In helfman, sermons

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Sermon: June 5, 2015 – Rabbi Jordan Helfman – We are all imposters – stand-ins for other people’s ideas of what all Rabbis do – what Doctors can do.  What Lawyers can do.  We imitate what we think a musician or student or social worker should do.  What our mentors did.  We have ideas that we strive towards of what good Canadians are supposed to stand for.  What good Jews will never let happen again.

פרשת בהעלותך

This is a chasidic story I heard first from Rabbi David Gelfand:

The travellers were on the way from their town to visit the great Rebbe.  Towards the end of their finances, yet lusting after a night with food and drink, and then sleep in a comfortable bed, they started to chat as they walked town the dusty road.

As the conversation between them thickened, someone said, “You know, rabbis and their entourages are always treated well when they come through.  Why doesn’t one of us pretend to be a rabbi, and then we will find rest and solace for the night.”

As they marched onwards, and neared the town, one of the friends, under protest was presented forth as a spiritual sage on pilgrimage to the Rebbe.

The gates of the town opened for them, as did the doors to the inn – full of food and drink, full of music and joyful singing.

As the group was tiring, the inn keep approached, his hat in his hands.

“Rabbi” he pleaded, “It is such a blessing that you’ve come upon us at this time.  My son has been sick, he is lying on what we fear is his deathbed.  Please, I beseech you, please take a moment of your time, and pray for his well-being.”

The imposter paled.  His hands grew moist, he felt numb.  Taking his silence for assent, the innkeeper took the imposter’s moist hand and led him up to the side of the bed.

Sweat pouring down his forehead, the impostor closed his eyes, tears streaming down his cheeks, and prayed that the moment would pass.

When he realized how silent the room was – his friends staring at him, the inn-keeper full of hope and dread, the boy, pale faced and sickly, lying there – he lifted one heavy foot after another until somehow he found himself outside of the room.

That night, the imposter prayed:

“Dear God – please, you know that I am an imposter.  I have no merit.  I lay here in an innkeeper’s bed who is trying to do the best he can for his child.  He thinks I am worthy enough to bring down your favour on his son. Yet, I, I have no merit.  Please, please, don’t punish this inn-keeper because of me.  Because of my inability to stand up to the pressure of fellows.  My claim at a title which is for one more righteous than I.  Please, please, don’t punish this boy because of me. Please.”

The next morning, with fanfare the town saw the band of friends off to finish their march on their way towards the great Rebbe for Shabbat.

As soon as they lost sight of the town, the imposter removed his hat and the friends marched silently on.

During their visit to the Rebbe, the whole time – his eyes seemed to know.  And when Shabbat was over, the band of friends walked back, from town to town, sleeping in nearby forests or on the streets of villages.

On their return, they entered yet another village.  They thought nothing of it, until… peeking under his hat, one of the village people recognized them as a band travelling with a Rabbi.

Quickly the villagers took the group by their hands and led them to the inn.

The imposter started to protest, but under the weight of the crowd, braced himself for the inevitable.

He thought back to his prayer “God, I am imposter.  I have no merit, but please don’t punish this boy because of me.”

We are all imposters – stand-ins for other people’s ideas of what all Rabbis do – what Doctors can do.  What Lawyers can do.  We imitate what we think a musician or student or social worker should do.  What our mentors did.  We have ideas that we strive towards of what good Canadians are supposed to stand for.  What good Jews will never let happen again.

We are all impostors.

We know that true Jews are living Jewish values, advocating for civil rights, proud to be working for education, equal housing opportunities.

We know that true Canadians uphold an ideal of a just society – an equitable society where all are treated equally by our courts and our police.

Now think about our reaction to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s summary report. More of the same.  Things we already knew.  Its recommendations are too expansive – too vast, too much.  The focus is too much on the ‘truth’ – the dirty past – and not enough on the ‘reconciliation’ how we can go about living our lives while giving lip-service to the idea that Canada is a beacon of light and equality in the world.

We are all imposters.

Owning up to the fact that I am an imposter, I have no problem saying this:  All of us Canadians – from those of us that have arrived here just months ago to those of us that have had multiple generations in this country – all of us Canadians are responsible for reconciliation.

As Ve’ahavta, CIJA, the Toronto Rabbis and the Reform Rabbis said in a statement to the commission:

Historically, Indigenous Peoples experienced traumatic social change, institutional violence, and prolonged attempts to forcibly assimilate them into the Canadian whole. Today, Indigenous Peoples face disproportionately lower socio-economic conditions as compared to non-Indigenous Canadians. There are dramatic disparities in the areas of education, health and well-being, life expectancy, employment, housing, living conditions, average income, access to social services and over-representation in the justice and social assistance systems. It is important to bring to light an understanding of the history and legacy of these policies, including the Residential School System, in order to achieve a just society

If we admit that we are part of the problem – promoting friends and acquaintances because of their relationships.  If we admit to our learned cultural ideas of what Aboriginals look like and are capable of – an idea perpetuated by the system and policies revealed in this report.  If we can admit that we, as Canadians, are fakes, only giving lip-service to our country’s ideals, then we have a foundation we can build upon.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, we must remember that, “morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”  Regardless of our personal involvement in perpetuating this cultural oppression, we must know that some are guilty, but all of us are responsible.

All of us as Jews.

These stories ring so close to home.  I could sit here all day reading narrative after narrative, and we could ask after each one – Is this terrible story a real, lived experience from a residential school, or one from our people’s experiences in Spain, in Italy, and during the Shoah – the Holocaust.  The report uses the language of cultural genocide-  children being taken from homes and raised in the prevailing Christian culture is not foreign to us.  We have those in our community here with us today who I know have themselves and their families suffered similar and worse.

Yet in saying the words “never again”, we are all imposters.

We often know this in our hearts when listening to news abroad of racial or religious based mass killings.  Of the migrants being turned away in South East Asia.  The political or economic migrants whose boats never make to Europe and those sent home from Israel.

What this report reminds us is that we let the words “never again” be but in relation to the Jews even here in Canada.

Canada’s first Prime Minister told the House of Commons in 1883:

When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write/ his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men. (p.2)

The Truth and Reconciliation report documents similarly blunt admissions by administrators and school officials of the purpose of the schools nearly until the time of the last schools closing in the mid 1990s.  Years and years after “never again.”

These stories hurt because elements of this narrative strike too close to home for the survivors amongst our people.   We have much to teach and support from our own community’s experience with pain, and tragedy.  With abuse of all sorts, and the legacy it leaves in the next generations.

While we may feel like we are imposters in many areas of life, I pray that we will never truly feel like fakes as Jews.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is about cultural genocide.

We are here today, united in celebration, worship and study because of our tradition.  Because these are the words our people have chanted for generations.  This is the food that our people eats.  These are the words our people have said from Shabbat to Shabbat.

We are, all of us, Jews.  Let us own that.  Though we may find ourselves lacking, though we know we all have work to do, I hope that we all know in our hearts that we are not imposters.  And our children should never feel like impostors in their Jewish skins, or else who will speak up in support of the Aboriginals?  The Muslims?  The Catholics?

Who will speak up for the refugees of every flavour who seek admission to safety on Canada’s shores?

Who will speak up for these and more that need the Prophetic voice which unites us and has united us throughout the generations?

This means that we must sometimes fight our children to keep them in Jewish education in the most formative years of their lives when they are forming their adult Jewish identities – from grade 8 through the beginning of university.  This means that others of us must make time in our schedules to continue our own learning, through adult education or around the seder table.

If the Truth and Reconciliation Commission teaches us anything-  it is that we must strive to be the best Jews that we can be – connected to people and our heritage, members of our own Tribe, so that our Judaism of equality and life can help bring healing and life to others.

The imposter was carried by the crowd towards the inn, his friends surrounding him, glancing at him nervously.  His heart in his throat, and he repeated his prayer

“Dear God – please, you know that I am an imposter.  I have no merit. The innkeeper thinks I am worthy to bring down your favour on his son.  But I, I have no merit.  Please, please, don’t punish this inn-keeper because of me.  Because of my inability to stand up to the pressure of fellows.  My claim at a title which is for one more righteous than I.  Please, please, don’t punish because of my failings. Please.”

He looked out, and saw the inn keeper.  This inn keeper himself was not looking back, but rather was looking to the side, his eyes showing vigilance.

Following his gaze, the imposter saw his prayer answered.  Blissfully unaware of the imposter before him or even that the imposter had prayed above this bed stood a healthy looking boy and his friends at play.

On our behalf I now offer up this prayer:

Dear God – please, you know that we are imposters.  We have no merit. We claim the title of good Canadian, of good Jew, yet truly these are titles for people more righteous than us – of people that truly act on their belief that all in society are responsible for the suffering of the few.  These are names for those that can speak Truth even under the pressure of our fellows to take the path of comfort.  These are names reserved for those create friendships across all boundaries – relationships of equals – and, through relationship comes a more just society.   Please, please, O God bring Reconciliation in spite of our failings. Please.

And let us say, Amen.

Shabbat Shalom.

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