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High Holiday 2019 Sermons

Rosh Hashana 

Rosh Hashana - First Day

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Full, not More


Rabbi Menachem Mendel Futerfas, a 20th century Chasidic Rebbe, once
assembled his students around him at a farbregen, a Chasidic gathering.
He held up a vodka bottle and a glass. He poured the vodka from the bottle
into the glass. “Now”, he said, “tell me—which is better, the bottle, or the
glass?”

The Rebbe’s disciples all answer: “the bottle is better, because it has
more!” Then the Rebbe answered— “Actually, the glass is better, because
while the bottle may have more, the glass is full.” “G-d”, he added, “wants
full, not more.

Life is about full, not more.

And, G-d wants full, not more. But what about us? What do we want? Full,
or more?

Our society—and as a result we ourselves— chase the dream of more:
more money, more status, more things; more electronics, more clothes,
more beach resorts, more Facebook friends, more “likes”….we rarely say
“Dayenu” I have enough. As Denis Prager once wrote, "There is never a
point at which we will not want more. Never. Ask those with great wealth
and great sex."

As early as the 3rd century the Midrash said in Kohelet Rabbah:
אָמַר רַבִּי יוּדָן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי אַיְּבוּ אֵין אָדָם יוֹצֵא מִן הָעוֹלָם וַחֲצִי תַּאֲוָתוֹ בְּיָדוֹ, אֶלָּא אִן
אִית לֵיהּ מְאָה בָּעֵי לְמֶעֱבַד יַתְהוֹן תַּרְתֵּין מָאוָון, וְאִן אִית לֵיהּ תַּרְתֵּי מָאוָון בָּעֵי
לְמֶעֱבַד יַתְהוֹן אַרְבָּעָה מְאָה
“There is no one who is born without at least half of their desires already in
their hand— but if they have 100, their goal is to get 200; if they get 200;
their goal becomes 400.”

The Midrash already understood the character of possessions: that instead
of satisfying us, they drive us to desire more possessions.

Psychologist Dr Daniel Levinson calls this “The tyranny of the Dream”
because while we dream about having more and doing more, we actually
aren’t enjoying what we already do have and accomplishing what we
already can accomplish.

The human being always craves another piece of chocolate cake, even if it
leaves us with a stomach ache. It’s why we have diets that have to retrain
our brains to know when we are full and to listen when our body says we’ve had enough. Our hearts need to learn when they are full, too.

What is it that keeps us from hearing the “dayenu” of the heart? I’d like to
suggest two things. First, we live in the “more-est” society ever. Our brains
and thus our hearts—dutifully listening to our brains— have been trained in the past 50 years or so, to constantly yearn for something else. And second, we spend so much time looking at what others seemingly have, we don’t allow ourselves to be happy with what we have.

Both of these—the constant craving and the constant comparison— have
caused us, as individuals and as a society— anxiety, depression,
competition, and unhappiness. Both of these obstruct our heart’s desire to
have a truly full New Year.

It’s not a “theory” that we are being manipulated into rampant
consumerism. You know it as much as I do. You don’t wake up one morning thinking I absolutely cannot live without a new iphone—you are
programmed by Apple to want one, even if you already have one. Have you
ever watched a YouTube video of Black Friday in the United States? Grown
men and women wrestling over cut-priced TV’s sparingly released on the
Walmart floor, like Roman gladiators fighting for their lives?
Although the human species has always lusted over shiny inanimate
objects like gold or diamonds, the sort of rabid desire that sparks consumer brawls and deep depression should the toy or doll you lined up for be out of stock by the time you get inside, is a post WWII willfully crafted and willfully created phenomena.

Social theorist Anthony Giddens posits that consumerism becomes a sort
of therapeutic response to our crisis of identity in this post-traditional
society—basically the lack of strong values combined with a lack of strong
communities. Thus “retail therapy” is born; for “when the going gets tough,
the tough go shopping…” We reward ourselves with a new sweater or i-toy
when we feel blue, or, the opposite, when we feel great. Journalist Alex Eror writes: “The psychology of shopping gives us a cheap dopamine rush
that not only satisfies us briefly on a chemical level, but spending our hard
(or not-so-hard) earned cash creates a feeling of achievement…we are
rewarding ourselves…with a very tangible trophy for our efforts.”

French post-modernist sociologist Jean Baudrillard went even further,
suggesting that today’s consumption is a “semiotic code”—that is, we don’t
consume things, we consume the code which has been assigned to those
things. For example, buying diamonds is a code for we are rich. Buying
organics is a code for we care about the environment. Buying noncompetitive board games is a code for we are a good parent. Now there’s actually nothing wrong at all with these purchases, in fact buying organics and non-competitive board games is probably a good thing—as long as we recognize that we are consuming the “meaning” assigned to these products rather than just buying a “thing.” Way beyond the old ad of a beautiful woman selling cars, our desires and our urges have been re-engineered through the psychological technique of assigning our purchases characteristics to convince us to keep buying them.

Think of the shopping mall, “cities under glass” designed to promote
shopping as an activity rather than as a means for simply acquiring a
specific product. We enter a shopping mall and, surrounded by an
intentionally confusing layout, we lose track of what we needed in the first
place. This is known in psychology as the Gruen effect, named for the
Austrian architect who designed some of the first shopping malls in Europe. I appreciate that mall walking tracks create social and physical advantages for seniors and young parents, but I generally refuse to go into malls as a small act of protest. One year, while visiting Noam and Aaron in
Minneapolis, I made the mistake of going into the biggest of them all, the
Mall of America, built around an indoor amusement park. I experienced the Gruen effect up close and personal as I left loaded with purchases I had
never intended to make.

And though I love Ikea and Costco as much as the next person, when I get
home I find myself asking, like many of you do: “what am I going to do with
27 kilos of mayonaise and another Swedish-named box-thing?”

As actor Will Smith said: “Too many people spend money they don’t have,
to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.”

Friends: If we practiced full, not more, we would simply not buy so much,
and that would be good not only for our pocketbooks but also for the planet.

I don’t have to tell you how much our unchecked consumerism and fast
fashion is wrecking havoc on the environment. The more we buy, the more
is produced, to be bought again, and the old stuff then chucked out. I know
there is a big retail chain makes T-shirts out of recycled plastic water
bottles. Yet when I see people buying cases and cases of bottled water, so
for every T-shirt bought, thousands of new bottles are being produced, I
think: that’s 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and 17
million barrels of oil to produce a year’s supply of new plastic bottles that
will need to get turned into those spiffy T-shirts made in a sweatshop in
Bangladesh so we can feel better about drinking water out of disposable
plastic bottles.


Friends: if we practiced full, not more, we would be less anxious, because
unfortunately, the more we have, the more anxious we’ve become.
Hillel said, again back in the third century, in Pirke Avot 2:8: , מַרְבֶּה נְכָסִים
מַרְבֶּה דְאָגָה . the more possessions the more worry. The commentator
Bartenura writes on this line: “A certain pious man would pray, "May G-d
save me from the spreading of the soul." And they inquired from him, "What is the spreading of the soul?" He said that it means if his possessions are so numerous and spread out in many places, he would have to spread his soul out to care about them all, and he feared lest his soul be expended
with all that worry.”

Then we spend over $7 billion on stuff to organize our stuff, and then we
buy books from people like Marie Kondo telling us how to get rid of it.

And it seems as if everyone else has more than we do.

If we practiced full, not more, we would be less jealous of others.

When we compare ourselves with the beautifully photoshopped life of
picture-perfect families with their ace kids—our lives just don’t measure up. It is nearly impossible not to covet the edited, curated, hashtagged versions of our friends and colleagues. No wonder we feel anxious to show up face to face to social events for fear that we will be asked to produce our own Insta-worthy lives.

Everyone and everything is up for comparison and ratings—my dinner with
yours, my husband with yours, my sermons with some other Rabbi’s (wink:
that one I’m not worried about!). Clinical psychologist Rachel Andrew
writes: “In the past, people might have just envied their neighbours across
the street, but now we can compare ourselves with everyone across the
world.” Windy Dryden, one of the UK’s leading practitioners of cognitive
behavioural therapy, calls this “comparisonitis”.

We Jews are great at this sport. On the one side we have the “my tzuris is
worse than your tzuris” comparisonitis (“how are you? Don’t ask…so, how
are you? Worse than don’t ask…”) but on the other side we have the oneupping each other’s simchas comparisonitis. Like the two mothers who
meet in the park with their baby carriages and one says “this is my new son
Jason” and the other says “yeah well this is my new son Jeremy— the
doctor.”

With all this comparisonitis, we find ourselves now more than ever with a
kind of societal schadenfreude: that feeling of pleasure when hearing about the misfortunes of others. So many of us experience painful moments of resentment towards those we actually care about and like.

If we practiced full instead of more, we might be able to cultivate the
practice in Tibetan heart-yoga called mudita, the antidote to the feeling that your happiness is threatened or diminished by the happiness of others. Mudita is “sympathetic joy.” The joy of not feeling “cheated” when others succeed or get what we don’t have.

There is a verse in Psalm 49 that tells us not to fear when a person
becomes rich. But that’s a strange admonition: אל תירא —don’t be afraid.
Why would someone fear another’s becoming wealthy? Because, the
Rabbis teach, when we view ourselves in comparison to them, it makes us
feel diminished in their shadow, and it causes us to withdraw our friendship from them.

If we practiced full, not more, we would be able to celebrate what we do
have, and not let what others have aggravate us so much. We would not
spend so much time trying to be happier than somebody else.

French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu wrote in 1670: “If we only
wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other
people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than
they are.”

Sociologists have proven this. In 2016, Harvard Medical School professor
Alexander H. Jordan conducted a study among university students in which
he showed that people routinely overestimate how happy their peers are.
Students were asked to estimate how often their peer group experienced 4
things: feeling depressed for a day, feeling lonely on a Saturday night,
feeling sad or upset enough to cry, and feeling overwhelmed by school
work. Anyone who has ever been in school can relate to those four
feelings. The students routinely underestimated how alike their feelings
were to their peers feelings. For example, 78% reported getting depressed,
but they thought that only 52% of their peers did. 56% said they have been
lonely on a Saturday night but assumed that only 38% of their peers had
the same experience, and so on, a 20% difference in all 4 areas. In other
words, we all think our peers must have plans this Saturday night, they are
clearly going out more with more friends than we are, they are certainly
invited out more than we are, and generally they are coping better than we
are.

If we practiced full, not more, we would drop our pride and invite those
uninvited people we assume are being invited by someone else.

So friends: for 5780, I invite us to practice the art of full, not more.

Now let me be clear about one exception: everyone wants, and deserves,
more years in their life. No one should die young, before their time. I would
be cruel to suggest we should be satisfied with a life cut short— even if it
was full. We are allowed, and in Judaism encouraged, to always want more
life. But we don’t always get it. The only thing we do get is the dash
between the two dates of our birth and our death.

Last year on Rosh Hashana I asked all of us to ask ourselves daily, at least
in the ten days between RH and YK: “what went right today”? I even gave
out bracelets to help us remember, and some folks still wear them a year
later. (Hold up wrist.) This year no bracelets, sorry, (because this is an
anti-“merch” sermon!) but for the next ten days, instead of asking what
don’t I have, let’s actively ask: “what do I have in my life?” Let’s appreciate
each day something wonderful that we have, whether its an old sweatshirt
or a photo of a vacation or a friend who cares about us, or even our old
iphone! Do it for 10 days, each day, and then come in on Yom Kippur with
your list off wonderful things you have. We will have a “Full, Not More”
board in the lobby like last year’s “What Went Right” board an we can
rejoice over each other’s small pieces of good fortune.

Writer Anna Quinlan wrote about how she went an entire calendar year
without buying anything new. She discovered two things: 1) she has
enough and 2) she is enough.

The Rebbe’s disciples, like most of us, chose the bottle with more over the
glass that was full. But we have enough. And we are enough.

Here’s to choosing the full glass. L’chayim! 

Shana Tova.

 

Rochelle Dworkin

Shanah Tovah.

We will soon be reading the story of Sarah and Hagar. Hagar is Sarah’s
handmaiden, and at the request of Sarah (because she was unable to conceive a child), Hagar becomes Abraham’s concubine, giving birth to Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Years later Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. We are told in this torah portion that Sarah sees Ishmael playing or “laughing” with her son Isaac and becomes alarmed about something. She says to Abraham “get rid of that slave woman and her child, for the child of that slave shall not share an inheritance with my son Isaac”. Initially Abraham is reluctant, however God tells him to listen to Sarah, because he intends to make Ishmael the father of a great nation as well. Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the desert.

We are never told what Sarah saw that caused her outrage. Our rabbinic sages have offered different interpretations as to what Sarah might have seen Ishmael do. These range from pagan worship, to rape, to Ishmael trying to murder Isaac by firing an arrow at him. Other commentators alarmed that such horrible behaviour was considered to have occurred in our great patriarch Abraham’s household and under his influence, postulated that Sarah was primarily concerned about issues of Isaac’s inheritance. A Midrash inTractate Sotah has Sarah overhearing Ishmael snickering and claiming all of Abraham’s inheritance for himself. She then rushes to Abraham, urging him to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their household.

Despite these attempts at a positive spin on this story, it is impossible not to see in the text and in the biblical commentary an example of a woman with power and wealth treating a subordinate woman abominably. This reflects, I believe, the nature of the patriarchal nature of ancient times and the subsequent biblical commentary.

Male commentators have viewed this story as a woman competing for the
affections of a man. And women have long been portrayed over centuries to be catty and mean to each other, putting other women down in order to achieve their own success. But is this true or is this, as I believe to be the case, just the way the patriarchal world prefers to view women? 

Long thought to be the way women treat each other, this “Queen Bee Syndrome “ has largely been debunked. Workplace surveys show that women are more likely to be mentored by other women and more likely to pay it forward by mentoring others. Grace Bonney, author of “In the Company of Women: Inspiration and Advice From Over 100 Makers, Artists and Entrepreneurs” authored this anthology in order to paint a much truer picture of how successful women mentor and support other women. She states, “My experience, personally and at work, has been that women realize that when one of us does well, it helps all of us.”

My lived experience reflects the debunking of the “Queen Bee Syndrome”. Like many women I know, I have always surrounded myself with wonderful supportive female friends both within and outside of my profession. I became a teacher of medicine and I take great pleasure in knowing I mentored many female (and male) learners in a positive, supportive manner.

However, I too have had a very bad experience at the hands of a female
superior.

When I was a medical student I had a preceptor in my Obstetrics rotation. She was the first woman to graduate from the Obstetrics and Gynecology program at my University and she treated female (but not male) medical students with disdain. It was an experience that I can not forget, being reduced to tears on a daily basis by someone who picked out every fault and scorned me mercilessly, in front of everyone – other medical students, doctors, nurses and patients. But I look back on this and no longer see it as her feeling threatened by other women and wanting to denigrate us. I think she was damaged by trying to “make it” in that very misogynist, male dominated world - which would have been the case during her training, and then had trouble working out her own problems related to how she herself was once treated. Maybe she thought “I suffered and I survived
– and now I am going to put you (meaning us poor female medical students) through the same kind of hell I had to go through”. I don’t know if it made her feel better or not. And although this was a horrible experience for me it ultimately did not impact me in any way negatively. Delivering babies became the favourite part of my career in family medicine, and I ended up being a supportive colleague and mentor.

I have long hoped that during my preceptor’s career that she came to understand what she was doing and became a more empathic and supportive person over time.

This brings me back to our story of Sarah and Hagar. For a long time I had
trouble understanding why we read this story on one of the most mportant days of the Jewish calendar. There seems to be no understanding, no empathy, and no atonement here. We see Sarah portrayed as a power hungry woman who abuses her maid without regret. Abraham is seen as the softie who goes along with her request only when God tells him to. In order to understand why this story is read today, we need to look ahead to the Akedah, read on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashannah. Here Isaac is taken up to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed by his father Abraham. And then we need to look slightly farther ahead to the next chapter - Parasha Chayei Sarah that comes immediately after the Akedah. Here, in the first line, we find that Sarah has died.

There is a Midrash that connects these stories for us and I thank and credit
Rabbi Neil Loevinger for this teaching. I studied with him years ago, during a Kolel Kallah – a course called the 4 Crying Women of the High Holidays.

This midrash from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 31 involves The Satan, or Satan as he is commonly known, trying to influence Abraham during the Akedah.

The midrash tells us, “When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, Satan
becomes infuriated. He had not gotten what he desired, which was to thwart the sacrifice of Abraham. What did he do? He went to Sarah and asked: ‘Did you hear what happened in the world?’ She answered ‘No’. He said, ‘Abraham took Isaac, his son and slaughtered him, offering him up on the alter as a sacrifice.’

Sarah began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails, which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died. Abraham came only to find that she had died. From where had he come? From Mount Moriah.”

I’d like to suggest that at the moment when Sarah thinks her son has died, she finally understands and empathizes with Hagar, and realizes what a horrible thing she had done in sending Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness to die. She suddenly understood how horrible it felt to lose a child. And at that moment here is the empathy, here is the atonement, and here is the t’shuvah.

Putting together the story of Hagar and Sarah, with the Akedah and then her death, we come to understand that these days are an opportunity to evaluate our mistakes, under a harsh light at times, and then to seek forgiveness and atonement.

Rabbi Danya Rutenberg, a contemporary Conservative rabbi and teacher in
Chicago, teaches us, “ This is the story of being so attached to our own needs and wants that we forget who else we might hurt along the way. This is the story of us being oblivious to the ways in which we wield our influence. Sarah is wrong here. But she is our ancestor and we are meant to identify with her- and its not meant to be a comfortable identification. This story reminds us to scrutinize our actions, to think of the ways in which we have been blind to the power we have abused, unthinking in the ways in which our privilege has caused us to bring suffering to others, to people we don’t fully see.

This torah reading is meant to be an uncomfortable mirror, a call to empathy and to accountability.

This Torah reading is meant to make us hear Sarah’s cry in the call of the shofar.

Tekiah –What have I done?

Shevarim – I am broken.

Teruah – I am shattered.

And finally:

Tekiah Gedola – Please, please forgive me.

On this New Year when we hear the blasts of the shofar may we all be called, as Sarah was, to empathy, compassion and atonement.

Shanah Tovah.

 

Rosh Hashana - Second Day

D’var Torah: Akedah

Liron Taub



My colleagues used to call me “baby-face,” so I grew a beard. And once I had the beard, something very interesting happened. People on the street started to recognize me as Jewish. Chassidic guys would honk their horn at me and wave. Someone stopped me outside my home to tell me a long story about some Jewish couples he used to do housekeeping for, and then he gave me his card. And one night, on the street outside my home, a woman stopped me and asked me if I was Jewish. And when I said yes, she reached out, plucked my glasses off my face, tossed them into the middle of the road, and demanded a clean pair of clothes. She seemed to want to fight, but I ultimately de-escalated the situation, retrieved my glasses, and called the police to help her, since she was obviously in need of assistance.

I still have the beard, and strangers still ask me if I’m Jewish, and I still say yes. But more important than what I say to strangers, is that in my heart I say yes, yes to being Jewish, yes to living Jewish, yes to the purpose of a Jewish life, and, yes, even with the risk of being Jewish. And so do you. You’ve said yes to being Jewish; and if you believe in God, you’ve also said yes to God. If you were born Jewish, you were born Jewish because the ones who came before you said yes, and in many cases, said yes in times and places where saying yes came with a greater potential cost than what we face today. If you converted and chose to become a Jew, you said the biggest yes of all. If you are not Jewish but living a Jewish life within a Jewish family, you said a very conscious yes.  Everyone in this room this morning has somehow said yes.

Abraham says “yes” when he says "hineni"—here I am.

But what is it all for? At the end of today’s portion, which is the binding of Isaac where God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac and stopping him at the last moment, God gives an answer:

“By Myself do I swear, says the Eternal One, that because you have done this, and did not withhold your son, your precious one, from Me, I will bless you greatly, and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore; and your descendants shall come to possess the gates of your enemies. All the nations of the earth shall be blessed through your descendants, because you obeyed My command.”

That last part is actually about us today. “All the nations of the earth shall be blessed through your descendants.” We’re those descendants. And our saying yes to Judaism has as a purpose that all of the nations of the earth be blessed through us. This all happened, not for Abraham and Isaac or for their descendants alone, but for all the nations. That’s at the core of the Biblical view of the world and the reason for Jews to say yes, hineni.

As Richard Elliott Friedman says,

“Like some films that begin with a sweeping shot that then narrows, so the first chapter of Genesis moves gradually from a picture of the skies and the earth down to the first man and woman. The story’s focus will continue to narrow: from the universe to the earth to humankind to specific lands and peoples to a single family… But the wider concern with skies and the entire earth that is established in the first portion will remain. When the story narrows down to a singular divine relationship with Abraham, it will still be with the ultimate aim that this will be a ‘blessing to all the families of the earth’… So when we read later of a man and his son going up a mountain to perform a fearful sacrifice, that moment in the history of a family is set in a cosmic context of the creation of the universe and the nature of the relationship between the creator and humankind.”

That relationship began when God created the first humans, but after ten generations, humans were so wicked that God decided that just having humans wasn’t enough. God sent the flood and started again with one righteous man, Noah, and his family. But righteousness turns out not to be genetic; it doesn’t pass down the generations automatically. So ten generations later, Friedman explains, God starts again. This time, God will not try to fill the earth with blessing just by relying on human nature, nor by relying on an assumption that righteousness is inherited. This time, God will deliberately form a nation that will pass down to all generations the drive to say yes to Judaism and yes to God and yes to bringing blessing to the world at large.

And God knows what it will take to fulfill that mission. Four things: First, “I will bless you greatly” – we will need God’s blessing; second, “descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven” – we will need large numbers of people, so I remind you that the Rabbis say that in addition to having many biological descendants, Abraham actively sought others to enter into the covenant; third, we must “come to possess the gates of our enemies” – that is, to be able to bring blessing to other nations we ourselves would need to be liberated and free in our land.

And, finally, God knows that to get through the hardships, we need stories to inspire us and see us through. And that’s where the Akedah comes in. Abarbanel, a 15th century Portuguese commentator says that God did not test Abraham for God’s sake, because God doesn’t need to test people to know their inner character. Maimonides says God tests Abraham so that Abraham’s acts will shine as a beacon. And 12th century commentator David Kimhi says, “The truth is that its purpose was to show Abraham’s complete love to the future generations… They too would learn to love God with all their heart and with all their soul… In truth, the story was passed down in Abraham’s family even before the Torah was written. For Isaac told Jacob what happened, and Jacob told his sons. Once the Torah was written for the descendants of Jacob… it bears witness that our father Abraham loved God with a complete and perfect love, which everyone ought to learn from him.”

So what are we to learn? Exactly what those who came before us learned. That God needs us to say yes to God and yes to a Jewish life even when it’s easier to say no. That while God doesn’t ever want us to be sacrificed, God wants us to walk on together without fear, to be willing to be bound together. If we aren’t already willing to say yes, hineni, then human nature is to say no at the first opportunity, and thus the vision of the Torah that all nations will be blessed through us will not come to pass. To make that vision of the Torah come to pass, we have to be ready to say yes, hineni as Abraham said yes, hineni. That’s why the Hasidic Rebbe Chaim of Tzans teaches that the reason the Temple was built on the exact place where Isaac was bound, is that a place where a Jew is ready to act as Abraham acted  is sanctified to God more than any other place. Upon it the divine presence appears and there, so to speak, the Torah is given again.

In the year to come, may we all say yes, hineni.

 

 

 

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur Kol Nidre 2019

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

The Power of Friendship


Two friends were walking on the beach. During some point of the walk they
had an argument, and one friend slapped the other one in the face. The
one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, wrote in the
sand: TODAY MY BEST FRIEND SLAPPED ME IN THE FACE.

They kept on walking until they decided to take a swim. The one who had
been slapped went too far into the waves, but the other friend ran in and
pulled her out. After she recovered, she wrote on a stone: TODAY MY
BEST FRIEND SAVED MY LIFE.

The friend who had both slapped and saved her friend noticed, “After I
slapped you, you wrote in the sand. But now that I’ve saved you, you wrote
on a stone.” The other friend replied, “When a friend hurts us we should
write it down in sand where the winds of forgiveness erase it. But, when a
friend does something good for us, we should engrave it in stone so
nothing can ever erase it.”

A true story:

I had a very dear friend, a best friend in fact, from my childhood, who still
lives in New York in my old ‘hood. We were inseparable from the age of 11
until into our 30’s. My mom was like her mom and her mom was like my
mom, and in the days before Facebook and FaceTime we called each other
on the phone and spoke for hours; we took trains and planes to visit each
other in university, we gave the toast at each other’s weddings.

And then, I did something stupid. It doesn’t matter exactly what. I’m just
telling you it was one of those stupid things that you can’t get out of easily
without a lot of broken pride. I started raising kids and so did she and time
passed and the friendship dissolved—till this past summer.

I don’t know exactly why, I started to miss her a lot. I started to understand
that old adage “make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the
other gold.”

I started to see how our history of shared experience had shaped me. I
started to feel that those who knew me in my youth, and knew my family
now gone, really knew the deepest part of me.

I reached out to her, and asked if the winds of forgiveness could erase what
I had done. I asked if she could remember the important times etched in
stone. I asked if I could come see her. And she, in what I consider to be an
act of incredible grace, said yes. I flew to NY, and we reconciled.

I call her a lot now, trying to catching up on 30 years of lost friendship time.

In that moment of reconciliation I experienced what the great Jewish thinker
Rav Kook calls “sudden teshuva”: an understanding of the self and the
teshuva one needs to do, so sudden and so immediate and so clear that
there is simply no possibility of not doing it. Sudden teshuva is painful and
real and raw and urgent. I saw that friendship—not the superficial
friendship of Facebook and sappy cell-phone company TV ads but true,
deep, spiritual friendship— can be a catalyst for that kind of teshuva.

We always think of the family as central in Judaism, and it is. But I want
you to know that it is not the only foundation of a solid Jewish life.
Synagogue, school, and friends are an equal part of the equation. And we
should be treating them as if they really are.

In the first High Holiday sermon I ever gave, right out of Rabbinical school
in 1983, in front of 3,000 people at Holy Blossom, I questioned the “perfect”
and “average” family of Jewish mom, Jewish dad, 2.2 kids in day school,
and a dog— and now 36 years later, I find myself still critiquing the same
model being touted by many of our Toronto Jewish institutions.

I look around my community and yes—I see some of those mom, dad, kids
and a dog kind of families. I see those with a bevy of cousins down the
block, and in-laws in Thornhill with whom they do Shabbos every other
week. But I also see many diverse and Jewishly committed families that
look nothing like the stereotypical one— interfaith families, same-sex
families, single-parent families, blended families; Jews by choice who do
not have an extended Jewish family or a lifetime of Jewish familial
memories; single people and couples without kids and couples whose kids
live far away and families whose kids don’t come anymore with them for the
holidays; people with broken families and breaking down families and
families in crisis. People who have lost their lifetime partner, their child,
their sibling; people whose last parent just died or is dying and they are or
will soon be orphans… people redefining all the time what it means to be a
family or to have a family; people who want deep relationships that matter.
So tonight, on the holiest night of the year, I want to make the case for the
lost Jewish virtue of friendship.

The concept of friendship itself is not new, it’s as old as the Bible and the
story of Jonathan and David, it’s celebrated in classic Greek literature and
medieval poetry. Of course there are many kinds of friends and always
have been—casual friends, co-worker friends, former class-mate friends,
neighbour friends, friends of a friend… Sometimes our friendships come
and go like ships in the night and sometimes we drop anchor and stay put
for years. Sometimes we actually “divorce” a friend who is not truly loving
us, and sometimes we make a furiously fast new friendship which feels like
we’ve known each other for decades. Sometimes we reconnect with
someone we haven’t seen in years and it’s as if we just saw each other
yesterday; and sometimes there is a real awkwardness as we try and
reconstruct what it was that brought us together in the first place.

For those who have children, think about the friendships of the busy years
of building a family. Our friends are often the parents of our kids friends,
making our kids the reason and the centre of our friendships. Nothing
wrong with that, but once your kids grow and become adults with friends of
their own, you may find that these friendships fizzle out. Take heed as the
Rabbis teach in Pirke Avot 5:16: “Any love that is dependent upon a
specific cause, when the cause is gone, the love is gone; but if it does not
depend on a specific cause, it will never cease.”

For those without children, or a spouse, it is time for the Jewish community
to use the word ”family” for you, going broader than the narrow postindustrial
definition of the nuclear family. The “family” of our Israelite
ancestors was a huge tribe and I think they would be shocked to see how
small that idea has become. How beautiful it would be—mah tovu ohalecha
Yaakov— if all of us could open wider the tent flaps of what constitutes
“family”.

I believe the spiritual depth and potential of real friendship is being
bastardized by the amassing of Facebook “friends” and “friendversaries”
and the yearly album created by an algorithm that cultivates your memories
for you. Always a follower, never a friend.

In fact, there was a July 2019 poll from YouGov, a polling firm and market
research company, which was reported widely in newspapers, social media
and psychological journals. It found that 30 percent of millennials say they
feel lonely. This is the highest percentage of all generations surveyed.
Furthermore, 27 percent said they had “no close friends,” and a shocking
22 percent said they had zero friends at all. If this generation is truly
lonelier, that should really concern us and them because research shows
that loneliness tends to increase—not decrease— as we get older.

We know that friendships are good for our physical health. Psychology
professor William Chopik of Michigan State University did two separate
surveys in 2016. Through his research with over 200,000 subjects he found
that our quality of friendship influences our overall health, and that
friendships “became a stronger predictor of health and happiness” as
people get older.

He quotes the 2016 National Academy of Sciences study completed by
Claire Yang, sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who
found that people with close social ties had lower blood pressure, lower
body mass index, and lower levels of the inflammation marker C-reactive
protein.

Friendships should also be good for our spiritual health. Friendships which
are more than the ability to walk into someone’s house and have your
device automatically recognize their wifi. I’m inspired in this by the thinking
of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a modern Orthodox Rabbi who founded Valley
Beit Midrash in Phoenix where I was honoured to teach last winter. He
writes: “When friendship is about the cultivation of virtue, the opportunity to
pursue the good, the exploration of life, and the search for meaning it is
transformative and enduring. Friendships of pleasure and utility are fun but
end as our needs and wants evolve. Friendships of virtue…are attached to
our pursuit of the just, holy, and good…To become virtuous citizens
committed to moral and religious excellence, (friends) are crucial.”

I want to suggest that the spiritual depth of friendship is in it being a joint
effort in the pursuit of holiness. When friendship is about having a good
time on a hike or at a movie, it is fine, it’s fulfilling, and it’s fun. I want us to
think about about impactful and enduring friendships which help us in the
pursuit of teshuva, which help us foster the best in ourselves and which
demand of us that we live up to our moral responsibilities and own up to
our failings.

And dare I say that the best place to meet such friends is at places which
value and encourage the pursuit of holiness—like a shul. Raise your hand if
as a result of being at City Shul you have made at least one new friend?

I know that your spouse is supposed to be your best friend, and in the best
marriages that is true. We develop a kind of “ezer k’negdo” relationship as
the first couple, Adam and Eve, were supposed to have—ezer, a helper
and k’negdo- a critic. A good spouse makes you want to be better than you
ever thought you’d want to be.

Even if we are blessed to have that kind of spouse, though, there is a
certain un-invested distance that friends get which spouses do not. After all,
you don’t have to sleep all night next to the friend who has just challenged
you to do better. What’s more, although you don’t have a choice of who
your family of origin is, and the hard truth is you don’t have control over
who your kids have family with, you do have a choice of who your friends
are, and how you are as a friend.

I think of it this way: a real friend is someone I’d want to say Kaddish for.
While Judaism is masterful in the way it guides us on mourning for the loss
of a relative, our tradition is silent regarding the loss of friends. Traditionally,
we do not say Kaddish or yizkor for friends. With our parents, spouse,
sibling, or child, we have clear rituals to give voice to our shock and grief.
But not for our friends. I want us to think about cultivating the kind of friends
that are so important in our lives that tomorrow, we would go to yizkor for
them.

In Masechet Berakhot in the Talmud, we read the story of Rabbi Eleazar
who was suffering from deep despair. When his friend, Rabbi Yochanan,
visits him, he finds Eleazar alone in a darkened room, facing the wall.
He cannot bear to see the light; even the light from Yochanan's arm is too
bright for him. When Yochanan sees his friend crying he asks, "Why are
you crying?" Eleazar answers, "I weep because all light fades into
darkness, because all beauty eventually rots." Yochanan, sitting beside his
friend, does not try and cheer him up, does not make light and does not
offer fixes to his problems; instead he replies, "Yes, ultimately everything
does die. So perhaps you have reason to weep." Then Yochanan sat down
with his friend and wept alongside him. After a while Yochanan asked,
"Does darkness comfort you? Do you want this suffering?" "No," Elazar
says. "Then give me your hand," replies Yochanan, and he lifts Rabbi
Eleazar up from his bed and out of his darkened room. Sometimes it is only
a friend who can lift us from deepest darkness.

Three friends were once stranded on a desert island. They find a magic
lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish.
The first friend wishes he was off the island and back home.
The second friend wishes the same.
The third friend says "I'm lonely. I wish my friends were back here.”
Sometimes it is only a friend who can get you off that island—and then
back again on.

That is why Pirke Avot 1:6 commands us
עֲשֵׂה לְ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְ חָבֵר
“Get for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend…

Rabbenu Yonah, a 13th century Spanish commentator on that phrase
teaches: "A person needs three things from a good friend. One is words of
Torah… And the second is help with mitzvot…And the third is good
advice…:”

This is what Yanklowitz calls the virtue of friendship—people who are able
to teach us, inspire us, and advise us.

Midrash Avot d'Rabbi Natan on this section asks: "How does one acquire a
friend? …by eating and drinking together, by studying Torah and debating
together…by sharing private thoughts—thoughts regarding Torah and life.
And when they debate matters of Torah and importance, the bonds of
friendship and truth will be strengthened.”

Debate with friends? Most of us have friends who are like us, politically,
socio-economically, chronologically. If we are partnered they are generally
partnered, and if we have kids, they generally have kids and we talk about
our kids or agree not to talk about our kids and then the conversation gets
into why we don’t want to talk about our kids…

Do we have friendships unafraid to cross socio-economic, racial, gender,
age, family status and political lines? Friendships which engage in deep
conversations, not only in superficialities? In Berachot 31a we learn: “One
should not part from one’s friend without exchanging words of Torah.” The
word for friendship in Aramaic —chevruta—is the exact same word for a
study partner.

Friendships which are spiritual anchors are with people who can be our
learning partners—not only because they support us but also because they
challenges us. Friends who we choose not simply by who we are, but by
who we would like to become.

Friendships which are spiritual anchors go the distance. The Talmud
records that when Job's friends heard of the tragedies that befell him, they
traveled a distance of 700 miles. In those days, a trip of that length
probably took about two weeks – each way. That means his friends took off
over a month of their time to console him. I’ll never forget when my mom
died that my friend Adrienne drove—drove—from Guatemala back to
Toronto, a record 5,000 kilometers in 4.5 days, so she could be at the last
day of shiva. I’ve been at shivas for people from this shul where friends
have been there every single day.

Friendships which are spiritual anchors are valued in the way we speak
about them. Many of us have friends who we say are “like family.” “I love
her like a sister," and "He's the brother I never had”. I was once talking to a
dear friend and she said, “I think we need a family word to call our
relationship. Why don’t we call each other sisters-in-love?” and so we do. In
my family, I have three sisters-in-love.

During the summer, as my friend and I started the healing process, I had
this thought about the stories we read on Rosh Hashana of Abraham and
Sarah and Hagar. I wondered what would these narratives of faith would
have looked like if there had been friendships. If Sarah and Hagar had
become friends. If they had talked it out and come up with a plan
themselves. If Abraham had a friend he could have called before taking
Isaac up the mountain, a buddy that he could ask, “hey, I heard his crazy
voice last night telling me to sacrifice Isaac— what do you think I should
do?” And, what if Sarah had had a friend she could have called? “My headin-
the-sky husband took Isaac today to who knows where and I have no
idea if they are ever coming home!” What if she had had a friend to talk
through the night while she waited for them to come home? Maybe she
would not have died in the next parsha, as the Midrash says, of a broken
heart.

The lack of friendship makes these lonely narratives. There is a beautiful
story in the Talmud in Taanit 23b of Honi Hama’agal, the Jewish Rip van
Winkle. Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he lay
down, a rocky formation enclosed him which hid him from sight and he
slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a old man gathering the
fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, "Are you the man who planted
that tree?" The man replied: “No, I am his grandson." Honi exclaimed: "It is
clear that I have slept for seventy years." He returned home, shaken. There
he inquired, "Is the son of Honi still alive?" The people answered him, “Not
his son, but his grandson is still living." He said to them: "I am Honi, Honi
Hama’agal,” and no one would believe him.

He ran to the study hall and there he overheard the scholars say, "The law
is as clear to us as in the days of Honi” and he called out excitedly, “But I
am Honi!" But the scholars did not believe him either. Not having a friend
or family left, he died of sorrow. Raba said: "Hence the saying, 'Either
companionship or death. O chevruta/o mituta.”

This year, can we connect more deeply to just one friend? Is there
someone you miss that you don’t keep up with enough? Is there one friend
you haven’t told in a while just how much they mean to you?

When the Torah commands us in Leviticus 19 to “Love your neighbour as
thyself”. ואהבת לרעך כמוך —the word in Hebrew translated as “neighbour” is
actually רֵעַ , more accurately “friend.” Love your friend the way you love
yourself. The Slonimer Rebbe in his commentary to that verse teaches: the
High Holidays are called Yom Truah, the day of the shofar blast. The word
truah—blast—is from same root as the word re-ah—friend. The blast of the
shofar, he says, is a call to re-ut, to the spirituality of friendship.

This year, can we be better friends even when we are busy, can we just
send a text “thinking of you, good luck on your (whatever)…or how’s that
mtg/interview/situation going?” Can we bring dinner over when a friend is
sick? Can we drive over, drop in, skype when they are having a bad day?

This year can we add the friends we once deeply loved who are now gone
to our personal family yartzeit lists?

And if you come to City Shul on a somewhat regular basis— this year, can
you invite one new friend from shul to Shabbat dinner, for a Saturday night,
for a holiday meal at your home, to deepen that friendship outside of shul?

In Exodus 33:11, Moses speaks to G-d face to face. Then the Torah adds a
remarkable phrase: כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר יְדַבֵּ֥ר אִ֖ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֑הוּ
“The way a person speaks with a friend.” Would that we saw God in the
face of our friends, and see our friends as the face of God.

Shana Tova.

 

Yom Kippur morning 2019

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

All Religion is Politics


An older couple had a son, who was still living with them. The parents were
a little worried, as the son was still undecided about his future career. So
they decided to do a small test. They put a ten-dollar bill, a Bible, and a
bottle of whiskey on the kitchen table. Then they hid.

The man told his wife, “If our son takes the money, he will be a
businessman, if he takes the Bible, he will be a pastor, and if he takes the
bottle of whiskey, he’ll be up to no good.”

The parents hid behind a door, and peeping around it they saw their son
take the ten-dollar bill and slide it in his pocket. Then, he took the Bible,
and put it under his arm without looking at it. Finally, he took the bottle,
opened it, and took a drink. Then he left, carrying all three items.

The wife cried out: “Oh no! This is much worse than we could ever have
imagined! “Why?” Said her husband. “Because” she said, “Our son is
clearly going to be a politician!”

I generally hesitate to talk about politics on this holiest day. As they say, the
word politics is made up of “poly”— the Latin word for “many” and “tics”
meaning “bloodsucking creatures.”

But we Rabbis are encouraged to talk politics when it comes to Israel, so
why not about Canada? Why not about the planet? Why not about what our own shul can do?

As a rabbi, my task is not only to bless, to teach texts, to listen, to officiate
at life-cycle events. It is also my job, as my homiletics professor told us
back in seminary: to comfort the afflicted— and to afflict the comfortable.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal The World, suggests that
Judaism is a religion of sacred discontent. Abraham, Moses, Amos, Isaiah
are messengers of dissatisfaction with the status quo. He writes, “In
Judaism, faith is not acceptance but protest, against the world that is, in the
name of the world that is not yet but ought to be...Judaism is not peace of
mind…”

While City Shul does help give its members peace of mind, it should be a
place which leads the community in acts of sacred discontent.

As Elie Weisel wrote: “The mission of the Jewish people has never been to
make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

So yes, this sermon is going to get political. Because today’s haftarah gets
political. Isaiah, who we just heard, castigates the Israelites for everything
from oppressing their workers to using violence. The haftarah stands in
contrast to the Torah reading, which is focused almost entirely on the ritual
behaviour of priests in the Temple. The haftarah demands that rituals and
morals not be two separate ways of being Jewish.

This morning’s haftarah begins with "No! This is the fast I prefer: unlock the
chains of wickedness, untie the knots of servitude. Let the oppressed go
free…” Isaiah is an outraged activist wagging his finger at fasting
hypocrites who underpay their workers. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, one of this
generation’s greatest activist Rabbis writes: "I think the speech was actually
given as an interruption of a Yom Kippur service… I fantasize Isaiah
elbowing his way… thru the crowd at a Super-Synagogue in Babylonia —
and interrupting — shouting out this radical challenge to the
liturgy….Unfortunately, the result of the Rabbis' assigning this to be read on YK is that it becomes not a challenge to the liturgy but a part of it. There is a wonderful story by Franz Kafka: "One day a leopard stalked into the
synagogue, roaring and lashing his tail. Three weeks later, he had become
part of the liturgy.”

Maybe because I’m still a New Yorker at heart I want to shout out too, I
want to interrupt the praying and the singing and even the beautiful Avinu
Malkenu and say listen!— ki ain banu ma’asim— we don’t have enough
deeds to truly merit compassion from G-d until we are figure out how to
practice compassion to others and to our planet.

We need ma’asim this year, City Shul. Ki Ain Banu…we do not have
enough deeds.

In 2015 I preached a sermon on Yom Kippur morning on the immediate and urgent need for us to adopt a Syrian refugee family. We did it. We raised an extraordinary amount of money and yes though we are still waiting we will have our refugee family and we will mobilize and we will settle them. That was 2015. It’s 2019 and I am asking you to make two solid, immediate and urgent commitments.

The first is to respond more clearly as a Jewish community to the climate
crisis. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes:” Paradise is burning. Notre Dame
is burning. The church and the mosque and the synagogue are being set
aflame. Moriah is burning. The Amazon is burning. The world is burning.
The bush is burning —and we are being consumed.”

The scientific consensus that we face serious climate challenge is
overwhelming, and our Jewish responsibility for the earth goes back to our
very origins as a people. Our biblical tradition is rooted in our people’s
connection with the earth. We were shepherds and farmers and the Torah
was actually about what it meant to have a functional and not a failed
relationship with the earth.

I am wondering what Isaiah would have said today about the climate crisis.
I think he might have said this:

(Sing to haftarah trope): “My message is that we'll be watching you….You
have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet
I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire
ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction,
and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic
growth. How dare you!”

Greta Thunberg would not be afraid to meet Isaiah. As a Rabbi, I don’t want
to be afraid to meet Isaiah either when he asks me, “what did you talk
about on Yom Kippur while the world was getting hotter and hotter in your
own lifetime?”

Trust me, I am not trying to fear-monger or be hyperbolic. But if we do not
start doing something obvious, and marked, and clear, we at City Shul will
be part of the problem and not part of the solution; and we will have to
answer for this to Isaiah.

Bob Horenstein, director of community relations and public affairs at the
Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, wrote in the Jerusalem Post. “It
baffles me that many Jews — and Jewish organizations — still don’t
consider climate change to be a ‘Jewish issue’ … as long as Jews live on
this planet, combatting global warming will be a Jewish responsibility.”

43 Israeli Orthodox rabbis recently signed a rabbinic climate change
statement urging the Israeli government to shift from its widespread use of
fossil fuels to a far greater emphasis on renewable sources of energy like
solar and wind, and urging the Knesset to prioritize legislation that reduces
greenhouse gas emissions.

Pope Francis has what is being called by the Religion News Service a “new
theology of climate change.”

Hazon, the international Jewish environmental organization, has sponsored
four billboards in Times Square this summer to declare 5780, “The Year of
Environmental Teshuva.”

So what are we going to do at City Shul?

I am working with a group called Faith in the City to prioritize climate
change as the number one interfaith action item on our agenda. We
marched as a shul at Sept 27’s global climate strike but there were only a
handful of us.

So there is a sign up sheet outside for every one of the following action
plans.

1. We need people to take on meeting with our city councillor and with the
city recycling people responsible for this building. We need clear guidance
as to what we can use that is really recyclable and how and what we can
recycle. Hundreds of paper plates and plastic cutlery and cups are being
thrown from this shul into the landfill. Simcha after simcha, Shabbos after
Shabbos and we need to know exactly what we can do to stop it.
2. We need people to join a kiddush greening task force. This group will not
discuss the menu. It will deal solely with the waste factor and seek creative
ways to green up this most important part of our weekly life at City Shul.
3. Our new Tikkun Olam chairperson Phil Rees has made climate change
action his top priority. We need you to get involved. We need people to sign up to get on that committee and to start making plans for things this entire shul can do as a leading voice in the downtown Jewish community.

Now second, Isaiah will ask me “What did you talk about when anti-
Semitism got to the boiling point in your lifetime?” I’ll tell him that though I
have never previously spoken about anti-Semitism from this bima, even on
the Shabbat after the Pittsburg shooting when we had a Solidarity Shabbat
and I spoke about that one incident as if it was unrelated, unusual, and
unprecedented— this year, I feel differently. One year after two deadly
synagogue shootings in the US, an upsurge in violent hate crimes and
presidential tweets calling the majority of American Jewish voters “very
disloyal,” we are at a crossroads. Boston writer Julie Parker notes: “As my
grandmother says, ‘I didn’t survive the Holocaust to watch Nazis march
through an American city as though they were on their way to a damn
luau.’”

Canada is not immune to the global trend of rising anti-Semitism. Online
hatred is fuelling a rise in anti-Semitism that saw a record-breaking number of Jewish Canadians harassed and assaulted in 2018. According to
Statistics Canada, Jews are still— still— the most targeted group for policer eported hate crimes in Canada. And just last Saturday—days ago— anti-
Semitic graffiti was sprayed on Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton.

If you are watching what is going on around the world, you should be
horrified. Last Friday evening a man armed with a knife attempted to run
into a synagogue in central Berlin. The man was tackled by security
personnel at the entrance. Two separate vicious antisemitic incidents
involving children in Melbourne this past week were reported on Thursday.
After weeks of merciless anti-Semitic taunting of the 5 year old grandson of
Holocaust survivors, the school acknowledged the bullying, but will not treat it as an antisemitic incident. The same with the middle school where a 12 year old boy was forced, after taunting and brutal bullying, to bend down and kiss the shoes of a Muslim classmate. Because it did not happen on the school grounds but was in a nearby park— with 9 children of that
particular school present—the school administration will not classify it.

Trust me, I am also not fear-mongering or being hyperbolic on this one
either. I feel strongly that we must not allow anti-Semitism to become the
fulcrum of our Jewish lives. We must not over-react to anti-Semitism,
seeing danger at every corner, but we must react at the very least:
thoughtfully and strategically. Our ushering team and staff have taken
training through Federation. Our new home at St Andrew’s is fully
monitored and secured. We are meeting with BSU to be sure they
understand our needs in then short-term and also the long-term.

The security investment — in time, money and energy — that we in this
synagogue must make in the wake of those assaults last year and new
assaults this year is, frankly, exhausting and takes away from precious
other resources— but we ignore it at our peril. Yes— you saw increased
security at every door and yes— your bags and backpacks were checked
and yes— if we had the proper funds that didn’t also cut into everything
else we need and want to do that would continue as it is now standard
procedure at almost every other synagogue. And no— we will sadly not be
able to fully practice the “audacious hospitality” we wish we could, without
first knowing we are safe.

Rabbi Mark Katz wrote: "Showing up at…synagogue after Pittsburgh is an
act of defiance. Walking into social justice spaces as a proud Jew even if
we might be asked unfairly to answer for every action of the Israeli
government is an act of defiance. People should know that their neighbor,
their customer, their patron is Jewish. For if they do, it will bring into focus
the personal costs of ignoring anti-Semitism.”

So what are we going to do at City Shul?

We do small interfaith activities and only a small group shows up, unless its
a Ring fo Peace which is an emergency. So there is a sign up sheet outside
for every one of the following action plans.

1. We need a real Interfaith Relationships Task Force to plan interfaith
events that go beyond the bima. I will continue to invite my Christian
and Muslim clergy friends to attend and to speak here. But there needs
to be real learning, real work being done and nurtured across interfaith
lines, between City Shul and churches and City Shul and mosques one
a regular basis and not just the reactive Rings of Peace. And not just
nicey-nice interfaith where we go and do a model Seder for them or
plan some other spiritual tourism event to show others what we believe
in and practice; no— real deep learning together that fosters trust and
relationship, where we can share our pain and our fear and our hope
with allies.
2. We need someone with relationships with our Muslim friends and the
local mosques to help them see what we are going through after the
latest Muslim-Jewish altercation in Australia and the negative press and
anti-Islam PR it is being used to fuel.
3. We need to raise at least $5000— above and beyond the usual Kol
Nidre pledges which we need to keep the place running— for an
increased security presence here at BSU this one year. This one-time
expense will allow us to hire a security guard for other large events and
services during this year without diverting general funds. Please see
any LT member or email me privately to be part of that. There is also a
sign up sheet outside o this and someone will call you back right after
the holiday. Please, friend, know that while we appreciate your advice
about security, we are getting it from experts. For this one, we need
your money.

Of course, we will as Jews surely continue to reach out to other victims of
hate. Because we are not safe until all are safe.

And back to those pesky politicians. Isaiah railed against corrupted officials
who cared nothing for the poor and vulnerable. I think Isaiah would also
ask me what did I speak about just two weeks before the Canadian Federal
election, an election that could change the social and moral fabric of our
country. I’ll tell him I used my pulpit to remind people to get out and vote,
even though I know Election Day, October 21 is Shmini Atzeret—I assure
you that our service here will be over and done well before the polling
stations close. And let me remind you that alternative voting arrangements
are in place.

Friends: just as we have aspirations for ourselves as individuals, we must
have aspirations for our synagogue that go beyond beautiful singing and a
good Kiddush. Pirke Avot says Jewish life stands on three things, three
legs of a stool as it were, and we sing this: al shlosha devarim ha-olam
omed, on three things the world stands: on Torah, on prayer and on deeds
of lovingkindness. We are really good at Torah and we are really good at
prayer. We have got to make the third leg of that stool stand stronger.

There’a story about a young and very successful executive traveling down
a neighbourhood street, going a bit too fast in his sleek, black, 12 cylinder
Jaguar, which was only two months old.

As his car passed a group of kids playing, a brick sailed out and smashed
Into the Jag's shiny black side door! The executive slamsmed the brakes,
and madly spun the Jaguar back to the spot from where the brick had been
thrown. The driver jumped out of the car, grabbed the kid and shouted,
"What the heck are you doing?!" That's my new Jag, that brick you threw is
gonna cost you a lot of money. Why did you throw it?"

"I didn't know what else to do!" pleaded the youngster. "I threw the brick
because no one else would stop!" The boy pointed “That’s my brother,
mister," he said. "He fell out of his wheelchair and I can't lift him up."
Sobbing, the boy asked the driver, "Would you please help me get him
back into his wheelchair? He's hurt and he's too heavy for me."

It’s said that the driver never fixed the side door of his Jaguar. He kept the
dent to remind him not to go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at him to get his attention.

My friends: Bricks are being thrown at us and we have got to stop and help,
before we all really get hurt.

Pirke Avot 1:15 teaches:
אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה
Shammai says — say little but do much.

Isaiah and I have said everything we need to say this morning. Now, we go
and do.

Shana Tova; Gmar Chatimah Tova.

 

Nick Gunz

In today's reading the Torah sets out the rules for Yom Kippur. Among them, Aaron the Priest takes two goats. One of these he sacrifices. Over the other, he confesses all the sins of the People Israel — seeking what Talmud Yoma 36b:11 calls 'atonement through words' — and then sends it away with another, subordinate priest.

The fate of this second goat, the one sent away, known to us as the 'scapegoat', has puzzled commentators for millennia, in part because the goat is said to be marked 'for Azazel' — ע-ז-א-ז-ל — a word which has stubbornly defied translation. Is Azazel a place? Is Azazel a wilderness in which the goat is left, literally, bewildered and unable to return home? Is it a cliff? A 'steep slope' or 'towering peak', as Rashi suggests, over which the goat is cast to its doom?

There are complex lexical and etymological arguments in favour of each of these positions. But, honestly, I want to talk about a third identification for 'Azazel'.

Because when I read about it, my first reaction was "are you fricking kidding me?" (only I didn't say "fricking", sorry [beats breast]), and then "can this possibly be real?" and then "why has nobody ever told me about this?"

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, former head rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple, an impeccably respectable authority in Reform Jewish thought, wrote in 1996:

"Azazel… was probably a demonic being, residing in the wilderness, whose abode was regarded as a focus of impurity."1

Wait, Gunther Plaut thinks Azazel is a demon?!

Eh, not really. He's taking what you might call a 'historical' approach to the origins of the text. It isn't my favourite way of approaching Torah but, occasionally, it turns up a demon. How cool is that?

So where is this coming from?

Plaut references the scholarship of Rabbi Bernard J Bamberger who reports a fallen angel called "Azazel" showing up in various pseudoepistomoligical writings from about -300 to -100, compiled in the Book of Enoch.2 But there are a lot of demons with similar names in that text, and the Azazel of Enoch doesn't seem to be explicitly linked to the goat thing. Skip forward nine hundred (ish) years: the 8th century midrashic compilation Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer,3 identifies the Azazel in the Torah with an angel called "Sammeal". The Ramban (Nachmanides) picks upon on this text in the 13th century, as does his rough contemporary Hezekiah ben Manoah (called Chizkuni), describing the Azazel/Sammeal thing as an esoteric double meaning of the text. They ascribe, to the angel Sammeal, some demon-like qualities. But Ramban is very clear that Sammeal is an angel: he calls him a "celestial minister" and "servant" of G'd. I don't think that sounds like a demon.

Ok, full disclosure, a lot of smart people disagree with me on this. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, for one (Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth during the First and Second World Wars): he writes that Nachmanides thinks Azazel is a demon. As, by the way, does our own beloved rabbi.

But I've been through the texts, and I just can't see it. I disagree. Point is, I don't think (Hi Rabbi Goldstein!) I don't think that any of these people believed that Azazel, in the Torah, is a demon. But they all think that somebody else believed that. 

…which is how demons work, isn't it? I don't believe in demons. I think this story is kind of funny because I don't believe in demons. If I did, it wouldn't be funny; it would be scary. You don't, we don't believe in demons, because we're modern, sophisticated people. No, you and I don't believe in demons. It's those misguided other people who believe in demons.

People in the past believed in demons. And that's understandable, because they lived in a demon-haunted world. For our ancestors, the dark of night was impenetrable, the creatures that inhabited it mysterious, the noises that emanated from it strange and frightening. When people died, it was often for no apparent reason. Or else an untreatable ailment could linger, for years of inexplicable, irredeemable pain. They used demons to express their fear and disgust, to have a locus for their anger and incomprehension. Theirs was a demon-haunted world and, to live in it, they needed demons.

But, of course, you and I don't believe in demons, do we? We're sophisticated, modern people. We can shine lights into the darkness; we can see the animals of the night as they are and not as we fear them to be.

We don't believe in demons, do we? I mean we don't, right?

Of course not! No, we fix our fear on rational, material things from the everyday world. You know, like homeless people, immigrants, Antifa anarchists, Muslims, the mentally ill. You know, modern fears, for modern people.

Of course, we don't look too closely at these people. That would be silly: the whole reason you demonise somebody is so you can avoid having to get close to them. They're demons! They're probably gross! Probably.

You know, we should probably know better. Because, let's not kid around, people demonise us. They've been doing it for centuries, and recently it's on an upswing.

I've spent more time than I care to on the internet, watching people radicalise (mostly) young men to hate me. They're very good at it. They give their recruits personal attention; they nurture their fear and resentment like saplings. They build, for them, a solid scaffold of selective truths and plausible lies. There are now tens, probably hundreds of thousands of far-right sympathisers in Canada. And the most dangerous ones aren't even the ones who pop off and murder people. The most dangerous ones are the ones who wear suits, and uniforms, and are diligently playing a very, very long game to work their way into places where they have power. And can wield it.

It's a big problem. We have to fix it. We have a duty to fix it. But here's an even bigger problem:

We won't be able to fix this until we recognise that when they demonise us, we demonise them back.

Because we don't want to think about them; who would? We don't want to remember that they're people, that their hatred is fuelled by anger and pain. We demonise them, because they are legitimately scary. And when you demonise someone you don't have to look into the details of their lives, treat them like human beings, take a part in their redemption. Demonisation is a really useful way to shut the doors of compassion on the people who make you afraid. I have spoken to so many people who would rather shut that door than actually survive. So many people who would rather close their eyes and wait for the blow to fall, not because they are cowards, not because they are fools, but because the alternative involves admitting that their enemies are people, and that is simply too painful.

We can shut every door we like. We can post a guard, turn this place into a fortress. But the enemy haunting our gates is not a cadre of evil, demonic people. The real enemy is ignorance. It is the dark of night, that makes demons, the randomness of pain, the unfathomable aetiology of misery and failure. The real enemy is incoherence.

Let's go back to the Torah. Azazel, alleged demon, is situated In the Desert, בּמִַּדְבָּרֽ , just like the Israelites themselves. That desert is described as an ארֶֶץ גּזְרֵָה , a 'land (eretz) of g'zerah'. Now, together those words are usually translated as 'wilderness'. But on its own, גּזְרֵָה is a word used to describe
something that sits outside of human rationality and comprehension. Azazel sits in a land of human meaninglessness, a Wasteland, in the T.S. Elliot sense of the word.

We have to go there. If we want to diffuse the white supremacists, we have to go to the Wasteland they inhabit. In fact, we can't afford not to. We have to go there, towing our happy little goat. And carrying our Torah.

Our tradition is one that survives. We are uniquely equipped to go into the wilderness, because our many centuries have given us the tools we need.

1. "Go and Learn" - A monster that feeds on lies starves in a field of knowledge. Go and learn! And don't be afraid to teach. Because, face it, if we aren't willing to teach with patience and tolerance and joy then, believe me, the nazis are more than willing to pick up the slack.

2. "Welcome the stranger" - That's another tool. The basic premise of the murderous far right is that different groups of people cannot live together. Prove them wrong. The one thing they can't explain away are people from different cultures celebrating together with honour and love. Come out for interfaith events. Build up your own community. Hate flees from love like darkness from a lamp.

Ah yes, the lamp. Take a look on the Ark where we keep our scrolls: the Ner Tamid, the eternal light. It is, perhaps, our greatest tool.

We all have our demons, each of us and all of us together. We all have the gift of the gathering light to show us that we can solve our problems together, bear our sorrows together, that we don't have to be lonely and afraid and powerless in the gathering dark.

2800 years ago, the Prophet Isaiah asked us, in our Covenant, to be an אור לגויים , a light unto the nations. That ancient call is our chance. It's the best one we have. It's the last one we might get.

Demons are only demons when they live in darkness and desolation. We have the chance be the אור לגויים , to turn our demons into people.

Gmar Chatimah Tova

1 Plaut, 780.
2 Book of Enoch, 54:5, &c.
3 46:8-9

Wed, 11 December 2019 13 Kislev 5780