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The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation

09/29/2021 10:58:20 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Don’t Let the Walls Fall Down: The National Day of Truth and Reconciliation

(Adapted from Dvar Torah given at Dorshei Emet, Sept. 25th, 2021)

Today as we leave the joy and introspection of the holiday season behind us, I hope we are taking in the fullness of what this unique experience has offered us.  Our second year of pandemic High Holidays has hopefully allowed us to reflect on so much; on the nature and purpose of community, of responsibility, of loss, of hope and of action.  As we leave those thin walls of the sukkah and head out into the world as changed people, we also have no choice but to be attentive what we hear and see around us.  Outside of the walls of our synagogue, the needs of others, the cries of others, become ours too.  This is the time to step out to listen, and to step up and act.

As we remember the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation today, we remember the moments of pain experienced by the First Nations community over the past centuries, but also hold very close to what we have seen play out even over the past few years.  The uncovering of now multiple sites of mass graves of children at residential schools, the news coming out about the continuing lack of water and other necessities in many First Nation, Inuit and Metis communities, the dozens of cases of missing women and far too many governmental promises unkept.  All of this should bother us, and inspire us to step up and fight, to ensure that all people in this country are able to live in the freedom and security that everyone deserves.  The truths, laid out in front of us are too hard to ignore.  

Yet, as we mark this day, we also can take the time for some reflection on the very nature of these two ideas; to accept the truths of what we and others have done wrong, and to be able to move forward with intention, honesty and strength.  We can do the hard work of fighting for justice, but also as we have learned over this holiday season, leave enough space to celebrate life, and the uniqueness of our culture and all of the cultures of those around us.  While the path for justice may be long and difficult, the perspective we need to move forward may not be as complicated.  In our week of leaving Sukkot, this flimsy little hut can offer us some helpful lessons on the holy path.

The theme of Sukkot, Pesach and in so many ways the philosophy of nearly all of our Jewish holidays is the same-we are perpetual wanderers.  The structure, the entirety of our Jewish story and traditions revolve around the fact that we live with a permanent sense of impermanence.  Even with the sense of safety that we may have now, even with the State of Israel, we as a people, still in some strange and deep way always seem to be thinking that we are not quite safe.  With all that we have experienced in our history, and with the reality of Anti-Semitism and the hatred perpetrated on us throughout history, there is always a sense that we may have to pack up and move again.

This may be why at the end of Pesach, the ultimate holiday of redemption, when we are reminded of our suffering and our eventual freedom, we still conclude with the mindset that we have not quite made it, as we end the seder and say “Next year in Jerusalem!”, each and every year.  No matter how much we work at improving our world, our community and our selves, each year we commit ourselves to continue to do the hard work to make it to the symbolic place of wholeness and perfection--for ourselves and for all people.  And we know that the story of the Jewish people is only realized when it can help us listen to the stories of other people in need of freedom

Our identity as Jews can remind us, as we commemorate the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation today, that  we have to stand up for more than just our own story.  We have to accept the suffering we find around us, and do what is necessary to make change.  Just like we tap our chests on Yom Kippur for the communal sins of Ashamnu  and Al Het during the Yamim Noraim even if we did not personally commit these sins, we cannot step aside and say this was not our fault, this is not our pain.  As citizens of a country that truly is trying hard to be one that holds the values of compassion, respect and truth, we all have to tap our chests in responsibility, but even more do what is necessary to take action.  We can’t let the shame and horror of the evil perpetrated on the First Nations community bring us as individuals or a country to place of such sadness and suffering, that we can no longer step up and fix the brokenness.  

As we have learned about ourselves over these past few weeks, we are all broken, and we are all responsible, but we can’t fall into the trap of feeling a guilt that prevents us from taking action.  Like us as individuals, every country makes mistakes, some of which have caused generations of pain and suffering, and like Teshuva,the process demands that we recognize the brokenness, vow to make a change, and then fight with all of our energy to make sure it doesn't happen again.  With something as horrible as the residential schools or the current treatment of many First Nation communities, this involves a deep and painful humbling.  We must listen to the stories, and we must move forward to fight. 

But there is more to it than listening and action.

Even the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee made it clear that the lessons learned from this process should have an impact on so much more of our lives, from our relationships to our own communities.  It is not just about righting the wrongs of the past, it too is about turning.  It is about turning to something better. 

The report says “Together, Canadians must do more than just talk about reconciliation; we must learn how to practise reconciliation in our everyday lives—within ourselves and our families, and in our communities, governments, places of worship, schools, and workplaces. To do so constructively, Canadians must remain committed to the ongoing work of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships.”

And Nelson Mandela when reflecting on his own country's process of Truth and Reconciliation said clearly that we need to constantly remind ourselves of the past, but also partner this with action.   He said, “True reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past”. Like teshuva, it serves no good when we just say I’m sorry and move on.  It involves being able to recognize the places where we can do better, and promise to take action.  With our situation here in Canada, this also means doing all that we can to learn the history of the residential schools, of the oppression of First Nation communities, and doing what we can to make change.  

In fact one of the key roles the Truth and Reconciliation committee took on, according to Commissioner Marie Wilson, was that of educating the Canadian public, which for many years was oblivious to the suffering of survivors. She said “If this educational goal is met with success, it will alter the ways in which Canadians think about their culture and history, challenging their identity as members of a community that knows no violence—a tolerant, pluralistic community. Such transformation, many believe, is the first step toward reconciliation between the two communities.

Transformation.  As we know, so much of our Jewish traditions and holidays are about overcoming our own history of oppression and celebrating our victories.   We tell the stories again and again, year after year, and do what we can to reflect on the truths gained from these experiences.  Yet, because our traditions are also so filled up with ritual and liturgy, rules and sometimes difficult acts of reflection, I do feel that something sometimes gets lost in translation.  We want to leave Yom Kippur more than hungry.  We want to learn and reflect, speak and act so that we leave these days transformed and changed.  When we leave our annual communal experience of the high holidays, of any communal gathering, we want there to be changes.  We want to be transformed.  Yet how often do we get to this point, and what do we need to do to get there?

The Sukkot in which we were commanded to dwell in the past week can be an example of how we can use our tradition as a process of transformative change, and specifically how this holiday can also be a powerful call for justice.  Sukkot reminds us that we can’t ignore what is going on beyond the walls of our homes and our communities.

With Sukkot, we want to keep it simple, and we want to remind ourselves of how little we actually need to survive and enjoy life, but there are limits.  We, like all people, need to feel safe and secure, and we need everyone to not only have what is necessary to survive, but like the idea of a sukkah, we also want to be welcomed, and be celebrated.  In the sukkah, where there are no doors to speak of, we welcome everyone with open arms, ready to listen to see and share the stories of each other, and also do our best to celebrate with joy the power of this connection.

But here's the thing, no matter how flimsy and fragile our sukkah can be and still be kosher, when the walls start to wobble a bit too much, when the schach starts to fly away in the wind, we also are told can’t just sit back and watch our sukkah be destroyed.  We can't let the walls fall down.  We must do our best to fix what is broken, to stabilize the walls, to tie things down to repair where repair is needed and ensure that even this simple, impermanent, flimsy hut is something safe enough to stay in.  Put up in a few hours, fixed and adjusted, it will never be something perfect.  It will never be too comfortable, and it will never be something that can protect us from everything that the world may throw at us.  And this is precisely why we celebrate it.  We know that we can live happily in a world that is never fully perfected, but we can’t let that be enough.  We also can’t ignore this imperfection when the brokenness causes the walls, the support and safety to collapse.  

So we can survive, and we can thrive in an imperfect world, in an imperfect sukkah, and in an imperfect community, but if our holiday season has taught us anything, it is that no matter what, we need to pay attention.  We cannot shut ourselves away from the suffering of the world, and we can’t hide in our homes when the wind starts to blow and the walls start to shake.  There is no running away from the truth that surrounds us. In our sukkahs, in our homes and in our lives, we have no choice but to listen and to hear the call for action.  On this day of Truth and Reconciliation, and every time when we are called to pay attention and acknowledge the pain and suffering of so many around us, we are also called to not let the walls fall down.

Let us remember the pain.  Let us hear the stories.  Let us do all that we can to fix this brokenness before it is too late.

Mon, May 16 2022 15 Iyyar 5782