Last night at Holy Blossom we hosted our Muslim partners from the Intercultural Dialogue Institute of the GTA for an Iftar dinner (a Ramadan break-the-fast). We have held this event four times, and every time real meetings over good food are had between Jews and Muslims and others. We have had programs about religious views of fasting, revelation, national service, and our program last night was about coming together against hatred. I wish we didn’t have to talk about this in what is usually a joyous event, but this is the time we live in. Our Iftar program last night, I hope, is a preview of a program we at Holy Blossom are holding on June 17—Antisemitism and Islamophobia: Moving from Hate to Hope.
The program will be a discussion between Imam Hassan Gulliet of Quebec and Marnie Fienberg, daughter-in-law of Joyce Fienberg, a woman who grew up at Holy Blossom and was tragically killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Moderated by Global News’s Farah Nasser, our participants will talk about how they have moved from their tragedies to fostering interfaith understanding and cooperation.
I said at our Iftar event that when we sit down (and eat) and talk to people who are not a part of our community, we create a new community. Creating this new community doesn’t mean that we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean that we break down all our differences and that we are the same, but it does mean that we see the other as the image of God. It does mean that we cannot hate. Please join us to create a community of love to combat hate.
Rabbinic Reflection: Rabbi Michael Satz
As Pesach, our Festival of Freedom was ending we hear the news of another synagogue being attacked by a white supremacist six months after eleven Jews were murdered in Pittsburgh. This time in Poway, CA in San Diego County. I did serve as a rabbi in San Diego, but I did not know Lori Gilbert Kaye, the one person killed. I do know people who know her, and they say that she was a true woman of valour.
What can we do in memory of people like Lori or Joyce Fienberg, a woman who grew up at Holy Blossom and was killed at her synagogue in Pittsburgh? Live Jewishly. Unabashedly Jewish.
One way of living Jewishly is to hunker down and spurn the rest of the world. To be a Jew is to set oneself apart. It seems like the world doesn’t want us. Tonight is Yom HaShoah, and it wasn’t that long ago that the ultimate crime against us was perpetrated.
But, this is not the answer. Even though it is often hard to see, but the world is a beautiful place. We are blessed to live as free individuals in an open society. It is in this open society that we can fully flourish as Jews. The white supremacists of Pittsburgh and Poway hated us because we are open to the world and we know that an open world lets everyone flourish. They hate us because we support pluralism because we support the weak because we support people coming to Canada and America to make their lives better. We support the “stranger” because “we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This, too, is a lesson of Pesach, not just “in every generation, they rise up to destroy us . . .”
We are concerned about our personal and communal security as Jews, and we should take this seriously, and we can double down on our commitment to the world. Communal solidarity and continuity are crucial, and so is being leaders in Canadian society. Holy Blossom has a history of being engaged in changing Canadian society for the better—making our country more welcoming, more caring, more diverse. Tonight we honour the memory of Max Enkin who worked tirelessly to bring Jewish refugees to Canada. Our members have also helped with Vietnamese refugees, Soviet Jewish refugees, and recently Syrian refugees.
We can continue this tradition. Jews in Toronto are working with refugee resettlement agencies like JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Society) to help bring Eritrean refugees Israel to Canada. Two single mothers, Ruta and Eden, through much hardship leaving their country have found themselves in Israel so that their children can thrive. Now we have the opportunity to help them thrive in Canada. If you would like to lend your support to show that we are not going to back down from anti-Semites, please contact me.
Listening at Sinai
This week our Torah portion is Yitro which contains the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances, or as we usually say, the Ten Commandments. We have all seen the commandments represented in art in synagogues or monuments. We have all seen the Charlton Heston movie. Many of us are pretty familiar with what the Big Ten are. I want to comment, though, on our people’s experience of standing at Sinai and receiving these words from God. What is revelation?
I would like to turn to an essay written by Rabbi Plaut in 1966 in Commentary Magazine. He was one of many Jewish leaders who filled the August issues with comments on Jewish belief. Here are some of his words about revelation:
Divine revelation is a self-disclosure of God. It requires God as well as [humans] to give it reality, for all revelation is a form of communication. To reveal need not imply speaking-and-hearing—perhaps it never does; it always means the communication of selfness and essence. Divine revelation is God’s-accessibility-and-[humanity’s]-knowing.”
First, Rabbi Plaut is saying that what our people experienced was not literally audible sounds from God, for God does not literally have vocal chords. Our people at Sinai experienced God in God’s divine essence. He continues:
. . . at Sinai God revealed no words, no commandments, only Anokhi, “I am.” The rest was, literally, commentary—human commentary, the attempt to translate the apprehension of God’s being into the imperatives of human behaviour. “God spoke” is a figure of speech, denoting, “This is what I know God wants of me.” It is the consequence of revelation, not the revelation itself.
Our Torah, our 613 mitzvot (yes, there are more than ten!), is our people’s ancient attempt to put write down the obligations that arose from the revelatory experience at Sinai. All of religious Jewish life is to continue to “listen” to that inaudible sound that God gave, and maybe continues to give so that we, as individuals in a community, can respond with love, loyalty, justice, and mercy.
Every Shabbat and Holy Day (and Monday and Thursday) we try to recreate the scene at Sinai with our Torah service. We go up the mountain (the bima), and we hear words of Torah like Moshe speaking to the people. We can also have this experience when we study or pray, look into the eyes of another. What is God calling me to do? How should I respond to this revelation?
This Shabbat as we study the experience of our ancestors when they first as a people experienced the commanding “voice” of God, we remind ourselves to open our ears to continue to listen.
Join the Conversation on Human Rights and Dignity
Seventy years ago this week the United Nations, newly established after WWII, passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 of the Declaration states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Some of the rights that the declaration spells out are the rights to security, marriage, education, movement, and employment. Firmly rooted in liberal values, a statement like this also has roots in the Torah. As it says in Bereishit-Genesis: “God created the human beings in the divine image” (Gen. 1:27), and in Vayikra-Leviticus: “Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Eternal” (Lev. 19:18). While the Torah focuses more on the individual’s obligations rather than the modern notion of rights, I think the idea of liberty has evolved from the radical statement in the Torah that we are all descended from the same humanity which has dignity and worth because humans are a reflection of God. Because of this, we are obligated to act to each other with love and compassion.
Twenty years after this landmark UN document was ratified, Holy Blossom Temple celebrated the promise of a world of peace and human dignity that it stood for with a stained glass window with the symbol of the United Nations dedicated in memory of Dewey David Bloom by his family in 1968. The circular window is in the balcony over the Herman Chapel in the sanctuary.
This column is not to argue about if the United Nations is taking its own mandate seriously today, although maybe that should be argued in another column, what I want to write about is the contemporary assault on the idea of human rights around the world. In our world, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers are being ignored. Immigrants are being scapegoated. Journalists are being disappeared and killed and leaders are not speaking up because of misguided political alliances. Freedom of speech is being curbed. And, of course, we know that antisemitism is on the rise. When societies target the weak, they often then turn to target Jews.
We are privileged and grateful to live in Canada which might be the world leader in the respect for human rights, I think that we are not immune to the hard-lined nationalism and populism that I see as the leading cause of the assault on human rights and dignity of the individual today. So, what are we to do about it? A first step is to openly discuss this as Jews. Because Holy Blossom Temple is historically a centre in Toronto for the discussion of these issues, we have decided to focus on this conversation. The first two of a series of conversations on human rights is beginning this Shabbat with Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Executive Director of the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism. From Torah study to the sermon to a talk after services, Rabbi Kariv will be talking about “The Role of Reform Jewish Values in Defending Human Rights and Religious Freedom in the Jewish State.” On January 14, Holy Blossom will be hosting the writer David Frum who will be speaking about “Human Rights in the Age of Nationalism and Populism.”
I hope that we can all join in these conversations and others that will follow. “Human rights” or “created in the image of God” are just sayings unless we act in the world to ensure that people can live with liberty and dignity.
This Shabbat, we begin the Torah reading cycle again in the beginning with Parashat B’reishit. I will always remember the opening because I was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah chanting these words. “B’reishit bara Elohim—When God was about to create . . .” or, usually, but not correctly translated as “In the beginning God created . . .” Our first verse of our first book of the Torah begins with the letter “bet”, and our ancient rabbis have a lot to say about that.
The sage Rabbi Jonah, in the name of Rabbi Levi asked: “Why was the world created with a bet?” In other words, what not any other like, especially aleph, the first letter? What can we learn from a bet about Creation? Rabbi Levi’s answer is this: “Just as the bet is closed at the sides but open in front, so you are not permitted to investigate what is above and what is below, what is before and what is behind.”
On face value, to our contemporary ears, this sounds like a pretty anti-science statement. The first letter of the first word of the first chapter of the first book of the Torah tells us that science is futile. But wait, that is not what the rabbis are saying. Rabbi Eugene Mihaly, teacher of my teachers, in his beautiful book “A Song to Creation” that imagines the ancient study house where this question was asked, expounds it thus: “Accept, embrace this created world as it is made known to you. The voice from Sinai, that insistent voice which we have internalized as a people, the Sinai within us, daily pleads, ‘Do not dissipate your energy and your effort in an illusory escape from the inevitable tensions, the pain and ugliness and grandeur of the arduous creative process. Cosmos inheres in and emerges from the chaos of becoming. Face this human world; search, investigate, study it; find your role in it; work with it; improve and perfect it; the potential meaning and order are there for you to discover and actualize. That is your vocation as a people—your terrible, glorious destiny.”
Wow, all that from one letter! I want to focus in on one line from Mihaly: “Cosmos inheres in and emerges from the chaos of becoming.” Cosmos and chaos. When we look at the world today we often see and feel chaos—war, refugees, and environmental destruction. We see rampant misogyny and blatant lies coming from our leaders. We feel unsettled and sometimes anxious.
What is the point of creation if it only brings misery, we ask ourselves. But, the rabbis tell us, like God in this week’s Torah reading, we bring cosmos to the chaos, order to the disorder. This is one of the roles of religion. This is what it means to be created in the divine image. While a scientist’s job is to quantify the order or disorder in the universe, the religious Jew’s job, according to the bet of bereishit is to work to bring order to the universe. There is order in the universe, and it is our job to bring it to light. This is the meaning of our Creation story.
There is another interpretation from our sages. The bet, that same first letter of the first chapter of the first book of the Torah, with the numeric value of two, intimates the two worlds of traditional Jewish thought, this world and the world to come. This is not earth and heaven, but what is and what could be, the real world and the ideal world. The world was created to be perfected our rabbis tell us. In Judaism, God did not create a perfect world. A Hassidic master states, “The Eternal One created the world in a state of beginning. The universe is always in an uncompleted state, in the form of its beginning. It is not like a vessel at which the master works and finishes it; it requires continuous labour and unceasing renewal by creative forces. Were there a second’s pause by these forces, the universe would return to primaeval chaos.”
These two worlds, what is and what could be, are what drive us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. We are here to continue creation and renew the creation towards perfection. This is the meaning of our creation story.
Dispatches from Camp George
One of the many pleasures of being a rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple is the opportunity to be on faculty for a week every summer at URJ Camp George, our Reform camp near Parry Sound. I have written before about how Jewish camps are holistic Jewish communities that give the campers and staff immersive Jewish experiences. Research has shown that kids who spend time at Jewish overnight camps have higher rates of Jewish involvement as adults. For this column, I would like to write about my research from these last few days. Well, not exactly research, more like observations. As I am starting to focus on the upcoming High Holy Days, this is what I have learned from campers at Camp George that is going to inform how I, and all of us, can approach the season.
Relationships are hard and Repentance and Reconciliation is healing.
Living in a cabin with others is intense. Squabbles, arguments, hurt feelings happen, but I am amazed how kids can look past that and reconcile because they intuit that this is what is needed for everyone to have a good experience. This is the same for families, communities, and societies. We hurt others and get hurt by others because we are human. This is why God created teshuvah—repentance, return—before the first day of Creation. The High Holy Days remind us that we must always reflect on our behaviour towards others and help others on the path of goodness.
Enthusiasm for life is refreshing.
We live in a cynical age. Our cynicism can be remedied by spending time with campers at the morning mifkad (gathering). Every morning at Camp George, the campers gather around the flagpole to thank God for the morning, stretch, sing the national anthems, and enthusiastically start their days. How different would our days be if we started them with enthusiastic gratitude for being alive? The High Holy Days remind us that we have made it another year, let’s make the most of it.
Living with Awe is essential.
Yesterday I was leading a group of eight-year-olds in a program about appreciating trees. We learned the blessing for experiencing the wonder of nature: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, that such things are in your world. The kids talked about feeling the sense of being a part of Creation. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…[to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal, everything is incredible, never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
I pray that the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, open our eyes to this wonder. This wonder that heals and gives our lives meaning.