Posts Tagged ‘judaism’

By the Rivers of Babylon

October 11, 2019 Leave a comment

A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5780


It’s not every day that a song attains popularity in two different years. It’s even more unusual when those two years are more than 25 centuries apart from each other.

In 1970, a Jamaican reggae group called the Melodians released a song called “By the Rivers of Babylon.”

By the rivers of Babylon
there we sat down, yeah we wept when we remembered Zion
When the wicked carried us away in captivity, required from us a song.
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. 

The song became a pretty big hit in Jamaica right away, and it climbed the charts around the world over the course of about ten years. Part of its appeal was the image of a group of people far from home in exile (that is to say, “By the rivers of Babylon”) trying to stay true to their ideals. It resonated with Jamaicans, many of whom are descended from slaves. It resonated with reggae fans and music fans all over the world. It resonated with anyone who longed for a fairer world.

That was the second time that that song had made its way into the charts, so the speak. I say “so to speak” the first time was so long ago that there were no charts.

The song “By the rivers of Babylon” is based on the Biblical Psalm 137, which opens with these words:

עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת ׀ בָּבֶ֗ל
By the rivers of Babylon
שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ בְּ֝זָכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן׃
There we sat down, and wept as we remembered Zion

The original song refers to the Babylonian exile – when the Jews were expelled from their land in the year 586. BCE. It was written by our ancestors who were far from home, mourning the loss of their homeland and their way of life. If you read it all the way through, it is a gut-wrenchingly sad poem. Despondently mournful.  But at the same time, and without even knowing it, it is the song of a people who are on the precipice of something great. A people who, out of their adversity, are poised to thrive.

Let me explain with a little history lesson:

In the seventh century BCE, the kingdom of Judah rebelled against the Babylonian empire. Babylon was the superpower of the day, so it was essentially political suicide to refuse to pay them tribute. But King Zedekiah of Judah figured he had God on his side – and maybe Egypt too – so he’d be OK if he made a go of independence.

He was wrong.

The Emperor Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem with a massive army. He breached the city, conquered it, starved the people, burned the Temple to the ground, and exiled a huge portion of the population of Judah hundreds of kilometres north to his home country of Babylon, also known as “the land between the rivers.” It was an incredible tragedy – the end of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel; the end of Jewish life as our ancestors knew it.

But it was also the beginning of something new.

There, in exile by the rivers of Babylon, the Jewish people started to ask themselves a new question. And it’s a question that is captured in the song: “How can we sing God’s songs in a strange place?” It’s not a rhetorical question; it was an actual philosophical struggle that the Jewish people wrestled with in Babylon: Can you praise God outside the land of Israel? Can you be Jewish far from home?

Up until that point, most people believed that their gods were tied to certain places. Marduk was the god of Babylon and the Babylonians. Amun-Ra was worshipped in the temple of Amun-Ra in Egypt. And by the same token, the Jewish God was to be found in the Temple in Jerusalem. That was the only proper place to worship God – the book of Deuteronomy says it over and over again.

So here you are far away from Jerusalem. The Temple has been destroyed; there’s no more animal sacrifice; you can’t even get home. What options do you have? You can abandon Judaism, maybe on the assumption that God has abandoned you. (And many people surely did.) Or you can transform Judaism, take it out of the Temple. That’s the choice our ancestors made.

The way they chose to transform Judaism was by writing a book. They took all the stories that the Jewish people told about themselves: stories about Abraham the first monotheist, about Jacob the father of the people, about Moses the law giver and the Exodus from Egypt. And they put them together into a volume that they called Torah – the teaching.  And they declared that in the absence of being able to sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah should be read regularly to all the people – as a way of keeping the traditions alive; as a way of making sure that our stories would continue to be told.

They shifted the focus from Temple to Torah, from a building to a book. And in so doing, they didn’t just just save Judaism, didn’t just keep it alive. They actually transformed it and made it much stronger. Before the Babylonian exile, “Judaism“ was the agricultural practices of a few farmers who lived around Jerusalem. After the exile, after the Torah, the way was paved for Jews everywhere to have a relationship with God. For Jews everywhere to feel a sense of peoplehood. We carried our traditions around the world. They kept us uniquely connected to one another. They attracted converts, and scholars, and inspired whole schools of interpretation. They even spawned two new religions that are based on the same principles.

Judaism as we know it – the thriving, worldwide religion of study and ritual and storytelling – is the result of what happened there by the Rivers of Babylon.


These are the things I was thinking about last week when I found out that Kol Ami would soon – 2 years from now – be in the position of needing to move out of our building, out of our home. I thought to myself, how does a congregation survive a move? How do you maintain your congregational integrity? How do you manage anxieties around leaving one home and creating a new home? How do you preserve traditions and community? And then I remembered – Jewish history has been one long answer to that exact question. And it has shown over and over again that not only do we survive; we thrive.

I don’t want to draw the analogy too closely. We are not in exile. And our landlord is not the Babylonian Empire. What they actually are is a fellow Jewish community organization that has done so well that they need more space in their own building. And at the same time, we’ve grown. We’ve brought together two congregations. We’ve become busier than ever. Our school has literally doubled in size. These are very good problems to have!

And so we stand at a moment of transition. A moment of some uncertainty We don’t know exactly where we will be as a congregation two years from now, and we don’t yet know exactly how we’re going to get there.  But as we begin to look toward the next stage of our congregational life, one of the lessons that we can take away from our people’s history is that not only are moments of uncertainty surmountable, they often lead to great steps forward.

The idea that creativity can come out of uncertainty and adversity is something that we know on an individual level as well. In their book Wired to Create, psychologist Scott Kaufman and journalist Carolyn Gregoire give the example of the painter Frida Kahlo, who was considered to be one of Mexico’s preeminent artists of the 20th century. Her portraits, and her paintings of Mexico’s landscape and cultural beauty are considered to be among the country’s national treasures.

Like many great artists, Kahlo did not have an easy childhood. She was striken with polio, from which her body never fully recovered. She lived through years of chronic pain. And her suffering became an impetus for her work. She once said that despite the difficult life that she lived, “Painting completed my life.”

Kaufman and Gregoire point out in their book that this is common: “Art born of adversity is an almost universal theme in the lives of many of the world’s most eminent creative minds.”

We know this experience as well. We’ve all lived through periods of transition or loss or uncertainty. And we know that those moments can inspire us to grow – by nurturing new relationships, by learning new things, by honing new skills, by making hard choices that will ultimately move us forward. Those are the ways that we as individuals begin to move through the Rivers of Babylon toward the Promised Land.


The Torah portion for this past week addresses this issue. In it, we find the Jewish people standing on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to finally cross over. They have been wandering in the desert for 40 years, and Moses is dying.

So here again is a moment of great uncertainty. Where are we going? How will we get there? What will it be like when we get there? I imagine that in this moment, Moses wants to give the people some sense that they are going to be OK. He wants to give them something to carry with them as they move forward. So what does he do? Like our ancestors in ancient Babylon, he gives them Torah.

וַיְהִ֣י  כְּכַלּ֣וֹת מֹשֶׁ֗ה לִכְתֹּ֛ב אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הַתּוֹרָֽה־הַזֹּ֖את ׃
Moses wrote down this teaching (this Torah). And he said to the Levites:
לָקֹ֗חַ אֵ֣ת סֵ֤פֶר הַתּוֹרָה֙ הַזֶּ֔ה
Take this book, this Torah, and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant

So the priests are to take the Torah and place it next to the ark of the covenant, at the very centre of the temple. And then they are to carry the whole thing into the Promised Land together with the people.

It’s an interesting choice of gift, right? What is it about carrying the Torah that is going to be a comfort to the people as they begin their new life? I think it’s two things. First, the message that just as you carry Torah, so can they carry God and so can you carry your Jewishness with you wherever you go. The second message – ironically, as they take their first steps into the Promised Land – is that none of us ever really reach the Promised Land.

Those who have studied the Torah know that it is not the story of our people arriving in the Land of Israel. It is the story of our people moving toward the Land of Israel.  It ends just before they get there, while they are still in the wilderness.

I believe that’s quite purposeful. One of the central messages of Judaism is that we never really finish our life’s work. There is always more work to be done – Torah to be learned, relationships to be deepened, communities to build, a world to repair. In fact, that’s one of the important themes of the High Holy Days – that no matter how far we’ve come, we’re always meant to keep striving to be our best.

That means that as Jews, we’re never supposed to stay still. We’re never supposed to be satisfied that we’ve achieved all that we can. We’re never supposed to just stake our claim and build our cathedral and call it a day.

That’s why I suspect that despite all their talk about rebuilding the Temple, our ancestors had it right when they decided to stake their claim on a book instead of a building. In Judaism, what matters most isn’t building Temples. It’s not about creating the most beautiful building on top of a hill. It hasn’t been that for 2500 years, since our ancestors decided by the rivers of Babylon that that didn’t make sense to them anymore. What matters most is the way that we carry Torah with us. The way that we pass on traditions. The way we build relationships – with God and with each other. It’s about the people inside the Temple. It’s about community.

That’s the amazing thing about what Kol Ami has always been, and what Neshamah has been as well. We’re not a congregation that is dependent on a building. We never had the nicest social hall, or the biggest sanctuary, or the fanciest carpeting. Instead, we have the nicest community, and the friendliest faces, and the warmest services, and the most talented choir, and the most exciting school. And you can take that with you wherever you go.

In the book of Exodus, while the people are still in the wilderness, God commands them to build a sacred space:

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.
Build me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among you.
(Exodus 25)

The commentators are quick to point out that the Torah doesn’t say, “V’shachanti b’tochah – Build a sanctuary so that God can dwell inside it.” It says “b’tocham – so that God will dwell among the people, among you.” God’s presence is not found in a building. It’s found among the people who fill the building with prayers and hopes and joys and sorrows.

As Rabbi Harold Shulweis writes, “God is not in me, and not in you, but in the space between us.”

The Talmud tells us that whenever ten people some together to pray, God descends to be with them. Whenever two people share words of Torah, the Divine Presence dwells among them. Wherever we go, wherever we pray, wherever we sing, wherever we support one another. Whenever we hear Kol Ami – the Voice of our people – we build God’s house.

V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham.
Build me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among you.

Right now we have some work ahead of us. We re at the beginning of a journey to find and create a holy space, to create a new home for ourselves as a congregation.

In the Torah, the building of the Mishkan is a group effort. All the people are all asked to participate in the building effort. They bring their goods, their stuff to make the actual sanctuary. They donate their talents and abilities toward its design and construction. One particularly talented artisan named Betzalel becomes the archetype for all Jewish artisanship because of his extraordinary contribution to the Mishkan.

This is going to be that kind of project for us as well. We’re going to need all hands on deck – to help us find our new space and secure it. To negotiate leases, and raise funds, and design rooms, to dream about what our new home will look like and then bring it to fruition.

If you have a talent to give, please come and talk to us about how you can get involved.

What an exciting opportunity we have right now, to turn a dream into a reality – to design and construct and actualize the next stage of our congregation’s journey.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once sitting with his students and they asked him: Rebbe, where does God live? It’s a question that seemingly has no answer. After all, God has no body. God doesn’t need a house. God doesn’t live anywhere. But the Rebbe thought about it for a moment and then answered: “God lives wherever we let God in.”

As we walk through the world this year, may we be aware of the holiness that surrounds us at all times.

May we be thankful for this holy community that supports us and accompanies us no matter where we are – from the Rivers of Babylon to the Bathurst Corridor, from 36 Atkinson to the place that we will someday call home.

May we open our hearts to one another, building connections and sharing of ourselves.

And may we find God in the space between us.


From Other to Neighbour

October 11, 2019 1 comment

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5780.


This past year we watched as migrant children were separated from their families at the US border. As people slept on the floors of crowded detention facilities.  We watched as our neighbour to the south struggled to know how to handle a flood of people coming from somewhere else. People who are other.

This past year we watched as Quebec passed a new law. It forbids public servants – including teachers and police officers – from wearing religious symbols while they are on duty. Of course that includes observant Jews who wear a kippah, and Muslims who wear the hijab. Again, a society struggling with how to manage differences between people.

This year we’ve seen Canada’s party leaders debate illegal border crossings. Billboards out west warning against the dangers of “mass immigration.” A Prime Minister accused of latent racism when pictures surfaced of him wearing brownface. A party leader told that if he takes off his turban he will “look like a Canadian.”

We’ve seen the United Kingdom continue to wrestle with Brexit and immigration. A rise of nativist and isolationist rhetoric in Europe. We’ve watched as Israel passed a law defining itself as a Jewish state – much to the chagrin of its sizable non-Jewish minority.

We are living in a world where we seem to be hyper-sensitive to the differences between us. And where policies are being built around those sensitivities. Sometimes these feel like local issues – Quebec dealing with secularism, Israel defining its Jewish nature – but if we look at the world as a whole, it’s clear that we are all really struggling with the same question: Who is in, who is out? Who is part of the group and who is not? Who is “us” and who is “other?”


On Rosh Hashanah I gave a sermon about oneness. I argued that both Judaism and science teach us that there is a unity in the universe – and that all creation and all humanity are one – made of the same stuff, born of the same ancestors. A single family with a single destiny.

But that’s only one side of the coin. The other side is that despite our common origins and our biological connectedness, we also have differences. And part of the human experience is to be aware of those differences and to define ourselves based on them.

George Herbert Mead, a 19th century pioneer of sociology and psychology, discovered that one of the earliest things children do is to try to take on the roles of people around them. It helps us separate between “them” and “me.” That’s how we begin to figure out who we are – by knowing who we are not.

Later social scientists have taken that idea a step further, to argue that we develop our sense of self by aligning ourselves with groups. Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos writes that all “identities have some element of exclusivity.[1]”By definition, the people we feel we have less in common with will be outsiders to us.

That means that when a country struggles with immigration, or religious garb, it’s doing something very human: trying to define itself. The challenge is that our natural tendency is to define ourselves by excluding others. That’s what leads to immigrant detentions, and hijab bans, and border walls.


So how are we as Jews supposed to approach this issue? After all, we’re as interested in self-definition as anybody else (and maybe more than some). What do we do when we want to recognize our connection to all people, but we also value an exclusive group? How do we build policies that acknowledge both sides of the coin – both oneness and separateness? What does Judaism have to say about the other?

It won’t surprise you to learn that Judaism has a lot to say. In fact, I thought of at least three different sermons I could give this evening.

For example, I could give a sermon about the divinity and equality of all people.

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ – God created human beings in the Divine Image. (Genesis 1)

One of the basic messages of Torah is that all people have worth. This is an idea that it has inspired a lot of good people to do a lot of good things. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel quoted it when he marched in the Civil Rights movement.  Dr. Martin Luther King, was inspired by it to fight for equality.

The idea of Tzelem Elohim, the image of God, is a very ancient and very powerful Jewish idea. But I’m not going to give that sermon. I think we’ve mostly heard it before.

So instead, maybe I can give a sermon about loving the stranger. That’s all over the Torah:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה  – You shall not wrong the stranger. (Exodus 22:20)

וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ  – You shall not oppress a stranger. (Exodus 23:9)

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר – The stranger shall be like one your citizens. (Leviticus 19:34)

This idea appears 36 times – more than any other commandment in the Torah.

And the reason given is always the same: ”‏כי גרים הייתם – because you were strangers.” You know the experience of the stranger, says the Torah. You know what it is to be oppressed, to be feared because you are different. And therefore, you have a special responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t happen to anyone else. Surely, we children and grandchildren of the Holocaust can get behind that idea.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of sermons about this. Many from American rabbis talking about immigration:

Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz writes that she “reflected deeply on these verses [about loving the stranger, as she] participated in a rally …. to support the Dream Act” – which would have allowed for certain migrant kids to receive legal status.

Rabbi Esther Lederman invoked this passage in her call to close the detention centres at the US border.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, calls on it in his argument for the “the humane treatment of even those who come illegally…”

So I’m not going to give that sermon, because I think others have already said it better.


You’re probably asking yourself: What sermon is he going to give, then? Well, here’s the question I started asking myself:

It’s lovely that our tradition teaches us to love the stranger and to recognize the divine image in all people. I believe deeply in those ideas. But I wonder: does it also acknowledge when things aren’t so clear? Does it recognize the other side of the coin – our human need to differentiate ourselves from others?

And the answer is that it does. These are the passages that are harder to read.

In Deuteronomy chapter 10, we read one of those many reminders to love the stranger: “V’ahavtem et ha-ger – you should befriend the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.”[4] From there if we flip back three chapters we find a very different passage. Here Moses is giving final advice to the people before they cross into the land of Israel. He says:

כִּ֤י יְבִֽיאֲךָ֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ
When the Eternal God brings you into the land …

וְאָכַלְתָּ֣ אֶת־כָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֔ך
…you shall destroy all the peoples that your Eternal God delivers to you.

לֹא־תָחֹ֥ס עֵֽינְךָ֖ עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם
Show them no pity. (Deuteronomy 7:16)

Well, that’s different. We just finished reading “love the stranger” 36 times, and now all of a sudden we’re commanded to destroy the stranger? To separate yourselves out from them? To demolish their altars?

What’s going on here? How can the very same Torah – in fact the very same Torah portion –  command both of these things? The answer, from the Torah’s perspective, is that it is talking about two different groups of people.

The command to love the stranger refers to what’s called in Hebrew the ger, which means “the one who dwells among you.“ This is a foreigner who has moved into an Israelite settlement. In Canadian terms, it’s like a Permanent Resident – a foreigner by birth, who has opted into the local society.

That’s very different from the amim – these surrounding nations that we’re commanded to destroy or stay away from. Who are they? Well, the Torah tells us their names: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These are foreign tribes. They live outside our walls. They speak different languages. They have different worldviews.

So from the outset we can already see that the Torah is demonstrating something very human – the desire to categorize people into us and them. It’s comfortable with a stranger who is not so very strange, but it warns us to stay away from people who are very different from us.

Now we have to ask ourselves why. Why the command to separate ourselves from them? What are the writers od Torah afraid of? And the answer can also be found a few verses earlier, when the Torah warns not to intermarry, or to mix with them too much

כִּֽי־יָסִ֤יר אֶת־בִּנְךָ֙ מֵֽאַחֲרַ֔י וְעָבְד֖וּ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים
For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods.[5]

In other words, keep yourself separate from then so that you aren’t tempted by their religion, heir norms, their way of life. So that our way of life won’t be endangered by the presence of the other.

Now I think we’re in familiar territory. Why do we human beings exclude or prohibit those who are different? Often it’s we’re worried about the future integrity of our own group. And we find this in all different areas.

The Jewish community response to intermarriage is often predicated on the idea that it will lead to our demise.
Quebec’s Premier Francois Legault defended the religious symbol ban by saying that “We have to think of what’s best for our children.”[6]
Donald Trump, has referred to the masses of migrants on the southern US border as an “invasion”[7] against America.
And Israel’s new Nation-State law explicitly says that the purpose of the Jewish state is to “preserve the cultural, historical, and religious heritage of the Jewish people.”

We act in exclusive ways when we are worried about about our own people’s future – both on the level of cultural integrity – “I don’t want someone else to come in and change our way of life.” But also on an even more basic level, where we are worried about survival, about “competition for jobs, land, and power.”[8]

Evolutionary scientists tell us that we come by this fear honestly. This quote is based on the work of Professor Victoria Esses at the University of Western Ontario:

Such perceptions [of the danger of the other] were accurate during our history as hunter-gatherers when the appearance of others on our patch meant fewer mastodons or mushrooms for us. If they were close relatives they might share – or at least our common genes would benefit from their success. But anyone displaying different cultural markers was likely to be a competitor.


So we’ve spent 70,000 years thinking that anyone different from us is a threat to our very existence. And we’ve built into that all of the cultural, national, and religious elements that make up our unique identities as humans. You can see why we feel so insecure around people who are different.

So how do you shift that kind of thinking in a world where we are regularly in contact with a diverse set of people? I think it requires rethinking how we define the other.

Return with me for a moment to social science. One of the factors that can help reduce group conflict is finding common goals. In one famous study, a group of boys who didn’t know each other were divided into two groups and given competitive tasks – games and contests. What happened next won’t surprise you – they created team names, burned each other’s flags, ransacked one another’s cabins, and fought with one another. Until, in the second stage of the experiment, the boys were told that some things had gone wrong and they would need to work together to remedy the problems – for example, to get the truck carrying their food out of the mud. Then they were able to work together and the fighting ceased.[9]

When we find common goals, it realigns our sense of who is in our group. That’s actually the power of an idea like Tzelem Elohim – the image of God. It reminds us of what we have in common with all our fellow humans.

About ten years ago, a Morrocan-Canadian businessman named Khalid Mrini put together a hockey team of Moroccan ex-pats based mostly in Montreal. The team was about a third Jewish and about two thirds Muslim – and they became something of a sensation, not only for their hockey skills but also for their ability to put aside old animosities and focus on a common love of the game. Mrini said: “We don’t have weapons, we have sweat. And whether your name is Eli or Mohammed doesn’t matter, you’re going to embrace after you score a goal.”[10]

One of the incredible things that some modern Democracies have done is to make diversity a guiding value of society. I was aware of this last week when I was filling out my application for Canadian citizenship and I read these words:

Canada is a country that embodies multiculturalism and diversity and encourages newcomers to achieve their full potential.[11]

This is central to our group identity as Canadians. This week, Jagmeet Singh responded to a suggestion that he should cut off his turban to look like a Canadian by saying “I think Canadians look like all sorts of people.”

Rather than the old model in which the members of a group are basically homogenous, Canada is built on the idea that what we have in common is mutual respect for what we don’t have in common.

So how do we square that with the Torah’s fear of others? Well, if you remember, the Torah knows of two different kinds of foreigners: the ger and the amim. The ones who live in your village, who you’re supposed to love and include; and the ones who live across the border, who you’re supposed to have nothing to do with.

But what we have to remember is that in the 6th century BCE, most people lived in villages of no more than a few hundred people. Even the bustling metropolis of Jerusalem probably had between 1500 and 2000 people. So if someone new move to town, you knew it. And you knew them. Strangers didn’t stay strangers long.

But today our village is much larger. Today we are more aware of more people living in more places. I can text with someone living across the world. I can read news of from every continent. I can iMessage South Africa; I can email China. I can Facetime with any person in any country.

If the Torah defines the ger as the person who lives among you – the stranger who becomes your neighbour – then in the world of instant global communication, that’s everyone. We have 8 billion neighbours in our village. So we’d better start doing what our tradition recommends, and getting to know them.


This past March, following the horrific shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 Muslim worshippers were killed, we reached out to the mosque down the street. We were one of about 20 Jewish groups that formed “Rings of Peace” during Muslim prayers. We stood outside the Jaffari Centre on Bathurst, we sang songs, and greeted worshippers as they walked in for the service. The idea was to send a message: we stand with you; our community is here for your community. But the effect for me was much more personal. The part that really stuck with me was that I got to shake the hands of hundreds of people as they walked into their mosque. Look into their eyes. Receive their heartfelt thanks.

This is the way that we move people from “other” to “neighbour.” By shaking hands; by knowing each other; by recognizing not only our shared humanity in the larger sense, but our individuality. By knowing each other as people, we can come to see that the other is very much like us.

There is an extraordinary organization in Israel called Tag Meir. It is a coalition of groups from across the religious and political spectrum, and it was formed about 10 years ago in response to what were called “Price Tag attacks,” when extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank would commit reprisal attacks on Palestinians and soldiers. In response, the organizers of Tag Meir began to arrange acts of kindness, to arrange visits to victims of hate crimes – no matter their ethnicity or religion. They’ve made hundreds of these visits in the last decade – busloads of people of all backgrounds visiting and showing solidarity with victims of hate.

Here’s a description from their website of a recent visit:

Yesterday we visited George– a bus driver [who] was violently attacked last Sunday. George told us that during the ride, a group of youths started to call him “Arab, Arab” and threw large stones at him. He was injured in the stomach and back, and even set upon by their dog…

One woman came to George’s aid. She had her head covered – in the Jewish religious style, she brought him water and a first aid kit.

“I want to find her and thank her,” he told us.

We embraced George and promised to continue to be by his side as necessary. George was happy to see our group and even took a selfie![12]

I think that what Tag Meir is doing right is refusing to see this as a problem of one group against another.

Jews vs Arabs. Americans vs migrants. Quebeqois vs newcomers. We’ll never solve our problems that way. These are human issues, and they can’t be solved by sides – only by people. Only by neighbours.

As we enter this new year, may we strive to celebrate all the pieces of our identities – both those that make us different, and those that make us alike. May we reach out to those around us, strive to see the other as an individual – so that he or she may cease to be the other and instead become a neighbour.









[4] Deuteronomy 10:19.

[5] Deuteronomy 7:4.



[8] Sanderson, C and Safdar, S. Social Psychology. Wiley: 2012. p. 332.

[9] Ibid 333.





September 19, 2018 1 comment

(A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779/2018)

Once, a young disciple went off to seek a great teacher. The old master had been hiding in exile for many years. Very few people even knew where he was. But the disciple was persistent. And when he did finally find the sage, the old man gave him a task to perform. One that seemed impossible. The task of lifting a heavy object using only his mind.

The disciple was sure that it couldn’t be done, but not wanting to disappoint the old teacher he skeptically held out his hand and tried to concentrate hard on moving the object. Of course, he failed. He turned to his master and declared, apologetically, “I can’t.” At which point the master reached out his hand in the same manner, and the disciple watched in awe as the object majestically rose out of the swamp and landed gently on the shore.

The young man peered down at his wizened old master and said, “I don’t believe it.”

To which Master Yoda replied, “That is why you fail.”

(You were expecting maybe the Baal Shem Tov?)

270.jpgWhat better way to start Yom Kippur than with one of the world’s great stories of spiritual growth. We all know that Luke Skywalker will go on to become the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, fighting against the Dark Side and ultimately defeating the Emperor. But at this point in the story, he is so full of self-doubt that he seems destined to fail.

So how does Luke go from “I can’t do it” to guardian of peace and justice in the Republic? Well, as Yoda tells him, he needs to “unlearn what he has learned.” He needs to shift his mindset to believe in his own capability.

Luke believes he can’t do it. But Yoda knows that he just can’t do it yet.

We can all relate to Luke in this story. That sense that there is a task in front of you and you just can’t do it. And maybe this time of year most of all. Yom Kippur is a day of Cheshbon Nefesh, of honest self-accounting, where we look back over the goals we had set for ourselves, and assess how we’ve been doing. Where we judge ourselves for our capabilities and our accomplishments and our failures,

We’re often quite hard on ourselves at this time of year. We have high standards, and frankly we don’t always meet them. We spend these ten days focused on the ways that we’ve fallen short – in our work, in our relationships, in our personal lives.

But the truth is, we don’t need Yom Kippur to be hard on ourselves. The psychotherapist Roni Susan Blau writes,

“Since when does anyone need an excuse to beat up on oneself? We are all too familiar with our critical voice — the inner critic who is always willing to offer negative comparisons. Regrets. Should haves and not good enough.”[1]

We are all our own worst critic. And It’s hard to enter into the new year feeling like a failure. It’s hard to feel like you didn’t live up to your own standards and plans. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could take a page our of MasterYoda’s playbook and adopt a different kind of mindset. What if we could know that it’s not that we can’t do it; we just haven’t done it yet?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, believed that this was possible. He wrote that our faults, and our failures, and our “sin[s are] not eradicated… but [rather] awaken a creative force that shapes a new and loftier personality.”[2]

Our past failures can be the driving force in our future success.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, having a growth mindset can change everything. Growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through efforts, strategies, and help from others.“

How-to-develop-a-growth-mindset-A lot of us tend to believe that our basic qualities are fixed. Some people are really smart; others, less smart. Some people have musical talent, or artistic ability, or are good at sports. And other people…not so much. How often do you find yourself saying things like “I’m just not good at financial stuff.” Or “I’m not really a math person.” Or “I can’t spell to save my life.“ We say these things all the time, usually without really even thinking about it. But it turns out that believing them actually makes them true. If you think you can’t do something, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I decide to take up basketball. I get out on the court, and I’m dribbling around. I shoot a three pointer… and I miss – wide by several meters. A terrible shot.  (Those of you who’ve seen me play basketball know that this is not an unrealistic scenario.) What do I do? Well, if I have a fixed mindset, I’m likely to tell myself that I’m just bad at basketball. I’m too short, and I’m not in great shape, and anyway I’m Jewish – Jews don’t play basketball. And with all those thoughts in mind, I’ll abandon my efforts and move on to something more appropriate – like handball, or bridge.

But there is another possibility. What if, instead of the deciding that I’m simply not cut out for basketball, I decide that the problem is that I have a lot more to learn about it. Then what will I do? I’ll ask myself what I need to learn in order make that shot. Then maybe I’ll ask a friend for help. Maybe I’ll read up on technique. And maybe, most importantly, I’ll spend lots of time out on the court practicing. With all that, I’d say I have a decent chance of getting better at basketball. I may not ever become Michael Jordan, but maybe I’ll make that three pointer.

Our mindset influences our actions, and our actions affect our outcomes.

That is the difference between having a fixed mindset, and having a growth mindset. And research shows that it doesn’t only apply to our performance in sports. It applies to everything we do.

What do the voices in your head say?

“I’m not smart enough to take my career to the next level.“
“I don’t have the talent to learn to play piano.“
“I’m a disaster at relationships.”
“I just don’t know how to connect with my daughter / son / parent / sibling.”

Can you imagine a world where, instead of beating ourselves up for our insufficiencies, we saw them as opportunities to grow? Where instead of feeling ashamed of the mistakes we’ve made, we took a step back and asked, “What do I need to learn in order to do this better next time? Can you imagine that world?

Well, it turns out the Torah already did.

In the Torah portion we read tomorrow morning, the people of Israel are just about to cross over into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. But did you know that this is actually already their second attempt?

In the middle of the book of Numbers, we read a parashah called Sh’lach Lecha, which says that the Israelites reached the Promised Land the first time very quickly after the Exodus – a journey of only months from Egypt. There – and many of you know the story – Moses sends a group of spies to scout out the land. The spies enter the land of Israel, tour the whole place, and come back to the rest of the Israelites with a mixed report. They say that on the one hand it is indeed a beautiful land, but that on the other hand the people in it are big and strong and scary. The Israelites rebel out of fear, begging Moses to take them back to Egypt and back to slavery. And God punishes them for it, condemning them to wander in the desert for 40 years before they can finally enter the Promised Land.

We usually understand this as a punishment. The commentators say that the people were faithless and stubborn, that they deserved to die in the desert for rebelling against God. But there is another compelling view that says that it wasn’t a punishment at all. That the Israelites just weren’t ready to enter into the Promised Land yet. We were slaves, and we were still thinking like slaves. We still had a lot to learn. In that view, the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years wasn’t a punishment at all. It was the work we needed to do in order to grow into the task.

We all have a lot to learn. Think back over the goals you set for yourself last year. Maybe it was fixing a relationship, or advancing a project, or learning a new skill. Certainly some of our goals we have met, but we haven’t accomplished everything we set out to do. We haven’t yet reached all of our Promised Lands. If we look upon our failed attempts not with condemnation but with curiosity, then they become opportunities to discover what we still need to learn in order to be successful.

That’s not easy to do. It means shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Shifting from “I can’t get it right” to “I haven’t gotten it right yet.” And we do that by shifting from judgments to questions.

Rather than a judgment: “I’m lousy at finances,” we might ask ourselves “What is it about finances that is holding me back? What skills do I bring to it, and what support do I need to get better at it?”

Rather than a condemnation, “I always screw up my relationships,” we might wonder, “What role do I play in creating relationship challenges? Why do I act the way I do? And what types of relationships do I find satisfying?”

Rather than despair, “I’ve gotten myself stuck in a job I hate,” we might ponder: “What skills am I gaining? How will my current job prepare me to get where I’d eventually like to be?”

A Chinese proverb says that “learning is a treasure that follows your forever.”

This is a deeply held Jewish value as well. As you know, Judaism prizes lifelong learning above almost everything else. We are told in the Talmud that when we learn, God’s presence descends onto us. We are also taught “Talmud Torah k’negged kulam” – that a life of learning is equal to all of the mitzvot, because it leads us to be able to fulfill them better.

In fact, the midrash even portrays God as learning – and as learning from mistakes. In Bamidbar Rabbah (19:33), the midrash on the book of numbers, it points out that there are three times in the Torah when God learns something from Moses, and God changes behaviour accordingly. One of them is the episode of the Golden Calf. Early on after their escape from slavery, the people – scared and unsure at the foot of Mt. Sinai – build and worship an idol. God is incensed and threatens to destroy them. But, according to the Midrash, Moses talks God down, “Whoa, God,” he says, “How can you expect anything different from them? They were idol worshippers in the land of Egypt. Why would they do anything differently here.”

And God essentially says, “You know, you’re right, Moe. Limad’tani – you have taught Me something. And I will change my actions accordingly. I will not destroy the people.”

This passage is doubly interesting for our purposes. Because not only does it portray God as learning and growing. But what God learns in this episode is that the people also need a chance to learn. How could they possibly be expected to be good monotheists when they’ve never been monotheists before? How can they be expected to worship God in this new way when they’ve never practiced it? How can we possibly expect ourselves to overcome our flaws and our faults and our failings on the first try – or the tenth try or even the fiftieth try? It takes a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of practice to reach the Promised Land.

You probably know the joke: A tourist gets out of a cab at Times Square and walks over to a musician who’s playing violin on the street. He asks the musician, “Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
The musician looks up at him and says, “Practice.”

In the end, becoming the selves that we would like to be is a matter of practicing being those selves. A matter of trying, and learning, and trying again. Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, teaches us that this requires making a plan and walking it out. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes:

יהא אדם שם דעותיו תמיד ומשער אותם ומכון אותם – A person should examine their traits, calculate them, and direct them [in the desired direction].[3]

In other words, know yourself, know how you’d like to be, and make a plan for getting there. And then, he goes on:

יעשה וישנה וישלש במעשים – Perform these desired acts once, and a second time, and a third time, and do this constantly until they become easy.[4]

The more we practice something, the more it becomes second nature. Maimonides makes it sound simple, right? Just envision yourself differently, and act that way. But what he’s really saying is that it takes many, many attempts to make a change.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle would have agreed. He said that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit. “ And Albert Einstein, for his part, said, “It’s not that I’m smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”

I’m pretty sure Master Yoda would have agreed.

The most successful, influential people in history have all had one thing in common: they failed a lot. In that sense, we have something in common with Aristotle, Maimonides, Einstein, Babe Ruth, Steve Jobs. We also fail a lot. But that doesn’t make us failures. It means that we are learning and practicing. It means that we are on a journey – step by faltering step – toward the Promised Land.

The German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was once asked whether he was in the practice of putting on t’fillin during morning prayers. Rosenzweig was a liberal and a skeptic, and at the time of asking he did not wear t’fillin. So he thought about the question, and he answered: “Not yet.”

“Not yet” is an affirmation that there might still be meaning for us to make, things for us to learn, growth for us to achieve. It is a recognition that we human beings are always works in progress.

Kol Nidrei v’esarei. All our vows and promises – tonight they pass before our eyes and God’s.

May we enter into the new year with compassion for ourselves. May we strive to look upon our stumbles not as failures but as opportunities to grow. May we replace our judgments with questions, our condemnations with curiosity. And may we hold in our hearts the knowledge that we are not standing still. That we are marching forward, learning as we go, keeping our eyes out for a glimpse of the Promised Land. Even if we don’t know how to get there….yet.


[1] Blau, Roni Susan. “Remember to Forgive Yourself.” Jewish Journal. September 11, 2013.

[2] Qtd in The Yom Kippur Anthology, p. ??

[3] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:4.

[4] Ibid 1:7.

Sharing Our Home: Lessons from a Spider

September 19, 2018 Leave a comment

(Following is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning 5779/2018.)


I had some help writing this sermon…from a spider. I’ll tell you about that in a few minutes, but first, a story.

The midrash tells of a group of people traveling together over the water. They were traveling in a boat large enough that each person had his or her own room, but sometimes resources were scarce. And so it was that one individual, deciding he needed more food, began to cut a hole in the bottom of the boat in order to catch fish from the water below.

His fellow passengers were horrified, “What are you doing?” they cried out.

And he replied, “This is my space, and I am allowed to do as I please here. I am not cutting a hole in your parts of the boat, only in mine.”

The other passengers knew, of course, that it doesn’t work that way. A hole anywhere in the hull would let water into the entire boat. So they reasoned with the man, all promising to share resources with each other, and thankfully they were able to stop him from cutting the hole that would have sunk them all.[1]

This midrash may well be the origin of the saying “We’re all in the same boat.”


Judaism does teach this idea that we are all in the same boat – that we need each other and that we are better off them we share and support each other. In fact, that is one of the central ideas of Jewish thought. Literally.

This afternoon we will read it from the centre of the Torah  – the central section of the central book of our holiest scroll. (It also happens to be my bar mitzvah portion, but that’s not really the point.) The middle of Leviticus is a section called the Holiness Code – because it tells the laws of living a holy life. Laws about worship; laws about giving tzedakah and caring for the poor. Ritual laws, ethical laws. Everything that goes into creating a fair and equitable and holy society. That’s what’s at the centre of the Torah. And that the centre of the centre is Leviticus 19:18:

וְאָֽהַבְתָ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָמ֑וֹךָ     – You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

There aren’t many things that all Jews agree on. (You’ve all heard the saying that when if have two Jews, you have three opinions.) But we pretty much all agree on this – it’s nice to love your neighbour as yourself.

We don’t agree, however, on what constitutes a neighbour. Many of the traditional commentators understand this passage to refer only to fellow Jews. Rabbi Gunther Plaut explains that “strictly speaking, rei-a refers to [a] fellow Israelite, rather than to a[ny] neighbour.”[2]

But in our modern world, we are much more inclined to see this passage as referring to all human beings. After all, we live in an incredibly diverse and multicultural society, and it seems to us to be an important Jewish value to treat all our human neighbours with respect, regardless of their religion or background.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if it might even apply a little further than that. Which brings me back to my spider friend.

What you need to know as background is that I have been deathly afraid of spiders ever since I saw the movie Arachnophobia at age 11. I don’t actually remember the plot of that movie very well – all I remember is that a big, scary spider stowed away on a flight to North America, where it and its evil spawn terrorized people for the next hour and a half while I held tight to the armrest and brushed phantom creepy crawlies off of my body. I was definitely too young to see that movie. And I’ve been afraid of spiders for almost 30 years because of it.

So you can imagine my reaction when, about two weeks ago, I opened my back sliding door to find a web, and a big brown spider right in my face. I must have jumped 2 feet off the ground. I slammed the door shut, and went to find a bottle of anything – some kind of chemical to spray on it and kill it. But by the time I got back with the Windex in my hand, the spider was gone.

IMG_2657So what could I do? I double locked the back door (you know, in case the spider could open the first lock). I turned on the TV, and proceeded to spend the rest of the evening once again brushing creepy crawlies off of my body and glancing over at the back door again and again.

Next morning, I broke the web down with a toy light-sabre, and went off to work, where there are no spiders to terrorize me. And that night, I noticed that the spider was back, and that it had rebuilt the web. I started to reach for the Windex again, but for some reason this time my curiosity beat out my fear. I started googling, trying to figure out what kind of spider it was, and I discovered that what I had here was a cross orb weaver. They are often brown; they live in Ontario. They are not poisonous to people. (That made me feel better.) And as I kept reading I discovered that this type of spider tends to pick a single location and build a web there. Then it hides all day long, before coming back out night after night to fix its web and to feed. In other words, this spider had chosen my sliding door frame as its new home. I had a new neighbour.

Over the last couple of weeks, that spider has become something of a fixture at our house. The kids have named it, not surprisingly, Charlotte. And I actually look forward to its appearance in the doorframe every night.

So when I say that the spider helped me write this sermon, what I mean is that this new – uh… – living situation has gotten me thinking about what it is to share a home with a neighbour. And in a larger sense, what it is to share our planet home with many neighbours – with the teeming multitudes of living things around us.

Now the fact is, we human beings aren’t very accustomed to thinking of ourselves sharing our home. At least, not sharing as equals. We tend to think of ourselves as the owners of this planet, probably in part because that’s what the Biblical tradition has taught us for thousands of years.

The Torah teaches that when God created the world, humanity was created last – on the sixth day of creation. We were created after light and dark, after water and land, after plants, birds, insects, and other animals. We were created as the culmination of everything, and we were given dominion over the planet.

וַיִבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְצַלְמ֔וֹ – God created human beings in the Divine Image. And God said to us:

פְר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – Be fruitful, and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. You shall rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.[3]

That’s serious power put into the hands of human beings. Nachmanides, the medieval Spanish commentator, explains that: “God gave us the strength and the power on earth to do as we wish with animals and insects and other things that creep in the dust. To build, and to uproot what has been planted.“

And so we have. Armed with that knowledge, we have indeed וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – we have “subdued the earth.“ We have remade this planet in our own image. Think about how we live today. We spend most of our time inside temperature controlled buildings. We drive fuel burning cars from place to place, hardly ever stepping outside except to walk across a parking lot. Our food comes from factory farms in other countries, grown in quantities we can’t even fathom for the billions of people on earth. We rarely see the stars – there’s too much artificial light in the city anyway. We spend far more time looking at screens than we do looking at trees. We have created an artificial world instead of living in the natural world.

We have become, you might say, devastatingly disconnected from the planet that we are living on. And the result for our planet has been devastating as well.

Even as we sit here today, people in the Carolinas, and people in the Philippines and Hong Kong, are beginning to try to rebuild their lives after being battered this weekend by the latest of what we used to call “once in a century storms.” These days, century storms come every year. Things on our planet are changing for the worse.

Ten years ago, in only my second High Holy Days as a rabbi, I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the Jewish connection to the environment. (It’s a topic that has always been important to me – I wrote my rabbinical thesis on it.) So it was interesting in writing this piece to look back at what I wrote then. And what I found is that even in the last ten years, the rhetoric has changed quite a bit. Because the ecological crisis has worsened quite a bit. A decade or two ago, we were talking about what the effects of Global Warming would be if we continued on our path. Today, we know that we are living with those effects on a daily basis.

Last month, Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic that we are living “in [a] new global reality, where each passing year is the hottest on record…” and where we are dealing regularly with “heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, and other extreme events.”[4]

This is our world. Every year, the hurricanes are getting bigger. Every year the summers are getting hotter. Every year’s wildfires seem to be the largest and most destructive on record. Food disparities are growing, especially in poor and vulnerable places. There is an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. And up to 150 species of plants and animals are going extinct every single day.[5]

In 2018, we are living on a planet that is changing on a daily basis, and not for the better. It is becoming less hospitable to human life. It is becoming less biologically diverse. We have taken the Torah’s idea of וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – of subduing the earth – and we have turned it into our reality.

It is difficult to think that our Jewish tradition may be in some way responsible for shaping the attitudes that have led to this crisis. But that is the case. As Reform Jews, it is our responsibility to look back at our people’s texts and to understand what they meant and what they mean. In teaching us that we were the pinnacle of creation, our sacred texts gave us license to behave in ways that have devastated our world. I don’t believe that the writers of the Torah did this on purpose. But I do think that ancient people didn’t have a sense of the power that we humans would ultimately have to shape and reshape our environment.

But we modern people do understand that. And that makes it our responsibility to look back into the texts to find other ways to understand them. And specifically, to find a new way of framing our relationship to the earth and with other living things.

The good news is – if we look, it’s there to be found.

The midrash tells that when God created the first human being, God gave him the job of naming all the animals. One by one, God brought each animal forward and the man said, “This one is an ox (shor), and this one is a donkey (chamor), and this one is camel (gamal). And onward and onward until he had given a thoughtful name to every animal.

This midrash is part of a larger tradition in the second chapter of Genesis that says that other living things were created not as our subjects, but as our companions and partners.

The Torah says:

וַיֹ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְנֶגְדּֽוֹ – “God looked upon the human being and said “It is not good for him to be alone. I will make a companion for him.”

And so God made wild beasts, and birds of the sky, and things that creep on the earth – to live alongside us and to share our world with us.

And the Rabbis teach that each creature matters. This is from Exodus Rabbah (and it’s one of my very favourite Rabbinic texts). It says:

Even those creatures you think of as being unnecessary in the world, like flies, and fleas and gnats, nevertheless have their allotted task in the scheme of creation.[6]

(In another version, instead of flies and gnats it says snakes and scorpions. You can take your pick!)

Here are the framers of Jewish tradition looking around at the world and seeing it as a beautiful and finely balanced system. And they argue that every creature – every tree, every plant, every animal – even the ones that we think of as pests – are reflections of God‘s wisdom. As it says in the Torah,

וַיַ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָל־אֲשֶ֣ר עָשָ֔ה וְהִנֵה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד – God looked upon everything that had been made, and it was very good.

This is a wholly different view of the world than the one that says our job is to subdue and conquer it. And it teaches us something different about ourselves as well. For that, I need to go back and finish the story.

After the first man had finished naming all of those animals, God went to the man and asked him, “What about you? What is your name?”

He replied, “The name adam – human being – fits me?”

“And why is that?” asked God.”

To which the first man replied, “I shall be called adam, because I was fashioned out of adamah – out of the earth.” [7]

This is the other great lesson of the Torah. We’re not here to rule over and subdue the earth. We are here because we come from the earth. Far from being something separate and above creation, we are connected to all other living beings. They are our neighbours. They are our family.

Science teaches us the same lesson. Most people who have taken high school biology know that human beings share a common ancestor with other apes that lived around 5 or 7 million years ago. If we go back further in time, we find that we also have such common ancestors with every other creature on earth. Our common ancestor with rodents lived 75 million years ago. We diverged from dogs, bears, hippos, and whales about 85 million years ago. From crocodiles and birds around 300 million years ago. It was maybe 590 million years ago that we split off from insects, and in the billions of years ago that we diverged from mushrooms and plants and bacteria. And about 4 billion years ago that the first living cell – the one that would give rise to all life on earth – came into being in the primordial soup of our young planet.[8]

All life on earth is descended from a single cell. I don’t mean a single celled organism (though it was that), I mean a single cell. One cell – that divided, and divided again, and diverged, and evolved until billions of years later it had yielded the incredible diversity we see around us, The diversity that we are a part of.

In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the Rabbis say that God created only one human being at the beginning of time so that no one could say to another person “My ancestors are better than yours.” Maybe that midrash ought to go back a few billion more years, to the single cell that gave rise to all of us.

Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah – a time to consider our values, and to account honestly for our actions and their consequences. If we are honest, we will know that our sense of ourselves as rulers of this planet has had real consequences – for ourselves, and for every other form of life with whom we share it. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We have not been good stewards of this planet. We have forgotten that we are all in the same boat.

In the Torah it teaches that God took Adam, the newly formed human being, and placed him in the garden ‏לשומרה ולעבודה – to work the land, and preserve it. Accordingly, what we are is not rulers, but gardeners – responsible for the upkeep of our world. In fact, we have a dual responsibility – both to do what we can to preserve the earth, and to live our lives with appreciation for what we have been given.

As you know, it is a common Jewish practice to say blessings. We say blessings over foods that we eat, and over things that we drink. But it is also traditional to say a blessing when we experience some beautiful or wondrous element of creation. There is a blessing for hearing thunder; and one for seeing the ocean. There is a blessing for seeing a rainbow, and one for smelling something sweet. And when we see an animal or plant or thing of natural beauty, it is traditional to say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכָּֽכָה לּוֹ בְּעוֹלָמוֹ. – Blessed are you, Eternal God, whose world is like this!

Imagine if, just a few times a day, we were to look around and find something of beauty, something to appreciate, and say such a blessing. Imagine if we spent our days aware of our power and our responsibility to preserve what God has given us

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that by saying blessings we’re going to save the planet. We have very big problems and they will require global solutions. But I do believe that shifts in thinking lead to shifts in behavior. If we can begin see ourselves as part of the earth – if we think of ourselves as adam who is born from adamah, then it can shift the way we relate to the planet and to other creatures. Maybe I’ll think twice about throwing out that plastic that may end up in the ocean. Maybe I’ll put more consideration into the source of my food and whether some other creature’s habitat was destroyed to produce it. Maybe I’ll shop and eat and consume goods differently than I do now. Maybe I’ll even let that spider stay on my back porch.

638831main_globe_east_2048.jpgThe great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once surprised his students by insisting that he needed to visit Switzerland. So he and his students together traveled take in the majesty of the Swiss mountains and valleys. And when their travels were over, the rabbi’s students asked him, “Why did you insist on traveling in Switzerland?” Rabbi Hirsch responded, “When I reach the gates of heaven, I will be asked many questions. And I will have good answers for most of them. But what am I going to say when God asks me, “Nu, Samson, did you see my Alps?” [9]

May we – creatures of the earth yet made in God’s image – be the ones to ensure that God’s Alps, and God’s oceans, and God’s rivers and valleys and plants and creatures will still be here for future generations to see.

May we remember that adam comes from adamah. That this is the only planet we have, and we have many neighbours to share it with.

And may we look around us and know that Hineh Tov M’od, that this world is good and beautiful and worth of preservation. And that it is our responsibility to do so. If not us, then who? If not now, when?

I think Charlotte would agree.


[1] Misod Chachamim.

[2] Plaut, W. G. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition). Union for Reform Judaism, New York: 2005. p. 799.

[3] Genesis 1:27-28.



[6] Exodus Rabbah 10:1.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 17:4.

[8] Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale. Phoenix, London: 2004.

[9] Adapted from Martin Gordon, Journal of Jewish Thought, 1985, page 123, as quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, 1994, page 230.

Finding Your “Calling”

October 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Two Jews, two Protestants, and two Catholics walk into a hospital.

It sounds like a joke, but it’s actually the way I spent the summer of 2005. Like many rabbinical students, I participated in an intensive unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), learning how to be a chaplain. My compatriots in this endeavour did indeed constitute the punch line of a joke – two protestant ministers, two students in priesthood, and a fellow student rabbi. Together the 6 of us explored what it is to care for and serve others in times of need.

As part of that process, there was a lot of talk about purpose. I remember that my Christian colleagues often used the language of being “called.” Called to ministry; called to serve others; called by God. And while I understood the power of that language for them, I rejected it internally. I just don’t think about God that way – I don’t believe that God calls me, or chooses things for me, or that the work I do is part of some larger plan. That always felt like somebody else’s way of seeing the world, and maybe even some other religion’s way of seeing the world.

But it turns out that the language of being called by God is deeply Jewish. This past week we read in the Torah about Abraham:

God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

This is the beginning of the Jewish journey, and it begins with a call from God: Abraham is called to leave the life he knows and to begin a new endeavor – because it is what he is meant to do.

And that got me thinking about things we are meant to do. A few years ago, I read a book that affected me deeply – The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife by James Hollis. Hollis is a Jungian psychologist, and he argues that what we affectionately call the “midlife crisis” (you know, when you quit your job, buy a flashy new car, or take a year off to backpack in Asia because your life is depressing you) isn’t a crisis at all – it is a passage from one stage of adulthood to another. In the “first adulthood,” we busy ourselves with building and proving – building careers and families, proving our worth to the world and to ourselves. But in the second half of adulthood – for those who make it there – we are moved to live by our own values, to live the lives that are in concert with our true selves. Part of that, he writes, can be the shift from holding a “job” to seeking a “vocation.”

A job is what we hold to earn money to meet economic demands. A vocation (from Latin vocatus, calling) is what we are called to do with our life’s energy…. We do not really choose a vocation, rather it chooses us. (Hollis, The Middle Passage, page 72) all have things that we do that light us up, that engage us so fully that it is as though we are meant to be doing them. Often, time seems to move more quickly – think of the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun.” Mihali Csikszentmihalyi, another respected psychologist, calls this phenomenon “Flow,” and argues that we are happier and more productive  when we do the things that enter us into Flow. We are also more likely to be successful at what we do, because we love what we are doing. That’s the lesson of Abraham. What did he do with the first 75 years of his life? We don’t know – it doesn’t matter. We’re more concerned with his incredible success and productivity once he found his life’s calling.

So maybe I should stop gritting my teeth when my minister friends talk about God calling them to their work. Because, in the end, I really do believe in this concept. I know that when I am writing or teaching the world feels different to me than at any other moment. Time moves faster; the world seems brighter; I feel happier and more alive. And it’s different for everyone – one person might enter into Flow while crunching numbers, while another might be called by the work of visiting the sick. Some of us are lucky enough to find our calling in the work that we are already doing; others must look outside their job to hobbies or volunteer work, or even to career changes. (That explains why my mother moved 20 years ago from nursing to selling chocolate – thank you Mom!)

Wherever we find it, it is worth our while to go looking. To strain to hear the calling – from God, from the universe, from our own inner being – that tells us what our life’s work is. Having a job may be the way to sustain your body, but finding your calling is the way to sustain your soul.

Starting the Day Off Right

October 19, 2017 Leave a comment

This morning, when I first opened my eyes, I looked at the time and said “Aw, sh*t….”

Those were the actual first words I uttered today.

Granted, it had been a particularly rough night. I had gone to bed late, and had been up once with the dog, once with a kid, and once with a disturbing dream. So I was tired, and I really didn’t want to be awake. Hence, “Aw, sh*t….”

And yet, that’s not necessarily so different from the way that many of my mornings start: with anxiety, or unease or worry about something I’m not looking forward to. I’m sure I’m not the only one: How many of us start almost every day feeling stressed and tired? We can’t possibly be setting ourselves up for success by starting the day with negative emotions. The first event of the day sets the tone for the rest of the day. And when the first event of the day is “Aw, sh*t,” we’re already starting from a deficit.

That’s why, starting tomorrow, I’m going to choose a different way to start my days.

When the Dalai Lama was asked how a person can cultivate happiness, he answered that it’s about how you start your day:

Every day, think as you wake up, “Today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.”

When I first read this, I found it really moving, both because it’s so simple yet profound, and also because Judaism teaches something very similar. It is traditional to start your day with the following prayer:

I am grateful to You, Eternal Sovereign, for returning my soul to me. Great is your faithfulness.
Modeh ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’kayam,  shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla. Rabbah emunatecha.

There is a Jewish tradition that says that every night while you’re sleeping, God takes your soul for safekeeping. Then, when you wake up in the morning, God returns it to your body. Hence you wake up uttering these words of thanks for the return of your soul. I don’t literally believe in that story (God knows I needed my soul to deal with the dog, the kid, and the dream last night), but I love the idea of starting each day feeling grateful – for another day of life, for opportunities to learn and grow and love, for simply being alive.

So I think I’d like to take control of how I start my day. Rather than grabbing my phone and checking email, or snoozing the alarm clock, or stressing about my first meeting of the morning, I’d like to take a few deep breaths and find something to be grateful for. Sometimes that might mean saying the Modeh Ani prayer in Hebrew or English. Other times it might mean saying the Dalai Lama’s affirmation. And perhaps sometimes I’ll look for something specific – some blessing or person or happy event that has brought some goodness into my life. I’m positing that starting each morning with gratitude will have a positive effect on the rest of my day, and I’m willing to spend 30 seconds a day to find out.

Anybody want to try it with me?

Hineini: Celebrating Jewish Choices

October 1, 2017 Leave a comment

NOTE: This is the sermon that I delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5778 (2017). It gives the thinking behind my decision to begin officiating at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner.

In ancient times, long before they were synagogues or rabbis or prayerbooks, there was the shofar.

In those days, the shofar was sounded outdoors, in the Temple courtyard at the centre of Jerusalem. And it was meant to call the people to be present. When there was threat of war, the shofar was sounded and the people would come together to serve their nation. At festival times, it called them to gather at the Temple and celebrate. And at the New Year, it summoned them to be present because the holiest day of the year was approaching.

The High Holy Days are a time when we are called upon to be present – both physically and spiritually. The shofar calls us to mindful awareness. And the Torah portions for the High Holy Days reflect this idea as well. Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akeida – the very challenging story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son. Three times during that passage the patriarch’s name is called – once by God, once by Isaac, and once by an angel. And each time, Abraham answers “Hineini.”

The word Hineini literally means “Here I am.” But it signifies much more than a physical location. It is, according to Rabbi Gershom Barnard, a statement of “openness and responsiveness” to the other.[1] When Abraham says Hineini – to his son, to God, to anybody – he is saying “I am here with you and here for you.” He is opting into a relationship.

The Torah portion for this morning also speaks to that act of opting into relationship – this time on a communal level. In this parashah, our people are standing all together in the wilderness, and Moses says to them:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem.
Today, ALL of you stand before Adonai your God.
Men, women and children. Chieftains, wood choppers and water drawers. Even the stranger who lives among us.

And in so doing, he says, by being present today you enter into covenant.

This is a description of our people saying Hineini – entering into a relationship with God and with each other. One of the most powerful things about this parashah is how careful it is to make clear that the covenant includes everybody who is present – regardless of gender, occupation, socioeconomic status. Even regardless of religious or ethnic background, since the ger, the non-Jew is included as well. This is a purposeful choice. It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim – We stand together, everyone whose mother is Jewish.” Or “Atem nitzavim, everyone who keeps kosher and had a Bar Mitzvah.” It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim – “Everyone who eats bagels and knows how to swear in Yiddish” (though I’d like to read that Torah). It says that we all stand together – all of us who have chosen to be here.

In order to fully grasp the power of this statement, we have to recognize the fundamental truth that Jewish life is a choice. This has always been true to some extent, but it is especially true in the 21st century. Alan Dershowitz writes that “we are witnessing a significant diminution of the external factors that have traditionally” kept Jews insulated.[2] In past ages, anti-Semitic social exclusion and sometimes even legal requirement made sure that Jews essentially stayed within the Jewish community. But in 2017, there are no outside forces compelling us to affiliate or participate in Judaism. To be sure, we might feel guilt (most of us do have Jewish mothers after all). We might feel family pressure or social pressure. We might feel the weight of history. But at the end of the day, all of us are Jews by choice.

On the one hand, that’s a scary thought. Because it means that all of this is entirely voluntary – any one of us could simply stand up, walk out that door, and never return. And lots of people have. That’s why the Jewish community has been obsessing over this for 20 years – organizing conferences on “Jewish continuity,” and writing articles about the threat of assimilation.

But the other side of that same coin is the recognition that if Jewish life is entirely a choice, that means that millions of us are making that choice every single day.

That is something to celebrate.

Every person in this room represents someone who has chosen to participate in Jewish life. Every member of every synagogue and JCC, every donor to Federation or JNF, represents someone who has opted into Jewish community. And so, by the way, does every candle lit on a Friday night, and every dreidel that is spun, and every Seder plate that is lifted, and every child who is called to the Torah, AND…every couple that stands under a chuppah.

I believe that the role of the Jewish community in the 21st century is to celebrate and nurture Jewish choices – to recognize when individuals are saying Hineini, are saying “Here we are,” and to say Hineini right back to them. And along those lines, I’d like to talk to you about a change that I have decided to make in my rabbinic practice.

Over the course of my time in the rabbinate, I have been approached a number of times by couples who were seeking to be married in a Jewish ritual – who wanted to stand under a chuppah, to say prayers in Hebrew, and to be married by a rabbi – even though one of the partners was not Jewish. Up until now, I have always politely said no to officiating those ceremonies. Starting now, in many circumstances, I plan to say yes.

Saying yes to those weddings comes from a place of wanting to acknowledge – in fact, wanting to celebrate – the couple’s Jewish choice. It comes out of a firm conviction that interfaith families are Jewish families, especially when they are welcomed in and given the tools they need to live Jewish lives. And it comes out of my belief that opening our doors wider, creating a welcoming and inclusive community, is the best way both to nurture Jewish families and to build a Jewish future.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. This idea has been present in Judaism since the very first Jews.

The midrash teaches that Abraham and Sarah would keep their tent open on all sides so that they could greet guests and welcome them. They did so because Hachnasat Orchim – welcoming the stranger – is a fundamental Jewish value. But it turns out that it was also a pretty good way to build their tribe. The Torah says that when Abraham and Sarah first arrived in the land of Israel, they already had with them a whole group of people who had been welcomed in, with whom they had shared food and learning and ritual, and who had committed themselves to Jewish life and to the Jewish future.

In other words, the sharing of ritual and learning became an opportunity to foster a longer-term relationship through which people came to say “Hineini,” through which people opted to become part of the community. Of course, in those days people mostly converted to Judaism in order to opt in. And that’s often still the case. But more and more, we are blessed to have individuals who join our synagogues, who marry Jews and raise Jewish children, and who are seeking to be participants in Jewish life, but for whatever reason do not want to become Jewish themselves. I think it’s important to recognize all the ways that those individuals are opting in. Abraham and Sarah’s approach teaches us that by saying yes, by engaging them, and learning with then, we can foster a relationship.

And interestingly enough, what the Patriarchs knew 3000 years ago has been corroborated much more recently by sociological data. Major surveys of the American Jewish population (since we don’t have any similar data yet in Canada), show that there has been an important shift in the habits of intermarried families over the last 25 years. I learned from Dr. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University that in 1990, only 26% of all intermarried couples that included a Jew were raising their children Jewish[3], but by 2013, the number had risen to 63%[4] – nearly 2/3 of those couples considered themselves to be raising their children as Jews.

That is a startling shift in 23 years – from 26% to 63%. So what changed during the interim? Among other things, the Jewish community shifted significantly in its attitude toward interfaith families. Led largely by the leadership of the Reform movement, congregations started working to become more inclusive, and to shift the discourse from the threat of intermarriage to welcoming interfaith families. And in turn, interfaith families began to opt in – to congregational membership, to religious school, to other forms of participation in Jewish life. In other words, when the community opened its door to them, they said “Hineini.” They said, “Here we are.”

Our congregation has been doing that kind of work as well. For years now, we have been thoughtfully exploring what it means to us to be an inclusive and welcoming community – through study sessions, and sermons, and Scholar in Residence weekends. Our Interfaith Committee, which many of you are aware of, is another very important manifestation of this valuable work. They have been working for a year now to learn about the experience of our members – both interfaith and otherwise. And they will be leading us in a series of discussions about community, ritual, and governance matters starting October 14. (The outcomes of these discussions, by the way, are not in any way determined. That’s why we need to have the discussions.)

I’m proud that Kol Ami has put inclusiveness at the centre of its identity. My decision – to officiate at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner – is one piece of a much larger puzzle, as we work to figure out our congregational approach to these important questions.

So let me tell you some of the specifics of what I’m planning.

First, I’m not making a blanket statement that I’ll officiate every wedding. I’ll have to work with couples individually to determine if what they’re interested in is what I do. I plan to perform a Jewish ceremony, one that includes the basic rituals and symbols of the traditional Jewish wedding, though with some of the language changed a bit to make it appropriate to a mixed couple). And I don’t intend to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy or to perform weddings that include blended religious symbols or rituals. But even more important than all of that, I want to take a page out of Abraham and Sarah’s playbook – I want to have the ritual be an opportunity for a relationship. Each time I perform a wedding, I will have spent the year before that wedding meeting with the couple, engaging in study, having important conversations – about Judaism and about what it is to build a home together. And at the same time I’ll be asking them to be part of the congregation, encouraging them to attend services and immerse themselves in the community. My hope is that we can transform a 20 minute ceremony into a lifetime of Jewish living and learning.

I also want to make clear that I don’t intend to remove conversion from the table as an option. Becoming Jewish is a beautiful process and a deeply personal decision. I look forward to continuing to work with those who choose that journey into becoming part of Am Yisrael, part of the people of Israel. At the same time, though, I believe that there should be an option for those for are seeking to be part of Jewish life, but for whom conversion is not the right decision.

Now I know that this is a big change. I know there will be questions and concerns, or you may just want to talk to me about how I made this decision and what it means. So I want to invite you to please reach out to me. You can call or email or make an appointment. I look forward to talking to you about it.

I have to share with you how excited I am about this change. I think it reflects the values our congregation; and for me personally, it truly feels like an expression of my beliefs and my rabbinic conscience. I believe that we have the chance to welcome and engage families who might otherwise feel marginalized, and to give them the tools to lead rich Jewish lives as part of a welcoming synagogue. And at the same time, to enrich our congregational life in immeasurable ways by embracing those who choose to stand beside us on this journey. As it says in this morning’s Torah portion: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem.We stand – all of us – as one community.

There is a widely circulated story about Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism who was a professor of homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently his practice was to give a sermon to the class each Monday, and then assign one of the students to give a sermon on the same parashah that Friday. And he was well known for his blistering criticism of every sermon.
So one Monday a particularly creative student copied down Rabbi Kaplan’s sermon word for word, and when Friday came, he simply delivered it back exactly as it had been given. When he finished, Kaplan stood up and thundered, “That was terrible!” To which the student replied, “Rabbi, that was the sermon that you gave on Monday.” And Dr. Kaplan responded, “Yes, but I have grown since then.”

As Jews, we are always growing and evolving. Always reaching towards new understandings, and striving for new answers to ancient questions.

This year, may we recognize that our community also grows in strength, with each new voice that is welcomed into it.

May we, like our ancestors, hear the call of the shofar as an invitation to be present for one another, to reach out to those who are sharing in this Jewish journey with us.

And may we say Hineini – may we say “Here I am” – to each other and to the Jewish future.



[2] Dershowitz, Alan M. The Vanishing American Jew. Page 29.

[3] National Jewish Population Survey, 1990.

[4] Pew Survey of American Jewry, 2013.

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