In helfman

By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

שמות ז:יט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה … קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה-יָדְךָ עַל-מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם… וְיִהְיוּ-דָם וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים

Exodus 7:19 “And the Eternal said… Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt…that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in the vessels of wood and stone.”

And those claiming to act in the name of God raised their long, narrow rods into the air and – in a form of terrible magic – hope turned to despair.  Blood flowed over the wood and stone in Paris.

The plague of fear spread, as did the terror. Yet we are a stiff-necked people #jesuisjuif.  In a land where kosher slaughter has been controversial, but a few kosher supermarkets still remain open for business, our people were held in bondage.  In the name of a higher holiness, they were held in a plague of terror brought to life through the barrel of a gun.  (And at the same time, in an act of true Holiness, our people were kept safe, alive next to the frozen goods in a Godly act of compassion.)

The terrible thing about plagues is that they work.  Fear and terror work.

As much as I hate to admit it, we, the people of Israel, know that terror is a plague.  It changes our behavior.  It drives us to build walls, to drive wedges and cut off work relationships and the possibility of friendships.

How do we try to live in a world where our water too often is turned to blood?

We must cling to our idea of God

It is often said that religion or ‘God language’ is the root of all modern evil.  If we as Jews could just move to a cultural or national understanding of Judaism, we would purify our people of the burden or possibility that we would feel driven to work against others in God’s name.

Instead of moving beyond ‘God language’ we can be true to Judaism and ourselves by saying that we have an idea of a world at peace.  A world without war or terror.   We have ethics, morality and even commandments which inform our lives.  We must move to creating a more equitable world not in spite of God, but because we feel a commanding pull to do so.

Holding onto our ‘God language,’ refining our ‘God idea’ means that we are authentic in our discourse with other religions and with ourselves.  God is not the root of all evil, rather human beings without a view of others as being created in and needing to be respected as the Image of the Divine.

Being comfortable with this vocabulary means that we can build bridges across religions and foster a world more full of respect.

We must not be ‘crushed’ by fear and terror nor ‘crush’ others

שמות ו: ה-ט וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם וָאֶזְכֹּר אֶת-בְּרִיתִי: לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי יְהוָֹה וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם…  וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה כֵּן אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל-משֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה

Exodus 6:5-9 I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Eternal. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you… But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

Even when Moses told the Jewish people that redemption was at hand, the Jewish people were so crushed by the Egyptians that we would not listen.  As Rashi comment , “One’s spirit is one’s ‘wind.’  One who is in distress is short of breath and can hardly draw his lungs full of air.”  As terrible as these incidents are, we must continue to try to draw full breaths, to get air to our brains, so that we can think rationally.

Though some have been calling for the publication of offensive drawings, and some publications feel strongly that publishing these drawings is an important act of freedom, we have to try to balance freedom with social responsibility.  Not out of fear, but out of kindness.  Out of respect for other Canadians who might feel like strangers in their own land with publication of these images.  One of the effects of terrorism is that it puts wedges between relationships.  We should not actively seek to erect these barriers in the wake of terror attacks.

We should enjoy our liberties yet always pair them with social responsibility.

We must remember that we are a people of hope.

Though we had the wind knocked out of us, our people never forgot what life was like without plagues – without hardship.  There was a generation who was scared by this experience and who did not make it into the land of hope.  Yet our people survived this idea of Egypt, the hardship imposed on us in the story of our people by our idea of God and still are here today.  And we are not here simply to survive.  We are here to make our world a better place – to bring our ideas of Godliness when plagues strike.

We are a stiff-necked people, making Jewish life blossom around the world, even in places of darkness and in times of darkness.  We are a people that brings hope wherever we live, especially when we refuse to let terror drive a wall between us and our neighbors.

One way that you can help Jewish life remain vibrant for those that have not given up on Jewish life is to learn about and support the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  Stop at other reform synagogues around the world when you travel, and let them know that they are not alone.   For more information on the WUPJ’s European region, please visit or join me in Rio for the next WUPJ convention

Thank you to David Gershon for your help in formulating these thoughts.

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  • Michaele-Sue Goldblatt

    Thank you, Rabbi Helfman and Beny. And may we all honour Lassana Bathily (And at the same time, in an act of true Holiness, our people were kept safe, alive next to the frozen goods in a Godly act of compassion.) who will be receiving French citizenship on January 20, 2015 in recognition of his ‘act of true Holiness’; now he is a hero of France.

  • Beny Maissner

    Excellent erudite and interesting
    Rabbi Helfman has a great future. I love his sermons

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