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“For You Were Strangers”

January 28, 2017 2 comments

I am an immigrant. An American born in Alabama, I have lived all over the United States. And for the last 5 years, thanks to a rabbinical position that brought me to the Toronto suburbs, I have made my home in Canada. I love both of my countries – the one in which I was born and have lived most of my life, and the one in which I currently reside. In many ways they are very similar. This week they feel very, very different.

My grandmother was also an immigrant. In 1933 at the age of 8, she and her family fled deteriorating conditions in Poland and made their way to America. She had it harder than I did as an immigrant – her father had preceded her to New York by several years, and she had to learn a new language, start the First Grade over again, and build a new life for herself. It is a common immigrant story. With the exception of Native Americans, every one of us can find something like it in our family history.

Every one of us.

The America I know is built on immigration. It is a country made strong by the ingenuity and determination of people who came here from elsewhere to build a life for themselves and their families. It is a country that has not always had a rosy relationship with immigration (we closed our doors to refugees during World War II also), but that has been stronger when its doors were open. These are the values of the United States of America.

They are also the values of Judaism. The Torah reminds us over and over again that we were strangers in a foreign land. And it exhorts us over and over again to treat the stranger – the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee – with respect and dignity. It says this explicitly in Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Today, I am appalled and frightened by the actions of my President. My values – both American and Jewish – teach me the importance of diversity and of welcoming the stranger. A ban on immigrants from Muslim countries is thinly veiled racism and an affront to American values. A ban on refugees is nothing less than abhorrent, especially when so many are fleeing danger and seeking a better life.

As Jews, we know the experience of being the stranger. We know it from our ancient history, and we know it from our much more recent history. It was not even 100 years ago that our own families were fleeing persecution and genocide. The fact that President Trump issued this horrifying Executive Order on International Holocaust Remembrance Day lends it a sad irony that cannot be ignored.

As a Jew, an American, and the grandchild of am immigrant, I want my country to welcome newcomers of all backgrounds, and to recognize that they represent a continuation of the American story.

As a Jew, an American, and the grandchild of an immigrant, I demand that my government NEVER discriminate on the basis of religion. This is abhorrent and an affront to our way of life.

As a Jew, an American, and the grandchild of an immigrant, I want my America to value and encourage diversity.

The ancient Rabbis noted in the Talmud that according to Jewish tradition, humanity started with only a single person – Adam. Why, they ask, did God not create a whole tribe or a whole nation to begin with? So that no person could say to another, “My ancestors are greater than yours.”

May we work together to build a world where the barriers between us are lowered, not raised. And may this country of strangers and immigrants hold fast to its true values of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.

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“Not Very Religious” – A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5777

October 13, 2016 Leave a comment

It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.

The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man” But the Rebbe insisted.

So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.” But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”

So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”

And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.” And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.[1]

 

It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.

We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.

The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.[2]

I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”

That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.

And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:

  • Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
  • I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
  • I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
  • I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.

I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!

And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.

 

Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.

I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:

  • “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
  • “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
  • “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”

We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.

We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”[3]

And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!

This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can’t we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?

It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:

It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.

Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.

And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.

And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”

But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”

At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai – My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)

 

My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.

And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.

Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.

Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”[4]

In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.

It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.

I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.

To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.

To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.

To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.

These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives. Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.

That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.

The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it’s not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.

And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days – questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values – these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.”[5] In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.

When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.

So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?

 

Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”[6]

We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.

In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.

May we celebrate our choices and our values.

And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.

Amen.

——-

 

[1] Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.

[2] Ibid 123.

[3] B. Shabbat 112b.

[4] “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)

[5] Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.

[6] Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.

My Father Was a Syrian Refugee: Pesach & Freedom in 2016

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

NOTE: This essay was cross posted at Kol Ami.

In the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell our story of freedom beginning with the words: “Arami Oveid Avi – My father was a wandering/escaped Aramean.” There are differences of opinion regarding whether this line refers to Abraham or to Jacob. But either way, its meaning is clear. Our people got their start as escapees from the land of Aram, which is now in northern Syria. We begin our Jewish story as Syrian refugees.

In fact, the Jewish experience is one of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were known for keeping their tent open on all four sides, so that they might rush out and bring passersby into their home. It’s known as Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the guest. Later, as our people emerged from slavery, we were commanded “V’ahavtem et Hageir – You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And only 8 decades ago, our people once again were the strangers and the refugees, trying to escape the dangers around them in Europe, and often labeled as security threats or subversives.

As Jews, that’s the religious and historical experience that we bring to the current refugee crisis. As Canadians, we also bring a deep respect for pluralism and for the immigration mentality that has made this country what it is. Aware of the security risks, aware of the challenges that immigration can bring with it, we approach the world with a desire to uphold Tzelem Elohim – to uphold the image of God in each human being.

May this season of freedom be a harbinger of freedom for all people, in all corners of the world. Someday may there be a time when no one will every have to say “Arami oveid avi – My father was a refugee.”

Moses and “Moses” – Celebrating Harriet Tubman

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.

This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.

https://745515a37222097b0902-74ef300a2b2b2d9e236c9459912aaf20.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/77377beeeb64db9152e1b3ffc12109ae.jpegThe main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet.  Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.

Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.

Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.

Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5d/Harriet-Tubman-248x300.jpgAnd appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.

By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.

May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!

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

Stranger in a Strange Land

November 26, 2015 1 comment

“I have been a stranger in a strange land.” (Exodus 2:22)

I am an American living in Canada.

It’s not a major culture shock. Sure, there are differences – social, cultural, linguistic, political – between my country of origin and my country of residence. There are things that take getting used to; cultural assumptions that surprised me. But the two countries are deeply aligned in their values and ways of life. (In fact, when we moved here five years ago, my then-seven year old son confided in me how disappointed he was that it wasn’t “more different.” He thought moving to a new country would entail the wholesale adoption of a new way of life!)

And yet, Thanksgiving Day has always been hard for me. In Canada, of course, today is an ordinary day. I dropped my children at their school buses, and I sit at my desk in my office. And I am aware that “back home,” people are sleeping in, preparing meals, watching football, celebrating a holiday. It is a day on which I feel separated from friends and family, on which I feel far from home. So it’s a small reminder to me that it is not always easy to make a new life in a new country. And that I have been very, very lucky.

Thanksgiving is, at its core, about immigration. It is a celebration of the experience of coming to a new country, being welcomed, and making a life.

That is a message that we need today, perhaps more than ever. Right now, millions of refugees around the world are seeking new countries and new homes. They are seeking to start over, to rebuild their lives in a place of safety and security. Just as the Pilgrims did nearly 400 years ago. Just as my Jewish ancestors did 3 generations ago.

Jewish tradition knows well the experience of the refugee. The Torah tells us that we were slaves in Egypt and sought a new life in the Promised Land. The Passover Seder reminds us that “Arami oveid avi – Our father was (literally!) an Aramean/Syrian refugee.” And it was less than 100 years ago that our own people were the asylum seekers, desperate to escape the dangers of their countries, too often labeled as subversives or security threats.

And so, I am proud of this Jewish community’s response to the current refugee crisis. My congregation has raised thousands of dollars toward resettlement. Some local congregations are actively “adopting” refugees. Some close friends here in Toronto are literally preparing to welcome a refugee family into their own home if necessary. These are our Jewish values at work.

I don’t begin to answer the political questions. I know there are potential security risks. But I also know that there are real people – real families – “yearning to breathe free.” And I know that if there’s anything my country of origin and my country of residence have in common, it is that they are societies of immigrants – great, diverse communities made stronger because they are composed of people whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents came from somewhere else. We North Americans know what it is to be a stranger. We know what it is to wander, and we know what it is to build a life in a new home.

On Thanksgiving Day, of all days, we ought to remember that.

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.

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[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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