In Featured at HBT, helfman, sermons

By Rabbi Jordan Helfman.

This week, over American Thanksgiving (for those of you not from my motherland, that was on Thursday), many of us woke up to news that Israel is on fire.

As Rabbi Marmur said after one of my sermons here at Holy Blossom – “you know, Rabbi, this is exactly why I come to shul every Shabbat – to learn what is wrong with the world.”

Well, this week, Israel is on fire.  And it is relevant to us today, as Liberal Jews living in Canada, because we know that fire can be a test of character.

As we heard from our Bar Mitzvah, Brian Aber, we are in the story of Abraham – the story of constantly being a stranger in a strange land.

You may know that God tested Abraham, to see if Abraham was fitting to be the patriarch of Judaism – and also one might add, Christianity and Islam. 

Tradition tells us that there were 10 test.  One includes fire – when Abraham was thrown into a furnace by Nimrod for refusing to worship idols.  (He survived.)

As there is no authoritative list of tests, there is a debate in the literature as to what they were.  

For some, these were tests of faith alone: Would Abraham remain faithful to God under threats from the outside?  Would Abraham, remain faithful to God even if his wife is captured and taken away?  Would Abraham remain faithful even if it meant circumcising himself?    And finally, would Abraham remain faithful even if it meant taking his son, and tying him up on the top of a mountain, ready to kill and then roast as an offering to God?

For one rabbi, Rabbi Yonah of Geronah, Spain, who lived in the 1200s, these were tests of character.  And thus, he places the final test not as a matter of faith per se  – but as a matter of character.

What was the final test?  Not the binding of Isaac, he says, but rather the beginning of our Torah portion, which happens just after.

Here Abraham stands, emotional – in mourning over the loss of his wife – before the people who actually own the land that God says God will eventually give to him and his descendants.

And how does Abraham act?  Humbly. With regard to Abraham’s character, God is saying, “I tested my Abraham by making the purchase of land difficult for him.  But see, he succeeded by conducting the sale with great sensitivity and honor – and thus can be shown to everyone as a man with integrity”

Did I mention that Israel is on fire?

Israel is on fire in three way this morning, and let’s think of them as three of our tests of character:

1)   Israel is aflame because, politically, America’s future as an interventionist power is uncertain. What might it mean for the President elect’s son-in-law to have a role in the Middle East? What will Trump’s populism mean for Israel’s relation to its own minorities.

To the flames started by the rise of populism around the world, how do we as Liberal Jews react?

After the Brexit vote in the UK, I sat in the audience for, via Facebooks Periscope live-streaming feature, a discussion on how we Liberal Jews react.  My friends and colleagues were unanimous in their sentiments – that no matter what happens in society, here and around the world, we must organize and speak up for those that might otherwise be disenfranchised or be without a voice.  There is talk of sending a bus to a women’s march following inauguration.  If you are interested, please be in touch, or watch for news.  In my eyes, the purpose is not to protest, but to lay an organizational groundwork for when we need to stand by as allies for human rights. 

2)   Some in Israel are stoking the fire of religious hatred, as the president of our North American Union for Reform Judaism, the president of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism – whom Lindi and Rabbi Splansky and Cantor Maissner, Rabbi Satz and I had lunch with last week here, Gilad Kariv, and Anat Hoffman, all had threats delivered against their lives, as well as graffiti decrying religious pluralism at the Western Wall spray-painted at our synagogue in Ra’anana.

We must work to keep Liberal Judaism strong.  Here in Canada we can do this through teaching our children Progressive Jewish values and supporting our Reform institutions in Israel.  By being vocal at the family table – for those of us with conservative or orthodox relatives sitting across from us – that there is more than one way to be Jewish.

Anat Hoffman blames, “The rabbis who teach that Israel’s democracy is second to the laws of Abraham, and that anyone whose worldview differs from their own is an enemy.”  We must teach that the law of Abraham is a law of character, and that we must work with those whose worldviews differ from our own through civil discourse, not death threats. 

Like the graffiti in Ottawa, this was also likely the act of a youth – a teenager.  Education and talking about tolerance our family tables is key.

3)   And Israel is aflame, literally.  As fires set by arsonists burn near Haifa, and nearly 100,000 residents have been evacuated.

Our former Shinshinit Tali was with us last night at Friday night services – she is from Haifa and her best friend just lost her home, and their families are now living together in Tali’s home.  There are fires outside of Jerusalem, and in the West Bank.   I also learned last night that at least one of our congregations have fire damage.

How do we react to these real flames?

Firstly, though disaster relief funds.  There are links on our website.  If you give to Haiti – which you should, and you gave to Ft. McMurray, which you should, then also consider giving to relief agencies working in Israel.

Second, with concern and love, and not with hate.

Not with hate. 

Some of these fires are the acts of arsonists looking to hurt and maim.  Terror organizations based outside of Israel have claimed the attacks, but it is not clear their actual roots.   

Therefore many politicians have pointed with a wide sweep at the whole Palestinian population with a finger of accusation and blame.

However, Israeli Arab MPs have repeatedly said arsonists were “the enemies of us all”. And Palestinian homes are also aflame, and firefighting teams from around the region are at work.

Some Israeli leaders have said that accusations against a large portion of the population could “add to the flames”.  And it seems that, with more attacks and arrests, they have.

What was Abraham’s final test?  It was a test of character.  Could he negotiate with the inhabitants of the land with kindness and compassion and in an upright manner which would show to the world his good middot- his good qualities?

We have before us three tests of character. Three tests of true faith. Faith in humanity.

We must respond by being active here at Holy Blossom Temple and in our communities of friends and family to make sure that intolerance and bigotry do not find a secure beachhead in North America, or God Forbid in Canada.

We must respond by not being shy – in conversations with friends, family and relatives, to discuss how there is more than one way to be Jewish.

We must not be shy in our education of our own children that Judaism roots them to these values, and that these values must be rooted in Judaism.

We must do our part to rebuild our nation when the fires go out – physically and emotionally.  We know what to do physically.  Rebuilding our nation emotionally is harder.

But I think the kernel to that answer is in recognizing that negotiating with the inhabitants of the land is not an unnecessary addition to the story of the burial of Sarah – it is not an after-thought to the Akedah.  It is Abraham’s final test, to see if he is fit to be called a Jew.

“You know, Rabbi, this is exactly why I come to shul every Shabbat – to learn what is wrong with the world.”  In every generation we face tests.  Our tradition helps us recognize them, and our faith in the inherent goodness possible in humanity helps us conquer them, as Abraham did.

Shabbat Shalom.

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