Sign In Forgot Password

Paying Attention-Dvar Torah Shemot

31/12/18 01:05:34 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

No matter our beliefs or non-beliefs, there are moments in Torah when we encounter clear messages about the interaction of faith, spirituality and everyday holiness. Of course this symbol of spirituality and encounter is found in the Torah as the character of God-for some a deeply strengthening concept, and for others a profoundly problematic one.  

God is described as the guiding parental figure of Genesis, the book which we just completed, or as the law giver of Leviticus, as a warrior.  God is seen as a giver of reward and punishment, or as “kol d’mama dakah” the still lingering small voice which Elijah encounters in the Book of Kings.  The Biblical God however is much more than a simple supernatural being, a concept to easily believe in or disown. It is a instead found through the hundreds of names and the many places in which we encounter this idea, a reminder of how we experience those moments beyond ourselves.  While the Torah doesn't’t shy away from miracles or calls for obedience to God, there are also those important hints that Godliness, that holiness and spirituality, are meant to found within the acts and relationships of our daily lives, not beyond them.

Of all the great theological messages of the Torah to this point, one of the most profoundly simple, and the most humbling, appears in this week's Torah portion.  After being introduced to Moses and hearing the story of his birth, we find the future leader of the Jewish people wandering the fields with his sheep. It is there that he encounters a burning bush.  Noticing that the bush was on fire but “was not consumed,” Moses turns to look, and is told by an angel of God to “not draw near and to take off your shoes because the place you stand is holy soil.” And so the story of Moses, God and the Jewish people begins--with a bush.

There is a Midrash that asks the question why when God could have chosen so many more majestic and impressive ways to appear to Moses, God chose to do so in the form of a humble bush.  In the Talmud, Yehoshua Ben Korcha responds simply that every place in the world is filled with God’s presence, and that we should not question the inherent holiness of a bush, whether it is burning or not (TB Brachot 7a).  Many centuries later the Hasidic movement added a different level of interpretation to this question, as Rabbi Shnuer Zalman of Lyadi said, that everything in the world, especially the most lowly of worldly objects is infused with the divine.  (In many ways this is the core of Hasidic philosophy, that all we experience, from the most enlightening moments to the crumbs of a loaf of bread can be a pathway to experiencing Godliness.)

Yet beyond this, we can be inspired to see the two separate commandments, for Moses to remove his shoes and for him to not approach the bush, as working together as reminders of humility and of the danger of believing that we have found the truth, that there is only belief or non-belief to sustain us.  “Do not come near here" means, even though you may hear the voice of God coming from this bush, don’t think that God exists in the bush.  Don’t say that you have “heard God” and then try to get others to experience the same encounter. Don’t spend the rest of your life after you leave this place searching for more talking bushes, more esoteric visions of a bush that is not consumed.  Instead, take off your shoes--root yourself to the ground to the place you are now. Find blessing, find strength and find your own voice in the moments of daily life.

Take off your shoes, so you can remember to find holiness and connection wherever you stand.   You don’t need a burning bush, and you don’t even need to have a supernatural concept of God to find this sense of meaning and connection.  Stay rooted and strengthened in your own experiences, and walk and live in Godly ways, if not necessarily with God, bringing into the world goodness and compassion in your actions and in your relationships.  

If the vision of a burning bush, a God beyond yourself gives you strength, then hold on to it.  But Godliness, spirituality and life is not necessarily found in the experiences beyond, in the great moments of mystery, but in what is literally beneath your very feet. “Remove your shoes” and get ready for a spiritual search that will fill up the whole of your journey.

And it is in this experience of the burning bush that the unique personality of Moses appears.  If God had appeared as a dazzling light display, or a fiery and thundering mountain--and there will be a time for that--there is no doubt that everyone would have noticed.  Yet, a simple bush in the middle of the desert, even one on fire, is not that unique of a sight and is bound to be overlooked. This uniquely fire-proof bush was a miraculous sight available only to those who truly were paying attention.  To see a bush on fire and walk on past is not that odd, but to look long enough, to have the focus and attention to see that the bush was burning but not burning up, took a special character. This kind of ability to pay attention to each moment and to each individual was the quality of Moses that God needed in the leader of the Jewish people.  

Moses may have gained strength from this powerful encounter at the burning bush, believing in something beyond himself, yet like all of us the sustaining power of spirituality, the practical reality of living a spiritual life comes not from encountering a being beyond ourselves, but from paying attention to the ground beneath our feet. “Take off your shoes”, stop looking for God in a bush or in the heavens, and find it within yourselves and your actions, and like Moses through the work you do in this world.

Rabbi Authur Green, in his Book Radical Judaism, summarizes well the nature of the spiritual encounter, as I see it, the “take off your shoes” experience of living a spiritual connected life:

What is the nature of this experience?  It is as varied as the countless individual human beings in the world and potentially as multifarious as the moments in each of those human lives. In the midst of life, our ordinariness is interrupted. This may take place as we touch one of the edges of life, in a great confrontation with the new life of a child, or out of an approaching death. We may see it in Wonders of Nature, sunrises and sunsets, mountains and oceans. It may happen to us in the course of loving and deeply entering into union with another, or in profound loneliness. Sometimes, however, such a moment of holy and awesome presence comes upon us without any apparent provocation at all. It may come as a deep inner Stillness, quieting all the background noise usually fills our inner chambers, or it may be quite the opposite, a loud rush and excitement that fills us to overflowing. It may seem to come from within or without, or perhaps both at once. The realization of such moment fills us with the sense of magnificence, of smallness, and of the longing, all at once our heart swell up with the love for the world around us and all at its grandeur.

And Green concludes that these moments are available to all of us.  Not just to all of the Moses’ of the world, and not just when we encounter a burning bush:

I believe with complete faith that every human being is capable of such experience, that these moments place us in contact with the elusive Inner Essence of being that I called “God.” Is out of such moments that religion is born, our human response to the dizzying depths of an encounter we cannot and yet so need to name.  (Green, Radical Judaism, pg 5-6)

Our spiritual journeys can often be frustrating, and we may be waiting around for that moment of inspiration or enlightenment that always seems just beyond our reach.  While we all thankfully have moments of greatness in our lives, those moments of “fire”, our prayers, our work, our relationships, sometimes just seem to be moving all too slowing towards their fulfillment.  This can be frustrating, yet like all those who walked past the burning bush, it is all too easy just to move on past the simple holiness that is right in front of us. The essence of Jewish “spirituality” is that we must pay attention to the blessing of the simple moments, and we must keep the greater vision of our lives in front of us.  We must channel this focus to move beyond ourselves, to care for our community and the world.  It all begins when we simply turn and pay attention to what is in front of our eyes, and what is right beneath our feet.

Beyond Chinese Food-Parshat Vayechi

24/12/18 05:02:58 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

While this week we mark the final parsha of the book of Genesis, the powerful concluding chapters of the story of Joseph and his brothers, it is also an important time on our calendar--albeit, the non-Jewish one.  This of course is the Shabbat before Christmas. Many of us joke about the Jewish traditions we have on this day--movies, board games, Chinese food or skiing, and many Jewish families take these traditions so seriously that December 25th wouldn't be the same without them.

My personal tradition growing up in Oregon was to start the morning with my family, having a cup of coffee and bagels at a local hotel.  Then we would make our way to the Jewish owned bookstore–which was always open on Christmas–and which became an informal meeting place for all of the Jewish book lovers in town to gather. We would spend much of the day there, reading, relaxing and taking our time perusing the endless aisles of the store. And then yes, we would finish the day with a Chinese dinner.  We didn’t have any tree, there were no presents, and Santa never visited our home. But there was no doubt about it, although I was a good Jewish kid, I always looked forward to December 25th with genuine excitement.

Recently, multiple books and documentary films have been published describing many of these odd Jewish Christmas traditions, especially the connection with Chinese food and Jews.  One of the best was last year’s CBC documentary “A Very Jewish Christmas” about the deeper reasons why so many of the best Christmas songs were written by Jews. And of course, the documentary takes place in a Chinese restaurant.

Yet what is especially interesting, and why this holiday is worth mentioning today, is that there are some very real traditions about Jews and December 25th.  These move far beyond any commandments about what to order from the Chinese menu, but describe in detail the laws and traditions about what Jews should and should not do on this day.  Exploring these traditions can help us understand how we have evolved in our connection with people of other faiths, and also how we have managed to turn the most non-Jewish of holidays into a uniquely Jewish day.

As you might expect, Jews have always had an interesting relationship with this holiday.  For much of Jewish history, the challenges between Christians and Jews made Christmas if nothing else, an uncomfortable experience which brought into the open the minority status of Jews in society.  For Jews in certain countries, Christmas primarily was a day to fear,

While we might think that the Jewish name for Christmas is the day of Chinese food and movies, there is a much more ancient source outlining the meaning of this day.  Christmas was called by many Ashkenazi communities since the Middle Ages the somewhat mysterious name, Nittle Nacht.  There are many possible sources of this title.  The most common explanation is straightforward; the term nittel originates from the Latin Natale Domini, “Nativity of the Lord”.  Yet, interestingly, when spelled in Hebrew, the words become a bit more derogatory, the “Night of the Hanged One” (nittel from talui “to hang”), or in a few slightly more complicated etymological word plays– the night in which Jesus’ life was taken from him,  leil netilato min ha-‘olam, or the most technical, Nolad Yeshu Tet L'tevet, meaning, "Jesus was born on the ninth of Tevet."

Even though this day has absolutely nothing to do with Judaism per se, Christmas of course had a very real effect on Jews and Jewish history.  Because of the person that this day celebrates, one could argue we had thousands of years of oppression, inquisitions, the roots of a specifically deadly form of anti Semitism, pogroms, and much worse.  With this truth, while we would not expect the Jews to be sitting around their tables with a kosher birthday cake for Jesus, being Jews, we of course had to have rules about what we could and could not do on this holy day of the Christians.  And in the end, these rules led not to only prohibitions, but also a very real way that we were invited to celebrate, even as we were specifically not celebrating, on Christmas.

The main tradition, the most well known, yet in some ways the most shocking, is to refrain from Torah study and Jewish learning.   The first source of this being Mekor Chayyim, the commentary of the Ashkenazi Rabbi R. Yair Chayyim Bakhrakh (1639-1702) which mentions specifically that Torah study should be prohibited on Christmas eve.  From this and other sources it was clear that this was not an isolated practice.

No Torah study?  This from a religious Jew?

It might come as a surprise to say that there is any day where one should not study Torah, since this is one of the core mitzvot of Jewish life. This act is considered one of the most holy Jewish practices, a way of exploring the truths of the world, of cleaving to God, and one of the most enjoyable acts that a person can do.  So to create a tradition that there is a day when this should not be done necessitates some good explanations.

One common reason given is that one should not study Torah as a sign of mourning. As with Tisha B’Av, the day when we mourn the destruction of the Temple, we would then mourn to remember all the tragedies, all of the blood that has been spilled over the generations in the name of Jesus and Christians.

There is also a mystical view to the prohibition on studying Torah on Nittel Night which says that Torah study and learning brings positive powers to the world, and that it was believed by some to be inappropriate to do this on a day which some considered a time of idolatry, a celebration of a non-Jewish faith, and at one time, also a day pogroms and anti-Jewish violence.  There was a concern that this Torah study could somehow honor or provide merit for the soul of Jesus, which was not desired. Or, on the most practical level, since Jews found so much joy from Torah study, they did not want to give Christians the wrong impression, to be seen studying on a day that so much of their world saw as a day to honor Jesus.

There were even some Hasidic rebbes who said that everyone should refrain from sleep on Christmas eve, just in case you might dream of Torah study.  (Oddly enough, there is another tradition of doing exactly that, of sleeping on Christmas, to prepare for the study to begin again at midnight). This rule to not study Torah was meant to be taken so seriously, that there was a Chassidic legend that said that wild dogs would visit those who those who "violated" the rule and studied Torah on Nittel Nacht (Bnei Yissaschar, Regel Yeshara, 10).

Or there is the following legend told about R. Jonathan Eibeschütz (1690-1764), an eighteenth-century Rabbi, who was asked about this curious traditions of refraining from study:

[Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg Alter of Ger] recounted that once a priest asked the holy Gaon, rabbi of all the diaspora, R. Jonathan Eibeschütz of blessed memory, “Do you Jews have a time when you do not study Torah, and your sages wrote that the world stands on the Torah, and if so, on what does the world stand in those hours.” And Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschütz answered him, that the custom of Israel is Torah. And the fact that Torah is not studied, is Torah, and the world exists on that.  (Jacob Emden,Sefer hit’abkut, Lemberg, 1877, p. 59a.)

Now, these being Jews, even with such a strange custom as this, there was disagreement to how not-studying-Torah was practiced!  Some said that one should not study Torah until midnight, others said until the morning. Others had that habit of sleeping in the early evening, and then waking up at midnight to study.  In some Hasidic communities today, people gather in the yeshiva on Christmas eve as midnight is approaching with their Talmuds in hand, waiting for the stroke of midnight when a community member or the rebbe hits the lectern, signaling that study can begin again.

But what was as important as the prohibitions, was also what people did instead.  And this is where things get interesting.

Historically, these first traditions arose from the obvious need to fill the time which one was not studying Torah.  If you were a religious Jew in the shtetl without Netflix or a good movie theatre nearby, you had to do something worthwhile instead.  

Torah scholars we were told would use the night to play cards, and others including many great rabbis, were known to play chess.  There are some later texts which speak about, clearly with a bit of humor, a tradition of ripping toilet paper to use on Shabbat for the rest of the year.  This practice has sadly fallen out of use, because now you can by shomer shabbat ready pre-ripped toilet paper at the local supermarkets.

Other popular activities for the Christmas Eve included a wonderfully secular mix of common activities, including: spending the night balancing your checkbook or managing one's finances, working on communal projects, reading secular books, learning a new language, or sewing.  And if you had some time left after all of these exciting tasks, you should make sure to eat some garlic, since this was thought to ward off demons and any other bad vibes that might be floating around on this problematic day.

It is important to note that many of these traditions were found primarily in Hasidic communities, and most Jews outside of these communities never accepted any of these practices.  While many Hasidic Jews still follow those traditions, many strongly oppose them. In fact, there are some well known rabbinic authorities who strongly oppose Nittel Nacht, calling it a waste of precious Torah study time.  Though then some say that observing this custom, or any custom, is inherently like studying Torah, and therefore only good!  Outside of Ashkenazi communities in the Sephardic world, there is very little knowledge of Nittle Nacht, since Jews in these countries didn’t have a similar fear of oppression. In the end, beyond all of this back and forth, there are some halachic authorities who simply say that we should follow these traditions, to use the technical term,”just because”.

I remember when I was the rabbi for the progressive Jewish community of Warsaw, and I was excited to introduce for the first time a gathering for Jews on Christmas, since much to my disappointment, the tradition of Chinese food and movies had not taken hold in the country.  Blending the wonderful North American Jewish traditions with a lighthearted take on Nittle Nacht, we organized an evening of movie watching, card games, music and fried perogies. (Not quite dim sum, but reasonable Chinese food was hard to come by in Poland.)

While we always advertised our programs, this one seemed to get more publicity than usual.  There were multiple radio interviews, a good size article in an online event website, and quite a bit of word of mouth publicity.  The interest in the program was most likely for practical reasons, that so many people felt left out in this very Catholic country and were excited to have an “alternative Christmas” celebration.  Yet, I feel there was also a curiously about what the Jews, this small minority group which once an important and large part of Polish society did on day devoted to Christians. It was a fun time for all.

It is clear that all of these strange traditions could have only evolved from a time and place where the Christian and Jewish communities were not on best of terms; Nittle Nacht and the customs of the day evolved from a place of fear and misunderstanding about Christian traditions, not from a respectful connection between the communities or, even, dare I say, from a deep desire to play poker.  In a world where we live peacefully among Christians, where we accept and welcome interfaith families and promote interfaith dialogue, these traditions may seem at best humourous, and at worst, dangerous.

Yet, to put a positive spin on the traditions of Nittle Nacht, we have to recognize what is happening on a deeper level with the evolution of these traditions, and what it says about how we Jews confront the realities of the world.  

As the Jewish community no longer had fear from the Christians, and as Jews lived in a world of coexistence with and respect for other religions, the traditions continued for more practical reasons.  Most stores, restaurants and places of entertainment were closed, nearly everyone was on vacation, and there simply was not much to do! Jews being practical minded and creative, turned Christmas, a day of which was once a painful reminder of our separateness and of suffering, into a day of relaxation and fun. While we would miss out on Torah for a day, we could have faith that we could catch up with friends and family, do some straightening up around the house, and play a few games of cards. Not bad for a non-Jewish holiday!

Whatever your Christmas traditions are, Chinese food, movies, seeing Christmas lights, or celebrating Christmas with non-Jewish family, it is clear that this is no longer a holiday to fear, physically, philosophically or otherwise.  While the roots of Nittle Nacht clearly do very little to respect or honor the celebrations of our Christian neighbors, they also leave a place to enjoy the season for many of the same reasons that they do. As so much of the world shuts down, if we take one stream of our tradition seriously, then we are commanded to relax, spend time with friends and family, and simply enjoy this quiet time in the darkness of winter.

As Jews have always done, we took what was for us, a normal day, and turned it into something better.  It may not be our religious holiday, or a celebration of our faith, but we can always use an excuse to have a celebration of life.  So L’Chaim to life, and may we all have a Merry, Merry...Tuesday!

The Ultimate Mix Tape

17/12/18 10:12:27 AM


The other day I made a “Hanukkah Party Mix” playlist of music on my phone to use for a gathering we had at our house.  As is the case these days, this was as easy as taking my finger, clicking on my favourite songs, and dragging them into a folder.  Two minutes--done. I must say, it was a rockin’ mix of music, but something was missing in the process.

I remember when I younger, the joy of a more old fashioned way of collecting music--the mixtape.  Often made for myself, or sometimes for someone else, this was an important artifact of my generation.  Unwrapping the fresh tape, and taking the time, sometimes for many hours, to sit with the big double tape recorder and record player, and listening to one song after another.  As each song was playing I would write down the name of each song--by hand, and often with the requisite doodle--listening patiently and waiting for just the right moment to push stop.  This was not a quick process, and while the music was playing there was no choice but to take the time to reflect and to listen.

It was especially important when making the tape for someone else to think beyond the songs; How did each of the songs connect, and what was the “story” that you wanted your intended listener to have?   If done right, it could express love (or sometimes anger), it could be inspirational or reflective. It could prepare you for a long car ride, or a lonely time away from home. Yet even more, these tapes could hold onto memories, to a certain time and place or a relationship.  And while they may have become stretched and warped over the years, these tapes were more than just music. The best mixtape was not just a collection of songs, it was a true experience.

As we complete the first book of the Torah, the book of Genesis, the book of creation this week, we are left with a very unique and important set of songs and memories. From the tohu va vohu, the darkness and chaos of creation, we have journeyed through the stories of our people.  We have learned about the important characters of the Torah—the mothers and fathers, the children, the lovers and enemies, the interactions, the rivalry, the violence, the reconciliation.  We have explored the foundational family folklore of our people with all its many colors.  From the simplicity of the mistakes of the Garden of Eden to the first calls from God, and on to the very real politics of Joseph in Egypt—we see people interacting with their world and with other people, and see the consequences of their choices.  There has been plenty of joy, but also some very real challenge. It really is quite a mix.

Then next week as we enter the book of Exodus, we move from the story of individuals and families, to the story of the Jewish people.   We become a people, a true community, wandering the desert and making our way to freedom.

Our experiences so far, the special and unique mix tapes of our lives, will be something that we have to hold onto for the rest of our journeys.  Whatever you choose to call it, God, the mystery, the Cosmos, the holy DJ, the genetic material of our minds and bodies, our lives have been put together in a way that sends us down a road filled with purpose, but in a way that is uniquely ours.  

Of course, the unfortunate reality is that not all of what we encounter in our lives, what we remember about our past, is made up of the stories that we want to hear again.  We want to hold on to so much, but there is plenty that we want to leave behind. So many stories, so many songs.  

But if we can take these moments, if we can truly own them and listen to the entire mix of our lives, then we can see that we each have a purpose.  

Seeing the purpose of our lives, means being honest with ourselves, and always knowing that our actions and the connections we make are inherently holy and filled with meaning.  The world needs us to be who we are meant to be, and that should be our simple goal.

As Rebbe Nachman once said:

היום בו נולדת הוא היום בו החליט הקב''ה שהעולם אינו יכול להתקיים בלעדיך

“The moment you were born, God decided that the world could not go on without you”.

Let's continue our story, and let's head into the secular New Year with this important reminder.  Live in the moment, but look beyond it if you need to.  Hold onto the mix of your life, but know above all that what you do, truly does matter. 

Now that’s a song we can hold onto.

-Rabbi Boris

Parshat Bo

07/02/17 11:32:51 AM


February 4th, 2017

8 Shevat, 5777

Sometimes at the end of day of work as the sun is beginning to set, I make a stop in the sanctuary before I head home from work.  I like to take a seat near the back of the room,  and I lean back and look around at the empty seats and the slowly dwindling light filtering through the windows, I am always a bit taken aback by the silence.  How could a room like this ever be empty and quiet?  This is the place where we experience the celebrations and memorials as we cycle through the year, the joy of Shabbat, the introspection of the High Holy days, the dancing of Simchat Torah.  These are the seats that have been filled with the “regulars”, but also the mourners, the learners, the fidgeting kids, and tired parents, with spiritual visitors and those who simply enter this space to experience that support and caring which fills this room.  As I look around, I can’t help but bring to mind these holy moments in the life of this community.

Yet while the silence that I find in this empty sanctuary is often a surprise, I also always notice how it is never fully dark.  Even in an empty sanctuary there is always the ner tamid, the eternal light glowing dimly above the ark.  Through the silent times and through all of the movement and change in our lives and the life of this community, the ner tamid remains, kind of like a silent friend who is always there delicately and calmly guiding us through it all.  Now I do remember as a kid being mystified by the entire concept of this light, since while I understood the symbol, I simply couldn’t understand how they could make this special holy light bulb that never ever needed changing and how we could get one for our bathroom!  Of course I do now know that there is a plain old  bulb in there that does need to be taken out on a regular basis, but the symbol behind the physics is still powerful.  When we face east towards the ark, we face toward the Torah, towards the traditions and the story of our people.  But we also always face the ner tamid, the eternal light, the continuing presence which has shined its light through all the winding road of our history and through the journey of our own lives.  Whether the seats are filled, or the room is nearly empty, this faint light, allows us, to see each other.

As we make our way through the story of Exodus this week, we are reminded of the powerful ways that light has kept our lives and community strong.  This week, we encounter the final of the ten plagues, locusts, darkness and the death of the first born.  Each of these plagues works to motivate Pharaoh to let the Israelites free, and even as his heart is hardened through each plague, Pharaoh must nevertheless watch his people suffer through each of them.  Yet it is the darkness that really takes hold of the Egyptians, and it is what eventually leads up to the final and most devastating of the plagues, the death of the first born.  This darkness according to our text is not just a lack of light, but a purely overwhelming darkness, a physical, spiritual and emotional darkness which takes hold of the Egyptians like no other kind of suffering.

This was a thick darkness, a darkness that could be touched.  In this darkness, as we read “people could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where they were”, but that also somehow “all of the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Exodus 10:23).  Our tradition teaches us that the Egyptians were not just experiencing physical darkness, but the deepest of spiritual darkness--the darkness of depression or being separated from their people, and the darkness of communal pain.  Some have said that in these short three days they realized the true horror of what they had been going through with the plagues, or even that they had begun to recognize the ways that their lives depended on the enslavement of others.  In this thickest of darkness, the Egyptians could not move, they lost track of time and place and they, those people made strong under the rule of Pharaoh, felt all alone.

Rashi, the great Torah commentator while not silent about the other plagues asks the reason only for the darkness, “Why did God bring darkness upon them?”  This is a thick darkness that confuses all of the the other senses and makes human interaction, and even worse for Rashi, teshuva, repentance, impossible.  Without the ability to get up, without the ability to see or hear one another--there is no longer the possibility for relationship and community, and this from the viewpoint of a Jew is an unbearable kind of suffering.  As the commentaries hint at, the Egyptians may have been sitting in their houses, unable to not only get up, but also not knowing whether there was anyone left in the world at all.  This was a darkness of solitude, and with no where else to turn they and their people started to fall apart.

Of course we know that each cycle of day and night always includes darkness, and it is no coincidence that  it is during the night when that we most often sleep--shutting our eyes to the world around us, and unconsciously delving within to our own thoughts and dreams.  The Talmud tells us that sleep is 1/60th of death, that it is a time when our physical bodies and our spiritual selves shut down.  But the Talmud also tells us what happens when we wake up and see that first morning light.  Birchot HaShachar, the morning prayers are recited at dawn.  And how do we know when dawn is?  Not when the sun rises, but according to the Talmud, when a person can recognize the face of a haver, a friend (Talmud Brachot 9b).  Only when we can see other people and recognize them for the ways they are connected to us, does the darkness begin to fade away.  And only then can we offer blessings.  

In our community, as in very Jewish community, the day of rest, the of connection with each other begins in darkness.  Every Friday night, as the darkness settles on the world, we gather together for Shabbat to bless the joys of life, to take a moment to let go of the challenges, and to above all recognize each other.  In the midst of the darkness, we light the Shabbat candles and gather the light reflected on each others faces.  And then guided by this light, we wish each other a Good Shabbos as we make our way into the experience of Shabbat.  As it says in the Torah, “and the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” as the darkness descended on Egypt, we too continue to enjoy light through all the joys and the suffering taking place around us.  When we wake up to Shabbat the next morning, there is light, and there is hope again.

The simple greeting of Shabbat Peace is a recognition of relationships and a reminder to the person whom we greet and to ourselves that we need each other, and that we are a community of individuals, waiting and needing to connect and bring light to each other’s lives.

I don’t need to say that the past few weeks have been tough ones in the world.  From the events taking place in US, the ban on refugees, and the horrible reality show of politics, to the terrible shooting in Quebec City.  Even for a cold February winter, this has been a dark week.  When we encounter this darkness, how do we respond?  Some get angry and fight back, others settle inside waiting for the darkness to clear.  But what we have seen the past few weeks is even more powerful.  Thousands have seen the pain of others, have seen the impending darkness and brought in the light by gathering together.  There have been protests, and there have been vigils of solidarity, including the gatherings at mosques just yesterday in Montreal.  People gather together, and they can begin to see again.

Now after the plague of darkness, and the final plague of death of the first born, Pharaoh finally relents and lets the people go.  Moses says that they all must go, people and animals, and then says that they “will not know with what they will worship God until they arrive there”(Exodus 10:22).  For Moses and the Israelites their future is not set in stone, and they have only begun their journey towards freedom.  They do not know what they will see in their journey and they don’t even know how they will makes sense of their ever changing reality.  Their path will be a winding one, with mountains of communal celebration and joy, and valleys of individual suffering and pain--each moment, each turn only bringing them to another chapter in the the unfolding of their story.   But this is a journey that they need to be on together, the entire community needs each other if they are to reach the promised land.  And each and every member of that community is part of the light that will guide them there.  In our community, we need each other as we wander through the wilderness together, and as long as we take the time to gather the light, our journey will also be our destination.

Rosh Hashanah 5777

07/02/17 11:26:24 AM


On a cold fall day in 1925, Erev Yom Kippur, worshippers gathered in front of Mordechai Kaplan's new synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism on the Upper West side of Manhattan.  The synagogue, founded only a few years before in 1922, was in many ways a great experiment.  According to Kaplan, this was the place where North American Jews could gather and try to reconcile the core of Jewish tradition with the realities of living in the contemporary Jewish world.  Here this new and diverse group of Jews, some only barely removed from the tight knit community of the shtetl, could make sense of Jewish tradition and learn to hold on to their identity amid the challenges of a very different kind of daily life.   A few years before, the first Bat Mitzvah, of Kaplan’s own daughter, was celebrated at SAJ, and Kaplan and the community leaders were always willing to do whatever was necessary to make Judaism more meaningful and stronger.

As was the case every year, the congregation was looking forward to hearing the cantor recite the Kol Nidre prayer, and for many this was the highlight of the entire experience of the High Holidays.  But Kaplan, always opinionated, and above all believing that he and those in his community should never be hypocritical in their words or actions, had his own opinions about the prayer, and saw the prayer as “unspiritual”.  He liked the melody, but was bothered by the focus on the annulment of vows, the focus on contracts, not kedusha or holiness.  He knew that the prayers were about vows between God and people, not between people, but worried that his congregants might use it as an excuse not to keep vows with one another.  Some of the businessmen in his congregation even told him this directly.   

Yet, even more problematic for Kaplan was that he felt that these Jews were overly sentimental about Kol Nidrei, that they just liked it without really understanding what it meant.  Or in Kaplan’s own words: “The reason Kol Nidre is permitted to occupy so important a place is that the people have no idea of what it is about. The pious emotions that it evokes, if it does that at all, have nothing to do with its contents.”

So what did Kaplan do?  He decided to get rid of Kol Nidre.  Let’s just say his congregants were not happy.  In 1927, Kaplan came up with a compromise--the melody would stay the same, but the words would be replaced with the much less controversial words of Psalm 130.  And if anyone wanted to say the original words of the prayer, they could do so silently, after the chanting of the Psalm was completed.  

It took a few more years, before Kol Nidre was brought back into the service in its original form.  Kaplan's attempt, at least in this case, to make Judaism meaningful for his community failed in part because with Kol Nidre, he was not able to see exactly what his new vision of Judaism was proposing--that everyone connects with Judaism in their own way--that Jewish practice and belief allow us to access them on many different levels--intellectual, mystical, musical.  We never know how each of these levels of connection will interact, and we can’t give up on the traditions of the past, simply because they don’t make sense.  And we also know that sometimes Jewish tradition, Jewish identity is something that is far more mysterious than a connection to meaning or melody.  Kaplan wanted people to connect to Judaism, and as he eventually realized, if this happened through one of the most challenging pieces of our High Holiday Liturgy, so be it.  

But Kaplan’s mother knew what he was doing, and she did not hold back her thoughts as she wrote in a letter to her son--and this is really what she said:   “You are destroying Judaism. Do you understand what you are doing to yourself? I will not tell you what you are doing to me and maybe to your father in his grave…. I am too weak now I cannot write more. Be well and happy with your family. Your mother.”

We are living in a very different world than Mordechai Kaplan was, and today, our Jewish community is far more diverse and also more segmented than even a few decades ago.  For much of Jewish history, being Jewish was not a choice--you were born Jewish, lived in a community with other Jews, married Jews and raised Jewish children.  Choices about which synagogue to join or which school to send your kids were not the questions as much as the simple understanding that Judaism was an inherent part of the journey of life.  

 If we could ask our great grandparents, and those who came before us why they were Jewish what would they say?  Would they say it was because they were inspired by prayer or religious services?  Would they say it was their belief, or their non-belief in God?  Would they say it was because a connection to the Holy Land?  I have a feeling they would say above all that being Jewish is simply who they are; it is a way of being, a way of existing in the world, and a way of bringing meaning into their lives.  And they knew they could not leave it to others to keep Judaism strong.  

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this new year, the time of transition in our community, we all are called on to explore how we are grow and change as a community and as individuals.  What is the role of change in Jewish life but more specifically the delicate interplay of our individual identities and choices as they confront the seemly stable and ancient walls of Jewish life?  What are our motivations as individuals to stay involved in Jewish community, and what is the role of that community in the greater world?  Don’t worry- I promise that Kol Nidre will stay when you come to services next week, but this is the time for a new conversation.

As we start on this exploration, we have to first look at what makes our generation, all of us sitting here today different than generations past.  

More than enough essays have been written on the “I generation”, the generation of young people who have been raised as proud members of the community of the internet, whose friendships are organized on their phone and whose identity is both much more splintered and in many ways much more nuanced than in previous generations.  For this generation, and really for anyone who has access to Google, to kindles or digital TV, some would say the mysteries of life, the questions are more easily answered.  As my colleagues and I often joke, who needs a rabbi when the Googler rebbe is always ready with an answer!  

We can learn about anything we want, we can read the news and updates from Facebook friends around the block, or watch lives videos from events taking place on the other side of the world.  And this is not all junk--if we just stick to the wonderful Jewish news sites and online magazines, even I find myself relaxing in a pool of scholarly joy, filling myself with the learning I crave yet overwhelmed at the same time.  When there is too much to learn too much to pay attention to we need something that gives that us the blessed opportunity to step away and instead of taking meaning from media, sit and make meaning for ourselves, learning and growing along with others.  This of course has always been the role of a spiritual community, and we need it now more than ever.  

The sense of being overwhelmed by information and needing to step back is not new.  We know that we have so much to learn.  We know we want to grow more spiritually, but the distractions of life are sometimes just too much.  Some might not want to come to the synagogue because they believe strongly that they are atheists, others might live too far away, or there are simply too many other people and activities pulling them in too many directions. With too much information, too many choices, we sometimes can give up before we have even started.  We want information to help us make sense of our ideas, and to bring us into connection with other people.  But it is not always so easy.

There is a midrash that says this well:


They tell the sloth, “your teacher is in nearby city.  Go and learn Torah from him.”

He responds, “I fear a lion is on the highway.”

“Your teacher is in your own city.”

“I fear a lion in the streets.”

“You teacher is in your home.”

“I am afraid a lion is inside.”

“Your teacher is in a room inside your home.”

“I am afraid that if I rise from bed, the door will be locked.”

“But the door is open.”

And what does this searcher finally decide?

“I need a little more sleep.”


On this New Year we are asked to look at everything with fresh eyes, to transform the mundane into the spiritual, to begin to fix what is broken in our lives, and to turn back to the core of our spiritual selves.  This Teshuva, this turning involves a necessary action, a movement, and involvement and exploration of our identity, our place in the world and our relationships with others.  In a very important way, it also means gaining a openness to explore and step back from the business of our lives and to try to regain a sense of awe, and to use this to make change where it is needed.  No you don’t need to come to a Shabbat service every week, but you need to give yourself permission to open yourselves to holy moments and at least reach towards the sparks which can connect us to each other and to ourselves.

As Adin Steinsaltz is quoted in the beginning of our Machzor:  “The main thrust of Teshuva is indeed to show the definite intention of changing the scheme of things” (pg. 2).  And change involves first the ability to keep our eyes and our hearts open to see where this change is needed.

Our tradition tells us that Abraham and Sarah, whom we met in the Torah reading today were not simply given Judaism by God, they discovered Judaism because they were intensely curious and open people.  Abraham was a person who was a ponderer, was always daydreaming and asking questions.  Maimonides points out how important it was that Abraham “discovered” monotheism--that he was not simply given this truth by God but found it on his own by looking up at the stars and planets and simply being in awe of the miraculous nature of their existence, by asking questions, and by exploring on his own the joys of living an ethical life and literally opening his tent to others.  

Or there is the Midrash of Moses who only encountered God, after being attentive enough to see the burning bush that everyone walked past.  Or Miriam who with unbridled joy and song, gave life to the Israelites through their wanderings through the desert.  Or much later, Rebbe Nachman or Bretzlov who would sit in his Cheder, his school, and look out the window and daydream, and who saw music, beauty and Torah in the trees and flowers surrounding his village.  

We can’t be afraid of finding God, finding the deepest of Jewish connections, finding spirit in the wilderness or those places that we already see as holy.

These are descriptions of holy people, Jewish people whose identity was formed first by an innate sense of awe at the mysteries they encountered, and people who gained meaning by their own experiences and the adventures of life.  Using contemporary terms, we would definitely call all of these people deeply “spiritual”, but I am not sure what they make of the formality of contemporary synagogue life.  For a people who grew up in wandering, we all need to remember the soul, the spark of Jewish life exists in these experiences of wonder and awe--in a life filled by exploration, by the mysteries inherent in nature, and by endless questions.  

But this is not to say in any way that synagogue life, synagogue community is not a key part of living Jewishly.  The space, this kehillah, this place of gathering, is where we give ourselves that blessed opportunity to encounter others and to share and explore the spiritual life together.  This is where we learn from each others own wanderings, even it is just one of the spaces where we can make this spiritual home.

And this of course, is one of the reasons why we gather in community in the first place.  For those who choose, we step beyond our individual spaces, we leave our homes, and make our way to sit in this communal space with others.  I assume many of you feel what I am feeling right now--what a profound blessing it is to simply be with so many others who are gathered together to reflect and grow!

Jewish community, synagogues, give us a regular opportunity to see others.  And part of the blessing of gathering together is the simple joy in seeing others whose stories have in some way crossed ours.  Some choose to regularly attend services, and others are see each other a few times a year.  But we are told that even being together for a moment, seeing a friend sharing an experience that one hasn't had in awhile deserves a bracha.  The Talmud reminds  us of this with a dose of sarcasm:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of 30 days says: “ Blessed is God who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season.”  If after a lapse of 12 months, he says “Blessed is God who revives the dead”.  (Berachot 58b)

The simple act of encountering each other again after time apart is a miracle in itself, deserving of a blessing as much as seeing a rainbow, or meeting a king or queen.  This is just simply how important how holy encounter and relationship really are.  Being in community, even with all of its many imperfections allows us to remember that we have many people supporting us on our life's journey, even if they are with us only part of the time.

Yet, sitting in community doesn’t fully fix the challenge of finding meaning a world that is both so broken and so in need of a place of relief.  Confronting people, being with people, means that we will also be stuck between the need to have our own needs met and having to care for and respect other people's decisions and choices.  

When we all sit in shul and sing a song together that is all fine and well, but put yourself on a shul committee and you will encounter another facet of community life, the challenge and joy of disagreement.  This too is part of community.  In fact, it is said that in the shtetls of East Europe, it was common for people in the community who had a concern or a problem with someone else to be given permission to step into a synagogue during prayers and interrupt so state their issue--making sure their voice was heard was so important that they were even allowed to interrupt the torah reading on Shabbat !

So Judaism has always left space for two important sides of community life-supporting  both our need for deepening our individual spiritual growth and for supporting and strengthening the needs of the community.  The support goes both ways.

We learn from each other, and we challenge each other, and we grow as we learn how to be with and to often make compromises in relationship with each other.  Community, especially today, provides an island from the business of a busy world.  But the challenge is, that this blessing of community, also forces us to be on a constant search for how to hold on to our individuality--that special spark that makes us unique, when we are always comparing ourselves to others.  We cannot have our identity only determined by others.  The Kotzker rebbe spoke about the importance of individuality and the challenge of holding onto it in community in one of the most linguistically wonderful few lines I have ever heard.

If I am because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you.  However, if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you. (Elkins, Hasidic Wisdom 73)

The Kotzker reminds us that community may give us meaning, but we can’t have and don't want to have our identity, our sense of self determined only by others.  To put it simply, we need community, but we also need our space.  I think what so many of us want from community life is to get support but also have the freedom to continue to be ourselves.  To survive in community, we need to give and be with others, but also give ourselves the holy space to keep our own needs and identity strong.

This constant interplay of individual and the communal needs is also found in the liturgy of the High Holidays.  As it is often pointed out, the liturgy we encounter during the Yamim Noraim is regularly said in the plural: A chet shechtanu lefanecha--for the sin we have committed before you.  Zochreinu l’chayyim--remember us for life.  We gather together reflecting on our own individual journey, sitting with our our joys and our own pains, but together we pray together.  This constant push and pull of the individual and the communal is found most succinctly in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer which say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In this prayer, one of the most powerful, and for some the most problematic prayers of our liturgy we are told that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed: ”how many pass on, how many shall thrive, who shall live and who shall die, who by the sword, who by the beast, who in peace who is uprooted.”  These words are often profoundly difficult to hear.  Is this how we see our lives that the good but especially the bad are simply predetermined by God?  Especially for those who have lost a loved one, these words don’t just not make sense, they simply seem like a stab in the heart.  We know that there is sometimes simply not an answer for tragedy and death, and sometimes we can’t receive comfort by being told it was “meant to be.” or that the suffering is determined by someone or something outside ourselves.

Yet, if there is a spark of redeeming the meaning of this prayer, it comes from the reminder that it offers, and it does this better than possibly better than any other piece of our liturgy—in the most clear and powerful way–it says that even with our own stories, our own brokenness and pain we are all in this together.   Our fates as individuals and as a community, all the pain and suffering we may experience in our lives, is bound up with the fates of all people---our individual selves, our community of Jews, and all people in our world.

Some may have entered this room tonight in the midst of a happy stage in life, and others may be hiding in the valleys of pain.  Our individual pain is real, our story is unique and this year some may be in a deeper place of sorrow than others.  But we by acknowledging the unexplainable tragedies that we can experience in life, we recognize that the best solution, possibly the only solution is to be together and support each other.  When we ask the tough questions or even get angry at what the world has thrown at us, we know that others will be there to cry along with us.  And when we climb out of these valleys or reach the mountain tops of joy, we will have our community with which to dance.  This, plain and simple, is the meaning of living a spiritual life.

When we gather at this time of year to do the deepest of soul searching, those true acts of teshuvah, of returning, this is when we sit BOTH as individuals on a unique journey and a members of a community of disparate and needy souls.  We are not all the same, but everyone suffers, everyone lives.  This is exactly what we read in the liturgy: “All of humanity is founded on dust, of dust they are made, and dust they shall return;

And today, we have to simply accept some truths about what it means to be Jewish, and what we need to do to build and strengthen ourselves and our Jewish community.  We accept that Jews have many identities, that being Jewish may be only one of many layers of who we are.  We accept and celebrate the diversity of our Jewish family, interfaith families, people with different gender identities, political views, cultural backgrounds and histories.  And this acceptance should bring us to a place of great joy as we gain strength and pride from the wealth of learning and spirit that takes place when we share our unique stories.  

We have to then build communities that give Jews what they need to make Judaism alive, meaningful and connected to all of our different identities which we have the freedom to hold in the contemporary world.  We have to see Judaism as a true civilization, as Mordechai Kaplan would have it, where our Jewish selves can be quenched from the deepest wells of Jewish life and culture.  We have to continue to strengthen our space of prayer, and make this a religious and spiritual home, but also a place to be together, to socialize and learn and to build relationships.  

We can make more opportunities to gather outside of Shabbat, a strong and active youth group for kids, retreats, classes, ideas to explore for both kids and adults, profound and real challenges in the classroom and on the trail.  We are a strong community, and our doors have always been wide open to all, and we are indebted to the legacy of Rabbi Ron and everyone who helped build and participated in this community since its creation.  And on this New Year, I hope we can open our doors even wider.  We need to make sure that this continues to be a place of connection, a place of spirit rooted in tradition, but also a place that accepts people's life choices and welcomes all who are searching.

This is above all a task of creation, an artistic endeavor which invites us to bring together the wisdom of all generations--those who grew up bathed in the comfort of Yiddishkeit and the connection with the Jewish past to those who might feel lost or constantly searching.  We start with the books with the texts and the prayers, but can bring them forward to a new generation that needs much more than words and scrolls.  We can use the power of technology, the internet and social networking to spread the wisdom and make it more accessible to all, but also head back into the simple spiritual cores of our tradition, the meditation and the song, the reflective learning ,to remind ourselves why it all matters in the first place.

In the worlds of a certain generation, we need to rock it.  We need to bring our Judaism outside, and bring the stories and traditions of our people into our hearts.  Shiru ladonai shir hadash, we need to sing new songs, play with new programs and make ourselves more visible to a community that is in need of just what we have to offer. What might seem to be doing things new, to be experimental or making changes, is really just bringing back the traditions of the our constantly evolving Jewish civilization.  

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein puts it well:  

Judaism when presented in its best and most authentic light doesn't coddle--it confronts.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Who want to be part of a religion that treats us with kid gloves?  By challenging us to see the world and ourselves in new ways, by taking us out of our comfort zones and placing us squarely into contexts that are sometimes unfamiliar and unsettling--that is how we evolve and mature.  With self awareness comes self affirmation, and a stronger and deeper appreciation of life. (40)

The profoundly uncomfortable worlds of Unetaneh Tokef, the unbridled joy of Purim, the deeply serious and often loud  arguments that fill both the Talmud and many of our  Shabbos tables, the tears that flow freely when we sit in shiva and mourn the loss of a loved one.  No one said that Judaism was meant to be easy.  But we also can’t expect Judaism to work for us unless we take the steps to make it our own.  If you don’t like something, if you don’t connect, then get up and try to figure out why.  Tell your rabbi, tell me, teach each other, and don’t give up on making Judaism meaningful-- we can learn together how we can reclaim the power, the primal strength of Jewish tradition and find a pathway for it to reach our souls.

There is a Hasidic idea, Hitlahavut, an inner burning fire, a passion which has its roots in prayer but can arise in anything we encounter in life.  This is the spark which you feel when you are involved in a project that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning, or when you hear a talk that hits you with its simple power and truth, or a relationship or conversation that it is so easy and honest.  We have all had these moments.  These are the moments where life seems to make sense, where there is an excitement and a sacredness that shines through.

And isn't this what we want?  Isn’t this what we are searching for?  We want to have the sparks of passion grow, be inspired and continue to have moments filled with wonder.

What this process of teshuvah that we work towards on this holy day asks us to do, is to turn back, looking beyond ourselves, our own beliefs, practices, fears, and challenges of how we are Jewish, to our ancestors and to the deepest source of our cultural heritage and traditions.  We need each other to create the sparks of holiness in our lives.  

Judaism is changing, but it always has been.  I hope that during this season of Teshuva we can hold on to the strength of what has held us together for so long, but also move beyond what has held us back--as individuals and as a Jewish community.    I hope that we can return to a Jewish self that fills us with pride and with a knowledge that Judaism, Jewish people, each and every one of us are worth the thousands of years of history that came before us today.   May this be our task, and our blessing in the new year.

Sun, July 21 2019 18 Tammuz 5779