In helfman, renewal, sermons

O Send Out Thy Light And Thy Truth:
Making Holy Blossom Temple a Beacon of Reform Judaism

The long cherished dream of our Holy Blossom Congregation for a new and more adequate structure to house its growing needs is now consummated.  Standing as it does upon its commanding new site, in the heart of one of the most rapidly growing sections of the city, its beautiful new Temple will serve to attract innumerable new worshippers and members into its fold.  No more far-sighted nor more propitious location could possibly have been selected.  It occupies an entire block, with a frontage of 312 feet on the west side of Bathurst Street, between Ava Road and Dewbourne Road, at the very juncture of the two most attractive subdivisions of Forest Hill Village and Cedarvale.

This Temple, as designed after painstaking study and wide research by Messrs. Chapman and Oxley, with Mr. Maurice D. Klein, as associate, is built entirely of monolithic concrete, perhaps one of the most impressive, and certainly the most modern, medium of construction.  However, its general architectural style, which is a modern adaptation of the Romanesque, may be traced back to the earliest origins of the historic Synagogue.  It takes the form of a Basilica which, according to Biblical tradition, was the precise form of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and which recent archeological investigations have revealed as the most commonly accepted mode of Synagogual architecture up until the late Moorish period.  In fact, it has been suggested by some authorities that the original form of the Christian Church arose out of this early Hebrew Synagogue rather than vice versa as is commonly believed.  Thus the new Holy Blossom Temple, although reared in the most modern of media and made to meet the most contemporary of requirements, is architecturally rooted in the distant past, and is carefully and appropriately decorated with thoughtfully selected Jewish art-symbols.

Thus begins Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath’s description of Holy Blossom Temple in the Dedication Souvenir, which was distributed on May 21st, 1938 upon the completion of our physical renewal, culminating in the dedication of this magnificent building which has housed our sacred community for the last nearly seventy-five years.

Today, we are marking שבת שובה – Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Returning, between יום הזיכרון – Yom HaZikaron and יום הדין – Yom HaDin – the Day of Remembrance we just observed, and the Day of Judgment on the horizon just a week from today.

And on this שבת שובה – Shabbat Shuvah – Shabbat of Returning, as we continue work on our own individual journeys of return and renewal, so, too do does our congregation celebrate its place in the cycle of renewal with the first step in the physical renewal of our seventy-five year old building since the addition of the school wing, completed in 1961.  We mark the physical returning of our Temple to the most modern of media and the most contemporary of requirements, yet keep it rooted in the distant past, with the dedication today of Jacob’s Tower.

Originally called the Memorial Tower, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath described his vision for this structure, as noted by Rabbi Splansky yesterday:

The two Main Wings, the Temple and the School, are artistically linked together by an imposing Memorial Tower rising 82 feet from the ground, which can be ascended by several flights of stairs…  It is hoped that the Tower, looming so nobly above the city by day and illumined by night… by a continuous flame… symbolizing the ancient fire which was to be “kept burning continually upon the alter” of the Holy Temple at Jerusalem, will thus serve as the central motif and theme of this glorious structure itself, proclaiming in imperishable stone, Man’s eternal aspiration toward the Divine and beckoning all the Children of God to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

If you entered Holy Blossom Temple from the Dewbourne Road entrance, just underneath the tower on the entrance-way carved about you, you may have seen these words from Psalm 43 (verse 3) carved above you:  “O send out Thy light and Thy truth; let them lead me.”

For Eisendrath, relevant to his era of Reform, the purpose of the Jewish people was to shine the light of ethical living and Godly moral conduct so as to illumine all the earth.

Delivered in front of that ark in the Herman Chapel at its original Bond Street home in his Rosh Hashanah sermon given in 1930 on the eve of the Great Depression and during continual persecution of Jews in Europe, Rabbi Eisendrath calls for spiritual renewal:

Let no complacent smugness lay its denigrated hand upon our hearts.  Let conscious reign supreme tonight and lead us on our way.  The road will be hard and toilsome, long and weary, it will lead through raging fire and consuming flood, but there is no other way, and the comforting and illuminating vision of what lies beyond must inspire us ever to wander on.  Watchman, watchman, what of the night.  The Dawn cometh, the Dawn cometh.[i]  For out of the night of worry and terror, out of the darkness of false ideals and fallacious standards, out of the gloom of superficial pessimism and despairing hope, out of the bleak and forbidding night of the present there will be light, after the darkness will come the Dawn.[ii]

Incidentally, that hand-written, hour-long sermon was one of those recently found in a dusty box, stored safely away and forgotten about for many years, in Jacob’s Tower.

Eisendrath was not the originator of this theology, linking the dispersion of Jews around the world to the spreading of the flame once only found in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In Babylon the Sages of the Talmud (Megillah 29a) said that the Divine Presence actually visits synagogues as it once did the Temple, and that synagogues and Jewish homes can be called מקדש מעט Mikdash Me’at, an echo of the Temple of Jerusalem where that eternal flame once burned.  Thus, too, we have our נר תמיד – ner tamid, our eternal flame, actualizing this relationship.

But though synagogues are echoes of the Temple, they are not the only places where the Divine Presence can be felt in our world.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman writes:

Our map of sacred space is far more complex than a simple set of meeting places between heaven and earth. It contains sacred sites and their markers; and then markers for the markers…Sites may be holy because inherently they speak of the presence of God, or because history has invested them with sacr[edness], or because we human beings have the audacity to build sacred markers, buildings of some type or other that we then dedicate to make sure God really comes there…[iii]

When our father, Jacob was traveling through the Promised Land, he had a dream where he encountered God, and thus raised the stone that he had set under his head into a tall pillar, a matzevah.  Linking physical and spiritual renewal, he said, “If God is with me, and watches over me on this path that I am taking and gives me bread to eat and cloths to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house, then will the Eternal be my God and this stone that I have set up as a monument shall be a House of God.  And of all that You give me, I will dedicate a tenth to You”(Gen. 28:20).

Three other times – when leaving his father-in-law, after another dream, and after his wife’s death – our ancestor Jacob set up towering stones to be houses of God – to mark places where life changed, experience was altered.  Where the Divine was felt in earnest.

For those of us that have at least read The Jacob Stories,[iv] we have been moved by Jacob Hertzman’s ability to experience joy and cheekiness in life.  It is moving for us that this place, Holy Blossom Temple, and that specifically Maurice Eisendrath’s concrete Memorial Tower can be a celebration of Jacob’s life.

Holy Blossom Temple began as an audacious dream to, through architecture, bring the Divine here to 1950 Bathurst Street, Toronto and from its majestic tower, to shine the Divine light out into the world.

Now, 75 years on, Holy Blossom Temple is holy ground, not just because of Eisendrath’s audacity, but also because of the many sacred relationships and stories that have passed through this structure.

As you climb the tower today, look at some stories, some souls, who have physically left their mark on our building.  As each of these individuals marked this building, I wonder what happened reciprocally – about the mark the learning they acquired here has left on their lives.

For Maurice Eisendrath, this building was a vehicle through which to teach these souls his theology, and he shaped the concrete into a physical representation of what at the time was most important in Judaism.

Now, we too have a chance to be audacious enough and ask what sort of building would make our image of the Divine a more regular visitor to 1950 Bathurst Street today, leaving its impression on the souls of all who pass through it.

For our physical renewal, this is the year in which the architects are putting pen to paper.  The Renewal Engagement Committee is still continually asking for each of our input.   Please do not hesitate to, after Shabbat, e-mail [email protected] or to join the online discussion, letting the Renewal Engagement committee know what you think can bring God into this space.  They will respond and join your dialogue.

We have an opportunity to make this space reflect contemporary Reform Judaism.  We have an opportunity to make this a space that, through its architecture and its art, teaches our Jewish values – צדקה –Tzedakah, Environmentalism and Social Justice – still shining our light on the outside world.  Zionism, Sacred Study and Devotion to Sacred Text.  Honouring the Deceased.  Being Accessible and Hospitable.  And especially facilitating the building of Sacred Relationships.

Let’s be audacious.  Share your vision of what makes Holy Blossom Temple a Beacon of Reform Judaism. Let’s make Holy Blossom Temple into a place that we, our children and our friends would like to dwell, grow and learn, and thus a place where we can daily have encounters with the Divine.

On this שבת שובה – Shabbat Shuvah – Shabbat of Returning, of Renewal, we dedicate one small part of our building whose windows frame both the beauty of nature and the human ingenuity that has built upon it, inspiring those that have seen this view with awe.  We dedicate this small part of our structure which serves to those on the outside as a light-tower.  It reminds them of the influence Judaism has had in the landscape of Toronto.  And for those Jewish souls sailing up and down Bathurst Street, it reminds them where they can always find safe harbour.  Where they can come to return home.

On this שבת שובה – Shabbat Shuvah – Shabbat of Returning, we are reminded what Eisendrath knew – that in our tradition creation and building is a two-tiered process: וביום שביעי שבת וינפש – B’yom Hashv’vi’i Shabbat Vayinafash[v] – After laying the foundations of the earth and placing the rafters of the sky, on the seventh day God was refreshed, or, more literally, re-souled – וינפש – vayinafash.  נפש – Nefesh.

And thus we dedicate ourselves to both the physical renewal, but also the spiritual renewal of Holy Blossom Temple.

On this שבת שובה – Shabbat Shuvah – Shabbat of Repentance, while we celebrate this first physical step in the renewal of this congregation, let us remember that our returning is not complete.  We are renewing in body, but must also, as God does every seventh day, become re-souled – renewed in spirit.

Our lay leaders have made it easy – by dropping a card with our name on it into one of the receptacles around the building [or e-mailing Rabbi Teri Appleby], you will be contacted and asked how to contribute.  Additionally, the Campaign for Youth Engagement has special task forces coming together to renew our programming from early childhood to grade 12.  Adult education opportunities abound, including on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Opportunities to build sacred relationship exist whenever we gather here.

As today we dedicate Holy Blossom’s light-house, Jacob’s Tower, It is up to each of us to kindle the flame which will show from its arched windows onto the streets below.

We must work to nurture and remember the sparks of Godliness inside of ourselves and others.  We must kindle our imaginations as to how our physical structure can commemorate so many moving experience of the Divine that have already taken place where we are now present, and yet still shines our Judaism of today into the hearts of all who enter.

And it is up to each of us to re-ignite the spiritual flame in Holy Blossom Temple.  We must bask in the remarkable warmth of our community, celebrate our brightest students in sacred learning, and display our burning passion for social justice.   It is this spiritual fire of engagement which makes Holy Blossom Temple a מקדש מעט – Mikdash Me’at, a place which the Divine is present. It is this renewed flame, for learning- אש התורה – Esh haTorah, for Social Justice, and for building relationships, which bring the Divine here.  And it is this flame that will again shine forth so brightly into a world so sorely in need of it, from Jacobs Tower. יְהִי אוֹר – Y’hi Or[vi].  Let there be light.

שבת שלום – Shabbat Shalom and גמר חתימה טובה – Gamar Chatimah Tovah.

May we all be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.


שְׁלַח-אוֹרְךָ וַאֲמִתְּךָ,    הֵמָּה יַנְחוּנִי;

יְבִיאוּנִי אֶל-הַר-קָדְשְׁךָ,    וְאֶל-מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ.

O send out Thy light and Thy truth; let them lead me –

Let them bring me unto Your Holy Mountain; and to Your Temple[s].  (Psalm 43:3)


[i] Isaiah 21:11-12  מַשָּׂא, דּוּמָה:  אֵלַי, קֹרֵא מִשֵּׂעִיר, שֹׁמֵר מַה-מִּלַּיְלָה, שֹׁמֵר מַה-מִּלֵּיל.   The burden of Dumah. One calleth unto me out of Seir: ‘Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?’

אָמַר שֹׁמֵר, אָתָה בֹקֶר וְגַם-לָיְלָה; אִם-תִּבְעָיוּן בְּעָיוּ, שֻׁבוּ אֵתָיוּ   The watchman said: ‘The morning cometh, and also the night–if ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come.’

[ii] “Darkness and Dawn: A Sermon for New Year’s Eve” Holy Blossom – 1930 by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath. Typed and provided by the Holy Blossom Temple Archives.  Handed to me by Michael Cole.

[iv] Hertzman, Jill and Elayne Freeman (eds.) The Jacob Stories. Florence Hertzman (illustrator). Bow Tie Press, Toronto: 2004.

[v] Ex. 31:17

[vi] Genesis 1:3.

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  • Mark goodman

    Well said

  • Florence Hertzman

    Rabbi Helfman–truly a remarkable sermon..filled w/history, and insight of wisdom–to ponder.

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