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A World Without Us-Kol Nidre 5780

15/10/19 03:36:17 PM

Oct15

Rabbi Boris Dolin

Kol Nidrei 5780

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37a:13)

And we can’t forget that core commandment:

לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tonight we stay the Untehaneh tokef prayer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Let us ask ourselves hard questions

For this is the time for truth.

How much time did we waste

In the year that is now gone?

Did we fill our days with life

Or were they dull and empty?

Was there love inside our home

Or were the affectionate words left unsaid?

Was there a real companionship with our children

Or was there a living together and a growing apart?

Were we a help to our mates

Or did we take them for granted?

How was it with our friends:

Were we there when they needed us or not?

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

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

Did we live by false values?

Did we deceive others?

Did we deceive ourselves?

 

Were we sensitive to the rights and feelings

Of those who worked for us?

Did we acquire only possessions

Or did we acquire new insights as well?

Did we fear what the crowd would say

And keep quiet when we should have spoken out?

Did we mind our own business

Or did we feel the heartbreak of others?

Did we live right,

And if not,

Then have we learned, and will we change?

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

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

G’Mar Hatima Tova

 

Judaism as Improv!   - Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Sermon

01/10/19 02:28:34 PM

Oct1

Rabbi Boris Dolin

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know Aramaic?” the rabbi asks.

“No,” replies the young man.

“Hebrew?” asks the Rabbi.

“No,” replies the young man again.

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

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

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

The young man agrees.

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

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

The rabbi nods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Each one washes his face.”

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

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

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

“Neither one washes his face.”

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

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

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

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

Shanah Tova!  

Searching for Truth: Rosh Hashanah Day One Sermon

01/10/19 02:19:13 PM

Oct1

Rabbi Boris Dolin

Shanah Tova! I am so happy to stand here once again with all of you as we welcome in a New Year.  We have made it through another cycle of the seasons, and as we sit here today, the wandering paths of our life stories once again come together, guiding us forward into the year ahead.  This has truly been a time of growth and changes, of communal celebrations, and of possibly some personal tragedies. I am sure that we have had experiences which have made us deeply proud, and also those which have filled us with regret.  We have had moments of loving connection, and maybe even times of profound loneliness. And our world, our society has been confronted with some very real challenges, political upheaval, environmental crises, a fight for values and a growing sense of division that hasn’t been seen in generations.  In so many ways, our world is so much more complicated than when we sat here a year ago.

But we sit here together today, ready to take on this new year with intention and clarity.  The High Holidays invite us to begin this deeply personal process within the safety and comfort of this holy space and the familiar melodies and stories of the season.  Sitting next to others in our community, we can know that no matter what we are searching for this year, what questions and needs we may have, we are not in this journey alone.  

And an important part of the journey we are on is the search for truth, a stable resting spot of clarity, understanding and acceptance in our very busy lives.  A place where the toughest questions we have about ourselves and our world are made more clear, and where we are on the path to living a life of purpose.  This path is of course stated strongly in the name of our synagogue, Dorshei Emet. Emet, Truth. When you think about it, this name reminds us of a very powerful fact, that as Jews, as searchers we never reach the end of this time of exploration.  We are constantly searching, learning and questioning, and hopefully never feeling fully settled--headed towards ultimate truth but never quite making it there. And this word, this idea, Emet, truth is what I would like to explore today in this new year.  

Emet--Aleph, Mem, Tav, the beginning, middle and end of the Hebrew alphabet.  This word encompasses the wholeness and the breadth of Judaism. It is found in multiple places in our liturgy. In the final words of the Shema, Adonai Eloheichem Emet, in the 13 attributes, and is mentioned endless times in the Torah and other Jewish texts.  It is clear that truth is in a very real way is at the core of the ever flowing mystery of Jewish life.

עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace.  -Pirkei Avot, 1:17

We know that when we are given three values, they each in a sense hold equal power.  Removing one is similar to taking off one leg of a three legged table. A world with only justice and no peace, a world with no truth, is a world doomed to destruction.

Now on the one hand we have to make a distinction between the more philosophical idea of truth, the search for meaning and purpose, and the facts and information that determine the different ways that each individual perceives and interacts with the world.  In Judaism, both of these ideas are in a constant dialogue with each other. Learning and questioning leads to even greater truth, and finding meaning and holding onto faith better equips us to know how to interact with the world. On a more practical level, in our lives, we have to always decide whether something we read, or what someone tells us is based in reality or whether it is an opinion or simply false or somewhere in between.  As we all know, today with the internet, with fake news and powerful and manipulative technology this task has become more difficult than ever.

Let me share with you a story, and I warn you, it may shock and bother you:

In the 13th century a text started spreading around Europe described in detail two amazing new plants that were found.  The plants were discovered and examined by multiple explorers, and amazingly was first mentioned in our very own Jerusalem Talmud.  The first of these plants produced little naked, newborn lambs inside its pods, and the other had a life-sized lamb, with blood, flesh and bones bones, attached by its belly button to a short plant stem. This stem was flexible, so the lamb could happily graze on the vegetation around it.  Once all the vegetation was eaten up, or if the stem broke, the lamb would die. While there of course were no photographs of this amazing animal plant, there were very detailed drawings for those who didn’t believe. Google it when you get home, it is worth it.

Now you might want to think that this was the wacky talk spread around to some very gullible people, but this story lasted for over four centuries, and according to scholars, was almost universally accepted as fact until it was finally disproved.  

And here’s the problem.  No such text ever existed in the Jerusalem Talmud, and even more, a mere hint of common sense, and a basic understanding of botany and biology should tell us that no such thing could ever exist in real life.  Ahh, you might say, such silliness is a product of a different time, that this is simply one of the more outrageous examples of a myth from of time where it was simply common to believe in such things.  

Yet we know that false information and facts of different kinds are found just as readily in our times.  Doctored photographs, manipulated information, gossip and lies are everywhere. You can look at the way that tobacco companies until this day hire “experts” to prove that cigarette smoking or now vaping is entirely safe.  Global warming is not real, autism is caused by vaccines, the existence of certain political statements, college party photographs or inauguration crowds. A few well written Facebook posts, a bit of creative propaganda and the conversations can be turned, and reality can be entirely ignored.  We can even curate a new story for our own lives based on what we post on the internet, choosing the best photos and sharing on those posts that fit on desired selves. Only in our current world can we even consider using the mess of a phrase invented in the past few years: “alternative facts”.  Something has gone very wrong.   

I often picture the rabbis who created the Talmud, the ultimate chat room of Jewish tradition as the original Dorshei Emet, pursers of truth.  If you look at any Talmudic argument, its source is always stated clearly and in detail, and arguments which challenge these statements are recorded and are common.  There are endless topics that are covered in the Talmud, some of which admittedly would not hold up to a more contemporary critical eye, such as some fascinating but odd discussions of magic and superstitions. (Don’t forget, by the way, that as a 13th century Jewish mystic said, “Jews should not believe in superstitions, but…...still it is best to pay attention to them..."- Sefer Hasidim, Book of the Pious, 13th c. Germany.

But either way, very little slips by without being examined in detail by the rabbis.  A law or statement is not usually given and then ignored--it may lead the conversation on a truly mysterious tangent, or in the end make even less sense then when the conversation started, but the rabbis did not post, repost and walk away.  A classic Talmudic argument is most similar to a mathematical equation, a complicated web of words, sources, questions and challenges, leading not necessarily to a final answer or proof, but above all is a process where as much as possible, every detail of every piece of information is covered and properly sourced.  

The Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner wrote about the Talmudic process as a search for truth and order, but one that at its core is regulated and backed up at every stage of the journey:  He wrote:

The presupposition of the Talmudic approach to life is that order is better than chaos, reflection than whim, decision than accident, mental activity and rationality than witlessness and force. The only admissible force is the power of fine logic, ever refined against the gross matter of daily living. The sole purpose is so to construct the discipline of everyday life and to pattern the relationships among people that all things are intelligible, well‑regulated, trustworthy and sanctified. (Neusner, Invitation to the Talmud: A Teaching Book ,pg. 273)

The rabbis of the Talmud did what they could to ensure that in their ultimate goal to create a livable and powerful Jewish tradition, facts were clear and information was given in as honest a way as possible.  In fact hidden in the Talmud itself is the important statement that “Truth is the seal of the Holy One, blessed be God. (Talmud Bavli, 55a)

But this pursuit of truth is different today.  When a world of information is literally at our fingertips, the notion of truth is much less clear.  Today there are over 3 billion people who use the internet around the world, we produce over 2.5 billion gigabytes of data, do 4 billion Google searches, and watch 10 billion Youtube videos each day.  (Tali Sharot, The Influential Mind, Pg. 13)  With these numbers you can imagine that the entire meaning of truth, reality, facts and data are thrown in the air. 

You might think that with more information, so much “data” easily accessible, we would be more informed and hopefully make better decisions, but as we all know, that is not necessarily the case. With all of these numbers, all this available information, we also know that  we are not easily influenced by data or numbers. As people, we naturally don’t like to find our truths, to create our most strongly held values from facts, links or articles that are thrown at us. We evolved to get this information from lived experiences and relationships.

Tali Sharot says in her book The Influential Mind:

It is not that people are stupid; nor are we ridiculously stubborn.  It is that the accessibility to lots of data, analytical tools and powerful computers is the product of the past few decades, while the brains we are attempting to influence are the product of millions of decades.  As it turns out, while we adore data, the currency which our brains assess data and make decisions is very different from the currency many of us believe our brains should use. (Sharot, pg. 15)

Psychologists use the term confirmation bias to describe the way that so many of us look at information in the internet age.  It is not a new idea, but it is something that is now amplified because of the way we access information today, where almost anything that I want to be true most likely is, as long as I know the right search terms to put in Google.  If I want to proof that the moon landing never happened, or that global warming is a myth, of course I can find plenty of conspiracy theories to feed my needs. But I can also find proof if I need it to say that broccoli will kill me, that caffeine is healthy or caffeine is harmful, or that the life story of any celebrity, politician or leader is in fact one of many competing narratives.  Some facts might take a bit more time to find, but without a doubt, alternative facts are very real. And we can’t forget that most search engines and social networking sites like Google and Facebook, run on algorithms, that actually are trained to spit back the information that we want to see, effectively closing us all off to anything that might challenge us too much. Whether we like it or not, we have been placed in safe little bubbles of comfortable truths, and it is getting harder and harder to get out.

In the internet age, I can say with certainty something that even the superstition prone rabbis of the Talmud would have been horrified by: Anything I want to be true, can be true.  I can find a text, find a news story, take it out of context, cite it as proof, add it to a Facebook post and go on surfing. Quick and easy, no one gets hurt, and I can feel good that I have spread some useful information to others.  Hey, and while I’m at it, why don’t I share an important fact I found, totally out of context for you! Current research estimates that at least 60 percent of news stories shared online have not even been read by the person sharing them. I actually do have the source for this, it is from a 2018 Columbia University study, but I just know that fact, because I actually didn’t read the whole article. (https://hal.inria.fr/hal-01281190)

This ease of finding anything we want has made us weaker.  Not only does it make it more challenged to be challenged, but it also has dangerous consequences.  We could argue that there is nothing harmful about an innocent bit of misinformation about a popstar or a favorite vegetable, but the outcome changes when it comes to political leaders, health or societal issues.  The myths which have spread about climate change, autism or vaccines are dangerous, and that is only the beginning.  

We need to know where our information comes from. 

Our tradition tells us that citing our sources and knowing where information is found is not only a useful study skill, but is even a pathway to God.  We are told that offering one’s source can bring ultimate salvation. From Pirkei Avot we are told “kol ha’omer davar b’shem omro, mevi geula l’olam" – whoever says something in the name of the one who said it [first], brings redemption to the world. (Chapter 6:6; quoted in the Talmud in tractate Hullin page 104b!!!)  In the rabbinic mind, the search for truth, like the very identity of the Jewish people, can’t forget its roots.  

Even in my work as a rabbi, I have experienced first hand the challenges of community building and searching for values where any truth is at hand. As a liberal rabbi, I am often cited so called facts about Jewish law or practice that clearly come from one viewpoint or one website, usually Orthodox, that leaves out any possibility of different viewpoints, an acceptance of different values, or even ignores the thousands of years of evolution of Jewish tradition and history.  Sometimes, I now just simply respond, Judaism is much more than Chabad.org.

As a challenge to my interfaith work, I have been forwarded articles and videos about Muslims that are filled with myths and lies, but are given as facts because they come from one of many flashy right wing websites. Blatantly racist statements, shocking and hurtful stereotypes seem to fly freely in much of our Montreal Jewish community, but are considered acceptable because they have a nice link to go along with them.  

I am given facts about Israel, and then in the same day given facts that tell a completely different viewpoint, and am told that being a true Zionist and lover of Israel means supporting only one political party or staying away from certain more left leaning pro-Israel organizations.  

I have been forwarded links that explain to me, a 25 year vegan, that in fact eating meat is required for Jews, that is better for the environment, and that new studies show that in fact non-human animals do not have feelings or feel pain.  

I have even caught myself at times citing Biblical texts or Jewish facts out of context, and realizing that without their surrounding stories or attributions they simply don’t hold their power. 

I do want to tell you this--I am immensely proud of our community--the values that we hold as individuals and as a congregation, beyond our name, give us a constant reminder to be seekers of truth.  We are activists, we are deep thinkers, and people who have no problem sticking up for our beliefs and asking the tough questions when they are needed.

Articles, posts, links and emails, it is hard to filter through it all--but to continue our constant search for truth, we have no choice but to take this task seriously.  And the first step is to head back as the youngins say from the URL to the IRL--in real life.  It is truly amazing what real people can do.

A few months ago I was on the way to a protest against bill 21 in Quebec City.  One of the guests in the car was an imam, a young man, who in addition to his religious calling, was an engineer.  In the course of the long drive north, stuck in the car with nowhere to run, we had quite a wide ranging conversation.  We discussed Jewish and Muslim notions of God and faith, kashrut and animal rights, and even stepped off the deep end and got into a fascinating discussion of Israel, Palestinian identity and Zionism.  I calmly explained to the imam why the land of Israel was so important to Jews as a refuge and spiritual home, about all of the places in the Torah and our liturgy where it is mentioned and what some of the differences are between right wing and liberal Zionism.  He for his part, explained his connection with Muslim ritual and traditions, and helped me make sense of some aspects of Muslim belief and practice that I never fully understood or was misinformed about. There were plenty of smiles, some jokes and more than a few very tough questions.  In another venue, this rabbi and imam could have decided that our differences were too great, and we could have walked our separate ways before any conversation even started. But stuck in the car, our bubbles proudly popped, we instead had a moment of deep learning, of deep encounter--and we both walked away with new insights brought on from a holy sharing of truths.

These encounters are in fact why I connect so much with interfaith work, and why I believe deep in my heart that it is one of the most important things we can do to strengthen contemporary Jewish community, and move us towards our search for truth and towards a greater sense of peace.  I’ll tell you a little secret, that meeting with the imam in the car a few months ago was was not my first. I have been meeting with imams, priests and ministers even before I became a rabbi, and this is in part why I have remained so proud to be a Jew, and why I continue to love my role as rabbi. 

Listen, we do well with other Jews, we share a story, a history, a common language and at least in some important ways a similar world view. You share an understanding of my faith and practice, and you get my jokes. We both like bagels.  But dwelling comfortably in this place, we have to be careful of the growing echo chamber of ideas and beliefs which we then create. When I have delivered a sermon at a local church or siting in a Muslim prayer service and discussion in a mosque, I am forced to explain myself and my identity in new and challenging ways.  “Why am I Jewish?” takes on a whole new power when explaining it to someone who is not. I will of course continue to give my heart and soul to this community and to do all that I can to work for the good of the Jewish people, and it is undeniable and obvious that my Jewish identity is nourished and strengthened by participation in Jewish community, but it is also inspired and beautifully given life by sharing it with others. 

This year in our community as some of you know, we are hoping to enact our new policy which allows us as a community to learn how to have difficult conversations as we discuss issues of value to the Jewish community.  After some of the challenging situations brought up over the past few years, we are committed to bringing in speakers who will both educate us, and hopefully also bother us. Israel, and faith, Zionism and Palestinians, liberal and conservative, myths and truths.  This is the year to open up our hearts and minds to new perspectives, and in the process learn as a community how to truly listen and learn from those who are most different than us. This kind of experience is the most Jewish way to learn, and beyond the topics that will be covered, it can hopefully also be a model that can help us explore the notion of truth and identity in other parts of our lives.  It is not as easy as sitting in our pajamas conversing with the Googeler Rebbe, but its impact can last even longer.

This New Year, this celebration of Rosh Hashanah, new beginnings and the deepest acts reflection and repentance, invites us to examine the question of truth on every level.  In the busy complicated world in which we live, the very notion of truth has been upended, and it has had a deep and powerful effect on the way we interact with each other and take care of our own lives.  With the internet and endless information at our fingertips, with our society polarized into camps based on beliefs and values, we spend more time trying to prove we are right, instead of asking questions and listening to others.  It is time to step back.  Teshuva is a reminder to hold on to our own truths, and examine ourselves and our relationships in a clearer and more humble light, yet also be open to real and deeper experiences which bring us out of our bubbles and invite us to step into the uncomfortable reality of difference.

It is time to start making decisions, especially those that affect our health, our relationships, our community, and our environment not from Google searches and Facebook posts but from deeper acts of learning and searching for truth.  Searching that can only come from the conversations found in community, from lived experiences and from always questioning the information that is thrown our way. While it is sad to say, we may need to trust less of what we read and what we hear, but even more, we need to begin to trust ourselves.  

The questions we ask of ourselves at this time of year, do not have answers that are easily searchable:

It demands that we ask ourselves: am I living a life of integrity, honesty, and wholeness aligned with what I know to be true? 

Do I live according to my values, and am I in a constant search from where these values come from? 

Am I open to listening with a renewed openness to others, and to learn from those people whom might have opinions and values that are different than mine?

As we sit here today, we need to look deep within, placing ourselves before the mystery of the universe, and look beyond what others tell us we are.  

This time of teshuva demands the deepest listening.

As we head into this New Year, we need to remember that truth comes from questions and perspective and from conversations and encounters.   We need to head back to the “truths” of deep learning, relationships, and good old fashioned research. This will lead to facts that can be trusted, and actions that can make real change.  We need to gain strength from the unknown, and healing from the unanswered questions, and above all know that we have each other to share in this journey.  As we help guide others through the mystery of existence, we end up guiding ourselves. Let’s all live up to the name, and no matter what else we do in this New Year, I hope we can all work to be Dorshei Emet, pursuers of truth.

Shanah Tova!

Entering as Ourselves

23/09/19 10:45:55 AM

Sep23

Rabbi Boris Dolin

Elul Message from Rabbi Boris

Zebra Question

By Shel Silverstein

I asked the zebra

Are you black with white stripes?

Or white with black stripes?

And the zebra asked me,

Or you good with bad habits?

Or are you bad with good habits?

Are you noisy with quiet times?

Or are you quiet with noisy times?

Are you happy with some sad days?

Or are you sad with some happy days?

Are you neat with some sloppy ways?

Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?

And on and on and on and on

And on and on he went.

I'll never ask a zebra

About stripes

Again.
 

In a few days, we will be gathering together as a community to enter in to the Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe.  I look forward to seeing the sanctuary filled with people, to the familiar melodies and the conversations about teshuva, change and some of the issues which we have encountered over the past year.  I am sure that there is so much on our minds; politics, environmental issues, the many societal ills, not to mention the endless improvements we hope to make in our own lives and relationships. It is easy to get overwhelmed.

It is important to remember that the goal of these days is not necessarily to fully change ourselves, or even to begin to change the world.  We should walk into this experience with high hopes, and we should be given the strength to make very real improvements in our lives.  Yet, Teshuva, turning, is not about making ourselves into something that we are not, but to simply turn back to the most true and authentic version of what we already know.  

There are always things that we can do better, and always more parts of ourselves that we need to fix.  But, turning is more than just fixing. It is finding a way to clear off the dust, to put aside some of the baggage built up over the past year which has prevented us from living up to our full potential.  When we can do this, we may find that what is left is what we know we should be. 

There is a great story which reminds us of this vision.

The story is told of Zusha, the great Chassidic master, who lay crying on his deathbed. His students asked him, "Rebbe, why are you so sad? After all the mitzvahs and good deeds you have done, you will surely get a great reward in heaven!"

"I'm afraid!" said Zusha. "Because when I get to heaven, I know God's not going to ask me 'Why weren't you more like Moses?' or 'Why weren't you more like King David?' But I'm afraid that God will ask 'Zusha, why weren't you more like Zusha?' And then what will I say?!"

I truly hope that each one of us can take these holidays seriously.  Enjoy the familiar melodies, take pleasure from spending time with family and friends, but also leave time for your own path of teshuva, of turning. Whether sitting in community, or doing the deepest of personal reflection, let us all find the path that leads back to what we all know so well--ourselves.

Standing Tall

16/09/19 04:32:01 PM

Sep16

Rabbi Boris Dolin

Elul Message: Week 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tue, January 21 2020 24 Tevet 5780