparks of millenia come together to create the miracle that brought us into this life, then our only choice is to hold onto the belief that yes, we really do matter.  We matter and we can create hope.

The former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, writes:

To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.

If we are not yet shocked into this reality of hope amid despair, the prayers of this day can bring us to that uncomfortable place.

Tonight we stay the Untehaneh tokef prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life, and who before their time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval... 

To those final words of the poem, after we have seen it laid out in front of us how we will all live and die, we are told that Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah, repentance, Prayer and Charity and Justice will avert the divine decree.  

Un’taneh tokef reminds us above all that we are fragile, and our world is fragile and now is the time to stand up and to be accountable.  For our actions and our words. For our relationships and our families, our community, and cities and country. For our air, for our trash, for the forests, and the food we eat, for the animals and the soil, and the delicate ecosystem which has been shaken beyond repair.  IT IS ALL CONNECTED. Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other.  But truly all life is responsibility for each other.

Actions have consequences, what we do stays with us, and in some very real way, becomes part of our permanent record. On Yom Kippur we are held accountable.

But Utnehah Tokef also reminds us of something much more hopeful. The same power we have within us that can cause us to destroy, gives us the power to heal.  We can make simple changes in our lives that can have a very real effect on the climate crisis. It is good to recycle and bike to work, but when 14-18 percent of greenhouse gases are caused by livestock, animals raised for milk and meat, and when the rainforests are being destroyed to grow crops to feed these animals, our diet needs to change too. It is good to turn the lights off when we leave the room, but we also need to fight the government and help create better social policies for our cities and towns.  Drive less, use less, and get factories and businesses to pollute less. Small acts and large ones. To survive we need it all. 

We do not lose anything by making these changes, in fact we gain joy and pride in knowing that we are living as partners with creation, treading lightly and bringing Godliness into the world by bringing hope.


But Repentance, Prayer, and Justice annul the severity of the Decree.


There is a wonderful interpretive vision of Unetaneh Tokef by Jack Riemer, which puts this all in perspective:

Let us ask ourselves hard questions

For this is the time for truth.

How much time did we waste

In the year that is now gone?

Did we fill our days with life

Or were they dull and empty?

Was there love inside our home

Or were the affectionate words left unsaid?

Was there a real companionship with our children

Or was there a living together and a growing apart?

Were we a help to our mates

Or did we take them for granted?

How was it with our friends:

Were we there when they needed us or not?

The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?

The unnecessary gibe: did we say it or hold it back?

Did we live by false values?

Did we deceive others?

Did we deceive ourselves?


Were we sensitive to the rights and feelings

Of those who worked for us?

Did we acquire only possessions

Or did we acquire new insights as well?

Did we fear what the crowd would say

And keep quiet when we should have spoken out?

Did we mind our own business

Or did we feel the heartbreak of others?

Did we live right,

And if not,

Then have we learned, and will we change?

This year, this Yom Kippur I don’t think we can any longer think that everything in our world is clear and stable. Our own lives as usual are imperfect, and maybe our relationships needs some work, but in the big scheme of fixing this may the easy task in the year ahead.  

The world truly is broken, the climate is in a crisis, and the suffering around us on all levels is real and only getting worse.  We may feel, as I have at times, that our fate is sealed, that the book of life is closed, that the world is too broken to even look forward with hope.  But I am not willing to give up. We need to stand up and we need to resist. We need to fight climate change, just as we need to fight poverty and violence, and we need to fight the brokenness in our own lives, and work to repair with intention all that we can.  We can learn to say with strength and with pride that we are true shomrei adamah, guardians of the earth and caretakers of each other.   This is a fight for survival, yet even more this is a fight to hold onto hope.  We need to all step into this challenge so that we can say with confidence, that yes, the world is better off because we are here. 

G’Mar Hatima Tova


Judaism as Improv!   - Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Sermon

01/10/19 02:28:34 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin


Living in New York City, as I did many years ago, you see a lot of strange things.  In addition to the usual people in every imaginable kind of outfit walking down the streets of Manhattan, you see musicians, and street performers, beggars and sometimes if you are lucky a rare sighting of a Hollywood star.  It is hard not to revel in the sheer beauty of of all of these people wandering through their day, living out their lives, one person at a time, one soul in millions. During the two years that Sarah and I lived in the city when I was in graduate school, we rarely went to movies, since we could easily sit on a park bench for hours and be entertained by the constantly changing cycle of people making their way past us.  At least once every few days, there was a moment of surprise or some kind of chance encounter which left us amazed at the shocking beauty of wandering through this web of city life.

I recently was told about the group Improv Everywhere, who took this idea of surprise seriously and turned the weirdness of New York into a magical and profoundly healing experience.  A group of actors and volunteers, they have brought people together to watch and participate in interactive performances and flash mob style gatherings. They put together surreal mp3 experiments, where hundreds of strangers listen to a set of synchronized audio instructions which has them walking in circles, singing strange sounds as one massive choir, and doing any number of playful and entirely purposeless actions.  They have happily convinced hundreds of New Yorkers to ride the subway at one time in their underwear, or put on surprise performances of famous movie scenes from Rambo, to Jurassic Park or Back to the Future all in the middle of regular neighborhoods. They have turned subways into time machines and created a magical porta potty that when opened by an unsuspecting visitor surprises them with a full 10 piece mariachi band who marches out playing a song.   

The videos of these amazing experiences are quite addictive, but what is most incredible is how much joy they bring to those who experience them in person.  People laugh and hug, and total strangers find themselves starting conversations about the strange scenes they have seen. Especially in New York, a city known for people who are experts at ignoring each other, flash mobs and this kind of street improv have an almost surreal power to bring people together--to take them out of their individual bubbles, and in a surprisingly deep way connect them to others for a brief but shared purpose.  People cooperate through these elaborate crafted experiences, and through the surprise and joy of these moments, they somehow also participate in true interactions with a community of strangers. For some, these brief interactions act as life saving therapy and are often healing experiences that last for days. It's no wonder that these videos so easily go viral--they remind us what happens we can snap out of the normalcy of life, and show us that spontaneous joy and play simply makes people happy.

Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat, Yom Kippur. Spontaneity, surprise and improvisation.  These are not usually words that we use to describe a synagogue service. What is most familiar to us synagogue goers, is a primarily structured experience, a few hours of prayers read from a page, familiar melodies mixed in with a few important instructions--please rise, please sit, turn to page 56.  We like to think that we dwell in a place of order, and that too much difference and too much surprise and innovation is straying too far from tradition. I know from experience as your rabbi to always walk a delicate balance between change and new ideas, and keeping and honoring the old ways. Words on the page, familiar melodies, and just a taste of newness.  Thankfully Judaism believes that there needs to be a mix.

At a recent retreat for the Clergy Leadership Incubator program of which I was a part for the past two years, I took part in a fascinating liturgical experiment, not quite a religious flash mob, but something just as powerful.  Dr. Janet Walton, Professor of Worship and Liturgy at Union Theological Seminary in New York had spoken to us about the importance of creativity in prayer and ritual, speaking about the many levels of prayer that are found in different faiths--words, music, movement and meditation.  She described how in the liberal Christian seminary where she worked there was a “creative prayer” day where students were invited to creatively examine and “play” with a certain element of prayer, weaving in anything that felt appropriate--theology, activism, dance or movement. Students and faculty would never know what to expect on these days.  One day the community might find the chairs set up as usual for a traditional prayer service, or there could be no chairs at all and everyone is made to stand in a line. Sometimes the usual prayers would be used, and other times there would be no prayers at all. There might be traditional hymns or loud experimental hip hop. These experiences could create an emotional journey which would lead to anywhere from peace or communal connection, to sometimes even frustration or anger.  Issues of language, politics, gender and racism were dynamically woven into these experiences, and the prayer experiments could be as much a kind of activism as moments of spirituality. You never knew what to expect, and the effect on each person was entirely unique.

Yet, whatever emotions were brought up were just the point.  The vision of these experiences was to remind the participants that prayer, the so called formal expression of religion should never become static--prayer should take us out of the normalcy of our lives, and should awaken us to a reality beyond ourselves.  At the retreat, to show us how this worked, our group was brought through an interactive prayer experience which involved a slow walk through a darkened room, being interrogated by someone who asked about our fears, and a brief meditation in a room filled with candles and strange voices echoing from the walls. I will admit as we were guided through this experience, I felt deeply connected with the others around me, but I was also made to feel uncomfortable, a bit angry and oddly nervous during this strange half hour of prayer.  So clearly the experiment worked. 

Don’t worry, I am not going to march anyone around the sanctuary while screaming at you today.  I am saving that for Yom Kippur. But I will ask you this as we sit together filling this space with songs and prayer:  How often are we brought to these challenges places in our religious services? The words and melodies that we have heard today gain so much of their strength by their familiarity.  Especially if you have been coming here for years, the words flow easily and the sounds settle calmly into our minds and souls without much effort. Yet, have they ever brought you to tears?  Have they made you angry, and confused? Have they made you stand up and dance with joy? Hopefully they have, but I would assume is not something that happens every day. 

Two words are often thrown around when analyzing the experience of prayer in Judaism--keva and kavanna.  Keva is usually described at the order the form of prayer, the framework of words, and the liturgical map which gives us the siddur and the prescribed prayers that we say when we gather together.  We say the prayers written down by the rabbis, sharing in the language and ideas of our ancestors and all those people who pray along with us.  

Yet Kavanna, the intention, the spirit of prayer, is what brings meaning and purpose to these words--it is the act of putting our own heart into the experience.  To both connect with the words and also find a way to say our own, to bring our own heart into prayer is the essence of kavanah. To have the fullest experience of prayer, we need both of these keys--order and spirit, structure and those moments of sheer surprise, awe and joy.  Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it well when he reminds us that prayer must involve our own agada, our own story. He says:  

Prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act in the soul. The essence of prayer is agada, inwardness. Yet it would be a tragic failure not to appreciate what the spirit of halacha does for it, raising it from the level of an individual act to that of an eternal conversation between the people Israel and God; from the level of an occasional experience to that of a permanent covenant. (A. J. Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, pg, 68)

Maimonides too reminds us that while the oral tradition and the rabbis give us the siddur, that this is not the ultimate goal of prayer.  He says: The number of prayers is not prescribed in the Torah. No form of prayer is prescribed in the Torah. Nor does the Torah prescribes a fixed time for prayer … The obligation in this precept is that every person should daily, according to his ability, offer up supplication and prayer…” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, 1:1-2).

What this brings to light is the very nature of ritual in Jewish life.  Ritual gains its power by two seemingly contrasting purposes—it can both stay the same throughout the generations to connect us to the past, and it also can and should evolve and change to fit the needs and values of the times.   We light Shabbat candles as people have been doing since the days of the Talmud, but many of us also eat traditional foods and sing songs which none of ansestors would have known. On Pesach we put out our seder plates with the usual mix of symbolic foods, but some of us also put an orange on the seder plate to remember the inclusion of women and LGBT members of our community.  We raise the Torah high on Saturday mornings as we have done for thousands of years to remember Sinai, but now we also now thankfully let all people in our community read from that holy text. Ritual is ritual because it both changes and stays the same.

There is a saying among us rabbis that “one generation’s kavanah is the next generation’s keva.”  What one generation finds something to be deeply meaningful and inspirational, it tends to become fixed ordinary for the next generation. As a people, our prayer practices and the way we offer public worship is in constant dialogue with those who came before us, our own deep desires and needs, and what we imagine might be just around the corner.

Jewish community and practice gains so much of its strength from what has stayed the same through the generations.  Our core text, the Torah holds its power by it’s stability. Even as our world and our values have changed, we do not change the text of the Torah.  Each scroll, in every synagogue maintains the sanctity of the text, and of course no matter liberal our values may be, no matter how creative our services, we will never walk into the ark and scrape out those sections of the Torah scroll that might bother us the most. As I often mention in my Saturday morning Torah class, the Torah is like our most sacred family heirloom that has been passed down through the generations, an ancient story that roots our soul in history and place.  And if there are parts of this story that might not be as clear or as relevant when seen through a modern lens, we wouldn’t get rid of it any more than we would get rid of our grandmother’s old kiddush cup. It is part of who we are, and we hold onto it, wrestle with it and do our best to make it our own. As the literal and spiritual centerpiece of our Jewish lives, the Torah centers our Judaism and ensures that whatever we do, and whatever changes we make we do it as part of the evolution of Jewish life.

Yet, as liberal Jews, we also do not shy away from making changes when necessary.  From our siddur, our prayer book, to the openness to cultural Jews, and creativity theology, the joy that we gain from playing with language and music, to the inclusion of women, interfaith families, LGBTQ people and so much more.  Reconstructionist Judaism and in our own special way, our community, has made creative and thoughtful change as important to Jewish life as the Torah itself. As I often say, we take the words and the ideas of our texts and our traditions, and through conscious change and creativity, we make them dance.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, a well known Modern Orthodox scholar wrote that , “human creativity is an expression of [humanity]'s Godlikeness. Certainly one ought not see in this capacity of [humankind] a challenge to divine creativity; this, indeed, was the error of the builders of the Tower of Babel. When primitive [people] rubbed two stones together and produced a spark, [they were] not displacing God's creation of light and fire; [they were] exercising [their] divinely ordained vocation of creativity for enhancing the material world by use of [their] talents, and were thereby imitating God who said, ‘Let there be light.’ The invention of the scissors was a creative extension of the human hand, the automobile of the human foot, and the computer of the human brain.  (Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld and Prof. Avraham Wyler, “Technology and Jewish Life,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Spring 2006)

While our theologies might not match up perfectly with Rabbi Lamm’s view, it is easy to see how creativity, using what he would say are God’s gifts to move ourselves and our community forward is not only allowed but necessary for survival.  This idea is why Jews, even the most Othodox among us, had never headed the way of the Amish. Innovation, technology and creativity that is used ethically and within the so called “fence of Torah” can be a way of building on the “original act of creation, and can actually bring good to the world.  We are commanded to live seriously Jewish lives, but also take seriously making sure that it is never static or stale. When you get down to it, we are not only commanded to be creative in our ritual and practice, but to also always have a bit of fun.

Just think of the wonderful creativity and play that is found in the experience of the Passover seder.  In this annual retelling of the story of the Exodus, the entire experience has been created to ensure that even in the most traditional of seders, there will always be moments of joy, of humor, of song, and of course of good eating.  We sing, we tell stories and jokes, we snack, and at least in my family we follow the ancient spehardic tradition of beating each other on our heads with green onions. Depending on where in the world and with which family you have your seder, your might find yourself doing one of countless wonderful traditions:  acting out a skit, being tapped on the head with the seder plate to keep you awake, eating charoset made with real ground up bricks as they do in Gibraltar, or taking part in one of a multitude of silly games used to hide the afikoman. Pesach seders were built to be fun, and they were meant to be ruled by play and creativity as much as the text of the haggadah,  As the talmud tells us, reminding us of the source of hiding the afikoman:  “It is said that Rabbi Akiva would give out nuts on Erev Pesach so that the children should not fall asleep, but would ask questions. Rabbi Eliezer stated, “One grabs [and hides] the matzah on the night of Pesach in order that the children should not lose interest.” Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), Pesachim 109a 

Or as the Rambam says: “He or she should make changes on this night so that the children will see and will [be motivated to] ask: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” until he or she replies to them: “This and this occurred; this and this took place.” What changes should be made? Give them roasted seeds and nuts; the table should be taken away before they eat; matzot should be snatched from each other and the like.” (Rambam, Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 7:3)

Now let me ask you something. If this is how we are meant to take care of our traditions during Passover, what has happened to the rest of Jewish practice?  Where is the surprise and play in our Shabbat services, or in so much of the rest of Jewish ritual?

As those of you who are regulars at our Shabbat services know, change is a delicate topic.  Introducing something as simple as a new melody, or changing a familiar word or idea can shock our sense of comfort.  As your rabbi, I have walked this delicate line, knowing that there have been times when I have moved to fast, and at least in my mind times when I haven’t moved us forward enough.  A core value of our denomination is that Judaism is the “evolving civilization of the Jewish people”, and we accept that contrary to what the Orthodox might say, Judaism has always been changing, always evolving.  We have learned to be flexible to fit the needs of each generation, and through sensitive and compassionate change we have made sure that our tradition remains relevant.  I will continue to do my best to push you to reexamine your beliefs and practices, suggesting some new ideas and here and there leaving behind old ones.  But it is up to you to do the same.  

Don’t think that the old ways of being Jewish are all we got.  Don’t think that religious services, or prayer is necessarily the highlight of what this synagogue or Judaism in general can offer, although it is an important part.  Try the other holidays, take a class and have fun arguing with the rabbi. Leave time for play and joy, and know it all can be found in Jewish life.  We need you to help us make Judaism relevant and filled with joy, we need your creative and unique vision to move us forward. In Jewish life and beyond, this creativity is what will keep us alive.

I’d like to offer a bit of a shmoozing break now.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, whose writings are well known to many of us, tells this  story of Talmudic logic in his book Jewish Humor: What The Best Jewish Jokes Say About the Jews:

A young man in his mid-twenties knocks on the door of the noted Talmudic scholar Rabbi Shwartz. “My name is Sean Goldstein,” he says. “I’ve come to you because I wish to study the Talmud.”

“Do you know Aramaic?” the rabbi asks.

“No,” replies the young man.

“Hebrew?” asks the Rabbi.

“No,” replies the young man again.

“Have you studied Torah?” asks the Rabbi, growing a bit irritated.

“No, Rabbi. But don’t worry. I graduated Berkeley summa cum laude in philosophy, and just finished my doctoral dissertation at Harvard on Socratic logic. So now, I would just like to round out my education with a little study of the Talmud.”

“I seriously doubt,” the rabbi says, “that you are ready to study Talmud. It is the deepest book of our people. If you wish, however, I am willing to examine you in logic, and if you pass that test I will teach you Talmud.”

The young man agrees.

Rabbi Shwartz holds up two fingers. “Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?”

The young man stares at the rabbi. “Is that the test in logic?”

The rabbi nods.

(The congregation has a few minutes to do “riddle hevruta” to try to figure out the answer.)

”The one with the dirty face washes his face,“ he answers wearily.

“Wrong. The one with the clean face washes his face. Examine the simple logic.The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. So the one with the clean face washes his face.”

“Very clever,” Goldstein says. “Give me another test.”

The rabbi again holds up two fingers. “Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?”

“We have already established that. The one with the clean face washes his face.”

“Wrong. Each one washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. So the one with the clean face washes his face. When the one with the dirty face sees the one with the clean face wash his face, he also washes his face. So each one washes his face.”

“I didn’t think of that,” says Goldstein. It’s shocking to me that I could make an error in logic. Test me again.”

The rabbi holds up two fingers. “Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?”

“Each one washes his face.”

“Wrong. Neither one washes his face. Examine the simple logic. The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his face is clean. The one with the clean face looks at the one with the dirty face and thinks his face is dirty. But when the one with the clean face sees the one with the dirty face doesn’t wash his face, he also doesn’t wash his face. So neither one washes his face.”

Goldstein is desperate. “I am qualified to study Talmud. Please give me one more test.”

He groans, though, when the rabbi lifts two fingers. “Two men come down a chimney. One comes out with a clean face, the other comes out with a dirty face. Which one washes his face?”

“Neither one washes his face.”

“Wrong. Do you now see, Sean, why Socratic logic is an insufficient basis for studying Talmud? Tell me, how is it possible for two men to come down the same chimney, and for one to come out with a clean face and the other with a dirty face? Don’t you see? The whole question is "narishkeit", foolishness, and if you spend your whole life trying to answer foolish questions, all your answers will be foolish, too.”

Think for a moment about the experience that just took place.  What did you think when I first asked your to turn to your neighbor and discuss? 

Creativity and play need to be a part of every aspect of our Jewish experience, because in a very real way, like the child mentioned in the Talmud, it keeps us from falling asleep.  Moments of surprise and inspiration, “flash mobs” of Jewish life, discussion which challenge and enlighten, and prayer that is not just from a book, but comes from what our hearts need most to express.  An experience with is familiar but also challenging with moments of newness is more meaningful, and also connects us with each other.

In this New Year, I hope we can gain the strength to jump out of the familiar in our lives, and to never forget the power of play and joy.  May the Torahs of our lives, the sense of stability and rootedness, the blessing of the familiar hold our core. Yet, may we also never forget to break from our old patterns, to open our hearts to creativity and play, and the deepest roots of learning that can only come from sometimes breaking with tradition.  In this New Year, we can read the same words and sing the same songs, but will fail to heed the call of the season if we don’t also break from what has held us back. We need to chart our own paths, and creativity blend the Torah of our tradition with the most personal Torah of our souls. We need to have fun, we need to be challenged and bothered, and we need above all to do all that do with intention and with spirit. 

Shanah Tova!  

Fri, November 22 2019 24 Cheshvan 5780