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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.  

When We Need Joy

18/03/19 12:47:35 PM


Purim, 1881

Oy, do we need Purim this year!  

Like so many other texts of our tradition, the Purim tale is one of survival and victory over oppression.  We have our heros, Mordechai and Esther (and some would argue Vashti), who through creativity and strength manage to save their people and allow them to practice their faith in freedom.  In celebration of the day, we retell the story with great joy, cheering our heros and drowning out the name of Haman with noisemakers. We share treats, and give gifts to people in our community, never forgetting to care for those in need.  It is a holiday that is not meant to be taken seriously, and as we dress up in our masks and have a few sips of wine, we are given permission to let down our guard and simply enjoy life.

Yet Purim also holds a profoundly powerful message for us, and in the midst of all the joy, masks and treats, it is also a deeply religious day.  As is often pointed out, the Purim story is one of the few texts in the Tanach in which the name of God is not mentioned (the only other is Shir HaShirim, the song of Songs).  Yet, our tradition tells us that God is part of the story in a very clear and powerful way, that the heroic acts of the people, the strength and compassion of Esther, Mordechai and the Jews are signs of the work of God.  This idea of the “hester panim”, the concealed face of God, appears through the actions of all of the people in the Purim story.

Purim reminds us that we are put on this earth to do “Godly” work, and that our story and the story of our people depends on us.  The most profound acts of redemption and the events of our day to day life and relationships are dependent on our actions and deeds.  We should never give up on our own role in bringing hope to our world.

And there is another important message in the story of Purim.  Near the end of the book of Esther, as we celebrate our victory, we are told:  And the Jews experienced light and happiness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:16).  We can and should look towards a redeemed world, where compassion, love and healing rule over evil and hatred.  Yet, as the Book of Esther reminds us, in the midst of our hard work, we must also make time for joy and celebration.  This is the joy that will guide us through the tough times once the light of Purim has faded away.

These powerful words which we read at the end of the Book of Esther are also repeated every week during the Havdalah ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat, the ritual of separation.  As the Day of Rest, Shabbat is seen as a taste of the world to come-- a messianic future, of peace, of compassion and of joy that will fill our world. As it we leave Shabbat, we rededicate ourselves to the task of not only fixing the brokenness in the world, but also creating more joy.  After these words from the Book of Esther are said in Havdalah, we say ken tihiyeh lanu, “may it be so”, expressing our personal and communal hope that we will make it to this place of joy and love--each and every week. 

So as we celebrate Purim this year, let us grab hold of the sense of joy and celebration and take it with us the rest of the year.  Like the sweet spices of Havdalah, this joy is will help guide us through life and inspire us to enjoy even more the beautiful world in which we live.  This is how we move down the path of redemption and this is how we can start to build a more compassionate and more joy-filled world. Hag Purim Sameach, a happy Purim, and may it be filled with enough happiness to carry us through another year!

Vayikra-It's Not Meant to be Easy

12/03/19 12:03:42 AM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

From the Dorshei Emet Weekly Newsletter 3/12/19

Vayikra, Leviticus was never meant to be an easy book to read.  While it is the central book of the Torah, both in a physical and spiritual sense, it is in no way the most straightforward.  There are no exciting family stories to relate to, no new and exciting characters to meet, and definitely little in the way of movie ready narratives to read. Instead, much of the book describes, in gory detail, the rules for the “korbanot”, the sacrifices, both animal and plant, and goes through the intricate choreography of  each kind of offering.

From the olah, the “burnt” offering, to the mincha, voluntary grain offering, the peace offering, the “sin” offering and the “guilt offering”, the asham.   The reasons for each offering are complicated, and beyond the descriptions, even the best of us read this text and ask ourselves how on earth any of it is relevant today.  It is not just modern readers that find this to be a difficult text, in fact the Talmud (Brachot 18b) says that studying the laws of Leviticus is like “slaying a lion” since it it a so complicated, detailed and seemingly impenetrable.  

We can be thankful that there are no longer animal sacrifices, but (and this is coming from your vegan rabbi), we are missing out on something very important if we fully gloss over this important part of our communal past.  Yes, as we know, prayer replaced sacrifice in our tradition. We now gather together and offer words instead of burning blood and flesh when we want to give thanks. We do acts of repentance instead of slaughtering our livestock, and we study Torah, argue about issues and listen to educational lectures instead of heading to the Temple to let the priest do the dirty work for us.  But is life really this easy?

I would say our lives are actually quite messy.  They are filled with very real pain, and suffering.  Often there is great joy and sometimes horrendous tragedy.  We have the needs and the emotions that we let show, and we have our inner feelings and desires; the jealousy, the passion, the enmity and shame that we often don’t let out.  A “sanitized” religion of polite prayer and song at its best can provide a very real comfort and support, but we have to remember that this is only part of what our tradition was meant to give us.

In an age of convenience and easy comfort, we need to be reminded that Judaism was not necessarily meant to be easy.  The description of the sacrifices in Leviticus were meant to shock us, and remind us the power of life and death. The detailed laws of the offerings were meant to remind us that giving to others and fixing the brokenness in the world is not just a bit of volunteering here and there, or a quick protest march.  It instead necessitates a deep and very real giving of our best selves and the risk of leaving feeling broken and imperfect, covered with a bit of “blood” from our sacrifice.

Leviticus reminds us that Judaism is so much more than what we say, what we pray and what we think and believe.  Life demands that we act, that we offer our best selves throughout our deeds and our work. Even more we know that sometimes we may even have to do the thing that we fear, and push ourselves to our limits to make things whole once again.  Leviticus may be tough to read, but in some ways it may describe the essence of Judaism, and the realities of life, better than anything else in the Torah.


Songs of Protest-Parshat Beshalach

21/02/19 11:39:01 PM


Parshat Beshalach--Shabbat Shira Dvar Torah from 5777

Of all the countries in Europe, Estonia is not the largest, and clearly not the most well known.  A small country across the sea from Finland and Sweden, and bordering Russia on its East, Estonia is definitely not on most people's list of places to go on a vacation. They have an immensely complicated language, and are known for the growing technology center, and as the creators of Skype. But what really makes Estonia incredible is its music, or more specifically its songs.  In this tiny country with a population of a little over a million, they have one of the world's strongest cultures of groups singing and folk song, rivaled only in numbers of songs by Ireland. Nearly everyone sings in some formal way, in choirs, in school, in churches, or in the popular song festivals that are held throughout the year.  Once every few years, there is a massive festival --sometimes as large as 100,000 people, a tenth of the population--they can see choirs of up to 30 thousands of signers, of people of all generations, and backgrounds singing together with pride the songs of their people.

But what makes the Estonain songs so powerful were not the numbers, but how they managed to use their music to fight back against the endless powers which had tried to stop their independence.  In the 20th century, there were the Germans and then the soviets in 1940. The Soviets began to Russify the country and try to prohibit Estonian language and culture. But the Russians didn't expect the power of music to be the weapon that would eventually help win Estonian independence.

After many years of only mildly successful resistance in September 1988, the Popular Front of Estonia organized a rally at the song festival grounds in Tallin.  While the movement expected a large crowd, at most tens of thousands of people, amazingly over 300,000 people came. This was about 1 in 3 Estonians. In this amazing event, as people looked around the crowd with Estonian flags flying rapidly, they sang.  They didn't sing the Soviet songs that they had been forced to for decades, but the sang with pride the folks songs of their people, including the unofficial anthem of their people “Estonian I am, and Estonian I will be, as I was meant to be.” According to many of the participants, this event and the power of singing with one voice left an emotional power that held strong for the next few years, and Estonian fought for their independence.  For over 50 years the Soviets had taken away their land, their culture and their freedom of speech. But they could not take away the songs that had been passed down throughout the generations. As one participant in the revolution said: “We had no weapons but singing, being together, singing together, this was our power.”

Here were are on Shabbat Shira, once again recalling as a community the story of our people’s journey from Egypt and across the sea of reeds.  As we learned last week, this was a journey with an unknown destination and with an even more unsure people. The people had said “And we do not know with what we must worship God until we arrive there.”  Yet while the Israelites still have many years of wandering before they reach their destination, we see that they have learned how to give thanks for their blessings.

Standing at the edge of the sea of reeds, looking ahead to an unknown future and looking with an odd sense of familiarity and comfort at their slavery past, the sea splits the Israelites sing.  

“And Israel saw the great hand, which God had used upon the Egyptians, and the people feared God, and they believed in the God and in Moses.  

אָ֣ז יָשִֽׁיר־משֶׁה֩ וּבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אָשִׁ֤ירָה לַּֽיהֹוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה

Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is God; “

As I mentioned last year at this time, according to the commentaries, this song was the most free flowing and clear song that could have possibly been sung.  

And looking more closely, it wasn’t simply the fact that they sang so beautifully and with such a communal ease that was incredible, but we also are told that this was the first true shira, the first true song that was ever sung. The Midrash says that from the moment of creation, through all of the many other joys and challenges that they Israelites had experienced, there may have some short jingles, some brief verses, but never a song.  Something about this experience gave the people a level of inspiration to do something entirely different, to look up to the heavens and to each other and sing--sing song so powerful that everyone, even babies in their mother’s wombs felt impelled to join in.

Yet we are also told that that when the Israelites sang, this was also a sign of acceptance and of being able to finally put everything--their slavery, their past, the mystery of their future in perspective.  The Shemen ha Tov points out that the root of Shira is Yashar, straight--that this song was a way of straightening out the highs and lows of life, and bringing it all together and finding a sense of equilibrium from it all. It is pointed out that this is why the entire parsha is called Shabbat shira, even though the song is only a part of the story.  The sea splits and they are happy, but then there is no water, and they are low again. The water is sweetened, they are happy and then there is no food and they complain. This is of course like life, there are high points, the mountains, and there are low points, but we hope and know that things often do work themselves out and it is then that we can sing.  Even when we look back at an imperfect life, even when we look around and see a truly imperfect world, we can still look around at our fellow life travelers and sing.

We all know that song and music has the power to inspire and bring us together as a community.  We sing our prayers when we gather together for Shabbat services, and we also sing together with excitement at a concert where we all know the words.  We sing happy birthday to celebrate another year of life, and we sing song of mourning when that life is taken away. Over the past few weeks, I have been inspired to see people once again singing in protest singing songs of peace and connection as people fought against the refugee ban in the US or against oppression around the world.  While tweets and protests signs can make their mark, hearing those holy words, “We Shall Overcome” has an undeniable power to cut through it all. Song connects us with each other and gives us strength to move ahead in our journeys.

But here’s where I must ask a challenging question. Do we truly have a song, an idea, a vision, that brings us, as a community and as individuals in this way?  Is it even possible to create this kind of profound sense of connection with each other, and to create something so powerful that every single person, every single voice will open up with joy and ruach to sing in harmony?  What is our Shirat Ha Yam, our song of the sea? Estonians can gather hundreds of thousands of people to sing with pride in their people, Moses can gather hundreds of thousands of Israelites to give thanks for their lives, and I wonder can we do the same.  Put another way, what is the uniting vision, the point of inspiration that can bring us together beyond our differences as Jews and as members of a diverse society to sing with pride, strength and clarity in a very broken world? This is a big question, but what is our song?

As Rabbi Ruth Sohn concludes her poem, "The Song of Miriam":


And the song—

the song rises again.

Out of my mouth

come words lifting the wind.

And I hear

for the first time

the song

that has been in my heart

Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779