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Standing Tall

16/09/19 04:32:01 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Elul Message: Week 3

Outside of my office window, I have a clear view of a large maple tree in the front yard of the house next to the synagogue.  I wouldn’t call the tree anything too impressive. It’s got a nice sturdy trunk, a hefty set of leaves, and a modest little bulge around its middle.  Admittedly, it is most likely not much different than endless other trees in the neighborhood, since thankfully even in the midst of our busy city streets, where there is a tree, there is bound to be another not far away.  Yet it is still something to marvel at.

In the wind, the rain, and of course the snow, this tree holds itself up, standing tall and proud no matter what the world throws at it.  Silently absorbing the energy from the sun, and releasing life-giving oxygen to the atmosphere, the tree gives and takes from the world at just the right pace.  The tree doesn’t speak, but it also doesn’t complain. It doesn’t fight and it does its best to never hurt others. Even during the fiercest storm, it holds on to its heavy limbs, its sturdy trunk and bark resisting all of the elements with an admirable and calm power. 

One tree among many.  A world of plants, of animals, of buildings and flowers, of cars and streams, of children, streetlights and silently flowing clouds.  Every moment of our lives if we let it, is an immersion into the natural world, an important reminder of the life right outside our windows.

We have to remember that the Jewish holidays are deeply tied to the natural cycle.  From the waxing and waning of the moon, to the necessity of having holidays in certain seasons, our ancestors made sure that no matter where we were, we had no choice but to pay attention to the guiding hand of the nature around us.

Don’t think that just because you will soon be sitting in the warm communal space of our sanctuary with a sheltering roof over your head that this connection with the natural world is any less strong.  This time at its core is a transition from summer to fall (or as some in Montreal say, from summer to winter) that guides the High Holidays; holding on to the heat and the joy, as we slowly make our way into the dark and cold of the approaching months,

This year, we enter the final stage of the weeks of preparation for the High Holidays as we always do, with the ritual of Selichot.  This is the name given to the prayers of “pardon” and forgiveness we we say during the Yom Kippur service, and also the short service which guides us into the Days of Awe.  Beginning with Havdalah on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, we sing some of the familiar prayers and first hear the special melodies of the days. And this year, we have a special connection as the autumn equinox falls on the week of Selichot.  Our service will be guided by this powerful mix of the natural cycle and our spiritual calendar.

After the service we will be watching the award winning film Treeline, taking a step back, and taking time to reflect on how the natural world and the cycles of the seasons can provide a healing blueprint for the upcoming year and the never ending task of teshuva.  

When we are constantly bombarded by the ups and downs of our daily lives and by the endless news cycle of suffering and political strife, the symbolic power of trees and the cycle of nature can hopefully guide us back to a more clear path.  

I invite you to join me on Saturday night at 7:30 for the film and discussion, and hope that no matter what, we can enter this season with a strength and clarity as strong as the humble maple tree outside my window.  

The Same Paths

09/09/19 10:20:32 AM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Elul Message: Week Two

In a few weeks I will be running a marathon. While not my first, spending these final few weeks training in the month of Elul has been especially meaningful, and these long early morning runs give me plenty of time to reflect.


Over the years, like most runners, I have built up a small list of my favorite streets and trails, places where my feet flow smoothly and my mind can stay focused. While I am still somewhat new to Montreal, with endless neighborhoods still to explore, I remember the feeling of so many other runs over the past years. The runs had become familiar enough that as I passed certain key points, I would find myself brought back to moments in the past when I had crossed these same places. Going over the moss-covered bridge, I am brought back to a nervous run before my wedding day. Passing a certain tree would remind me of my celebratory sprint after I completed my final paper before graduating from university. Or climbing a certain long, seemingly endless hill would bring me back to my first long and tired run after my oldest son was born. Each place with a different story, with which more layers added every time I pass.


We are in the midst of the month of Elul, the time of year when we are asked to reflect and search for ways to improve ourselves in preparation for the New Year.

Every year as we experience these holidays, I, like others in our community, go through the same prayers and stories, chant the same tunes, and am asked the same questions of how best to improve myself in the year to come. So much of what we do and say is the same, but of course, it is we who are different. Each year brings us new joys and challenges, new relationships and always new problems that need fixing.


For me, the familiarity of the liturgy and rituals provides the strongest motivation to change, in part because they, like my favorite runs, bring me back to where I was, who I was, in years past. We know that in the past year we had given ourselves the challenge to improve, and we are still not perfect. We may have committed ourselves to work harder to do acts of tikkun olam, of healing the world, and the world is not fully fixed. Once, not too long ago, we looked deep within, searching for the broken parts of ourselves, working to truly find wholeness and healing.


We will always be crossing the same paths in our lives, and we don’t have the choice to simply turn around and do things all over again. In fact, the challenge of being human is that we often end up performing the same actions and making the same mistakes no matter how many times we have tried to improve. The idea of teshuva, returning, asks us instead to do something quite simple, to look back at who we were, see how we can grow to become better people, and then try our best to fix what is broken. It may not work the first time, but we know we can return again, and try again, the next time we find ourselves in the same place. And in the season of reflection, may we all be blessed to return to a place of true healing and wholeness.

Entering Elul

02/09/19 10:24:13 AM


Rabbi Boris Dolin


Just a few days ago, we entered the month of Elul, the holy month before the High Holidays.  As we are often told, this month is one of deep introspection and teshuva, and should be a time of seriously looking back on the year that has passed and reflecting on how we hope to move forward into the new one.  Where are we in our relationships, our family and our work? Where have we strayed from the path with our values or our actions, and who are the people to whom we need to apologize or fix our mistakes? All of this reflection and questioning is not always easy, and if we truly take it seriously it can very easily bring us to a place not necessarily of hope or clarity, but often of guilt.  There is just too much to work on, so many changes that need to be made. If we follow the spiritual calendar that is given to us, we only have a few weeks to go to make it all better!

But Elul should not be about guilt--let’s leave this to the punchlines of Jewish jokes.  This month, and the entire season of holidays is, according to one view in our tradition, primarily about two other important qualities: love and joy.  In fact we are told that Elul is an acronym for Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine,” the words of Song of Songs that remind us of the simple connection and peace that introspection and improving our lives can bring.  Becoming better, doing teshuva shouldn’t make us feel guilty for all the work we need to do.  Quite the opposite. The growth which we find in Elul should bring us to a place of calm, humble joy and love--a love as pure as what can be found standing under the huppah with your basheret.  As our tradition tells us, Elul reminds us that we have the power to change, and the strength to move forward with intention. And as we enter this holy month, that simple fact should bring us joy!

From Purim to Pesach

08/04/19 10:34:48 AM


Now that we have recovered from the joy of Purim, we can begin the slow but steady journey into Pesach, the holiday of freedom.  The two holidays are always one month away from each other, from full moon to full moon, and this convenient arrangement was not a mistake.  The Talmud tells us very clearly that we should “juxtapose one redemption to the other redemption” (Megillah 6b) and that the two holidays are inherently connected both in theme and meaning.  

Both stories begin with the Jewish people in a place of exile; for Purim they are in Persia, and of course in the Pesach story, the land of Egypt.  In the Purim Megillah, God is not mentioned, and in the Pesach Haggadah there is no mention of Moses. One holiday is focused around the power of people to create their own redemption, and the other is about the power of God to guard us and bring us to freedom.  Both have a evil leader who attempts to destroy the Jews. And one holiday is a day filled with food and drink, and is a holiday filled with food and drink!

But while we could continue to list the similarities between the two holidays, we can also learn much from the days in between the two celebrations.  As we make our way from Purim to Pesach, we have an opportunity to go through a very personal journey to our own understanding of salvation and freedom.  

It is usually in the days before Pesach begins that we begin to clear our homes of hametz, the crumbs of leaven that are prohibited during the week of the holiday.  But our tradition tells us that we are also clearing our lives of the spiritual “hametz”, the representation of our egos and our lack of connectedness with our spiritual selves and our relationships.  This kind of cleaning and retrospection cannot be done in a few days, and this is a process that we can start now.

Over these weeks, we can work to free ourselves from our own personal enslavements so we can be in a place of clarity and openness when Pesach comes.  We can once again be ready hear the story of the Exodus and make our way to freedom as a community and as individuals. What challenges, what people have been holding you back from achieving your greatest potential?  When have you not been your best self, and when have you let your ego control your actions? What have you done spiritually to keep yourself centered in the midst of the challenges of life? These are the questions which we need to ask, before we can really start sweeping away the crumbs of hametz in the days before Pesach.

It is no coincidence that the time before Pesach often coincides with the annual ritual of “Spring Cleaning”.  As the weather warms and the flowers start to bloom, many of us have a natural urge to clean up and “start fresh”.  The growth of spring means that we can both physically and spiritually come out of our darkness, and begin the process of healing and redemption that we know is near.

Now that we can take off the masks of Purim, we can spend the upcoming weeks searching for our true selves.  From our individual redemptions, to remembering our obligation to each other and to our community during Pesach, this is the time for the most meaningful growth.  May this truly be a time of positive change and inspiration for all of us and for our community.

And don’t forget, you only have a few more days to eat all of those leftover Hamentaschen!

Quebec's Bill 21 and   Religious Freedom

01/04/19 12:49:18 PM


I wrote this dvar Torah a few months ago when the CAQ came into power, and were considering a ban on religious symbols for provincial workers.  Last week the legislation, Bill 21 was tabled, and the party hopes that it will pass. Premier Francios Legault was quoted as saying that the bill is not about denying rights but about creating a "neutral" and secular society: “Secularism is not contrary to freedom of religion. Each can practice the religion of their choice. But we have to set rules, and that’s what we’re doing."

This bill is clearly not about protecting anyone's rights, or about any form of compassionate secularism. It is about fear, ignorance and is difficult to see as anything but racist. As I write in my reflections on Parshat Vayera, this bill is a dangerous move backwards in our vision of creating a free and democratic society.

Vayera 5779

Given at Congregation Dorshei Emet, October 27th, 2018

There are some things you don’t really think about until you read a news headline.  For most of my life, I had worn my kippah like most liberal Jews when I was in a synagogue or attending a program in a Jewish institution where it felt appropriate, but I had never made the jump to wearing it full time.  I do remember an experiment when I was a student leader at my university Hillel, and I decided to to wear my kippah for a full day around campus, in classes or wherever I was. I was surprisingly self conscious. I didn’t want people to make assumptions about how I identified.  I assumed that most people would be able to make the connection with my kippah and my identity as a Jew, but people might also make assumptions about other values.  

Considering that it is usually Orthodox Jews who wear kippot outside of the synagogue, I somehow was not sure what generalizations people would make.  They might think that I didn't believe in egalitarian values, or that I was a right wing supporter of Israel, or even that I believed in one kind of God or way of seeing the world. At this stage of the game, I was still exploring my own Jewish identity and I was a bit unsure about whether I was ready to take this plunge to wear the kippah full time, but it was clear that wearing this very visible symbol of my religious identity was a heavy choice.  But it wasn’t until many years later when I started rabbincal school that I made the vow to wear my kippah full time during the day, and it has been on since that day.  

What does this little piece of fabric symbolize, and  what does it mean to wear this clear symbol of Judaism on my head? I’ll admit, it actually has very little to do with faith, or honoring God, but for me the kippah is definitely a symbol.  First it is a powerful land enduring symbol of my identity as a Jew--it reminds of my connection with my history and my heritage and ensures that I stay rooted and reminded of those who came before me. It is also a reminder to live an ethical life, and to live with compassion and values both inside and outside my home.  If I wear a kippah I know that with every act I do, I am not only doing as myself, but I also do as a representative of the Jewish people.  I am not Orthodox, I am a liberal, feminist, constantly evolving creative Jew who is unable to put my Jewish identity into a box.  Yet, when I wear a kippah, I am proudly saying whether davenning shul with other Jews, at the Pride parade, sipping a cup of coffee in a relaxed but non Montreal Kosher certified cafe with friends, or an interfaith gathering, that I am Jewish and I want all to see.

And yes, there is a part of the act of wearing a kippah that is a simple act of pride and a statement of survival.  When I wore it on the streets of Warsaw when I was a rabbi in Poland, walking past the place where Jews were loaded on trains to the Ghetto.  Or when I wore it in the mall in the small town in Oregon where I worked, where many people had never met a flesh and blood Jew before. Or when I wear it in a French speaking village in eastern Quebec receiving curious looks from people who pass--I am saying in a very clear and simple way--Jews are here, we have survived and we are proud, and I am proud.  

This little circle of fabric is such a part of who I am that I do not feel like myself without it on, so much so that when I do lose a my kippah, which happens more than I would like to admit, and I am forced to go bare headed, I simply do not feel like myself.  Like so many others who wear a kippah, or a hijab, or a Sikh turban, a cross around their neck or any religious or cultural symbol, they are not just shapes, or a piece of fabric.  They are markers of faith and identity in a way that only the individual wearing it can understand, and they are core to who these people are and how they relate to the world.  To take away this experience of wearing these symbols, this core act away, is to take away much more than a piece of clothing.  It is, in a very real way, taking away part of one's life.

I of course bring this up, because kippot and hijabs, turbans and crosses have been in the news recently. As we know all too well, since the recent election, the new CAQ premier Francois Legault has been pushing to have a ban on governments representative wearing religious symbols, including hijabs, turbans and kippahs.  The reason given for this ban is “state neutrality”, a belief that a person should not make a statement about their religious beliefs if they are representing the government. They also hope to expand this ban to teachers, believing that children are especially susceptible to being influenced by not just the values of their teacher, but apparently also their clothing.

On the surface, if you read some of the articles about the proposed ban, it is clear that the CAQ knows how to try to influence the public, and their reasoning seems simple enough.  Yet, when they remind us that the cross would not be part of the ban, because it is a “cultural symbol” of Quebec, not a religious symbol, their whole system falls apart. As we know similar bans have been tried before, not only in Quebec, but also in multiple US states, France other European countries.  In many cases, the bans make it to the courts, or they simply are deemed by public opinion to be unfair or unethical, but in a few cases, the bans have survived.

The French ban from 2010 was especially harsh and still survives, moving beyond legislating what a person can wear and moving into people's daily choices.  The law in France said, that its goal is to check the spread of extremist viewpoints, in schools and other institutions. Yet it also forces disciplinary action against students who refuse for religious reasons to take part in activities that some religious individuals consider improper, such as swimming lessons with members of both genders or sex education classes. If a girl wears a long skirt that is fine, but if she does so because she is religious she will be punished.  We haven’t yet reached this point in Quebec, and I hope that we are not on our way.

We of course could have a conversation about the values inherent in the CAQ ban, about whether it is truly about neutrality for people from all faiths and cultures or  whether it is in fact is rooted in a fear of Muslims. Yet, one of the core issues is what happens when one group’s values are turned into law. What happens when the values of one group are forced on others and when people are not allowed to live their live with freedom to make their own choices?

This week’s Torah portion describes the famous argument between Abraham and God about God's plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, with Abraham asking how many good people would need to be found in these cities to have them be spared.  The reasons for God’s decision is unclear, as we read : “And the Lord said, 'Since the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and since their sin has become very grave'" (Gen. 18:20). The Torah tells us very little about what sins are being committed that would bring on such anger from God, but the rabbis fill in the details.

Rabbinic legends about Sodom describe that the land had a wealth of natural resources, including precious stones, silver and gold, where every path was lined with seven layers of fruit trees.  The people of Sodom were fearful of others coming into their land and taking their wealth, of corrupting their way of life, so they took the step to create laws to ensure that others would not feel welcome in their land.  In Sodom, it was not only that the people were unkind, it was that kindness was actually legislated out of the society. In Sodom, compassion and hospitality were deemed illegal, and the midrash tells us how far these laws went: “They had beds [in Sodom] upon which travelers slept. If he [the guest] was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out” (Sanhedrin 109b). They not only avoided welcoming guests and abused them, but punished those who reached out to others. “Rabbi Yehudah said: They issued a proclamation in Sodom saying: ‘Everyone who strengthens the hand of the poor and the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire!’” (Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer 25).  These laws went even further, assuring that criminals were rewarded and victims were punished. If you injured another person, you were paid for hurting them. The laws prohibited giving charity, or helping those in need. One legend claims that when a beggar would walk into Sodom, everyone would write their names on a coin and give them to the beggar, but then no one would sell them bread. When the person died, everyone would then take back their money.

These are horrifying descriptions given by the rabbis about the lengths that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah would take to legislate cruelty, and yet while they might make us cringe, they are clearly symbolic examples of what could happen if a society takes the power to legislate too far into the lives of its citizens.

A society, a government can and should make laws to protect it people.  Every person should have the right to safety, to education and I would argue to access to healthcare and other needs.  We can work to create a society that is rooted in compassion and a desire to better the lives of those in need, by creating laws that ensure resources are available for those who need them.  There can be laws for helping people in poverty, there can be laws preventing violence and promoting tolerance, and I would argue that Canada is on the path for doing this better than most. Yet, for better or worse, no one, no person, no government can legislate kindness, and as we can see from the rabbinic texts, we also know that in reality, we also can’t successfully legislate cruelty and hold onto any semblance of a democratic society.  A person’s values, a person's beliefs and their ways of seeing their world are entirely theirs--what they read and learn, who they love, what they believe, what they wear--no matter how hard we may try, these are things that we shouldn't necessarily touch. We can create laws that regulate behavior, and we know that there are same places, some countries that have legislated behaviors that we would not condone.  But no matter how hard we may try, we can’t legislate the feelings, the values and beliefs that people hold inside their minds and their hearts.  

And going back to the CAQ ban--if only this was about religious symbols.  It is not, and this is what makes is so complicated and so wrong. As they say, it may be quite true that for many people the cross is a cultural symbol and that a person who wears it around their neck may be expressing pride in their Quebec heritage or identity, and therefore they should have a right to wear it.  But this is denying that for some, that same cross is actually a powerful reminder of Jesus’s love and their deep Christian values. And if this is true, we also have to know that a hijab, a Sikh turban, a kippah is also not necessarily symbolic of only one thing--it may be, as deemed by the CAQ to be a religious symbol, but it most likely is also like my kippah is for me, a statement of pride in my history, a reminder to live and ethical life, and simply a reminder that we are all different.  It is not up to us or any government to decide what this symbol, what any symbol means to me. If this is something the CAQ wants to take away, then they are taking away more than a symbol, they are taking away some of the most important values of our society--freedom of expression, and freedom of belief.

Laws should be to protect and allow to live in safety and freedom so that we can live up to our fullest potential, connection with our values and our identities in a way that feels right for us.  You can’t legislate goodness, any more than you can legislate cruelty, but if we start we working to create a society that honors and respects differences, that creates a safe space to express our cultural and religious beliefs and traditions, then people will be more likely to live with compassion and kindness towards each other. Banning this freedom of expression is the beginning of creating a society of judgment and ignorance, and I am not willing to head down this path. I am not taking off my kippah, because I will not take away my deep pride in who I am and how I connect with my tradition and history.  And everyone else should wear their kippot, their hijabs, their turbans, and their crosses with their own sense of pride, and above all know that no one is going to rip it away from them.  

Wed, September 18 2019 18 Elul 5779