Posts Tagged ‘Sermons’

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.




Echad: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5780

September 30, 2019 3 comments

Chaim Yankl needed a new pair of pants. So he bought some of the finest material he could find and brought it to a tailor. He came back after a week, and the pants weren’t ready yet. After two weeks, still not ready. Three weeks, four weeks, five. Chaim Yankl was starting to get impatient. Finally after six weeks his new pants were ready. He tried them on, and they were perfect. They fit perfectly; they felt amazing; every seam and every cuff was impeccable.

Chaim Yankl thanked the tailor and paid, but as he was leaving he had to stop and ask: “You know,” he said, “ it only took God six days to make the whole world. But you it took six weeks to make just one pair of pants.”

The tailor looked at him , shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Yeah, but look at these pants, and look at this world!”
Unfortunately, Chaim Yankl’s tailor has a point. Unlike a pair of pants that can be crafted to perfect specifications, our world is a little less than perfect. Hunger. Homelessness. War. The Syrian refugee crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global warming. There are a few things wrong around here.

On Rosh Hashanah, when we come together to celebrate Harat Olam –the day of the world’s birth we have to acknowledge that this world that we are celebrating can sometimes be a confusing and even painful place to live.

One of Judaism’s central messages about the world is that it is broken. We talk all the time about Tikkun Olam – the mitzvah of repairing the world.  That idea has crept into our Jewish consciousness. And that’s a good thing: Tikkun Olam is a very empowering concept, because it teaches us that we CAN make a difference with little things that we do.

But the downside to all of our talk about Tikkun Olam, about repair, is the focus on brokenness. If you spend all your time living in a broken world, then it becomes easy to turn that thinking on yourself. To feel like the problems are too big, too insurmountable. There’s just too much to do. And so we worry a lot. We worry about sickness; we worry about loss. We worry about our world’s wellbeing and about our own health. We worry about our day-to-day responsibilities – about work and career and money. We worry about our future, and about our children’s future. It’s enough to make any resident of this old, broken world feel a little broken themselves.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the famous Hasidic Rebbe, is said to have spent portions of his life in deep sadness and overwhelm. He would withdraw from his students and his loved ones. He would perseverate on all that was wrong around him and all that was wrong within him. It may have been what prompted one of his most famous quotes:

כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד
All the world is a very narrow bridge.
והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
The most important thing is not to be afraid.

Many of us can relate to that experience – of feeling regularly overwhelmed. Of feeling anxious. Feeling like no matter how hard you try, you’re just not getting to enough. You’re just not fixing enough. You yourself are just not enough.

Do you ever wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night with a sense that something is wrong, or there something you’ve forgotten? And then you search your mind trying to figure out what it is, and of course you find 10 things that are wrong. Some little, some big. Some personal, some global.

And that’s how we start so many of our days – with a list of what we have to fix in order to set things right.

But here’s the thing. Something is always going to be wrong, because we live in an imperfect world. If we start our day looking for what’s broken around us and what’s broken inside us, you can rest assured we’ll find it.  And that means we have to find a different way to start our day.

As much as we value Tikkun Olam, we can’t fix our sense of brokenness by trying to fix everything around us. We just can’t wait for the world to feel whole in order to feel whole inside. We need to look elsewhere.

Judaism has understood for a very long time the sense of brokenness that people sometimes carry through the world. And it offers us another idea to carry with us. An idea that is built around wholeness:

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Hear, O Israel, the Eternal our God is one.

The Shema is not a prayer. It comes from the Torah, from a moment of deep uncertainty. Our people are about to cross over into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. They are also about to lose their leader, since Moses is dying.  They must have been excited, but they must have also been worried, and afraid of what they would encounter there. So Moses says to them: Shema Yisrael – listen up, people of Israel, don’t forget that Adonai echad. Don’t forget that God is one.

This is Judaism’s most central teaching. Through it all – through all the pain and anxiety and brokenness in our world, our tradition continues to insist that there is a oneness, a unity, that underlies all things. A oneness in our universe; a oneness in humanity; and a oneness even within ourselves. Learning to recognize that oneness may just be one of the most important and transformational things we can do for ourselves and for our world.


Part 1: Oneness in the universe.

Tomorrow morning we will read from the Torah’s account of creation. It says:
וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה
The Eternal God formed the first human being out of the dust of the earth.

This is one of the first things Judaism tells us about being human – that we come from the earth. But mostly we don’t listen to it. In fact, it has been our tendency as humans to separate ourselves from the world. To divide between natural and artificial, between indoors and outdoors. It is human nature to want to explore, conquer, and problem solve. So naturally we have looked upon our world as something to be explored, and conquered, and problem solved. With our smartphones, our electric lights, our rapid transit and our air conditioned homes, we have built an artificial world and cordoned ourselves off from the natural one.

I realized this last summer at Camp George when I lay on the dock at night and looked up at the stars. I was blown away by the sheer enormity and beauty of it all. I thought to myself: I’d like to see the stars every night. Which is when I realized that most of my ancestors throughout history did see the stars every night. It’s just me, as a 21st century city dweller, who rarely gets the chance.

There is something we’ve lost or forgotten – something about who we are and where we come from. And it’s bad for our planet, as we can see around us. And it’s bad for us also. It can’t possibly be good for us never to see the stars. It can’t possibly be good for us to spend our lives surrounded by air-conditioning and plastic Tupperware rather than by trees and birds and soil. We are like a child who has forgotten its origins.. No wonder we feel disconnected. No wonder we feel a little broken.

If we want to begin to repair that sense of disconnect, it won’t be by fixing everything in the world. It will be by developing a sense of awe for the world.

Dr. Daniel Matt writes in his book God and the Big Bang, that we human beings are “literally made of stardust.” Using good Biblical language, he says: “In the beginning was the big bang. The primordial vacuum… was pregnant with potential, teeming with virtual particles…. [As it expanded and cooled,] stable atoms of hydrogen and helium [began to form], which billions of years later would grow into galaxies and stars….. [When a star dies,] it explodes, forging heavier elements: copper, silver, tin, mercury, lead… which recycle themselves into new stellar systems” – stars, planets, the life that may form on those planets. We are made of stardust.

Judaism teaches something similar when it says that human beings are made from afar min ha-adamah – from the dust of the earth. It is a reminder, that the world isn’t just someplace we live, someplace to fix – it is something that we are part of.  A vast oneness that is the ground of our very existence.

So maybe that’s what we mean when we declare Adonai Echad – when we declare that God is one. Maybe we mean that everything that exists is part of an unfathomably enormous and beautiful and Godly oneness, and that despite the very real problems that surround us, we stand in awe – in sheer, inexplicable awe – of this thing that we are part of.  Call it God; call it the multiverse; call it the mystery of creation.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel: this holiness that surround us, this universe is One.

This gives us a whole different way to understand the world. If everything is one, it means recognizing the interconnectedness of all things – that my actions here can have an effect on a neighbour across town or an ecosystem across the globe.

If everything is one, it means recognizing our own smallness. Knowing that we are only one incarnation of existence in a tiny corner of a universe that we barely understand.

If everything is one, it means affirming that there is a spark of the divine in everything and everyone. That all things have holiness, that all people are a part of God.


Part 2: Oneness in humanity

When the Rabbis of the Talmud read about Creation, they have a question: Why did God begin the world by creating only one human being, only Adam? And they answer: God created only one human being, so that no one might say to anyone else, “My ancestors were better than yours.”

The message of Torah is that we human beings share a common ancestry and a common destiny. Not unlike the universe, whose elements are intimately connected to one another, so is the wellbeing of a single human tied to the wellbeing of humanity.

And to illustrate that deep, important philosophical concept, here’s another joke:

Doctor Jacobs finished his examination and informed Herman that he was in perfect health. Herman moaned, “But doctor, what about the headaches I’ve been having?”
Dr Jacobs brushed it off, “Herman, I’m not at all worried about your headaches.”
To which Herman said, “Doctor, if you had my headaches, I wouldn’t worry about them either.”

The lesson of echad – the lesson of oneness – is that there is no such thing as “somebody else’s headaches.” We are all responsible for each other. And what’s more, our lives are infinitely richer when we build relationships with one another.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner expresses this idea most beautifully in his book. Honey from the Rock.  He writes:

There must have been a time when you entered a room and met someone and after a while you understood that there was a reason you had met. You had changed the other and he [or she] had changed you. And [then] it was over.

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Souls going this way and that.
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.

But no one has within themselves
All the pieces to their puzzle.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.

(Kushner 1977, 69-70).

Part of being human is that we need each other. We are meant to live in relationship. And when our world feels broken, and when we feel exhausted, we can remember that we are stronger and healthier when we build holy communities around ourselves. When we learn from each other, despite our differences. When we recognize the oneness of us all.

Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel: this mass of humanity, this global community is One.

This is a particularly important teaching for us at this moment in our congregational life, because we are working toward being one. Over the course of this past year, we have begun the project of uniting our two communities. We have brought together two leadership groups, united two Hebrew schools. We have combined two sets of High Holy Day services into one.

It’s been a very exciting time, and a time of a lot of change and some anxiety. Some of us in this room are facing a new day of the week for Hebrew school; others an unfamiliar location for High Holy Day services; new leadership, new melodies, new faces in the room when we gather.

It’s natural to be anxious when there are big changes in something as important as our synagogue. And here again the lesson of Echad – the lesson of oneness – is that we are better equipped to solve our problems and to manage our anxieties when we focus on knowing one another, on the connections between us.

Rabbi Ron Wolfson writes that that’s what it means to be a synagogue:

The goal of Jewish institutions is not self-preservation; it is to engage Jews with Judaism. It’s about people. It’s about deep relationships.

(Wolfson, Ron. Relational Judaism. Jewish Lights. Woodstock, Vermont; 2013. p. 22.)

Things like days of the week, melodies and locations, are important, because we find comfort in the familiar. But we are really here to engage with one another. We are here to offer of ourselves to each other, and to form connections that will strengthen and nurture us. I want to encourage us, whenever we are together in a space like this, to reach out to people we don’t know. To welcome one another – whether you’ve been a member here for 25 years or 25 minutes. To think of ourselves has builders of the community.

This community needs every one of us. Just as we are, with our strengths and our weaknesses, our talents and our flaws. We don’t have to be perfect to lend our wholeness to this wholeness. That’s actually one of the most important messages of the High Holy Days.


Which brings me to part 3: Oneness within the self.

The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers trembling, with tears in his eyes.  And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter the next world.”
“What is it?” his students wanted to know. “What could make our Rebbe tremble so?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Moses?’ They will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Maimonides or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will ask me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you more like Zusya?'”
This is the project of the High Holy Days: to ask ourselves hard questions about what we believe, what we value, and how we live. And to begin to attune our actions to our values – to make them one.

But there is a step that we often miss in there, when we’re so busy criticizing ourselves and pushing ourselves to do better. The step that we miss is to recognize the deep goodness of the selves that we already are. The deep goodness of our values, of our intentions, of our efforts.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlavm who struggled so deeply with sadness, said: “You should make every effort to pray with sincerity. But if you cannot, even the effort is precious in God’s eyes.”

Even the effort is precious. First you have to know that. Before you can fix the world. Before you can repair what’s broken. Before you can go out love your neighbour as yourself, first – first and foremost – you have to love yourself.

That’s the challenge, and that’s task of these days.  To see ourselves through God’s eyes. To see our own goodness. And even as we recognize our own imperfections, to recognize the holiness, the wholeness of the selves that we already are.

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel: this struggling self, this broken, imperfect person is one.

These words are from Dan Nichols, based on the morning service:

I thank you for my life, body and soul.
Help me to realize I am beautiful and whole.
I’m perfect the way I am, and a little broken too.
And I will live each day as a gift I give to you.

Our awareness of oneness doesn’t mean that we don’t still feel broken sometimes. Rather, it is a prerequisite for Tikkun – for the process of repair.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to protect the world and everything living in it.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to see the invisible lines of connection between people who are different from one another.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to love our family and friends with a love so deep and so fierce that it can only reflect the knowledge that they are a part of us.

When we recognize the oneness of all things, we will be called to think and act in ways that reflect our whole selves. To find that both the goodness and the brokenness are part of the whole, part of the holy.

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.

May we remember, even in those moments when we feel most broken, that are whole, that we are extraordinary, that we are a part of God’s oneness.

And may that knowledge help us enter the new year with a sense of optimism, a sense of empowerment, a sense that we can accomplish anything we put our minds to.


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From Human Doing to Human Being: A Yom Kippur Sermon About Mindfulness

October 1, 2017 1 comment

I’d like to introduce you to the philosophical treatise that has most influenced my life: Calvin & Hobbes. You may laugh, but anyone who’s ever read Calvin & Hobbes knows that it addresses serious questions about existence and values and meaning…all through the eyes of the world’s most precocious 6-year-old and his imaginary tiger friend.

In one of my very favourite strips, the two of them are sitting under a tree and Calvin asks out of the blue, “Why do you suppose we’re here?”
Hobbes answers, “Because we walked here.”
“No, no…” Calvin insists, “I mean here on earth.”
The tiger responds, a little nonplussed, “Because earth can support life.”
“No,” Calvin is frustrated now, “I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?”
Hobbes, looking perplexed at the question, replies, “Because we were born.”
To which Calvin sulks, “Forget it.” And Hobbes snipes back, “I will, thank you.”

Yom Kippur is kind of like the Jewish version of sitting under a tree and asking, “Why are we here?” It’s a time when we are supposed to do Cheshbon HaNefesh – to take an accounting of our soul. Dr. Richard Sarason writes that “We are challenged to reevaluate our lives in the light of what really matters: our ultimate values, our relationships, and our limitations.”[1]

It is a peculiar choice to start each year this way. In our secular lives, New Year’s Eve is a time for parties, New Years Day is a time of hangovers, and January 2 we are back to work. But on the Jewish calendar, the year begins with a 10-day period of contemplation and preparation. With asking ourselves hard questions and making plans for what we want to be in the coming year. It you think about it, that’s pretty smart. Before you start anything new, it’s worthwhile to take time out and prepare for it. Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Yom Kippur is our day to do the work of preparing for the coming year. But it’s not easy work at all. In fact, it goes against some of our most basic habits. Again, Dr. Sarason writes, “The pace of our lives today is very fast and only getting faster. We are often so preoccupied with the business of daily living that we don’t pause to consider the bigger picture.”

In another Calvin and Hobbes strip, the two of them are sledding downhill at breakneck pace, dodging obstacles and holding on for dear life. Calvin is once again asking philosophical questions: “Do you think people are basically good with a few bad tendencies or basically bad with a few good tendencies?” But Hobbes keeps interrupting him:
“Watch out for those trees.”
“There’s a rock up ahead! Look out!”
“Not so close to the ledge!”
“Aughhhh. I can’t look.”
Finally they crash into a tree and go flying. And then Calvin, buried in snow up to his eyeballs, grumbles, “It’s very rude of you to keep changing the subject after every sentence.”

That’s what life does to us – it keeps changing the subject after every sentence. We spend our lives busy, running around from one obligation to the next, from one achievement to the next. So much so that we begin to define ourselves by our obligations and our achievements.

The old joke goes that on Kol Nidrei night, the rabbi walked onto the bima, prostrated himself, and cried out, “Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!” Then the Cantor was so moved by this demonstration of piety that he threw himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cried, “Oh, God!  Before you, I am nothing!” Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor in the 17th row, prostrated himself in the aisle and cried, “Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!” At which point the cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, “Hey, look who thinks he’s nothing.”

We’re always trying to prove ourselves. And unlike the people in the joke, who are trying to prove that they are “nothing,” most of us are busy trying to prove that we are something – that our lives are worthwhile, that we have something to contribute to the world around us.

Dr. Lissa Rankin writes that we ”wear busyness as a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable.”[2]

I don’t know about you, but I have not one, not two, but six to-do lists! Aided by my iPhone’s handy-dandy list app, I keep lists for work, for home, for the grocery store, for personal things, clothes I need to buy, and house repairs. And while that may be my own special brand of neurosis, I don’t think most of us are so different. We evaluate ourselves based on how much we have to do and how much we have done.

But it’s not making us happier.

Dr. Brene Brown, the bestselling author and public speaker, says that busyness is a numbing technique that we use to ignore our own unhappiness, that maybe “if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.” All I know is that all of those lists and tasks don’t bring meaning to our lives. We may be busier, but we are also emptier. We may get more done more, but we feel less accomplished.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who is considered the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, sees this conundrum between seeking achievement and seeking meaning as being built into the human condition. In his classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” he points out that the Torah has two Creation stories, and thus two different descriptions of the Creation of human beings. In the first account, the story of the 7 days, Adam is created as a striver and a doer, the pinnacle of all Creation. This is the version of the story that says we were created in God’s image – we are also creators and achievers, like God. the Adam of the second Creation account, the story of Garden of Eden, is very different. He is a gardener and a caretaker. The focus of this “Adam the Second,” as Soloveitchik calls him, is on “understand[ing] the living world into which he has been cast…. encounter[ing] the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur.”[3]

These are the two sides of our nature, the two pieces to what it is to be human: the achiever and the contemplator; the master of the world and the appreciator of the world; the human doing and the human being.

We need both of these sides of us. Without Adam the First, we wouldn’t build society or create technology. We wouldn’t have the drive to envision a better future and work toward it. But Adam the Second is the one who puts it into perspective, who searches for meaning, who strives just to “be” – and to appreciate the here and now. We are not always very good at cultivating that piece of ourselves. And the result is the busy, stressed-out lives that we are living.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the renowned creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, writes that we spend much of our lives only “partially conscious.”

He writes: Because of [our] inner busyness, we are liable either to miss a lot of the texture of our life experience or to discount its value and meaning.[4]

Not long ago, I had a personal experience that taught me this lesson. On a visit to my parents’ house in New Orleans, I encountered a lizard sitting on a fence post. It was such an iconic scene that I wanted to take the perfect picture of it, so I took out my phone and started snapping pictures, looking for the right angle and trying to frame the shot perfectly. And then I was dreaming about all the comments I might get when I posted the picture on social media. And that was when it hit me, I wasn’t looking at or thinking about the lizard at all. I was looking at a screen while thinking about my Facebook account.

How much of the time are we really present? Try this experiment for one day: try to notice how you often your mind is focused on what is right in front of you, and how often it’s planning something, or worrying about something, or stressing about something that has already happened. We spend more of lives in the past and future than we do in the here and now., the great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, agrees that we spend much of our lives not fully conscious. And he believes that the High Holy Days are the antidote. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes sound of the shofar is intended to call to us “Uru yesheinim misheinatchem – Awaken from your sleep, you slumberers! Awaken and ponder your deeds!”

Have you ever done this? One day about a year ago, after having recently moved into a new house, I was driving home after Friday night services. I must have been lost in thought about something, because when I looked up I had driven – completely unconsciously – to my old house, almost 15 minutes away from where I was now living. I was so disoriented and confused that it actually took me a few seconds to figure out where I was. It was as if I had woken up from being asleep.

One of the tasks of Yom Kippur is to help us wake up, to help us cultivate mindful awareness and be present in the here and now. The idea is that for one day, the world stops – there are no obligations to attend to; the are no achievements to be made. There are only ourselves and the work we have to do.

Those of us who have spent Yom Kippur in Israel have witnessed the national manifestation of this. Almost the entire country shuts down – no one drives; no one goes to work; things are quiet. There simply is nowhere to be except here and now. Living in the diaspora we have to work a little harder to make this happen, by spending the day in thoughtful prayer and study. But the idea is the same.

And beyond this one day, this can be a larger model for our lives – a practice of taking time out to be in the here and now. Practitioners of mindfulness are familiar with what’s called the body scan – the practice where you lie still for a period of time (often 20 to 30 minutes), and attentively shift your focus from one part of your body to another. How do my toes feel today? What are my shins experiencing right now? When you do this, what’s amazing is that you often become aware of sensations or feelings that you hadn’t noticed before – things that you were actually experiencing, but that you were just too busy to take note of.

When we cultivate that kind of mindful awareness – on Yom Kippur or any day of the year – we become more attuned to our own experiences. And we become more grateful for them as well.

The Dalai Lama was once asked what a person should do in order to develop their own happiness. He answered, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life and I am not going to waste it.”

In fact, this is not so far from Jewish practice. Traditionally, we are supposed to start each day by saying “Modeh ani l’fanecha” – God, I am grateful that you have returned my soul to me this morning.” And then we continue with a series of blessings for seemingly mundane acts – opening our eyes, sitting up in bed, putting on clothing, taking steps. When we sanctify those little acts with a blessing, they aren’t little acts anymore. They are miracles.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel tells the story of a boy who ate a delicious sandwich and thanked his mother for it. But she replied, “Don’t just thank me. I only prepared the food.” So the boy went and thanked the baker who had made his bread. But the baker said “I only bake the bread; I don’t make the flour.” So next the boy when to the miller and thanked him, but the miller sent him to thank the farmer who had grown the wheat. And when arrived to thank the farmer, he was told “I only plant the seed and harvest the grain. It is the sunshine, and rain, and the rich earth from God that make it grow.”[5]

The Chassidic masters were particularly adept at cultivating that sense of radical amazement – the sense that everything in the world is a miracle. They believed it brought us closer to God.

I think it might also bring us closer to ourselves. All of the evidence shows that people who cultivate gratitude on a daily basis feel healthier and happier, and better equipped to weather life’s difficult moments.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains why:
Consider the mindset of a grateful person: ‘Look what [this person] did for me; he really likes me. Look how [such and such] helped me; she really cares about me.’ As we cultivate the feeling of gratitude, we also cultivate a feeling of being loved.[6]

When we feel loved, we can love others. When we feel cared for, we are more capable of reaching out to care for others. When we feel secure, we can live by our own values.

Return with me for a moment to Maimonides. In the Mishneh Torah he says that the Shofar calls to us:

עוּרוּ יְשֵנִים מִשְנַתְכֶם – Awaken from your slumber!
וְחַפְשׂוּ בְמַעֲשֵיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִתְשׁוּבָ – Examine your deeds and return in repentance.[7]

It is a not only a call to awaken – not only a call to awareness. But also a call to examine our deeds and consider our best selves. The shofar is an invitation to self-awareness.

Ultimately, the goal of this day – and really the goal of every day – is to live a life driven by our own values, a life that we are proud of and that reflects our deepest sense of self. This is something that you can start to plan for on Yom Kippur, but it has to be cultivated on a daily basis.

In mindfulness there is another practice called STOP. It is a short practice – about a minute or less – that involves taking stock at any given moment of the day. The word STOP is an acronym that stands for:

Take a Breath

The idea behind this practice is to bring mindful awareness to what we’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing in a given moment. What is motivating our actions? What is causing us to behave in a certain way? When we are aware of our motivations, we have a greater amount of agency over what we do.

That’s exactly the work of Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah – exploring your own motivations and actions so that you can shift them in ways that are in accordance with your values.

When we are just rushing around getting things done, likely to be reacting to whatever’s going on around us. But when we stop and consider, then we control your own destiny. As Stephen Covey writes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Yom Kippur is that pause in the rushing river of life. It is the moment in which we stop to consider our actions and our choices, and whether they are in line with our own values. And it can be a model for the way we live our lives each and every day.

By slowing down, by cultivating a sense of gratitude and awareness, we open up that space to live our own lives, to focus on what matters rather than on what presents itself, to shift ourselves from frenzy toward meaning, from busyness toward happiness.

In the final comic strip of the Calvin and Hobbes series, the boy and his tiger step out the door to find a world blanketed in snow.

“Wow,” they say, “It really snowed last night! The world looks brand new! A new year… A fresh, clean start!” Then they sit down on their sled and prepare to shove off, and just before they do, Calvin looks at his friend and says, “It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy. Let’s go exploring.”

May we, too, spend the New Year exploring – exploring this extraordinary gift of a life we’ve been given; exploring our true selves and the selves we would like to become. And may this Day of Atonement – this day of awe and dread and aching and opportunity – be the catalyst that spurs us toward greater awareness, toward greater thankfulness, toward a greater commitment to serve others. Toward the happiness that we are capable of achieving.



[1] Sarason, Richard. “Why Do We Need This Day of Atonement?” Mishkan HaNefesh, p. xx.


[3] Ibid 17.

[4] Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living. Page 10.

[5] Rossel, Seymour. When a Jew Prays. Page 48.

[6] Telushkin, Joseph. A Code of Jewish Ethics. Page 96.

[7] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4.

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: A Sermon For Rosh Hashanah 5778

September 21, 2017 1 comment

Does anybody else here remember the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?

It’s about a kid named Alexander, about 4 or 5 years old, who is not having a good day.  He gets gum in his hair, and drops his sweater in the sink, and gets criticized by his teacher, and loses his best friend, and finds a cavity, AND has to eat Lima beans for dinner. It is such a bad day, that Alexander spends a whole lot of it thinking very seriously about just moving to Australia.

Now obviously, this is a kids’ book, and it describes kids’ problems. But I think we can all relate. We have all had days like that, where everything seems to go wrong, where things just aren’t as they should be. And I believe that we also experience something like this collectively, as a society. There are moments in history when things feel harder, when things aren’t as they should be. And for many people, right now is one of those moments. We turn on our TVs and we see massive hurricanes; flooding affecting millions; the storms getting bigger and the world getting warmer. We see wildfires in western Canada, an earthquake in Mexico, white supremacists marching through the streets of Virginia, and world leaders posturing over nuclear weapons in Korea. And it feels like the pages of a very scary children’s book – like our world having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Actually, it feels like another book too – the one you’re holding in your hands. This morning when we read the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, did anyone else feel like they were listening to this summer’s newsreel: Who is going to be hit by fire, and who by water? Who by war, and who by hate?

Un’taneh Tokef is Judaism’s traditional answer to why these kinds of things happen. And it’s not a pretty answer: It says that God is sitting on high for the next 10 days and making decrees. It says that your fate is being decided for you:

‏כבקרת רועה עדרו – As a shepherd makes the sheep pass under his staff,
so do You (O God) consider every soul, and decree its destiny.

This is an image of almost absolute helplessness, where we are the sheep, and the very hard things going on around us are God’s decrees. It’s a really troubling idea – that God decides the measure of your suffering while you sit in the sanctuary begging for mercy, that we are essentially passengers in a world where forces beyond our control are deciding our fate. We struggle with this passage every year. Some rabbis just skip that paragraph. We don’t want to hear it. We reject the notion of being so helples

Which is ironic, because we often do feel that way.

Recent studies have consistently shown that our stress levels are going up. For example, teenagers in Ontario are feeling anxious and depressed more than ever before,[1] and the numbers aren’t so different for adults. A Pew survey found that large numbers of younger Canadians are feeling pessimistic about their future – especially about finances and about climate change.[2] And south of the border, millennials are reporting losing faith in the very institutions of Democracy. Meanwhile, we are being told by scientists that climate change is pretty much inevitable, that the best we can do now is to try to minimize the damage. And for good measure, we are all watching the nuclear war games going on in North Korea.

It feels a little bit like someone is sitting on high and decreeing our fate. I don’t get to control whether a wild fire reaches my house. I don’t get to control whether a hurricane floods my city. I don’t get to control what the leader of North Korea does, or whether China implements pollution controls, or the rise of white supremacy in Virginia, or the incidence of anti-Semitism in downtown Toronto. These are things that happen around me, that happen to me.

And in that sense, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer actually describes beautifully how many people really do feel. It taps into a deep seated sense of helplessness – a sense of being small and powerless in a big, scary world.

So what do we do about that? How do we dispel that sense of helplessness? Well, we can start by trying to understand it.

The psychologist Martin Seligman has written extensively about a phenomenon he calls “learned helplessness.” He discovered through much experimentation that people (and animals) became “passive in the face of adversity [after] experienc[ing] noxious events that they could do nothing about.”

In other words, if something bad happens to you and can’t do anything about it, you tend to assume that won’t be able to do anything about it going forward either.

In one experiment, volunteers were separated into groups and subjected to an unpleasantly loud noise. One group was able to turn off the noise by pushing a button, while the second group couldn’t. Then, in part 2 of the same experiment, the volunteers were again subjected to the noise. Here’s the interesting part: those who had been able to turn it off in part 1 generally tried to do so again. Those who hadn’t been unable to turn it off in part 1 typically didn’t even try the second time around. They had learned from their past experience to feel helpless to solve the problem (Even through, by the way, they could have turned it off if they had tried.)[3]’s not hard to see how that could generalize on a global scale. Problems like climate change, and racism, and nuclear war lend themselves – by their sheer enormity – to that sense that there’s nothing we can do. We might say to ourselves, “I recycle every week and I even bought a hybrid car, but the world is still getting warmer.” Or we might say, “I voted for the other guy, but I can’t stop this government, Chief Rabbi, this prime minister, this president from doing what they’re doing.

We feel a version of that all the time. But Seligman’s point is that the sense of helplessness is not actually related to the solvability of the problem. It is related only to past experiences. It is a learned response. And we can unlearn it.

The way that we unlearn helplessness is by shifting our thinking. By focusing on the things that we can change.

The business guru Stephen Covey says that each of us has a sphere of influence and the sphere of concern. There are a lot of things that we care about, and a much smaller number of things over which we have influence. And spending your time worrying about the things you can’t control is a recipe for feeling helpless, or dejected.

So what is our sphere of influence in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad? Which things do we have control over? Interestingly enough, the Jewish answer to that is found in the very same prayer that posed the question. A few lines after “who shall live and who shall die,” we read:

U’teshuvah ut’fillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagzeira.
Repentence, prayer, and acts of righteousness temper the severity of the decree.

Sometimes when we read this line it feels patronizing – if you pray hard enough and vow to change your ways, then God might forgive you. But that’s not what it says. What it says is that there are harsh realities in this world, but that repentance, prayer, and righteous acts have the potential to mitigate them. It says that these are the weapons in your Tikkun Olam arsenal, so to speak. These are the things you have control over when you go to repair the world.

Teshuvah, T’fillah, Tzedakah – Repentence, Prayer, and Acts of Righteousness

The Chasidim tell that a Jew once came to his rabbi and said “I’ve tried so hard to repair the world but it’s still broken.” And the rabbi replied, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself.”

Teshuvah, repentence, is the process of starting with yourself. It is the act of seeking to understand why we are the way we are, and how that influences the way things are around us.

And it turns out that teshuvah is good for your health. Literally.

A social psychologist named James Pennebaker conducted a series of experiments in which he asked people to write about upsetting or traumatic experiences, for 15 minutes for 4 days. There was a control group that was asked to write about something completely different. Then Pennebaker followed the participants’ medical records for a year, and get this – the people who had participated in the writing actually got sick less. They were literally healthier because of just 60 minutes of writing about challenging things they had been through. The catch was that only the people who had spent time analyzing and trying to make sense of the events had the health benefit. Those who spent the time venting, or writing about other things, saw no benefit at all. [4]

I don’t think the reason is mysterious. Those who have thought deeply about why things happen are more likely to seek support, or to try to shift things, and therefore more likely to feel better. We are better equipped to change what we have sought to understand.

The High Holy Days are a time to ask hard questions – about ourselves and about our world. And they are a time to find ways to change things. This is true every Rosh Hashanah and every Yom Kippur, but it is especially true when there are challenging things going on in the world.

Last week I was driving with one of my kids, listening to news about Hurricane Irma barrelling down on Florida. I come from a Gulf Coast family, so these things are personal – we worry about the people we love down south. My son and I were talking about how the storms seem to be getting more severe, and how scientists are telling us it’s related to climate change, and to human burning of fossil fuels. And then I pressed the accelerator and looked down at the dashboard of my gas-burning car, and I realized that I was contributing to that very problem even as we were talking about it.

That’s not a great feeling, but it is an opportunity for change. I don’t yet know how I might change my life as a result of that realisation – it’s hardly the first time I’ve realised it. But I think sometimes we need to realize things more than once in order to shift them.

Teshuvah – repentance – isn’t about beating yourself up. It isn’t about feeling ashamed. It is about making sense of our actions and our motivations, and of how they relate to what goes on around us.

And if teshuvah is the act of looking within ourselves for answers to hard question, then t’fillah, prayer, is the act of looking beyond ourselves.

There is a wonderful line in Fiddler on the Roof where the townspeople ask their rabbi for a “proper blessing for the Czar,” and the rabbi answers “May God bless and keep the Czar…far away from us.”

Prayer means seeking answers from something larger than ourselves. Sometimes it involves asking God to do things and change things. But often it’s more about seeking the strength we need to be agents of change.

Last month, as neo-Nazis were marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a group of clergy and faith leaders who marched as well. Arm in arm, singing and praying and trying to spread a different kind of message. In some cases they actually held back the white supremacist marchers. And wherever they went, they brought a sense of hope to an awful situation. One of the participants wrote, “They had their guns and shields. We had our songs, our faith, our love. And we had each other.”[5]

Wherever we pray, whether in the chaotic streets of Charlottesville or in the safety of our sanctuary, it can help lend us strength to persevere through difficult times. And maybe equally importantly, it can bring us together as community.

There is a story in the Talmud in which a Rabbi writes a new prayer, “Eternal my God, guide me in peace and direct my steps.” But his colleagues object that it should say “Eternal our God, guide us in peace and direct our steps.”[6] There is a power in togetherness that can transcend even the most difficult moments in our lives.

Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated my home city of New Orleans, people were scattered across the south just before the High Holy Days (not unlike what we’ve seen this year). One of the first actions taken by rabbis was to reorganize their synagogues in exile. Bringing people together to pray allowed them to seek some measure of healing.

George Odell wrote:
We need one another in our defeats
And [we need one another] in the hours of our success.

But those clergy who gathered in Charlotteville weren’t just there to pray or to be together – they were there to demand tzedek, to demand justice and righteousness in society.

When tragedy strikes, one of our first impulses is to want to give. Whether it is a hurricane, or an earthquake like the one that happened yesterday, we want to know what we can do to help make things better. That is tzedakah.

But interestingly enough, the Hebrew word Tzedakah, which our prayerbook translates as “charity,” actually means something different. It comes from the word tzedek, justice, and is a command to work for a fairer world. This could encompass charitable giving, to be sure, but it might also include volunteer work, community activism, and other concrete steps we take toward Tikkun Olam.

In a sense, tzedakah results FROM teshuvah and t’fillah – when we clarify our values, when we come together with others who share our vision for a better world, then we are equipped to do things to actualize that vision. The haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon teaches just that – that the High Holy Days aren’t only about what we do in this sanctuary. The real point is what happens after we leave these seats. The prophet Isaiah asks:

Is this the fast I desire, a day to starve your bodies?
No, the fast I desire is to unlock fetters of wickedness;
To share your bread with the hungry, and take the poor into your home. [7]

As we gather together on these holidays, we could ask ourselves as well about the larger meaning of what we do here. Do the prayers we chant here inspire us to go out and change things? Do the sermons we hear and the introspection we do send us back into the world ready to make it a better place?

The Reverend Alvin Edwards is Senior Pastor of Mt Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, and the creator of organization called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The group was founded in response to the 2015 church shooting in nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Rev. Edwards worried about what would happen if something similar happened in his community, and so he started to bring together clergy of different denominations to meet, pray, and cooperate on social justice. And when the time came, it was some members of that group, together with reinforcements, who marched arm in arm during last month’s violence. And beyond one difficult weekend, the group is making a regularly doing social justice work. [8]

It shows that there is still room in the world for people to make a difference. And I think we are doing similar work as a congregation. I’m proud of the connections we’ve created with Christian and Muslim congregations. I’m proud of our blood drives, and our work in feeding the homeless and advocating for refugees. I’m particularly proud of our emerging relationship with members of Canada’s Indigenous community – the work we are doing to put that issue front and centre. there is always more that we can do. I want to challenge us, as a congregation, to continue to focus on Tzedek – on righteous acts and building a just world. I’ll invite you to take a look at the work of our Social Action Committee, and to consider committing to one act of social justice this year. After all, if we don’t repair the world, who will?

King Solomon once challenged his advisors to find a magical ring – one that would make a sad person feel happy and a happy person feel sad. The advisors scoured the kingdom until they finally found what they believed the king had in mind. They brought it before Solomon who looked at it and smiled. For the ring bore three simple Hebrew words: Gam Zeh Yaavor – This too shall pass.

One of the lessons of Judaism is that things do pass. The way the world feels in one moment may not necessarily be the way it feels in the next. As Alexander says at the end of his terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, “There are days like this, even in Australia.” And part of our job is to reach into our inner resources and understand that the world still can be better, and that we still can play a role in making it so.

This year, may we be agents for good. Through our prayers, through our honest introspection, and through our acts of justice and kindness may we bring light into a sometimes dark universe. And may we do Tikkun – may we strive to bring healing to our souls and to our world.





[3] Seligman, Martin. Flourish.

[4] Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 147.


[6] Berachot 29b-30a.

[7] Isaiah 58.


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

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

“Think for yourself.”

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

“Think for yourself.”

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

“Think for yourself.”

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

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

But I wonder if we really do.


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד…. וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


For example…


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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





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


[3] Isaiah 49:6.

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

September 24, 2015 1 comment

What are we all so afraid of?

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

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

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

What are we all so afraid of?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just then, God comes to him and says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

[2] Room


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

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

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