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“Think For Yourself” – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what every teacher and every professor ever said to us.

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what we hope for our children as they go out into the world.

“Think for yourself.”

Socrates said that, “to find yourself, you must think for yourself” And, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “[If you} take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you…”

There may be no greater virtue in our individualist, post-enlightenment world, than the ability to think for yourself.

But I wonder if we really do.

 

I want to show you a cartoon that I’ve always loved. It’s from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” And it’s about what you might call an “individualist penguin”:

 

penguin

If you’ll notice, all of these penguins look just alike, but the one in the middle – who looks like all the others – is singing out: “I gotta be me. Oh, I just gotta be me.”

 

I think in some way, we are all that penguin. We strive to be ourselves – to live authentic lives based on our own choices and our own values. But at the same time, we are social creatures. The ways that we think and the ways behave are influenced by the thinking and the behaviour of those around us.

 

It turns out thinking for yourself isn’t so simple after all.

 

Maybe the starkest example of this comes from the darkest period of our history.

 

In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executionists¸ the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about the cultural influences in early 20th century Germany that led to the Holocaust.

 

He writes that for a whole variety of social, historical, economic, and other reasons “the German people [of that period] were more dangerously oriented toward Jews than they had been during any other time ….”[1]

 

In other words, even the Holocaust was, in some sense, a cultural phenomenon. People’s thinking, people’s willingness to act, was influenced by social and cultural factors around them. And to drive home the point, we need only look across Germany’s northern border to Denmark, a country which – wholesale – refused to deport its Jews. In fact, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1943 – exactly 73 years ago yesterday – the Danish people smuggled nearly the entire Jewish population of their country across the sea to safety in Sweden.

 

Two countries, two sides of a border, and their collective responses were like night and day. Of course, there were exceptions. There were Danes who turned in Jews. And there were Germans – many thousands of them – who risked their own lives to save Jews. But on the whole, the social and cultural climates of the two countries moved their citizens to think and behave in wildly different ways

 

SO what happened? Was one country made of good people and one made of bad people? Or was this an example of how our collective values and circumstances work together to construct a culture, and how that culture in turn shapes each of us.

 

In 2016, we are fortunate not to be living through such terrible times. But our world is also not simple. And many of the issues that we deal with also relate to group identity and affiliation: On a personal level, how do we build community? How do we establish a safe and supportive environment for ourselves and our families? And on a much larger level, how do we welcome refugees from other countries? How do we build bridges of understanding between communities that look and talk and pray differently?

 

Do our own religious and national and cultural affiliations impact on the assumptions we make about other people?

 

Of course they do. That’s part of being human.

 

Aristotle already said 23 centuries ago that “Man is by nature a social animal.” And much more recently, Atul Gawande, a physician and writer, added more recently that “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

 

We are wired to seek out being part of a group. And we are wired to take on certain assumptions and tendencies of the group. That’s what Hillel means in Pirke Avot when he says “Al tifrosh min hatzibbur – You can’t separate yourself from the community.” Our sense of self is, in some way, tied up with the communities and groups that we are part of. And that means that when we think we are thinking for ourselves, what we’re often actually doing is applying the norms and assumptions taught to us by those groups.

 

By the way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing – it is a feature of the human experience. And this shaping of our psyche starts very, very early.

 

Research out of Stanford University[2] has shown that a person’s native language – the language we start learning at birth – can be a powerful shaper of worldview. For example, speakers of Russian are often better able to differentiate different shades of blue, because their language has more words for different shades of blue. And speakers of Japanese and Spanish are less likely on the whole to be concerned with fault or blame, because their languages describe things reflexively: “The vase broke itself/was broken” rather than “Such and such broke the vase.”

 

And interestingly enough, people who are bilingual have been found to think or feel or react differently depending on which language they are speaking at the time. (So the next time my kids ask me why I’m driving so aggressively in Israel, I’ll just blame the Hebrew language.)

 

Our cultural influences are constantly shaping our thinking and our worldview. As much as we are individuals with free will, we are also products of the societies we grow up in, the families we come from, and the groups we choose to affiliate with.

 

It has to be that way. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as what we call “Jewish values” or what we call “Canadian values.”

These things are real, even if we can’t always agree on what they are. Because we are Jewish, we tend value education, and community, and social action. Because we are Canadian we tend to value diversity, and consensus, and winter sports. It’s not that 100% of us share these things. And it’s not that they necessarily make us different from anybody else – non-Jews also like books; non-Canadians also like hockey. But our values are formed in part because of the groups we are part of.

 

And when we look at the world around us right now – the weary, fearful world around us – we see a great deal of concern about what happens when our values come into contact or come into conflict with someone else’s. Whether we’re talking about exiting the European Union, or working to curb interfaith marriage, or screening immigrants, or building a great wall, these things are born out of a fear – a very real and palpable fear – that someone else’s values might be dangerous to ours.

 

Judaism places values at the centre of our lives. And it places community affiliation at the centre of our lives as well. And it teaches us that we don’t need to live in fear, because we have the ability – we have the power – to be carriers of values. We get to build culture. We get to lead those around us.

 

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the Jewish people about our mission on earth. He says:

 

נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד…. וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

 

“It is not enough that you should serve Me (says God). I will also make you Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.”[3]

 

In other words, God gives us a mission to transmit certain values and ideas beyond ourselves to the world around us.

 

This has sometimes been interpreted as being about proselytization– that we should actively work to teach our values and our religion to the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s what the prophet is saying at all. I believe that this passage represents a call to each of us to share our values with those around us by living them authentically.

 

“Think for yourself,” says the prophet. It’s true that you are part of a group. And it’s true that you are the product of a culture. But you also get to create culture through the way you live your life.

 

The Bible tells that the in ancient times, there was one leader who truly captured the hearts and allegiance of the Jewish people: and that’s King David. David wasn’t the first King of Israel, and he wasn’t the most powerful. He wasn’t the founder of Judaism or the father of the Jewish people. And yet, he was beloved perhaps more than any other leader in Israelite history.

 

What was it about David? He marched at the vanguard of the troops. He danced with incredible public joy in front of God’s ark. He worshipped with sincerity, and he owned up to his failings. David publicly embodied the values he wished to convey. And he was beloved for it, and he was emulated for it.

 

Anyone who has ever been a parent or a boss or really a person knows that modeling is the most powerful way to convey values. We see this in our own lives all the time, both in little ways and in very big ways.

 

For example…

 

  • If I, as a parent, model for my kids (the little cellphone addicts) what it looks like to put down the device during meals, then we get to open a conversation about the values inherent in that action.
  • If we, as a congregation, model what it looks like to truly welcome the stranger and build a culture of warmth and openness, then we get to participate in a conversation about why that matters.
  • And if we as a nation model what it is to be a society built on tolerance and diversity, then we get to lead that conversation amongst the nations of the world.

 

To be a carrier of values means most of all to live authentically. It means to focus not on what frightens us about others or the world around us, but rather to focus on what we want to be in the world.

 

And that’s why we’re here on the High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we think about what we want to be in the world. We do so as a group, and we do so most of all as individuals.

 

Interestingly, the High Holy Day prayerbook actually acknowledges just how central our group affiliations are – how our communities help shape our selves. It does so by making teshuvah – repentance – in part a communal activity. When we say “Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – WE are guilty, We have sinned, We have done wrong,” we confess each other’s sins. Because in some sense, the collective “we,” the culture we build, the assumptions we promulgate, contribute to the actions we perform.

 

But Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook. On these Days of Awe, each of us stands alone before God. Each of us stands alone in judgment before ourselves.

 

The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

 

The project of the Days of Awe – the task that is before us during these next 10 days – is to ask ourselves what we we wish to be, and to challenge ourselves to live it even more authentically than we did last year.

 

And our tradition believes that when we do so, we have the power to to reshape worlds, to shift cultures, to start the right conversations, to be Or Lagoyim – to be a source of light to those around us.

 

Mahatma Ghandi is said to have once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Actually, he never said that. It’s just a bumper sticker. But what Ghandi really said is far more powerful:

 

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.”

 

This is the power we have – no less than the power to change the entire world by beginning with ourselves.

 

If we want to be part of families who prioritize and make time for each other, then we can start by making the time ourselves.

 

If we want to live in neighourhoods where people smile at each other and know one another, then we can start by learning the names of the people who live on either side of us.

 

If we want to be part of a congregation that truly takes care of one another and truly makes everyone feel welcome, then we can start by greeting the next unfamiliar face who walks through the door, or by attending the shiva service of someone we didn’t know, just to support their family.

 

If we want to live in a country that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor, then we can start by making sure that we are really giving what we can afford to give.

 

And if we want to live in a world that treats everyone with respect and dignity, where people no longer fear each other based on race or religion or accent, then we have to start by examining our own preconceptions, our own biases, our own prejudice.

 

A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears. He said, “Rabbi, I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and the world is still as broken as ever.” The rabbi embraced the man and told him to have hope. He said, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And when you change yourself, you change your community. And when you change your community you change your nation. And that is how you begin the task of repairing the world.”

 

When we strive to live as our most authentic selves, our influence extends far beyond ourselves.

 

May these next ten days be for us a time of honest reflection, in which we work to accept our own faults, and challenge ourselves to be our best.

 

May we learn to view ourselves as carriers of values, as architects of culture.

 

And may we know that within us lies the power to bring healing and light and goodness not only to ourselves, but to others around us, to our communities, and to our world.

 

Amen.

 

——-

[1] Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executionists. Knopf; New York: 1996. P. 79.

[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868

[3] Isaiah 49:6.

An Egalitarian Kotel

February 8, 2016 Leave a comment

In the movie The Ten Commandments, Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets, containing the 10 laws that the Israelites are to follow.charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments

I love that movie. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Jewish tradition tells says what happened at Sinai was far bigger than any 10 Commandments. It was even bigger then the entire Torah, with its 613 commandments. What was given to us at Sinai with the entirety of Judaism – the written and oral traditions, the ethics and morals and stories and laws.

This week’s Torah portion is part of that. It’s called Mishpatim, which means “laws.” And boy, does it have laws. This portion contains everything from the laws of slavery to the different kinds of sacrifice, from how to keep kosher to the prohibition against accepting bribes.

The point is that this is also Sinai. Last week, we received the 10 Commandments. This week, still standing at Sinai, we receive the laws of how to be a good society.

It says in the Mechilta of Bar Yochai, “Rules of the just society have the same divine origin as the Decalogue.”[1]

This is an important principle in Judaism. As a religious way of life, Torah doesn’t only govern how we pray and how we perform rituals. In Jewish space, how we relate to our fellow human beings is just as important as how we relate to God.

And this week, we have seen a watershed moment in terms of how we relate to our fellow human beings in Jewish space.

This week, we learned that for the first time, the Israeli government agreed to create a true egalitarian section at the Western Wall.

This announcement is the result of a long negotiation that involves the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, and the government of Israel.

It provides, essentially, that the two year old “mixed gender prayer space” that is to the south of the Western Wall will be refurbished, expanded, and made equal to the existing, gender segregated space. And after that’s done, Women of the Wall will move their prayer services to that space, and the liberal movements will essentially govern a Kotel, just like the Orthodox.

This is an extraordinary shift. Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American rabbis, writes:

For the first time, the Israeli government recognized the authentic ritual and religious needs of those of us who believe in egalitarian prayer and women’s equality.[2]

Let’s not minimize that fact. The Israeli government has, begrudgingly, begun to recognize some liberal rabbis, pay a few salaries, and provide some prayer spaces. But this is the first time in history that space has been made for non-orthodox prayer at a communal Jewish holy site. That is a very big deal.

But the compromise is not perfect. Not by any stretch. There are three basic critiques of this deal I’ve seen tossed around the airwaves for the last few days. I’d like to address each one briefly, and think about what responsibilities they give us.

 

The first critique is the one that says “this isn’t really the Kotel.”

Kotel.jpgTake a look at the picture of the Kotel/Robinson’s Arch area. What we’re talking about here is the more “off the beaten track” area to the south of the current Kotel Plaza. The two are separated by the Mughrabi bridge that leads to the Dome of the Rock. This is actually part of an archaeological excavation, and it’s only been over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. Which means, that it’s correct to say that for the last 2000 years this wasn’t part of the Kotel. However, it IS part of the western retaining wall of the ancient temple. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has pointed out, it has the same holiness and the same historicity.

And as Yair Ettinger writes in Haaretz:

The Southern Wall is a site no less sacred than the northern plaza, and in many senses is a more dignified, quieter and more beautiful site, and Jewish history is strongly present due to important archaeological finds scattered there.[3]

In other words, this really IS the Kotel. It’s just the less famous part. It’s kind of like moving into a new house – it’s no less your house, it’s just not the one you’ve been living in.

Our challenge, then, is to make it our house. To build new memories and new associations with this extraordinarily holy spot. Think of the opportunity this presents – to create a holy space – a kotel – that reflects the kind of Judaism that we believe in. It’s exciting, and it’s challenging.

Which brings me to the second critique – the charge that this compromise divides the Jewish people.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:

The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews.[4]

A Mechitzah is a dividing wall. And there’s no question that this creation of a parallel Kotel divides the Jews.

I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I believe deeply in the value of K’lal Yisrael – Jewish unity. I think we have to choose carefully when it comes to pitting ourselves against fellow Jews. The Talmud teaches that it wasn’t actually the Romans, rather causeless hatred between Jews, that brought down the very second temple that we’re fighting about right now. That’s an important lesson for all of us.

But at the same time, my Jewish values teach me that I can’t let injustice stand. This isn’t simply a case of different ritual practices. This is about the basic moral issue of men’s and women’s equality. The basic question of whether Jewish sites should be available to all Jews. That’s why our movement made this decision.

And this isn’t the first time that we liberal movements have chosen to deprioritize Jewish unity because of some moral issue. We did the same thing when we were gained women rabbis, when we begin to perform same-sex marriages. And each time we’ve done so, we’ve seen that eventually, the Jewish world follows us. My hope and prayer is that this new liberal Kotel will be an opportunity for that to happen again.

It’s worth noting in all this that with the creation of a liberal Kotel to the parallel the Ultra Orthodox Kotel, there is one group being left behind. And that is the third critique of the compromise.

In the new setup, the Liberal section will be governed according to the laws of liberal Judaism – women and men may pray together, women’s prayer groups may read from the Torah and wear t’fillin. But that will still not be the case for the women’s section on the Orthodox side. And, as Yair Ettinger writes, that leaves “no room for Liberal orthodox.”

The big losers in this deal are the Orthodox women who wish to be able to sing, worship, and pray together as orthodox women. There will be space set aside for them in the mixed section to do so, but that’s not really what they’re looking for.

It’s a reminder to us that we still have much work to do. That this is a marathon and not a sprint. That we are still deeply engaged in fighting for the religious rights of all Jews – liberal AND Orthodox – in the Jewish state.

 

Eleh hamispatim asher tasim. These are the laws you shall establish.

Law is an expression of values. As we rejoice in this moment, may we recognize the ways that these new laws express an evolution in the values of the Jewish state.

At the same time, may we recognize our responsibility to continue that work.

And may Ahavat Yisrael – our love for the people and land of Israel – always be our guiding light.

 

——

[1] Etz Hayim 477, note 3.

[2] http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/the_kotel_compromise_a_time_for_rejoicing.

[3] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.700538.

[4] http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/mixed_emotions_about_the_kotel_compromise

Al Tira – Do Not Be Afraid: A Sermon for Kol Nidre 5776

September 24, 2015 1 comment

What are we all so afraid of?

About 40 years ago, in the mid 1970s, a psychologist named Roger Hart did a study on the playing behaviours of children in a small town in Vermont. He documented their activities; he interviewed all 86 children in the town about the places where they played. And he discovered that those children had an incredible amount of freedom. They essentially played wherever they wanted; they traveled together through neighbourhoods and even to the edges of the city. In his words, “they had the run of the town.”

That was then. Thirty-something years later, in the mid 2000s, the same psychologist went back to the same town, to learn about the next generation – the children of the children he had originally studied. He asked similar questions and looked for similar behaviours. And he documented a completely different picture. A generation ago, kids had roamed all over creation, but now they had almost no radius of freedom. Their parents knew where they were at all times. And far from traveling to the edges of town, many of them hardly even left their own property by themselves. They just weren’t allowed to.

Something has shifted in our society over the last 40 years, and this story is a part of a larger picture. People are more afraid, more worried, more anxious. When the residents of that town were interviewed about what had changed, they cited the increased threat of violent crime toward their children. But statistically, there is no increased threat of violent crime – not in that town and not in Canada and not in North America as a whole. There is only the fear of increased threat.

What are we all so afraid of?

Most of us don’t live our lives in constant fear of violent crime. Most of us aren’t afraid to leave our own property. But we do live with fear – maybe now more than ever before.

Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes about the scary world that we live in:

This world can appear so unpredictable sometimes. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires….. Your life can suddenly be overturned by illness or accident or financial setback.[1]

And whether we know it or not, all of that fear is affecting us. Diagnoses of anxiety are on the rise. Hospitalizations for eating disorders in Canada increased by a third in the last 25 years.[2] Some 43% of North Americans take a mood-altering medication on a regular basis.[3] We are living with stress in a way that our grandparents never did and in a way that their grandparents never even imagined.

What if I get sick?
What if the stock market takes a dive?
What if my grandchildren aren’t raised Jewish?
What if my failings at work are discovered?

The funny thing is, we seem to be reasonably good at dealing with the threat of terrorism and nuclear annihilation. But when you live a life of anxiety, it’s the little fears that get in the way.

The fear of failure that keeps us from taking risks.
The fear of rejection that stops us from reaching out to form community.
The fear of uselessness that keeps us running, working, filling our lives with things we need to get done.

Like those children who never venture beyond the safety of their own yards, our fears – large or small – have the ability to overwhelm our thinking. As we make our way through life, they separate us from our best selves.

On Yom Kippur, we work to become our best selves. And Jewish tradition has long been aware that our fears are a barrier. That’s part of why we’re here. During these ten days, we come together to pray, to repent, to confront the pieces of ourselves that we are most afraid of. And to find the strength we need to live in a scary world.

The prayers for this season address that challenge. It’s traditional during the month of Elul to read Psalm 27 twice every day. It says:

יְהֹוָה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא  –  When God is my light and my help; whom should I fear?

יְהֹוָה מָעוֹז חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָֽד:  –  When God is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?

It is a central theme of the High Holy Days that when we are in a supportive religious community, we have less to be afraid of. When we are surrounded by others and surrounded by God, we can find the strength to confront what may come our way.

Part of confronting our fears is separating between what we can and cannot control.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the true story of a man and woman he met in the back row of an airplane. They were a wealthy and influential couple, on their way to New York for a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria. The King and Queen of Thailand, they said, would also be at the event. Rabbi Kushner wanted to know why a couple like that would travel in the back row of the plane! Why not first class? The husband replied, “My wife is more comfortable in the last row. She’s read about planes that have crashed, but she’s never heard about a plane being rear-ended.”[4]

There’s only so much that we can be in control of.

Many of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer that’s often used in 12-step programs:
God, grant me the courage to change what can be changed
The serenity to accept what cannot be changed.
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Those words are not Jewish in origin, but they do find expression in the origin of the Jewish story. Early on in the book of Genesis, Avram – who is not yet called Avraham – fights a brutal war against 5 kings in Canaan. This was before Avram had entered into covenant with God, before he had fathered any sons, before he had really secured his place as ancestor of a great nation. It was a moment of great uncertainty in Avram’s life.

And just then, God comes to him and says:

אַל־תִּירָא אַבְרָם אָֽנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ – “Do not be afraid, Avram, I am a shield to you.(Genesis 15:1)

It was an invitation by God to enter into covenant. An invitation for Avram to put aside his fears and be in relationship with the Divine.

It doesn’t seem like a very reasonable request: In the scariest moment of your life….Al tira – just don’t be afraid. The Rabbis want to understand how God can ask this. So they analyze Avram’s fears. Nachmanides, the mystical Spanish commentator, says that there are two things Avram was afraid of in that moment:

  1. He was afraid that the kings might rise back up against him, and drag him back into war.
  2. He was afraid that he might someday die childless, since that he had no sons.

Those were very real fears. Either of those things really could have happened, and Avraham had no way of knowing that they wouldn’t. But – and this, I believe is Nachmanides’ point – he also had no way of knowing that they would.

What is Avraham afraid of? One thing from the past, and one from the future. A war that he’s already survived, and a childless death that may or may not come someday. But what’s in front of him is an eternal covenant with God.

When we live our lives paralyzed by fear of the past and the future, we miss the blessings of the present. If the patriarch had remained focused on what he was afraid of, he would have missed the opportunity to enter into covenant.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive; our eyes can still see the beautiful sky; our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.

When the Torah says “Al tira­ – Do not be afraid,” it doesn’t mean that the things we’re afraid of aren’t real. But it does mean that we can strive to see the blessings of the present amidst the anxieties of the future. And it means that we can have faith in ourselves that when challenges do come our way, we will have the strength to weather them.

Earlier this month, we marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Much has been made over the years of the special courage and strength of the “Greatest Generation,” of their ability to weather fear and terror, and to come out stronger on the other side.

One famous example is found in the residents of wartime London, England, who lived through the German Blitz. Between September 1940 and May 1941, London was bombed 71 times. It was a campaign that should have paralyzed the city and its residents with fear. But it didn’t. The more London was bombed, the more its residents were emboldened. They spent time outdoors. They drank in pubs and attended cricket matches. An entire network of wartime psychiatric clinics had to close down because their they weren’t being used! (NEED REF)

The Canadian psychiatrist J. T. MacCurdy has explained this by saying that Londoners were learning, one bombing at a time, that they could survive and thrive in those frightening circumstances. In fact, he writes that after a while, it gave them a “feeling of excitement with the flavour of invulnerability.”[5] The more they lived with danger, the less fear they had. Because they knew from experience that they as a people were capable of making it through.

Most of us don’t live our lives under attack, but there is something to the idea that experiencing what we’re afraid of actually makes us stronger, more confident, maybe even more capable.

Losing a job is an awful experience, but it can also be a learning opportunity and a chance to reinvent yourself.
When a loved one passes away, our world is shattered. But life does go on, and in fact, our work on earth becomes even more important.

When our worst fears become reality, we often discover strength we didn’t know we had.

Judaism embraces the idea that our fears can motivate us rather than paralyzing us. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig writes that “All knowledge of the universe begins in the fear of death.”

All knowledge. All learning. All accomplishing exists because we know that we will die someday.

If we weren’t afraid, says Rosenzweig, then we would have no reason to get anything done. No reason to learn anything or to teach anything or to pass anything on. Our own mortality – and our profound awareness of it – is what makes us most creative and most human.

In that sense, we are at our most human on the High Holy Days. During these Yamim Nora’im – these Days of Awe and Fear and Dread, we are most aware of just how big the universe is and how small we are within it.

Our prayerbook reminds us of this when it says: Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom, ki hu nora v’ayom – Let us declare the holiness of this day, which is frightfully awesome and full of dread.

In Hebrew there are two words for “fear.” One is pachad, which means mortal fear. The other is yirah. That’s the root of nora, of Yamim Nora’im. It means reverence or awe. It means the inspired awareness that there is something larger than me.

This summer, I spent a week as faculty at Camp George, our regional Reform Jewish camp. I got to watch Jewish kids enjoying the great outdoors. They hike, they sail, they watch sunsets and count stars. At one program, we asked the youngest campers – 7 to 9 year olds –to describe their “Yirah Moments” – the moments when they felt a sense of awe or amazement at the world. One camper described looking up at the stars at night. Another talked about looking out over the lake during Shabbat services.

Many of us have had similar experiences – looking at a starry sky or witnessing the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. There is a certain fear that comes along with the knowledge that we are so unbelievably small. But the Yom Kippur prayerbook reminds us that small doesn’t mean insignificant, and it doesn’t mean powerless.

In fact, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which begins with fear and dread, ends by empowering us with responsibility: Teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah – Repentence, prayer and charity. These are the ways that we effect change in the world. These are the ways that we respond as Jews to what frightens and overwhelms us.

Repentance, prayer and charity make a difference because they stem from humility. Because they are born in the notion that the only constructive human response to a frightening world is to try to repair it.

Once, a little girl was walking along the beach after a storm, and she noticed a starfish that had been washed up on shore, So she picked it up and threw it back into the ocean, saving its life. A few steps later, she came upon another starfish, and she did the same. She made her way down the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. A man came up to her, and said, “Little girl, do you realize how long this beach is? Do you realize that there are thousands of starfish stranded on the shore. You’ll never get to all of them. How can this possibly make a difference? The little girl looked at him. Then she picked up a starfish and threw it into the ocean. She answered, “It made a difference to that one.”

It is perhaps the most deeply held Jewish belief that every one of us has the power to make a difference. No matter who we are, or how small we feel, or what we are afraid of.

Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom– Let us declare the holiness of this day.

This day of fear and dread.
This day or awe and inspiration.
This day that reminds us that we are so small and yet so powerful, so fearful and yet so capable.

And when we rise from our seats at the end of Yom Kippur, may it be with the motivation to go out into the world. To confront our fears; to challenge ourselves; to do the hard work of Tikkun Hanefesh – repairing our souls and Tikkun Olam – repairing our world.

Amen.

—–

[1] Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, p. 209.

[2]http://www.mooddisorderscanada.ca/documents/Media Room

[3] http://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-statistics-information.shtml

[4] Conquering Fear, Harold Kushner, pp. 12-13.

[5] David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, p. 129.

Lessons of Auschwitz: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5776

September 24, 2015 Leave a comment

The Talmud tells about a great sage named Honi who once saw a young man planting a sapling. He sat in the heat of the sun and watched the man digging in the ground, placing the tiny tree into the hole, and surrounding it with earth. And then, Honi sat down in the shade and fell into a deep sleep.

When he woke up, 70 years had passed. And instead of a sapling, there was a tall fruit tree before him. And another young man – the grandson of the original planter – was reaping fruit from its branches.

This story, I believe, is the Rabbis’ way of teaching us about how things change and how things stay the same. In the space of 70 years, an entire tree can grow. Ideas can evolve, people can grow up and build lives and pass on their legacies.

And yet, the tall fruit tree in front of Honi’s eyes is the very same sapling he saw planted earlier. The fruits we reap are the ones that were planted in past generations. Whether we are aware of it or not, the lives we live are a product of the experiences and actions of those who came before us.

If Honi were to wake up today from a 70 year sleep, he would be deeply aware of just how much we are influenced by the past. This year, we have marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau. If Honi were to awaken today, he would have closed his eyes in the world of the concentration camps, and he would open them to see a world still struggling with the consequences and the meaning of those events.

70 years ago, the Jewish world was altered irrevocably. And we are still – in many ways – living in the shadow of Auschwitz. Whether we are aware of it or not, the Holocaust affects the ways that we think and the ways that we behave and the ways that we practice Judaism on a daily basis. We continue to struggle to make sense of the senseless.

Here’s what Rabbi Harold Kushner has to say about that:

Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But …. we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing a meaning on them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me?” A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”[1]

Rabbi Kushner’s words suggest that while there is no sense in the senseless, there may be still meaning to be made from the unthinkable acts of 70 years ago. And that is precisely what many of the survivors have told us as well – that out of their horrifying experiences they found new lessons, and new responsibilities, and even new commandments that have guided them for the rest of their lives, and that they wish to pass on to us as well.

As we mark this tragic anniversary, I wish to share with you the thinking of three different survivors – names that you may know, people whose books you may have read. So that we might glean together the meanings and lessons that they have found in their experiences. Lessons that might guide us as individuals, as Jews, and as citizens of the world. Lessons of Auschwitz.

Everyone handles adversity differently. Viktor Frankl handled it by turning inward. He was an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist – a late contemporary of Sigmund Freud. During the war, Frankl was imprisoned in four separate concentration camps. He lost his wife and nearly his entire family.

In his powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes the experience of concentration camp life from a psychological perspective. He writes about the transition that each prisoner went through – from the shock of first arriving at the camp, to the apathy that developed as they became used to its conditions.[2] He writes about the blunting of emotions, about the ways in which camp prisoners would set up a protective shell around themselves.

But Frankl also writes about the places where humanity was still to be found. He describes his fellow prisoners’ use of humour to weather the difficulties of daily life. He writes about their growing awareness that all suffering is relative, and that one can choose to find goodness even in the worst of surroundings.

He gives a particularly moving account of a cold nighttime march in which he managed to cope by picturing the presence of his wife:

“I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look…. Then I grasped the greatest secret that human thought and belief have to impart:… I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.”[3]

In that pivotal moment, Frankl first began to grasp what he would later come to call the “last of the human freedoms.” He writes:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”[4]

For Viktor Frankl, the lesson of Auschwitz is one of personal empowerment. No matter where we are, and no matter what others are doing to us, we still get to choose our actions and our beliefs. He teaches us that out of the horrors of the Holocaust, comes forth a command to each of us – to choose to live with gratitude. To strive to see the good in the world around us, no matter the circumstances of our lives.

This is a worthy lesson for those of us living a privileged life in the 21st century. And it is a lesson that has been present in Judaism for a long time. The Hasidim tell the story of a poor man living in a small, loud, cramped house with his large family who goes to complain to the rabbi about his lot in life. The rabbi solemnly counsels the man, “Go home, and take your goat into the house to live with you.” So the man does, but of course the house only becomes smaller, and louder, and more cramped. So he goes back to the rabbi, who tells him to bring his chickens into the house as well. Only after the man has brought his chickens, cow, goat, and horse to live into his house does the rabbi finally counsel him to put all of the animals outside and enjoy the relative peace and quiet of having only his family in the little house.

We cannot choose our circumstances; we can only choose our attitude toward them

This is all over Judaism. The tradition of Mussar – the Jewish mindfulness ethic – encourages daily study and patiently choosing attitudes and behaviours. The practice of saying blessings is meant to foster a sense of gratitude for everything that we have. The Talmud commands[5] us to say 100 blessings every day – giving constant thanks to God for what we eat, what we drink, seeing a rainbow or sunset, even the fact that our bodies are working.

This is such an important message for Yom Kippur, because today is the one day of the year that we dedicate entirely to trying to see the goodness in ourselves and in the world around us. The rest of the year, so much of our time is spent putting out fires and dealing with circumstances, that we rarely take the time to say any blessings at all, let alone 100 a day.

Imagine how our lives would change if once an hour we took time to notice the goodness of something. Imagine if once a day, we took time to recognize and act of our own capacity for bringing goodness to others. Then we would understand in a whole different way what Viktor Frankl learned in the camps – that our circumstances do not get to dictate how we will feel or where we will focus or what we will be. Only we get to decide that.

In the worst of circumstances, human beings are capable of their best. Capable of seeing goodness in the midst of evil; capable of devoting themselves to their families and to their people.

For Emil Fackenhim, another survivor and another teacher, this is precisely the lesson of the Shoah.

Fackenheim was a German Reform Rabbi. He was arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. But he escaped to England and made his way ultimately to Canada. Dr. Fackenheim served as rabbi of Temple Anshei Shalom in Hamilton. and for 35 years he served as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of the people in this room may have studied with him.

His experiences and his conclusions are different from those of Viktor Frankl. Where Frankl the psychiatrist saw a lesson about attitude and choice, Fackenheim the Rabbi saw a commandment for Jewish survival. He is best known for his belief that after the Holocaust there is a new 614th commandment – “Not to hand Hitler posthumous victories.” In other words, he teaches that is the responsibility of the Jew to ensure the continuance of the Jewish people.

He writes: “We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish.”[6]

This is a notion that we may have internalized more deeply than we realize. We live our responsibility for Jewish continuance every time we read from our Czech Torah scroll; every time we “twin” one of our children with a Shoah victim when they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But we also live that responsibility when we build Jewish communities and engage in Jewish learning. We are often aware that there are simply not that many of us, and that if Judaism is to thrive, it will be because we made it so.

On the one hand, ensuring the Jewish future means responding swiftly and decisively to anti-Semitism. It means remembering that even though we live comfortable lives in a diverse and free country, we are only 7 decades removed from oblivion.

But in the 21st century, ensuring the Jewish future is not only about combating outside threat. It means, as well, building a Judaism that is vibrant and relevant from within.

The Torah portion for Yom Kippur morning tells us that we have connections that transcend denomination and generation. It says:

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם

“Today you stand – ALL of you – to enter into covenant with your God.” From chiefs to labourers. Wood choppers to water drawers.

אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּֽוֹם:

Both those are standing here with us today, and those who are not standing here.

Fulfilling that responsibility to past generations means continuing to build Jewish lives around a deep love of learning and tradition. It means building Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming. It means building a Jewish state that is a place of pluralism and diversity, that consistently upholds the rights and freedoms of all.

Ironically, the lesson of Auschwitz is that we must transcend Auschwitz as the reason for our continued existence. It is not enough to remain Jewish simply because others tried to destroy us. Rather, our task is to continue to build the best Judaism for our time – one that speaks to the needs of the 21st century but remains rooted in the wisdom of past generations.

And that requires work. It requires a commitment to learning. It requires being open to new ideas, striving to understand how our ancient values apply today. It requires thinking concertedly about being part of Jewish community – about how we can contribute to it. Our task is to keep learning, to keep struggling, to keep wrestling. To receive the tradition, and live it and mould it and shape it, and pass it on once again.

In 1947, when the Israeli cabinet voted on the Partition Plan that would create the Jewish state, one of the ministers, Yitzhak Tabenkin, requested a day to consult with some people before voting. When he returned, David Ben Gurion asked him, “From whom did you seek counsel?”
“From two people,” answered Tabenkin. “From my grandfather who died ten years ago, and from my grandson who is not yet born.”

If we can ensure that Judaism thrives as a beloved religious tradition and as a force for good in the world, then we will be doing all that we can to honour the memory of those who died. And to ensure that what happened to them never happens again.

“Never again” has been the refrain of the Jewish people for seven decades. Never again shall we see our children marched off. Never again shall we see our people pushed to the brink. And never again shall we allow the same to happen to others. Indeed, the lesson of Auschwtz is not only that we have a responsibility to our own people, but that we have a responsibility to all people.

This message is most evident in the writings of the author, activist, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.

Elie Wiesel was born in Romania and was a child when he was deported to Aushwitz. He lost his parents and his sister in the camps. His autobiographical writings have touched millions of readers in 30 languages. But he is known equally for his advocacy – both for Jewish causes like Israel and Soviet Jewry, and for victims of oppression or genocide all over the world – South Africa, Argentina, Bosnia, Sudan, and other places as well.

Elie Wiesel has always said that out of his experience in the Holocaust, he hears a command, an imperative to ensure the dignity of all human beings.

In his 1986 Nobel Peach Prize acceptance speech, he said:

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented….. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

This message is reflected in our most ancient of Jewish texts. In the haftarah that we chanted this morning, the prophet Isaiah speaks for God:

The fast I desire is to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.[7]

And the Torah as well commands us repeatedly to care for the poor and the oppressed, saying “Ki gerim hayitem b’eretz mitzrayim – Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

You have been oppressed, says the Torah, so you must not allow another to be oppressed.
You have been a slave, so you must not allow another to be enslaved.

In the past 100 years, Jews have been disproportionately involved in standing up for justice and the rights of the oppressed. Our rabbis marched alongside Martin Luther King at Selma. Our people spoke out for the oppressed minority in Darfour. Our own Reform movement has worked here in Canada to support the aboriginal community. And, like many others, our synagogues are beginning to act as the Syrian refugee crisis grows.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, among many others, has compared the situation of millions of Syrian refugees to the 1930s and 40s when it was the Jews of Europe who were seeking asylum. He writes that we Jews have a special responsibility to come to the aid of other oppressed people, and that “at such times, even small humanitarian gestures can light a flame of hope.”[8]

Many of you have heard that some of our sister congregations – including Darchei Noam in Toronto and Emanu-El-Beth-Sholom in Montreal – have taken the step of sponsoring refugee families. We at Kol Ami want to do our part as well, and our President , Mark Wolpert will speak to you in a few minutes about how you can get involved.

As Jews, and as children of the Shoah, as human beings we are called upon to recognize the image of God in every person – whether the refugees of Syria or the homeless of Toronto or the battered women and children to whom our members bring food at Yellow Brick House. We are called upon to help when we can, to do our part in repairing the world.

In the city of Budapest, there is a tree. A bronze sculpture in the shape of a weeping willow, whose leaves bear the names of victims of the Shoah. It is known as Etz Hachayim – the Tree of Life – and it is a reminder of what has been lost, those branches that were cut off before their time. But it is also a reminder that all things grow and are renewed. That a tiny sapling can grow into a tall fruit tree. That a people can move forward – can survive and even thrive.

It is a reminder that we are the branches of the Tree of Life. When we live our lives with gratitude, when we contribute to a stronger and more vibrant Judaism, when we lend our strength to repair the world, not only do we honour the memories of those that were lost, but we also water the roots of an ancient and flourishing way of life, so that it may continue to grow and bloom for us and for those who will come after us.

Zecher Tzadik Livracha – The memory of the righteous is a blessing. May we, through our lives, strive to be a blessing – to their memory, to our own loved ones, to our people and our community and the world around us.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.

————-

[1] When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner, p. 136.

[2] Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 39.

[3][3] Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, p. 57.

[4] Ibid 86.

[5] B. Menachot 43b.

[6] To Mend the World, Emil Fackenheim.

[7] Isaiah 58

[8] “Refugee Crisis: ‘Love the Stranger because you were once strangers’ calls to us now.” Jonathan Sacks. The Guardian, 6 September 2015.

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The Toolkit: A Reflection for Rosh Hashanah 5776

September 17, 2015 Leave a comment

Once, there were two builders – one wise and one foolish. They were on a journey to a jobsite in a faraway town, and each one carried his tool belt with him as they made their way. As night approached, the builders felt weary and stopped at an inn to sleep. Since they were afraid of thieves, they placed their tool belts under their beds for the night. In the morning, they woke up at daybreak and quickly made their way down the road toward the jobsite, forgetting to take the tools with them.

They only realized their mistake several hours later, when they were already close to their destination. What to do? Well, the foolish builder said, “Quickly! Let’s press on, for we have so much work to do today.” And he continued down the road toward the jobsite.

But the wiser of the two turned back. He said, “What good will it do us now to hurry, since we are empty handed? The more sensible thing is to find our tools, so that we may build successfully.”

We spend our lives building. Building families, building careers, building communities and relationships. Building ourselves. Each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we come to the synagogue to gather the tools that we will need for that work. It’s a challenging and heavy season for us. But it’s also an exciting season filled with the possibilities of spiritual fulfillment and renewal.

The High Holy Day liturgy speaks the language of renewal. Over and over again throughout the holidays, we will sing the final line of the book of lamentations. It says:

Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah.
Return us to You, O God, and we shall return.
Chadeish yameinu k’kedem
Renew our days/Make our days new as they were in the past.

It’s a very strange phrasing – “Chadeish yameinu k’kedem.” Chadeish comes from the Hebrew word chadash, which means “new.” And kedem is the word for ancient or old. So the verse literally asks God to make our days, make our lives, make us into something new…. that we used to be. That doesn’t really make sense. If something is new, then it is not what it used to be. And if something is as it used to be, then by definition it has not been renewed.

And yet, we repeat those words throughout the holidays.

I think it’s intended to teach us something about teshuvah – about repentance. It teaches us that the process of teshuvah helps us to become both something new and something very, very old. Our task during these Days of Awe is not to envision ourselves as an entirely different person. It’s not to reinvent ourselves. Rather, it is to return to the self that has always been inside of us. To get in touch with our own essential nature.

The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

Are we living our lives according to our own values?
Are we choosing our actions based on what we really believe?
Are we taking responsibility for the choices we make?
These are the difficult questions of the Days of Awe.

Judaism teaches us to see our lives as a product of our own choices. Anyone who’s ever been hiking or climbing knows that moving forward is a function of the choices we make. Where will I place my foot? Which path is the right one for me? Which rock should I hold onto?

And everyday life is the same. We make a thousand choices a day: Eggs or shredded wheat? Shoes or sandals? Homework or coffee with a friend? Should I speed up or slow down at the yellow light. Should I finish up this paperwork at my desk, or make it home for dinner? There’s not always a right and wrong answer, but our choices reflect our priorities. And in the end, our lives reflect the choices we’ve made.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “One’s philosophy is …expressed in the choices one makes.”

That means that the task of teshuvah – the task of becoming our best selves – is actually a task of trying to make choices that are in line with our beliefs and values. One by one. A thousand times a day.

Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes that “Strengthening your ability to choose expands your capacity to exercise free will, which [is] a defining feature of being human.” (Everyday Holiness, p. 38)

To be human is to be created in God’s image. To be created in God’s image is to recognize that we are choosing beings. That no matter the circumstances, no matter the behaviour of others, there is always a choice.

On the High Holy Days, we are tasked with nurturing and developing our most human and most divine characteristic – our faculty of free will. We are tasked to consider our own values and ideals, to create a road map for living and choosing according to them, and to take that map out into the world with us.

So, it turns out that the tools we need for the coming year are inside of us. Unlike those builders from the story, we cannot leave our toolkits under our beds or by the side of the road. We carry them with us wherever we go – our values; our beliefs; our sense of self worth. Our capacity to connect with others, to do for others, to repair the world, to repair ourselves.

In the coming year, may we have the strength to do the hard work of teshuvah.
May we have the patience to allow ourselves to falter.
And may we recognize that everything we need to become our best selves is already inside of us.

Amen.

More Than Words: A Sermon for D’varim 5775

July 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Here’s a joke:

It was the middle of Shabbat morning services, and the rabbi noticed that old Irv Cohen was asleep in the third row. So he elbowed the Temple President and said, “Cohen is asleep again. Go wake him up!”

The President answered: “That’s not fair.”

So the rabbi replied, “What do you mean? Go wake him up!”

To which the president answered again, “That’s not fair.”

Now the rabbi was frustrated: “This is a synagogue, not a bedroom. Cohen can’t sleep through my sermon. Go wake him up!”

And the president answered simply: “That’s not fair. YOU put him to sleep. YOU wake him up.”


The joke about rabbis seems to be that they talk a little too much. This week’s Torah portion proves that Moses was truly the first rabbi, in that he was capable of talking for extended periods of time.

Here’s what I mean: After 40 years of wandering, our people are now standing, ready to cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land. But Moses knows something very important. He knows that he is not going with them. As you may remember, Moses was punished by God that he cannot enter the Promised Land. He has the opportunity to stand up on a mountaintop and see the land. But he’s not going to accompany the people there, and he’s not going to be there to help them set up their new society.

So Moses takes it upon himself to give them some advice. Lots of advice. A whole book’s worth of advice, in fact, that we call the book of Deuteronomy. This last book of the Torah will consist of several speeches given by Moses – in which he’ll recount past events, go back over the places they’ve been, and give laws and advice for the people as they set up their new society in the land of Israel.

In Hebrew, we call this book D’varim, which means “Words.” Because it starts by saying, “Eleh had’varim – these are the words that Moses spoke.”

The irony of Moses giving 3 long speeches is that he is not really a public speaker. Back in Exodus, when God first came to Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses said– Lo ish d’varim anochi – “I am not a man of words.”

But now, our man of few words has become a man of many words.

But there’s another layer here. And for that, we need to know that the word d’varim doesn’t only mean “words.” It also means “deeds” or “actions.”

And while Moses may not have been a man of words, he was most definitely a man of deeds. Here is a leader who devoted his entire life and every bit of his energy to his people. He went to Pharaoh. He parted the red sea. He climbed Sinai and brought back the Torah. He led the people through the Wilderness. And now they all lend him their ears because they know after 40 years that he is the real deal.

Moses is an example for us as Jews because he values D’varim – he values both words and deeds.

As Jews, we are people of words. The the name that was given to us in the medieval Islamic world was Am HaSefer – people of the book. We are people of the book because we find meaning by delving into ancient texts – by reading what our ancestors had to say hundreds and thousands of years ago, and challenging ourselves to find relevance in those texts for our own lives.

But we’re not only people of words. We are also people of actions. The basic unit of Jewish life is not words, and it’s not really beliefs either. It is mitzvot – commandments. The Jewish things that we do define the Jewish lives that we live.

There is a passage in the mishnah, that has made its way into the daily morning service, that begins:

Elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – These are the d’varim (the actions or deeds) whose worth cannot be measured. And it goes on to list them:

  • Honouring your father and mother
  • Engaging in acts of compassion
  • Study Torah
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Visiting the sick
  • Celebrating with the wedding couple
  • Burying the dead
  • And making peace

These are, in many ways, the most basic acts of Jewish communal life – celebration, mourning, study and prayer, and building relationships. When we live our lives in these ways, then we are building strong community, we are there for each other, and we can work deepen our own sense of self worth, and our own connection with God. Those are tasks that never end, which is why the passage refers to them as d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – actions with unlimited worth.

So maybe that’s what Moses means to say to us as he stands on the shore of the Jordan river. That the words we speak, and the ways that we relate to one another and to God really matter. That we have the power to effect goodness in each other’s lives and in the world, by being concerted and thoughtful about how we live our lives.

That’s an extraordinary power and an extraordinary responsibility that Judaism places on us. But it’s also an extraordinary privilege – to be a source of goodness and blessing to those around us.

On this Shabbat, may we recognize that responsibility and may we embrace that privilege.
May we recognize that our d’varim – our words and our actions – really do matter in the world.
Shabbat Shalom.

Combating Extremism: A Sermon for Pinchas 5775

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Here is a video podcast of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat on religious extremism.