It is told that once, just before the start of Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov went up to a Jew in the back of the synagogue and asked him to lead the Kol Nidre service.
The man looked up at the Baal Shem and did what any of us might do in the situation: he tried to get out of it. He said, “Rebbe, I’m not a very religious man” But the Rebbe insisted.
So the man said, ““Rebbe, I’m sorry, I don’t know the prayers very well.” But still the Baal Shem Tov insisted.”
So finally, the poor man didn’t know what else say and he blurted out, “Rebbe, I’m afraid!”
And to this the Baal Shem Tov replied, “When you can say what you are, you can lead the people.” And the man ascended the bima and led the Kol Nidrei prayers.
It sounds like every Jew’s worst nightmare, right? That the rabbi will jump off the bima, hand you a prayerbook, and tell you to go sing Avinu Malkeinu. It’s like the Jewish equivalent of that dream where it’s opening night of a play and you don’t know any of your lines. Or the one where you show up to school in your underwear.
We’ve all had these dreams. We can all relate to that feeling of being inauthentic. We know it in our secular lives; we know it from our bad dreams; and we know it very well in our religious life.
The Kelemer Maggid, another Chassidic master, used to teach that Yom Kippur is actually Yom K-Purim – a day that is like Purim. How is Yom Kippur like Purim, he taught: On both days we wear masks. On Purim we masquerade as Esther and Mordecai. On Yom Kippur, we masquerade as the pious and religious Jews we are not.
I very often have conversations that sound an awful lot like the one in the story, where people say to me apologetically, “Rabbi I’m not very religious.”
That’s our way of explaining why we don’t come to services enough, or we don’t keep kosher enough, or we don’t know enough: We’re not very religious.
And it usually comes with some kind of disclaimer:
- Rabbi, I’m not very religious, but I’m looking for a community.
- I’m not very religious, but I want my children to be Jewish.
- I’m not very religious, but I’m spiritual. I meditate every day.
- I’m not very religious, but I believe in Tikkun Olam – repairing the world.
I have to tell you, as a rabbi I don’t know any way to define “religious” other than to say that it involves seeking community, and building a spiritual life, and passing traditions on to our children, and working to repair the world. For people who are “not very religious,” we sure do a lot of religious things!
And yet too often we go through life feeling like we are dressed up as something we are not.
Two weeks ago, we held a Shabbat morning talk for Religious School parents about God. We started off by defining our own beliefs and experiences of God. People said amazing things – they talked about finding God in nature, in relationships, in their children, in their learning. And then we compared that to what we believe “Judaism says about God.” And we found a huge disconnect. Where our God was found in nature and relationships, the “Jewish God,” we believed, was found in supernatural miracles and ritual commandments.
I think that for far too many of us, there is Judaism on the one hand, and then there is us – our beliefs and our practices – on the other hand. We’ll say things like:
- “Judaism says God created the world in 7 days, but I believe in the Big Bang.”
- “Judaism says that Moses parted the Red Sea. But I think it was probably just low tide.”
- “Judaism says we are supposed to keep kosher, but I only keep kosher style, and only inside the house, and not on vacation.”
We constantly we set ourselves up as outside of Judaism. As something less than the real thing. Somewhere in the back of our minds we still believe that there is an authentic way to be Jewish – that it looks like Orthodoxy, or it looks like our grandparents. Either way it doesn’t look like us. No wonder we feel like showed up at play practice without learning our lines.
We are not the first Jews to contend with this kind of inferiority complex. You can see that from the Kelemer Maggid’s little teaching about Yom Kippur and Purim. But even earlier than that, Judaism has always struggled with an idea called Yeridat Hadorot – the decline of the generations. This is the notion that each successive generation, as it moves further and further from Sinai, becomes a little weaker, a little more corrupted, a little less authentic.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Zera is quoted as saying: “If the earlier scholars were like angels, then we are mere human beings. And if the earlier scholars were human beings, then we are like donkeys.”
And that was 1500 years ago. Imagine what that makes us!
This is a truly self-defeating way to look at the world. And it doesn’t actually represent how we feel about ourselves – at least not in the secular sphere. In 21st century Canada, we believe that we are living in the most diverse, most progressive society ever to exist. We believe that, far from declining with each generation, we get to make life more fulfilling as time marches forward, by learning about the world around us and applying that learning to our laws and our customs. That’s how we evolve as a society. So why can’t we also apply that kind of thinking to Judaism?
It turns out that in fact, the Rabbis already did. In fact, Judaism as we know it is built on just that kind of thinking. When the Temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, the Rabbis of the time began to meet to debate and discuss how Judaism would move forward in this new era. The Talmud records one of these debates in the form of a story:
It tells that that once, the great sages were gathered in the Beit Midrash arguing over a certain point of Jewish law. The specific point doesn’t matter, but what matters is that all of the Rabbis believed one way, and only Rabbi Eliezer disagreed.
Rabbi Eliezer declared: “If I am right, then let this carob tree prove it!” And the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed a hundred cubits away.
And then Rabbi Eliezer said: “If I am right, then let the stream of water prove it.” And the stream of water flowed backwards.
And so on and so forth with all kinds of miracles until finally, Rabbi Eliezer said to the sages, “If the law agrees with me, then let it be proved by heaven.” And a heavenly voice cried out: “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? His rulings are always right!”
But the other rabbis weren’t impressed. And the great Rabbi Joshua stood and said words from the Torah portion that we will read tomorrow morning: “Lo bashamayim hi. Torah is not in Heaven.”
At that moment, the sages say, God started laughing and said, “Nitzachuni banai, Nitzachuni banai – My children have overruled me! My children have overruled me!” (Baba Metzia 59a)
My teacher Dr. Mark Washofky used to call this story the “Declaration of Independence of Rabbinic Judaism.” This is the ancient Rabbis declaring independence from the orthodoxies of their time. Declaring independence from the idea that there was only ONE right way to be Jewish, and that we could never measure up. Instead, they declare that we Jews have the right – and the responsibility – to reinterpret Judaism in every generation.
And there are about a thousand examples of this. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the rabbis decided that you could pray in a synagogue anywhere in the world. When you could no longer bring a Passover sacrifice, they created the Pesach Seder based on Roman practices. The Jewish calendar, the wedding ketubah, the rituals of Chanukah, the medieval philosophical writings – all of these are examples of innovations and that made their way into Judaism because of the needs of the moment and because of the cultural context in which Jews were living.
Judaism has always been Reform Judaism. Judaism has always been aware of the world around it; has always offered multiple paths to fulfillment; has always been about making real meaning in the real world.
Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, who was one of the giants of early Reform Judaism, wrote about 100 years ago that “the very spirit of Reform that empowered [the early Rabbis] to declare the sanctuary of learning to be as holy as the Temple at Jerusalem, ought by all means to empower us to assign our temples the same divine holiness.”
In other words, it is our sacred responsibility not only to follow the traditions, but to be ongoing interpreters of Jewish traditions.
It turns out that we are not at play practice without a script. The script is right here in our hands; and Judaism even gives us a pencil – to make edits and interpretations along the way. That’s also what the ancient rabbis did. It is the original, and the most authentic approach to Jewish life. It is the very definition of being a religious Jew.
I think that as Reform Jews, we need to work to reclaim words like “religious” and “kosher.” To define them based not on Orthodoxy or on our grandparents’ lives, but on what they mean in our context.
To be “religious” doesn’t just mean to observe a bunch of rituals; it means to thoughtfully learn about Judaism and about the world around us and to make meaningful choices based on that learning.
To be Shomer Shabbat – to be Sabbath observant – doesn’t only mean not to turn on lights on Saturday. It might also mean making the choice to drive to the synagogue or to friends’ houses, or gathering our families for movies or meals, or doing the gardening while refraining from paying the bills.
To keep kosher doesn’t only mean eating a certain hechsher or keeping 2 sets of dishes. It might also mean paying attention to the ethical impact of our food we’re eating – choosing local, or free range, or any of the other mindful choices that our Jewish values drive us to make.
These are real and authentic definitions of Jewish words. They are real and authentic ways to live as a Jew. And they place a real and authentic responsibility on us – to be active learners and to be active agents in building our own Jewish lives. Liberal Judaism is a religion of process, not product. It matters less exactly how you keep a given mitzvah and more how you came to that decision. In the principles of Reform Judaism it says:
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
That is not at all easy to do. Being a Reform Jew involves learning and choosing, and then when our beliefs or our circumstances shift, it involves learning and choosing all over again.
The danger of liberal Judaism is that when we don’t do that kind of work, it is easy to slip into something complacent. And then we become the fulfillment of our own insecurities about not being authentic enough, not being “religious enough.” When we say that, it’s not about whether somebody else approves of our standard of kashrut – it’s about whether we approve of our own choices.
And that means that those questions of the High Holy Days – questions about living our lives authentically, about whether our actions match our values – these are questions that we need to be asking ourselves every day of our lives.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the process of teshuvah – of repentence – “must energize an ever-ascending spiral in [our] spiritual state.” In other words, that the process of teshuvah can be a kind of springboard for the growth and authenticity we are seeking.
When our Jewish lives reflect honest reflection and real learning and mindful decision making, we become the most authentic versions of ourselves and the most authentic Jews we can be.
So that is the challenge of the new year, and really the challenge of every day. To pick up a new book. To learn something new about our Judaism and about ourselves. To ask ourselves hard questions: Does my Shabbat practice really reflect my what I believe about the importance of family and self-care and emotional health? Do my eating habits reflect my own ethical ideas? Am I putting effort into building the community that I need? Would I honestly define myself – not according to someone else’s definition but according to my own – as living the Jewish life that I choose?
Rabbi Akiva once said to his students: “God showed us love by creating us in the Divine Image, but God showed us even greater love by making us conscious that we are created in the Divine Image.”
We are blessed with the consciousness of God – with the ability to come to know ourselves through learning and reflection. To build the life and the self that we wish to build, and in so doing to make the world a better place. There is no act more religious than this. There is no path more authentic.
In the coming year, may we challenge ourselves and our assumptions.
May we celebrate our choices and our values.
And may we work to see ourselves as the recipients and the embodiment of an ancient tradition, as guardians of an eternal and ever-evolving way of life.
 Based on The Yom Kippur Anthology p. 120.
 Ibid 123.
 B. Shabbat 112b.
 “Blowing of the Shofar on the Sabbath.” American Reform Responsa XXIII, pp. 182-3)
 Soloveichik, Joseph. “The Jewish Concept of Teshuvah.”The Yom Kippur Anthology. P 143.
 Mishnah., Qtd in Gates of Repentence p. 4.
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.
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. Some 43% of North Americans take a mood-altering medication on a regular basis. 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.”
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:
- He was afraid that the kings might rise back up against him, and drag him back into war.
- 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.” 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.
 Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, p. 209.
 Conquering Fear, Harold Kushner, pp. 12-13.
 David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, p. 129.
The Talmud tells about a great sage named Honi who once saw a young man planting a sapling. He sat in the heat of the sun and watched the man digging in the ground, placing the tiny tree into the hole, and surrounding it with earth. And then, Honi sat down in the shade and fell into a deep sleep.
When he woke up, 70 years had passed. And instead of a sapling, there was a tall fruit tree before him. And another young man – the grandson of the original planter – was reaping fruit from its branches.
This story, I believe, is the Rabbis’ way of teaching us about how things change and how things stay the same. In the space of 70 years, an entire tree can grow. Ideas can evolve, people can grow up and build lives and pass on their legacies.
And yet, the tall fruit tree in front of Honi’s eyes is the very same sapling he saw planted earlier. The fruits we reap are the ones that were planted in past generations. Whether we are aware of it or not, the lives we live are a product of the experiences and actions of those who came before us.
If Honi were to wake up today from a 70 year sleep, he would be deeply aware of just how much we are influenced by the past. This year, we have marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau. If Honi were to awaken today, he would have closed his eyes in the world of the concentration camps, and he would open them to see a world still struggling with the consequences and the meaning of those events.
70 years ago, the Jewish world was altered irrevocably. And we are still – in many ways – living in the shadow of Auschwitz. Whether we are aware of it or not, the Holocaust affects the ways that we think and the ways that we behave and the ways that we practice Judaism on a daily basis. We continue to struggle to make sense of the senseless.
Here’s what Rabbi Harold Kushner has to say about that:
Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But …. we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing a meaning on them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me?” A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
Rabbi Kushner’s words suggest that while there is no sense in the senseless, there may be still meaning to be made from the unthinkable acts of 70 years ago. And that is precisely what many of the survivors have told us as well – that out of their horrifying experiences they found new lessons, and new responsibilities, and even new commandments that have guided them for the rest of their lives, and that they wish to pass on to us as well.
As we mark this tragic anniversary, I wish to share with you the thinking of three different survivors – names that you may know, people whose books you may have read. So that we might glean together the meanings and lessons that they have found in their experiences. Lessons that might guide us as individuals, as Jews, and as citizens of the world. Lessons of Auschwitz.
Everyone handles adversity differently. Viktor Frankl handled it by turning inward. He was an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist – a late contemporary of Sigmund Freud. During the war, Frankl was imprisoned in four separate concentration camps. He lost his wife and nearly his entire family.
In his powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes the experience of concentration camp life from a psychological perspective. He writes about the transition that each prisoner went through – from the shock of first arriving at the camp, to the apathy that developed as they became used to its conditions. He writes about the blunting of emotions, about the ways in which camp prisoners would set up a protective shell around themselves.
But Frankl also writes about the places where humanity was still to be found. He describes his fellow prisoners’ use of humour to weather the difficulties of daily life. He writes about their growing awareness that all suffering is relative, and that one can choose to find goodness even in the worst of surroundings.
He gives a particularly moving account of a cold nighttime march in which he managed to cope by picturing the presence of his wife:
“I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look…. Then I grasped the greatest secret that human thought and belief have to impart:… I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.”
In that pivotal moment, Frankl first began to grasp what he would later come to call the “last of the human freedoms.” He writes:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
For Viktor Frankl, the lesson of Auschwitz is one of personal empowerment. No matter where we are, and no matter what others are doing to us, we still get to choose our actions and our beliefs. He teaches us that out of the horrors of the Holocaust, comes forth a command to each of us – to choose to live with gratitude. To strive to see the good in the world around us, no matter the circumstances of our lives.
This is a worthy lesson for those of us living a privileged life in the 21st century. And it is a lesson that has been present in Judaism for a long time. The Hasidim tell the story of a poor man living in a small, loud, cramped house with his large family who goes to complain to the rabbi about his lot in life. The rabbi solemnly counsels the man, “Go home, and take your goat into the house to live with you.” So the man does, but of course the house only becomes smaller, and louder, and more cramped. So he goes back to the rabbi, who tells him to bring his chickens into the house as well. Only after the man has brought his chickens, cow, goat, and horse to live into his house does the rabbi finally counsel him to put all of the animals outside and enjoy the relative peace and quiet of having only his family in the little house.
We cannot choose our circumstances; we can only choose our attitude toward them
This is all over Judaism. The tradition of Mussar – the Jewish mindfulness ethic – encourages daily study and patiently choosing attitudes and behaviours. The practice of saying blessings is meant to foster a sense of gratitude for everything that we have. The Talmud commands us to say 100 blessings every day – giving constant thanks to God for what we eat, what we drink, seeing a rainbow or sunset, even the fact that our bodies are working.
This is such an important message for Yom Kippur, because today is the one day of the year that we dedicate entirely to trying to see the goodness in ourselves and in the world around us. The rest of the year, so much of our time is spent putting out fires and dealing with circumstances, that we rarely take the time to say any blessings at all, let alone 100 a day.
Imagine how our lives would change if once an hour we took time to notice the goodness of something. Imagine if once a day, we took time to recognize and act of our own capacity for bringing goodness to others. Then we would understand in a whole different way what Viktor Frankl learned in the camps – that our circumstances do not get to dictate how we will feel or where we will focus or what we will be. Only we get to decide that.
In the worst of circumstances, human beings are capable of their best. Capable of seeing goodness in the midst of evil; capable of devoting themselves to their families and to their people.
For Emil Fackenhim, another survivor and another teacher, this is precisely the lesson of the Shoah.
Fackenheim was a German Reform Rabbi. He was arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. But he escaped to England and made his way ultimately to Canada. Dr. Fackenheim served as rabbi of Temple Anshei Shalom in Hamilton. and for 35 years he served as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of the people in this room may have studied with him.
His experiences and his conclusions are different from those of Viktor Frankl. Where Frankl the psychiatrist saw a lesson about attitude and choice, Fackenheim the Rabbi saw a commandment for Jewish survival. He is best known for his belief that after the Holocaust there is a new 614th commandment – “Not to hand Hitler posthumous victories.” In other words, he teaches that is the responsibility of the Jew to ensure the continuance of the Jewish people.
He writes: “We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish.”
This is a notion that we may have internalized more deeply than we realize. We live our responsibility for Jewish continuance every time we read from our Czech Torah scroll; every time we “twin” one of our children with a Shoah victim when they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But we also live that responsibility when we build Jewish communities and engage in Jewish learning. We are often aware that there are simply not that many of us, and that if Judaism is to thrive, it will be because we made it so.
On the one hand, ensuring the Jewish future means responding swiftly and decisively to anti-Semitism. It means remembering that even though we live comfortable lives in a diverse and free country, we are only 7 decades removed from oblivion.
But in the 21st century, ensuring the Jewish future is not only about combating outside threat. It means, as well, building a Judaism that is vibrant and relevant from within.
The Torah portion for Yom Kippur morning tells us that we have connections that transcend denomination and generation. It says:
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם
“Today you stand – ALL of you – to enter into covenant with your God.” From chiefs to labourers. Wood choppers to water drawers.
אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּֽוֹם:
Both those are standing here with us today, and those who are not standing here.
Fulfilling that responsibility to past generations means continuing to build Jewish lives around a deep love of learning and tradition. It means building Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming. It means building a Jewish state that is a place of pluralism and diversity, that consistently upholds the rights and freedoms of all.
Ironically, the lesson of Auschwitz is that we must transcend Auschwitz as the reason for our continued existence. It is not enough to remain Jewish simply because others tried to destroy us. Rather, our task is to continue to build the best Judaism for our time – one that speaks to the needs of the 21st century but remains rooted in the wisdom of past generations.
And that requires work. It requires a commitment to learning. It requires being open to new ideas, striving to understand how our ancient values apply today. It requires thinking concertedly about being part of Jewish community – about how we can contribute to it. Our task is to keep learning, to keep struggling, to keep wrestling. To receive the tradition, and live it and mould it and shape it, and pass it on once again.
In 1947, when the Israeli cabinet voted on the Partition Plan that would create the Jewish state, one of the ministers, Yitzhak Tabenkin, requested a day to consult with some people before voting. When he returned, David Ben Gurion asked him, “From whom did you seek counsel?”
“From two people,” answered Tabenkin. “From my grandfather who died ten years ago, and from my grandson who is not yet born.”
If we can ensure that Judaism thrives as a beloved religious tradition and as a force for good in the world, then we will be doing all that we can to honour the memory of those who died. And to ensure that what happened to them never happens again.
“Never again” has been the refrain of the Jewish people for seven decades. Never again shall we see our children marched off. Never again shall we see our people pushed to the brink. And never again shall we allow the same to happen to others. Indeed, the lesson of Auschwtz is not only that we have a responsibility to our own people, but that we have a responsibility to all people.
This message is most evident in the writings of the author, activist, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel was born in Romania and was a child when he was deported to Aushwitz. He lost his parents and his sister in the camps. His autobiographical writings have touched millions of readers in 30 languages. But he is known equally for his advocacy – both for Jewish causes like Israel and Soviet Jewry, and for victims of oppression or genocide all over the world – South Africa, Argentina, Bosnia, Sudan, and other places as well.
Elie Wiesel has always said that out of his experience in the Holocaust, he hears a command, an imperative to ensure the dignity of all human beings.
In his 1986 Nobel Peach Prize acceptance speech, he said:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented….. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
This message is reflected in our most ancient of Jewish texts. In the haftarah that we chanted this morning, the prophet Isaiah speaks for God:
The fast I desire is to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.
And the Torah as well commands us repeatedly to care for the poor and the oppressed, saying “Ki gerim hayitem b’eretz mitzrayim – Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You have been oppressed, says the Torah, so you must not allow another to be oppressed.
You have been a slave, so you must not allow another to be enslaved.
In the past 100 years, Jews have been disproportionately involved in standing up for justice and the rights of the oppressed. Our rabbis marched alongside Martin Luther King at Selma. Our people spoke out for the oppressed minority in Darfour. Our own Reform movement has worked here in Canada to support the aboriginal community. And, like many others, our synagogues are beginning to act as the Syrian refugee crisis grows.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, among many others, has compared the situation of millions of Syrian refugees to the 1930s and 40s when it was the Jews of Europe who were seeking asylum. He writes that we Jews have a special responsibility to come to the aid of other oppressed people, and that “at such times, even small humanitarian gestures can light a flame of hope.”
Many of you have heard that some of our sister congregations – including Darchei Noam in Toronto and Emanu-El-Beth-Sholom in Montreal – have taken the step of sponsoring refugee families. We at Kol Ami want to do our part as well, and our President , Mark Wolpert will speak to you in a few minutes about how you can get involved.
As Jews, and as children of the Shoah, as human beings we are called upon to recognize the image of God in every person – whether the refugees of Syria or the homeless of Toronto or the battered women and children to whom our members bring food at Yellow Brick House. We are called upon to help when we can, to do our part in repairing the world.
In the city of Budapest, there is a tree. A bronze sculpture in the shape of a weeping willow, whose leaves bear the names of victims of the Shoah. It is known as Etz Hachayim – the Tree of Life – and it is a reminder of what has been lost, those branches that were cut off before their time. But it is also a reminder that all things grow and are renewed. That a tiny sapling can grow into a tall fruit tree. That a people can move forward – can survive and even thrive.
It is a reminder that we are the branches of the Tree of Life. When we live our lives with gratitude, when we contribute to a stronger and more vibrant Judaism, when we lend our strength to repair the world, not only do we honour the memories of those that were lost, but we also water the roots of an ancient and flourishing way of life, so that it may continue to grow and bloom for us and for those who will come after us.
Zecher Tzadik Livracha – The memory of the righteous is a blessing. May we, through our lives, strive to be a blessing – to their memory, to our own loved ones, to our people and our community and the world around us.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.
 When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner, p. 136.
 Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 39.
 Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, p. 57.
 Ibid 86.
 B. Menachot 43b.
 To Mend the World, Emil Fackenheim.
 Isaiah 58
 “Refugee Crisis: ‘Love the Stranger because you were once strangers’ calls to us now.” Jonathan Sacks. The Guardian, 6 September 2015.
On this night of forgiveness, we think about the wrongs that have been done. There are people we have wronged. There are people who have wronged us.
Our tradition teaches us to be like God, to be “rachum v’chanun erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet” – compassionate and gracious, forgiving and slow to anger and filled with loving kindness.
Sometimes it’s easy to forgive. Sometimes we can think about the things people have done, and understand their motivations, and find a place in our hearts to make it ok.
But there is one person whom we often find most difficult to forgive: ourself.
The High Holy Days are a time to try to understand ourselves. To delve deeply into our own souls, to think deeply about why we are what we are and why we do what we do. To admit our own frailty. To admit our own humanity. To try to find a place in our hearts to forgive ourselves for being human.
We are imperfect beings. We have done wrong, and we will do wrong. Admitting this is not the same as excusing ourselves. Rather, in admitting our imperfections, we take upon ourselves the responsibility to try to do better in the coming year. It is the task of the High Holy Days. And it is a task that begins this very evening.
Rabbi Leo Baeck said: “To seek God is to strive for the good. To find God is to do good.”
On this night of forgiveness, during these days of awe, and all throughout the coming year, may we strive to do good, and may we strive to bring the holy and the Godly into the world.