In helfman

Sermon delivered at Holy Blossom Temple on Shabbat Matot/Masei, 6 July 2013.

By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

I was ordained as a rabbi less than a month ago, with nine others – making us a minyan of newly ordained rabbis.  Rabbi David Ellenson, the president of the rabbinical school, counted us during the ordination service with the traditional verse, used because of a Toraitic prohibition against numbering individuals-

הוֹשִׁיעָה, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ–    וּבָרֵךְ אֶת-נַחֲלָתֶךָ

וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם,    עַד-הָעוֹלָם

Deliver and bless Your people, tend them and sustain them forever.[i]

Besides myself, the minyan of new rabbis also included Rabbi Splansky’s cousin, Rabbi Ari Lorge, and many other individuals I am blessed and honoured to be able to call colleagues and friends.

While I have had the luxury of beginning to get to know Holy Blossom Temple as a full time rabbi for nearly the past two months, most of my colleagues started their sacred work on the first of July, and this is their first Shabbat as full time, fully ordained rabbis with their communities.

And on this Shabbat, they will be reading the same Torah portion and Haftarah portion as we do.

Including in this week’s double Torah portion is Gad and Reuven’s plea to settle east of the Jordan, instead of crossing over into the Promised Land.  In their negations, or as Rashi says, their plea for Moses’s mercy.  They say, “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones; but we ourselves will be ready armed to go before the children of Israel, until we have brought them unto their place; and our little ones shall dwell in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land.  We will not return unto our houses, until the children of Israel have inherited every man his inheritance.”[ii]

Rashi points out that they talk about their possessions, their money – first, and their children last, and points out that Moses responds that they should put the Most important thing first, and the Lesser things second.  He accedes to their requests, but says that they need to switch their priorities –  Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your sheep; and THEN do that which has proceeded out of your mouths”[iii]  Know what is important, Moses says, and then we can talk about the rest of life.

Selections from our Torah portion are also being discussed in Cincinnati, OH, where one of my classmates – Rabbi Meredith Kahan Flowers – just started.

One of her congregant’s names was listed in our Mi Shebeirach list.

Last Shabbat, a day before Rabbi Kahan started work, during an ultimate Frisbee game at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Goldman Union Camp Institute, three campers were suddenly struck by lightning.  The two nine-year old campers have since recovered, but her congregant, a twelve year old, is still in critical condition in the hospital.

This week, the 1st of July, one of my classmates began her role as the new rabbi in Prescott, Arizona, where she is undoubtedly leading study of this Torah portion, too, on this Shabbat.   A day before she started working in that community, a wildfire nearby the city that was burning out of control suddenly shifted course, and killed 19 young firefighters from her city.

Please be careful this summer.

Turning for help in personal e-mails and in rabbinic message boards, both of my classmates posted and asked for where they could find resources – one for prayers for healing, and the other to bring comfort to a community in mourning over the loss of friends.

They have both shared with me some of the readings that they have turned and may use, or may have used in communal events.

I found many of these powerful, because they are well written, because they are so relevant to the events they are meant to address, and because of the way they talk about the relationship between God and tragedy.

For instance, there is this prayer from the Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies that Rabbi Rosenthal directed me to, from a website that has many creative liturgical pieces on it – ritualwell – B’rukhah at Yah, M’kor haHayim, hatomechet banu b’haviyenu or l’chosheck, marpei l’shever, v’shalom l’col yoshvei tevel – Blessed are you, Source of Life, who helps us to bring Light were there is darkness, Healing where there is brokenness, and Peace to all the earth’s inhabitants.[iv]

God, in this prayer –feminine in the Hebrew – is celebrated as the supporter of the work we do.  It seems to be the thought of God, when we are in need of support outside ourselves – which enables us to be better.

Another prayer used “God who hears prayer” takes a similar theological look at God’s role in comforting:

Prayer is a pathway to God which leads us to feel God’s love, not only in the heavens above, but within us and within those about us.  If we walk on this path with faith, we will feel God’s presence here in this room, here in our hearts, giving us strength, guidance and hope.  The prophet Jeremiah [who we learned from in our haftarah today] teaches, ‘when you call Me and come and pray to Me, I will heed to you.  You will search for Me and find Me, if only you will seek Me wholeheartedly.’  – Baruch Atah Adonai, Shomei’ah T’filah.’  – We praise you, O God, who hears prayer. [v]

This prayer focuses on God as a presence we feel within ourselves, and within those around us.

What does this mean- a God who hears prayer?

Other prayers said show us as experiencing a world in-spite of God, who is part of a divine tapestry we cannot fathom.  One prayer laments a world born of chance, but emphasize that in spite of it all, we still heal ‘because that is what we do. Not all at once perhaps not now, but in time.’[vi]

We heal, in some ways, according to this prayer, in spite of God, while other prayers have us turning to that power within us for the strength to find comfort and healing.

Rabbi Alexandra Wright of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, England, writes about this search for the power within,  “Security and certainty are not physical constructs for Jeremiah, nor indeed for Moses faced with mutiny from the clans. They emerge from an inner capacity for renewed faith in ourselves, in our goodness, in our ability to help others, in our respect and reverence for human beings, in our perception that security comes from things that transcend the physical and material things of life and from our capability, as it were, to place our trust in something other, something deeper than ourselves, call it resilience or courage or strength or even God.”[vii]

All of these prayers were said in community.  Before the introductory song to the healing service she helped lead, Rabbi Kahan asked that everyone gathered together as a community, share in prayers of comfort, peace, and faith.  While each of the prayers represent an individual striving to be better, the Divine Presence is addressed on behalf of the whole Jewish community only when there is a minyan of ten, a gathering.  It is our gathering which brings the feeling of the Divine down to support us all individually.

We are approaching the month of Av, we are approaching a time in Judaism when happiness is diminished.  Sometimes it is more than just a spiritual diminishment, when a young Jewish arts counselor is struck by a tree and killed at a camp in California, as happened this week, or when people are able to return to their homes in Calgary and see the damage the floods have left.

In a prayer for flood-filled days by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, we recite:

Recalling now that the world, though filled with Your Glory, is not equal to Your flawlessness, we strive desperately, sometimes without success, to move beyond the impulse to blame You.  Keep us far from apocalyptic thoughts, for we know that You ask us to care for each other, an awesome responsibility.

Be with us now, during these deluged days.  Draw us close to those harmed by these waters, hearing their cries, responding to their needs.  Lead us to support those who will fix the cities, care for the displaced, who bring healing to those suffering.

As we rush to meet the challenge of living in this imperfect world of ourse, May we slow down enough to cherish those who are truly valuable – kadosh – to us.

Baruch ata Adonai, haMavdil bein kodesh l’chol – Blessed are You, O God, who differentiates between the truly Valuable and everything else.[viii]

And so, as the month of Av comes on Monday, as we have announced earlier in our service, and we begin to reflect, Jewishly, on sadness and heartbreak, let us use that time to cherish what is Holy – not our possessions, not our wealth and the buildings in which we live in – the cloths and cars that surround our lives… the gadgets that connect us and represent our online selves… but the personal connections and relationships that we have with those around us.  For they are our legacy, and they are the Holy.

As a sacred community, we say when we count to a minyan – a representative number of the People of Israel seeking the Divine –

הוֹשִׁיעָה, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ–    וּבָרֵךְ אֶת-נַחֲלָתֶךָ;

וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם,    עַד-הָעוֹלָם.

Deliver and bless Your people, tend them and sustain them forever.

And when tragedy strikes, let us find comfort, in an ideal of God that we can lean on when we individually need support, but also as a presence which descends on us when we are engaged as a community, at least a minyan, supporting one another when we cannot individually stand alone.

This only works if we know each other, so please take a moment after services to say ‘hi’ to anyone in this room you don’t know.  Extend an invitation to dinner, to go out to see a movie together, to play bridge.  For where else does God dwell, than in the sacred relationships formed here in this sacred space, and in synagogues around the world.

As Moses said to the Gaddites and the Ruebenites – focus on our children, and grandchildren, and then worry about everything else.  Let us as a community, as we spend our summers working or relaxing, at our cottages or here in Toronto, let us celebrate, renew and strengthen those connections which bind us to life, to God, and to each other.  And let us say, Amen.

Shabbat Shalom.

[i] Psalm 28:9

[ii] Numbers 32:16

[iii] Paraphrase of Numbers 32:24, based on Rashi’s comment on Numbers 32:16


[v] From the healing service used at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio for this occasion.

[vi] Sent by Rabbi Jessica Rosenthal, in Prescott, Arizona. Adapted from “Still We Heal,” Copyright, Congregation Beth Adam, 2004

[vii] From the Leo Baeck College weekly D’var TorahMattot/Masei, 2013.


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