Blot out the name of Covid and Never Forget
Rabbi Yael Splansky
January 29, 2021
IHRA and Free Speech
“An almond tree blooming in Israel.”
In June 2019, the Government of Canada announced its adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as part of Canada’s Anti-Racism Strategy. The “working definition” attempts to set parameters for what anti-semitism is and is not. CIJA (The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) has been leading the effort to have the IHRA definition affirmed by all three levels of government. See here for a helpful resource on IHRA in the Canadian context.
This week, in time for International Holocaust Education Week, the Union of Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization to which Holy Blossom Temple proudly belongs for one hundred years now, made its own statement affirming IHRA as a working definition of anti-semitism. You can read the full statement here.
I appreciate the URJ’s affirmation. And I was not surprised by how it included in its statement an expression of warning about how the definition may be used as a tool to chip away at freedom of speech. “Our commitment to principles of free speech and concerns about the potential abuse of the definition compel us to urge its use only as intended: as a guide and an awareness raising tool. The definition should not be codified into policy that would trigger potentially problematic punitive action to circumscribe speech, efforts which have been particularly aimed at college students and human rights activists. If the effect of application of the IHRA definition is to limit free speech, it threatens to divide the broad coalition needed to combat antisemitism.
I don’t believe the URJ’s affirmation needed to be couched with such concerns. I understand protection of Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment is bedrock in The United States. But it comes with a price.
I have come to appreciate Canada’s willingness to say that Hate Speech is definable and punishable. I remember during the tiki torch parade in Charlottesville, a Canadian participant was interviewed on CNN. When asked “Why are you here?” he answered simply, “I can’t say these things in Canada, so I came here to speak my mind.” And there was at least one Canadian flag seen flying during the recent insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
The URJ leadership wants to ensure that the Jewish student activist campus is protected when she speaks out against demeaning checkpoints or unethical housing demolitions in the West Bank. I don’t believe the IHRA definition was created with her in mind. More than I fear it could be used to marginalize her, I fear a world where antisemitism has no margins. We know what can happen when hate speech goes unchecked.
The day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day was Tu BiShvat. Ecclesiastes asserts there is “A time to plant and a time to uproot what has been planted.” Let us plant ourselves in the good countries that shout down anti-semitism when they see it and uproot every form of bigotry and hatred wherever it festers.
Rabbi Yael Splansky
“The Power of Ritual”
January 22, 2021
Senator Jon Ossoff is sworn into office with his hand on a bible which belonged to civil rights activist, Rabbi Rothchild of The Temple in Atlanta. In his jacket pocket held copies of the manifests of the ships which brought his great grandparents from Europe. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
This week, while the world held its breath, we witnessed the transfer of power from President to President. There were visual cues: flags, lamps, colourful costumes. There were audible cues: brass and drums, predictable and unpredictable musical selections, and POETRY, oh the poetry. There was memory: of Past Presidents, of Biden’s son and Harris’ mother, of the 400, 000 American lives lost to Covid-19. And even with America’s commitment to separation of church and state, there were bibles for swearing upon, references from Psalms and Augustine, and plenty of “God bless America.”
All religious life knows the power of ritual. Ritual enables us to name the moment and sanctify it. Ritual signals when to grieve and when to celebrate. Through the power of ritual one’s status can be changed – from child to adult, from unmarried to married, from graduate student to authorized professional, from resident to citizen, from non-Jew to Jew.
What’s the difference between the pageantry of ritual and the performance of theatre? The power we give it. What’s the difference between the waters of the mikveh and the water of the swimming pool? The power we give it. What’s the difference between a mourner who wears the black ribbon and the one who doesn’t? The power we give it. What’s the difference between Cantor Rosen the day before the beautiful Installation Service last Shabbat and the day after? The power we give him. Ritual – especially communal ritual – is a power tool in the toolbox of the human experience.
If there is a milestone you wish to honour, a change you wish to acknowledge, a simcha you wish to celebrate, a loss you wish to commemorate, your Rabbis and Cantors can work with you to craft a ritual for the occasion. It may be private or with the family, in the home or in the sanctuary, simple or elaborate, spontaneous or planned. We are blessed with an impressive collection of sacred objects, sacred texts and melodies to create meaningful moments to lift the spirit, sanctify the passage of time, and affirm our place in God’s world. These rituals are yours for the taking.
Eulogy for Temple Warden, David Hart z”l
By Rabbi Yael Splansky
December 28, 2020 / 13 Tevet, 5781
“Uma’asei yadeinu kon’nah aleinu. Uma’asei yadeinu kon’neihu.”
“May the work of our hands endure for us, O God. May the work of our hands endure.” (From Psalm 90)
David was a Scout Master. His life was shaped by the scouts’ motto: “Be prepared” and by the scouts’ oath: “To develop myself to so that I may better love and serve my God, respect and help my fellowman, honour and render services to my country.”
David was a mechanical engineer by training and by profession. His first job was on the Dominion Bridge. He designed machinery and molds to create everything from screws to stereos. But his true vocation was volunteering.
David was playing catch with young Murray on the front lawn one day when a car pulled over and the next thing he knew, David was coaching the Fast Ball League. It was the biggest thing going in Bathurst Manor in those days. David tried to get a Girls’ League going, but it didn’t take.
There was hardly a Holy Blossom committee on which David Hart did not serve. Religious School Committee with Heinz Warshauer, alav HaShalom. The Social Action Committee with Milton Cadsby, alav HaShalom. He and Murray helped to sponsor Vietnamese Boat People. They kept contact with a number of families to this day. David was Brotherhood President, a labour of love. Unlike Margaret, Ron, and Jill who sang together in the Choir, David wasn’t much for services. But he often served as an usher at the main doors to greet the congregation he treasured. With very deep roots in Canadian Jewish History, David was Chair of the Temple Archives for decades. I went with him once to our previous Temple on Bond Street. He lit up like a kid, jumping around the sanctuary, telling stories of his earliest childhood memories of Rabbi Eisendrath and how on Sukkot, all the students would bring baskets of fruit to decorate the bimah. They would then be donated to the hungry and the poor. Thanks to David we have one of the original pews of Bond Street on display at Holy Blossom today.
Like his parents before him, David was a very proud Canadian and proud of their early Jewish roots in this country. This pride and sense of belonging, gave rise to David’s leadership in interfaith work. For decades, if anyone wanted to know about Interfaith Relations – which at that time meant between Christians and Jews – they’d call Holy Blossom Temple. And when they called Holy Blossom Temple, the office would call on David Hart. He believed in grassroots dialogue and arranged for small groups of lay people to meet and learn from one another. He became the first Jew appointed to the Board of Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto. With Rabbi Fields, of blessed memory, he helped to lead the first interfaith trip to Israel with Timothy Eaton Church.
Normally, David would highlight the commonalities among the ethical monotheistic religions, but if ever a hint of anti-Semitism came up in conversation, David could be fierce. Once, when visiting an Anglican Church, he picked up a prayerbook and publicly asked the priest about the page with the prayer calling for the conversion of the Jews. Just last year, that prayer was officially replaced with a prayer for “Reconciliation with the Jews.” On the occasion of the 40th Anniversary of Vatican II, David was awarded by Cardinal Cassidy a special honour for his decades of Interfaith work.
For all these countless contributions to Holy Blossom Temple, David was given the high honour of the title of Temple Warden. Not long ago, the family brought David to see our completed Renewal Project. Although it was somewhat disoriented by the changes, David did give his nod of approval and was pleased to catch a glimpse of Holy Blossom’s future.
Just look around this historic cemetery. David could tell us the history of its purchase and about many of the good and great people who are buried here. But most importantly, today David is being laid to rest nearby to his parents, Alfred and Minnie, and beside his dear Margaret, who is also remembered this day.
Margaret told the real story of how they met. She spotted him at a Holy Blossom Singles event. Her friends told her to keep her distance. Later, she saw him on the streetcar. He went to the back where a bunch of younger kids were sitting and in a matter of minutes, he had them playing a game. Margaret said, “I thought I saw something different in him.”
Perhaps because David was an only child, he loved kids. Aaron, Michael, and Jessica were the greatest beneficiaries of that love. Jessica says, “He made each of feel special in our own way.” Shabbat Dinners began with a treasure hunt of chocolates and hockey cards hidden around their home. He was expressive with them. He told them how much he loved them. He came to every graduation, every dance recital, every hockey game. David kept a jar of two-nies to give to the kids to buy drinks after the hockey games. Everyone on the team called him Gramps. There were sleepovers and thousands of hours in the car, driving the kids from here to there to anywhere just to be with them. He built them two playgrounds in the backyard. Jessica was the first Hart granddaughter in one hundred years. David built her a dollhouse and gave her his mother’s Shabbat candlesticks. David built a rocking horse when Aaron was born and as the oldest, Aaron was entrusted with the family’s metals for service in WWI and WWII. Michael shared David’s interests in math and science. David was heartbroken when Michael died. He created a poster of photographs of Michael for his apartment and spoke of him often. David admitted that saying goodbye to Michael was the hardest thing he ever had to do. Murray recalls the poignant words his father spoke at the bedside. David was the last to leave the room, when Michael called out, “Grandpa! Thank you. I love you.” This family was David’s greatest pride and greatest joy. May you take comfort in knowing Michael, Margaret, and David are now united in God’s Eternal Presence.
“Be prepared and be of service.” After his bi-pass surgery, David volunteered to meet with families preparing for the same. Even after he gave up driving, into his late 80’s and 90’s David would take a cab to go to the downtown hospital volunteer and offer support.
When he could no longer volunteer, David would sometimes wonder what was his purpose. His sense of self was defined by his contributions of time. Murray awards his father the title: “Philanthropist of Time.” Aaron says: “He had faith in humanity. Assumed the good in people and was willing to confront people when he believed that assumption was being challenged.”
This was a hard end. Murray and Jill, Aaron and Jessica would have to have their visits with David over the telephone and through the window. The isolation was painful for everyone. Ron was the designated family representative. Ron visited with David every single day until David had to go to the hospital. Ron would bring him fresh laundry and be David’s constant companion. Ron, just as you were the family representative there at David’s side for so many months, now Murray is your representative here at the graveside.
David Hart’s life motto was: “Be prepared and be of service.”
So it is the motto of a Jewish life of meaning and sacred purpose:
“Uma’asei yadeinu kon’nah aleinu. Uma’asei yadeinu kon’neihu.”
“May the work of our hands endure for us, O God. May the work of our hands endure.” (From Psalm 90)
Zichrono livrachah. May David’s memory be a blessing for our congregation, for all who loved him, for all who were loved by him.
It’s a strange in-between time for us. I write to you when congregants and loved ones of congregants are fighting the tough fight against COVID-19. The number of cases is frighteningly high. Lockdown is serious. And… at the very time of such gripping fear, the vaccine is being rolled out. It is a time of mixed emotion. Anxiety and relief, helplessness and gratitude, frustration and elation, patience and impatience.
Our weekday Amidah includes a prayer for wisdom. We ask God for De-ah (knowledge), Binah (understanding), and Haskeil (insight). These words landed on my heart in a new way this week. De-ah is the kind of wisdom that enables scientists to discover new DNA technologies and develop a vaccine to protect against Coronovirus. Binah is the kind of wisdom which enables government and public health officials to create a fair and just plan to administer the vaccine. And Haskeil is the kind of wisdom that motivates citizens to stay put, to isolate, and to be patient until it is safe to open up again.
Rabbis of all stripes are encouraging their congregations and communities to be vaccinated as soon as it becomes available. Here from our own Reform Rabbinic Authorities:
Here from Orthodox Rabbinic Authorities:
In Israel, the vaccine is rolling out relatively swiftly. Healthcare workers and the elderly were first. This week healthy, active seniors came next in line. New life-affirming prayers are being written for the occasion to praise God for imparting a measure of God’s infinite wisdom to humankind. In eager anticipation of when it will be our turn, I share these prayers with you now.
Prayer for Before Receiving the COVID-19 Vaccine
(by Rabbi Samuel Eliyahu)
We gratefully acknowledge You, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, God of all flesh, who creates healing. You grace humankind with knowledge, teaching humans understanding that enabled discovery and creation of vaccines against the plague. May it be Your will that this vaccine averts the pandemic and saves the lives of thousands of millions across this world.
Please, O God, send a complete healing to all among us who are ill, and save us from side-effects. As we say in the daily prayer, “Heal us, O God, and we shall be healed. Save us, and we shall be saved, for You are our Praise. Raise up a complete healing against all our pain and hurt and suffering. For You are a compassionate and faithful Source of Healing.”
May the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, Adonai, my Rock and Redeemer (Psalms 19:15).
Prayer for After Receiving the Vaccine
(By Rabbi Aaron Starr, based on Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 60a and The Morning Blessings)
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה׳ אֱלֹקַי שֶׁיְּהֵא עֵסֶק זֶה לִי לִרְפוּאָה, וּתְרַפְּאֵנִי.
כִּי אֵל רוֹפֵא נֶאֱמָן אָתָּה וּרְפוּאָתְךָ אֱמֶת.
May it be Your will, Heavenly Healer, that this endeavor be for healing and may You grant healing to me, to my loved ones, to my nation, and to all who are in need. Fill me with a sense of gratitude for all who create, distribute, and deliver this vaccine, and for all those who work for the health of individuals and our communities. Empower me, in good health, to care ever more deeply for others.
Blessed are You, Holy One, Healer of all flesh, who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.
May we soon each merit the opportunity to recite these prayers with full hearts and healthy bodies.
To hear last week’s sermon entitled: “Scientific Triumph. Moral Failure.” click here. My sermon begins at 1:15:41.
Our Past President Barry Silver hoped to be called to the Torah one last time tomorrow. He planned to share the Aliyah with his son Josh. He planned to wear what he called “his Bar Mitzvah tallis,” because this Shabbat Chayei Sarah was his Bar Mitzvah portion so many years ago.
You see, Barry’s father died just before Barry’s Bar Mitzvah day. Instead of proudly taking his place on the bimah of the sanctuary he loved, instead of joyfully celebrating with congregation and family, young Barry sat shiva for his father. Months later Rabbi Plaut arranged for Barry to read Chayei Sarah even though the Torah cycle was by then set to another book altogether. And a generation later, Josh read from Chayei Sarah on his own Bar Mitzvah day to honour the grandfather he never knew. L’Dor vaDor.
When I spoke with Barry two days ago he told me how sorry he was that he wouldn’t be able to have that final Aliyah with Josh. I assured him that an even greater Aliyah, an even greater ascent was awaiting him. Barry died early this morning with his son Josh at his side.
Parashat Chayei Sarah begins with the death of Sarah and ends with the death of Abraham. But in between are the chapters which tell of the establishment of the next generation. This is why the name of the entire portion is “The Life of Sarah.” How Sarah lived and died gives way to the next generation.
Not long ago, Barry told me he hoped he’d get to be the President of Holy Blossom Temple in Heaven. He loved our congregation, as we loved him. Barry’s life and his death were so intertwined into the story of Holy Blossom. He took pride in seeing how a strong future was beginning to reveal itself.
Let’s honour our Past President Barry Silver, alav haShalom, as he brought honour to our congregation.
Interment at Holy Blossom Memorial Park: November 15, 2020, at 12:00 pm. While the number of participants at the cemetery is restricted, all may join for the funeral service via Zoom. Please follow this link to Benjamin’s website. may Barry’s memory be a blessing to Gail, Josh and Jordana, and a blessing to what Barry fondly called “his second home,” Holy Blossom.
The Minyan that Wasn’t
Our Torah portion is set to the tense moment when Abraham questions God’s judgement over the future of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our Patriarch stands before God and demands: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
God agrees to the terms. “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty righteous ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
The negotiations continue. “What if the fifty righteous should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?”
God answers: “I will not destroy if I find forty-five righteous there.”
Abraham: “What if forty?”
What if thirty?
What if twenty?
Finally, Abraham asks: “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?”
And God answers, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”
And that is where the negotiations end. Both God and Abraham seem to agree that ten is the minimum number of good people who can hold a far fallen society together. Ten, a minyan, is the smallest unit of human goodness that makes a civilization salvageable. Ten is the remnant strong enough to hold a frayed people together as one fabric.
What are the attributes of that minyan that would have been enough? What are the qualities of righteousness? And how do we ensure that we can be counted among them?
As ballots are still being counted across the United States, our neighbours to the South are divided on much more than a political candidate; they are divided on the definition of “righteousness.” There are two different understandings of the reliable minyan; two different visions of who is good and who is trustworthy. The whole world is watching the debate, not between two men, not between two socio-economic classes, not between established citizen and newcomer, not between black and white, but between two different outlooks, two distinct understandings of who can be counted among the righteous.
In the end, there was no righteous minyan to be found in the city of Sodom. Our Sages teach that the omniscient God knew that all along, of course. So why engage in the negotiations with Abraham? Why indulge his passionate debate? Because God was training Abraham in the ways of justice. God was testing Abraham’s resolve, teaching him in how to be hopeful and how to never give up on humanity.
We are descendants of this Abraham.
Let us always be counted in among the minyan that sustains.
A Post-Election Prayer
By Rabbi Dr. Andrea L. Weiss
No matter what happens, this we know:
we must recalibrate our national compass
and reconfirm what matters most:
“one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
How do we get from here to there?
The Torah guides our way:
It is not enough to “love your neighbor as yourself”;
you must love the stranger as yourself. (Lev. 19:18, 34)
The prophets tell us what to do:
“Let justice roll like water
and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)
The Psalms remind us:
“The night may be dark,
but morning always comes.” (Ps 30:6)
May we each do our part
to bring about the dawning of a new day.