Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Small Time Boy Comes to the Big City

(originally appeared in CJN)

I just moved to New York City from Cote Saint Luc, a suburban village that is the closest thing to a shtetl anywhere in Canada. So everyone’s been asking me the same question: what's life like in the big city?

It’s a good question. When I grew up in Monsey, New York, it was a small town, a place where everyone looked out for each other. And like any small town boy, I still crave that unique sense of camaraderie. Rod Dreher features this small town spirit in his memoir “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”. Dreher left his small town in Louisiana as a teenager. After years of city life, he returns when his younger sister is diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Dreher was so impressed by communal support given his sister that he decided to move back to Louisiana. There’s simply no community like small town community.

Big cities are very different. Ferdinand Tonnies, in his classic work “Community and Society”, describes the city as dramatically different than small towns: it is built around advancing individual ambition rather than building communal cohesiveness, and as a consequence, is rather cold and impersonal. And to the minds of many, big cities should be avoided. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”

So what happens when a small town boy like me moves to the big city?

Actually, this question is relevant to every Jew, wherever we live, because Jews are fundamentally small town folk. The Book of Genesis offers an extended critique of big cities; the plans of the first city builders are frustrated by God, and there is marked contrast between the hospitable small town ways of Abraham and the big town coldness of Sodom and Egypt.

Yet despite the failures of cities and empires, the Torah does not demand that the Jews remain tent dwelling nomads; in fact, it encourages us to build a cosmopolitan state with well developed institutions.

So what happens when small town Jews build a big city? We bring the small town with us. Maimonides teaches that despite the Biblical obligation to love one’s neighbor, the Rabbis added additional obligations to visit the sick, bury the dead, comfort the bereaved, and marry off brides. The point of these additional obligations is that we must do more than love our neighbor; we are obliged to extend beyond our immediate social circle and build community. It is not enough to treat those we know with kindness; we must create an embracing community that cares for all of the sick, each mourner and every bride. And the magic of the Jewish tradition is that even when we build large cosmopolitan societies, we insure that within them beats the heart of a small town community.

Israel is an excellent example of this unique small town ethos. In 2014, Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas, fell in battle. There was virtually no one to attend the funeral. But after a worried friend posted a Facebook message about his funeral, news spread like wildfire, and in the end 20,000+ people attended Sean’s funeral. This outpouring of kindness could only happen in Israel, where a large country still carries the warmth of a small town.

Now that I’ve arrived in New York City, I’m learning that in this bustling metropolis there’s a small town hiding underneath. In my first Shabbat at my new synagogue, we honored the outgoing chair of the synagogue’s Bikur Cholim; this dedicated group visits patients at Sloan Kettering every Shabbat. Here in middle of Manhattan is a team of volunteers visiting the sick, making this community, like every Jewish community, one big small town.

So what’s it like living in the big city? To tell you truth, as a small town boy, I feel right at home.

Packing Up

(originally appeared in CJN)

Packing up a home when you're downsizing is an unnatural task; humans instinctively accumulate possessions and resist eliminating them. Despite consulting the bestselling advice of Marie Kondo, we find it a tough task to discard items that are theoretically essential but practically forgotten.

Yet decisions must be made, and possessions must be relinquished. And as I stand surrounded by boxes and packing tape, it's hard not to wax philosophical and wonder: what do we really need to pack?

This question is one Jews have asked themselves multiple times while wandering in exile: what can you pack at a moment's notice? The answer was simple: pack hearts and minds. Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer said the "guiding sentence" of the Jewish mission is: "omnia mea mecum porto" "All my things I carry with me", i.e., that character and wisdom are the only assets of enduring value, and all you ever need.  After packing up too many times to count, Jews have learned that it's not what's in your suitcases that really count; it's what you pack in your heart.

And what we pack (and unpack) in our hearts defines our lives. Zak Ebrahim, the son of El Sayid Nosair (the man who assassinated Meir Kahane), tells of his mother's reaction when he confided that he no longer accepted his family's radical views: "She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said, "I'm tired of hating people." In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold hatred inside of you." After a lifetime of packing their hearts with hate, Zak and his mother realized that it had weighed them down.

Zak is not unique; it's quite common for people to cling to beloved hatreds. Nelson Mandela, who was a genius at unpacking hatred, said that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” We treat old hatreds as precious possessions and let them ruin our own lives instead.

Instead of hatred, others choose to pack their heart with love. Seth Mandell runs camps for children who've lost a family member to terror (his own son Koby was murdered in a terror attack in 2001). Seth told me a story about a girl in his camp who was so grief-stricken that she had begun to cut herself on the wrist. The first day of camp, the girl’s counselor saw the girl's cut and remarked that “time heals all wounds”. The girl angrily reacted and said “it does not”, a reaction that was a reference to all wounds, both psychic and physical. But the counselor persevered in befriending the girl, and the girl had a wonderful time at camp. By the end of the camp, the girl had stopped cutting herself and the wound healed. Noticing this, the counselor lightheartedly remarked “I guess time does heal all wounds.” The girl responded: “no, it does not…. But love heals all wounds”. Love is magical, and packing even more love into your heart is always a good idea.

As we pack up our house to leave Montreal, we are also packing with us inspirational memories.  I'll pack the memory of the cancer patient who refused to let her disease take away her optimism. I'll pack the memory of the Holocaust survivor who was our synagogue's candyman, determined to make the world sweet for the next generation. I'll pack the memory of  the man who ran to greet every new person in the synagogue and made them feel at home. And I'll pack the memory of a Holocaust survivor, who each time there was a celebration, hoisted a l'chaim with a twinkle in his eye, in a moment of personal triumph and  joy.

These uplifting memories have changed me, and I will carry them with me forever.

Goodbye Montreal. I'm packing you up with me.

My Problem with Kol Nidrei

(originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News)

Kol Nidrei should have disappeared a long time ago. From its introduction in the 800's,  it was sharply opposed for the next 400 years by Rabbinic authorities who saw it as a meaningless gesture. In the 1100's, a debate emerged over which vows, future or past, Kol Nidrei refers to. And in the 19th century, because of anti-Semitic claims that it enabled Jews to violate oaths, many reformers (and even, for short time, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch) removed Kol Nidrei from the service. Kol Nidrei is a problematic prayer.

So why is Kol Nidrei still part of the service? Only because of the melody. There are moving tunes, both in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition, for Kol Nidrei. No matter what, Kol Nidrei is here to stay because the tunes are majestic and awe-inspiring.

This was my problem with Kol Nidrei. I was trained in Lithuanian style Yeshivot to think about serious Jewish content, about Talmudic texts and theological sources;  Kol Nidrei is the opposite of that. Kol Nidrei is a ritual that hangs by less than a thread of hair, with an inferior Halachic pedigree, and is only preserved because of its tune. It bothered me that Kol Nidrei is religious fluff, all musical culture and minimal religious content. So why did it find a place of honor leading off the Yom Kippur liturgy?

Frankly, contemporary Judaism is overstocked with religious fluff.  There was an advertisement many years ago from a yeshiva in Jerusalem that had a picture of a bagel, lox, and cream cheese sandwich with the caption: "is this the culmination of 3,000 years of Jewish history?". This sadly is all too often the case, with Jewish identity reduced to the soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof, brisket, and satin kippahs.  This superficial cultural Judaism offers no rationale for continuity, and no true link to spirituality.

Because of this,  I saw content and culture as antagonists. To me, bagels, lox, and cream cheese Judaism was the opposite of  the Judaism that nurtured me in Yeshiva. And even the melodies like Kol Nidrei were just superficial enhancements, pleasant but ultimately unimportant.

But I was wrong. Culture is important too.  Melodies, foods, even jokes have a role in preserving Judaism.

In the language of Halacha, we call these elements a minhag, or a custom. Minhag is about the little distinctive cultural touches that make observance more fascinating. Rabbi Maimon (the father of the Rambam) wrote about the importance of respecting customs like eating donuts (sfinj) on Chanukah. Indeed, it is often the customs, with their distinctive tastes, aromas, colors and melodies that inspire us, in ways we are not fully aware of.

What my overly intellectual perspective had missed is this: that the little things, the aromas, tastes, colors, and melodies, are a powerful way of conveying the content, the great ideas I so love. Culture can create an emotional connection unavailable in the world of ideas.
And this is the power of Kol Nidrei, the power of singing the same song as our grandparents, even if the words are obscure.  And even the intellectually inclined among us should never overlook it.

In 1913, a young intellectual decided to convert to Christianity. As a final farewell to Judaism, he decided to go to Yom Kippur services. But after listening to Kol Nidrei, he left a transformed man.  In the years that followed, this man, Franz Rozensweig, became a prominent Jewish philosopher, and inspired many others to make their journey back to Judaism.

Ironically, a great intellectual was drawn back to Judaism by Kol Nidrei, a prayer that is more melody than meaning. And even today, otherwise alienated Jews show up for Kol Nidrei, drawn by in by the inspiring melody.

Now, if we could only teach these alienated Jews how to love the content, to engage the ideas of Judaism as well.....

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Hunger, Iran and Tisha B'Av

Fasting is foreign to us. In the Middle Ages, people fasted a great deal. The 9th century Babylonian work Halachot Gedolot (Tur OH 580) lists no less than 25 additional fast days that are obligatory; in addition, people fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, Yartzeits and when they had bad dreams. In the medieval era, fasting was a religious experience of inspiration, a meaningful way to transcend the mundane. 

Today, things are different. While some might still appreciate fasting as a spiritually transcendent experience, when I fast, I.....just get hungry. I think about food, think about when the fast is going to end, and think about how much time it will take for me to return home, pour a cup of orange juice, and break the fast. But there's meaning to be found in these banal cravings as well, and hunger can teach us some down to earth spiritual lessons. And hunger's message is this: humans are frail and needy, and without food for even a few hours, we become worried and uncomfortable. We learn from hunger how incomplete we are, and how much needs to be fixed.

The lesson is that hunger isn't just about food. Our spiritual side craves a better world; and on Tisha B'Av, while we mourn the tragedies of exile, we feel desperately hungry for the peace and security of a real home.

The Jewish hunger for peace is more than an accident of history; it is a part of our destiny. Geographically, Israel sits at the crossroads of conflict. The land promised to Abraham is located on the land bridge between three continents; and because of this, Israel was an area hotly contested by empires in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia Greece and Rome. Many have noted that unique geography of the land promised to Abraham is intended to make the Jews profoundly aware of how fragile, and precious, peace can be.

This is why peace is nothing less than a Jewish obsession: we pray for peace three times a day, our blessings end with a hope for peace, and Israel's Declaration of Independence remarkably offers peace to all of Israel's hostile neighbors. Peace is nothing less than the Jewish quest.

At the same time, in exile, security was elusive; the outrage Chaim Nachman Bialik eloquently expressed after the Kishinev massacre in 1903 is the repressed cry of two millennia of exile. The establishment of the State of Israel was meant to give the Jewish people a true home where they could live with peace and security.

Unfortunately, peace and security are not always one and the same. And every political debate about Israel can be boiled down to this: are we hungrier for security or for peace?   The same script is revived endlessly, about policies, political parties, and personalities: "xxx is bad for security". "But xxx is good for peace, and worth the risk". We might want both peace and security, but in the cartoonishly binary logic of politics, you only get to choose only one or the other. And on most issues relating to Israel, the old debate of peace vs. security will fill page upon page of newsprint.

But not this week. Remarkably, the Iran nuclear deal has sparked a virtual consensus of rejection. The entire Israeli political spectrum finds very little to love in a deal that threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East. Yes, giving a fanatical dictatorship 24 days notice before an inspection should have been a deal breaker, plain and simple.  And with the sanctions lifted, Iran can buy Russian anti-aircraft missiles and bankroll Hezbollah attacks on innocent Syrians and Israelis. For Israelis sitting at the crossroads of conflict, it is easy to see how tossing a lifeline to Ayatollahs who shout "death to Israel, death to America" does not advance the cause of peace. It is easy to see that handing a major economic and diplomatic victory to a Holocaust denying, terrorism sponsoring, Jew hating regime is simply not a step in the direction of peace. It's impossible, even for left wing supporters of Israel, to pretend otherwise.

Yes, I'm hungry for peace; and most supporters for Israel are as well. But this deal does nothing to advance the cause of peace. And as another Tisha B'Av comes and goes, I'll be hungrier than ever for a true and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Bitter Herb’s Bittersweet Lesson

Why dredge up ugly memories when you’re celebrating your triumphs? It’s much more pleasant to forget the bad times and focus on the good times.

And yet, the Seder focuses a great on remembering the pain and suffering of slavery. We have salt water tears, blood red wine, charoset mortar and straw, and most prominently, the bitter herbs of 400 years of slavery.

But why do we spend so much time remembering the bitterness?

The first lesson is that the bitter herb must be bitter; that means we should never fool ourselves and think that the bitter herb is sweet. The pain and suffering of slavery should never be rationalized, period. Too often, people who are pious believe they have found the “divine plan” to explain suffering; instead they have justified the unjustifiable, and ignored the pain of the victims. So we must never forget that bitterness is bitter, and that our only hope is to overcome slavery and make suffering disappear.

The second lesson comes from the lingering taste of bitterness in our mouths. No matter how charmed our lives have been, we all know people who have had bitter experiences; sometimes it’s our friends, or our parents and grandparents. We all know the taste of bitter herbs.  

Yet this bitter taste offers us a profound wisdom: in a world with too much bitterness, one must cherish the sweet moments, and recognize how special they are.

One can take life’s sweet moments for granted. People can celebrate beautiful weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, only to be obsessed with the shortcomings of the tablecloths and the desserts. (Yes, I have seen this happen). We lose a sense of perspective about how sweet a simcha is, even if the dessert was a bit overbaked.

The bitter herbs are a reminder never to squander sweetness.

A friend told me a story about his Bar Mitzvah 50 years ago. He was an only child, and both of his parents were Holocaust survivors. At the Bar Mitzvah lunch, his parents went missing. The guests started to look for them, and the synagogue’s superintendent was sent to search the building for them. Finally, he found the Bar Mitzvah boy’s parents huddled in a distant corner, crying in each other’s arms. The parents explained that they were emotionally overwhelmed. During the war they could barely have dreamt that they would survive, and now…. now, they were celebrating their son’s Bar Mitzvah. The power of the joy was simply overwhelming.

This is the bittersweet lesson of the bitter herbs; when we remember the taste of marror, we learn how to cherish sweetness. We should be overwhelmed with appreciation at any hint of sweetness, and recognize that any Bar Mitzvah is beautiful, even if the tablecloths are the wrong color, and any wedding is sweet, even if the dessert is subpar.  

At every seder, there are bitter herbs. Not just on the seder plate, but in remembering the person who is gone and desperately missed. But at the same time, we have to cherish the sweet, to look at each and every person who is there, and recognize that it is a miracle to celebrate together, and that there’s nothing sweeter than a spiritual evening filled with food, family and friends.

Chag Sameach !

Monday, February 09, 2015

Why Don't We "Get" Shabbat?

I hate to admit this, but there’s one sermon topic of mine that has consistently flopped.

The topic is Shabbat.

We don’t seem to get Shabbat. What’s puzzling to me is why we don’t.

I’m not talking as a Shabbat observer looking out at everyone else; actually, even among the observant, there is a rush to “get over” with Shabbat. Everyone waits for the minute Shabbat is over, like schoolchildren waiting for the recess bell. And some Orthodox teens find it too difficult to let go of their cellphones on Shabbat, to the point that they keep the Shabbat carefully…except for texting. So it’s not a question of how observant you are; everyone finds it difficult to appreciate Shabbat.

Shabbat actually makes a lot of sense. In the 21st century, Shabbat is more necessary than ever. Constant buzzes and bells multitask our brains into mush; email and cellphones have transformed work into a 24/7 phenomenon. Now, more than ever, we need Shabbat for a little peace and quiet.

Even technology evangelists understand the need for a technology free time. Clay Shirky, a professor of social media at New York University, who teaches his students about the culture of the internet, found it impossible to allow his students to use laptops, tablets, and phones in class, because they were too distracting. Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker who created the Webby Awards, the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet, embraced a “technology Shabbat”. She and her family turn off all computers, TV’s, and smartphones for Shabbat, and instead focus on being mindful and being connected with each other. And even the investment bank Goldman Sachs understands the Shabbat. Goldman Sachs now requires junior associates to stop working on the weekend. Beginning 9 p.m. on Fridays, junior associates may not come to work or login on their computers until Sunday morning. 

So why don’t we get Shabbat?

Because we don’t understand how you can take a day off. We live in the culture of the M.B.A., where efficiency and productivity are the touchstones of meaning. For thousands of years, the Homo Economicus has seen the idea of taking a day off and forgoing potential profits as bizarre. Peter Schafer, in his book Judeophobia, devotes an entire chapter to Roman criticisms of the Shabbat. He quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.E – 65 C.E.) as saying: “their practice of the Shabbat is inexpedient because by resting one day in every seven they lose in idleness one seventh of their life”. To the Romans, the Shabbat was absurd: what sense does a day of rest make, when you have countries to conquer and aqueducts to build? And this attitude is even more true of contemporary society. We live by Benjamin Franklin’s edict “time is money”, and wonder how we can squeeze a few more minutes out of the day. We carry our work with us everywhere, and take work calls and send work emails all hours of the day and night. Even universities, which are meant to be places of higher learning, have largely become pre-professional training centers, places for students to harvest A’s on their way to a good investment banking job.

But the Shabbat speaks another language. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (Italy, 1475-1550) talks about the purpose of abstaining from work on Shabbat is to allow one to pursue spiritual experiences. Shabbat is a day to study and think, to spend with God at the synagogue and with family and friends at home. It slows us down to open our eyes to another reality.

In the Lonely Man of Faith, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that man possesses a dual nature, that of a conqueror and a poet. Man must both master and recreate the world, and at the same time stand in awe of the beauty and grandeur of creation. This duality is what Shabbat strives to help us balance; with six days of productive labor followed by one day devoted to the spiritual, man keeps himself in balance.

Soloveitchik notes that modern man clings to his work, and doesn’t open his ears to hear the other language, the feelings of awe, love and inspiration. Why don’t we get Shabbat? Because modern man is out of balance, devoted to triumphs instead of wisdom.

An anecdote from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg best describes what we don’t get about Shabbat. He was at a wedding and was sitting next to someone he had never met. He writes that:

“In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”

This plumber is absolutely correct in rebuffing Rabbi Goldberg. On a daily basis, as a habit of speech, we conflate “what we do” with “how we earn a living”. We forget that while work is important, there is more to life than work. And Shabbat is there for a full life, one that includes love and learning, insights and inspiration.

But as long as we think that how we make a living is all we actually do, we will not get what Shabbat is about.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Redemption, The Jewish Mission Statement

A sermon by: Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz‎

1. Jews are Optimists!

‎It’s remarkable that Jews aren’t more pessimistic about their future.

‎In just the last two weeks, we have watched a horrific terror attack in kosher market ‎in Paris, and then another one on a bus in Tel Aviv. In both cases, Jews were targeted ‎because they were Jews. And these two horrors are merely footnotes on a long ‎history of anti-Semitic attacks. And yet, despite thousands of years of persecution, the ‎Jewish people continue on, unwilling to quit.  Jewish optimism is one of the wonders ‎of human history.

‎‎2. Exodus, Exodus and More Exodus

The key to Jewish optimism can be found in what is no less than a constant obsession ‎in the Bible: the Exodus in Egypt.  The anonymous 13th century author of the Sefer ‎Hachinuch ponders the following question:

‎‎“‎למה זה יצוה אותנו השם יתברך לעשות כל אלה לזכרון אותו הנס, והלא בזכרון אחד יעלה הדבר ‏במחשבתנו ולא ישכח מפי זרענו‎”

‎‎“…why did God command us to do all these (commandments) to commemorate that ‎miracle, for with one commemoration we would raise our consciousness of this, and it ‎would never be forgotten by our descendents…”‎‎

(His answer, which anticipates some of the psychological theories of the last century, ‎is that man is conditioned by his behavior, and that our character is shaped by what ‎we do.‎Now this is an important point, one that offers a new insight into the importance of ‎mitzvoth in the Jewish tradition; but it is not sufficient to explain why there are so ‎many mitzvot tied to the Exodus from Egypt.) ‎

The Bible sees the Exodus as the basis for an enormous raft of commandments; not ‎just the 20 or so commandments involved in the Pesach Seder, but multiple others,  ‎such as the redeeming the firstborn, Tefillin, Tzitzit, the orientation of the Jewish ‎calendar, loving the stranger, and the Sabbath. Even belief in God, the first of the Ten ‎Commandments, is connected to the Exodus. And of course, we are also commanded ‎to remember the Exodus every single day.‎Why is it that so many commandments are tied to just one event in history? ‎‎(Compare the Exodus to the revelation at Mount Sinai, which is connected to only ‎one commandment!)‎‎

3. A Weird Explanation of 400 Years of Slavery

We can answer this question with a question.‎Where did the exile in Egypt come from? It is announced to Abraham, without ‎explanation, in Genesis 15:13:

‎וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה

‎“Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your ‎descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be ‎enslaved and mistreated there.”

‎And dozens of commentators ask the simplest question: Why? Why are these yet ‎unborn generations fated to endure the horrors of slavery?‎

A strange explanation is given by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (the “Nodah ‎BeYehuda” - 8 October 1713 – 29 April 1793). In his introduction to his commentary ‎on Pesachim he writes:

‎‏, וידוע שכל גלות מצרים היה תיקון לחטא אדם הראשון שאכל מעץ הדעת, וכן נאמר לאברהם אבינו ‏בברית בין הבתרים [בראשית ט"ו, י"ג] ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך וגו'. אמר ידוע תדע, רמז לו שזה בעון ‏עץ הדעת, ותדע אותיות דעת

‎“…One should know that the entire exile in Egypt is to fix the sin of Adam who ate ‎from the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Bad)…”‎

So here is the theory; Abraham’s great, great, great grandchildren will be slaves, for a ‎sin that occurred nearly 2,000 years before Abraham is born!!

‎At first glance, this sounds nonsensical. But it is actually extremely profound.‎

The Nodah BeYehuda’s lesson is this. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam ‎and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. They were the first exiles, living in a ‎newly imperfect world. The tranquility of Eden had been shattered, and instead, sin, ‎strife and death became the norm. Life had become a true “half-life”, an ongoing ‎process of decay. Man was programmed to fail, and hope seemed impossible.

‎The exile in Egypt is a perfect example of the type of blind fate one could expect in this ‎dystopian world. And in enduring centuries of slavery, the Jews learned firsthand ‎how awful the post-Edenic world is. The fate of planet seemingly points in only one ‎direction: downward. In the Egyptian exile, they saw how nasty, brutish and short life ‎is, how unfair history can be, and how empty the soul can become.

‎And then came redemption.

‎It is no exaggeration to say that redemption is a revolution. It requires imagination, ‎and seeing the possibilities that don’t yet exist. It requires resilience, to absorb defeat ‎after defeat and still fight back. And it requires hope, the inner conviction that things ‎can get better. At the Exodus, the slaves were able to overcome history. ‎‎

4. The Blueprint for Healing a Broken World

Now we can understand why the Torah constantly reminds us of the Exodus. From ‎the moment Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the world has been a broken ‎place. The tragedy behind this brokenness is that it robs you of hope; if sin is in our ‎nature and death is in our future, how much can you expect from life? The Exodus ‎uncovers the possibility of redemption, the blueprint for healing a broken world.‎

In biblical and rabbinic literature, many things are compared to redemption, such as ‎repentance, (Yoma 86b) charity, (Baba Batra 10a) and carrying on a legacy (Avot 6:6, ‎and this is also the point of the Book of Ruth).

‎And this is why the Torah repeats the Exodus over and over again. It is a Jewish ‎mission statement, that we can fix what is broken, for the core of all things spiritual is ‎the willingness to redeem what is broken.

‎If it’s a failure, with repentance.

‎If it's a defeat, with redemption.

‎And one faces the ultimate tragedy, mortality, with remembrance.‎‎

5. The Daily Call of Redemption

‎Having redemption as a mission statement is no small matter. Redemption is not ‎just about upbeat optimism; rather, it demands that we wrestle with a broken world ‎and make it better. An anecdote told by Rabbi Norman Lamm, describes it well. Lamm writes:‎‎

“Yigal Allon, the Vice Premier of Israel, told a story which is worthy of retelling, and ‎with which we conclude our remarks. As a child in his native village near Mt. Tabor, ‎he heard the famous Jewish legend about the Messiah sitting in the gates of Rome as ‎a poor leper and waiting. He was disturbed by the story, and asked an old man the ‎question that was bothering him: "What is the Messiah waiting for?"‎

His answer is something that each of us must consider very carefully and soberly.

‎‎"He is waiting -- for you."”

‎Yes, redemption is our mission statement. And now the Messiah is waiting for us to ‎follow through on it!‎

Sunday, January 18, 2015

This Christmas, Let’s Learn the Dignity of Difference

(This was published in a shortened French version in Le Devoir)

Quebec has come a long way since last Christmas.  A year ago, we were mired in the ugly debate over the so-called “charter of values”, a proposed ban on religious symbols in government jobs that divided the province. A bizarre illustration of the 5 banned religious symbols made religious minorities feel like they were on the Quebec’s “Most Wanted” list. Even worse, the PQ was willing to countenance open bigotry. Later in the campaign, Pauline Marois said nothing while absurd tales about “Kosher taxes” and “rich McGill students” were circulated by prominent PQ supporters.

In the beginning of December last year, the city of Cote Saint Luc protested the Charter by inviting a Priest to light a Christmas tree and a Rabbi to light a Menorah in front of city hall. I was at the rally, and as an Orthodox Rabbi, it was the first time I had ever attended a Christmas tree lighting.

So what was I thinking when the Christmas tree was lit? To be honest, Jews have some uncomfortable baggage regarding Christmas. In medieval Europe, Christmas was a time of fear and loathing for Jews. Violence against Jews often occurred during Christmas, from blood libels in the 1200’s to a pogrom in Warsaw in 1881. But today, the situation is quite different; on the contrary, modern Jews experience a “December Dilemma”, when virtually everyone else celebrates Christmas, and Jews are left feeling like an ambivalent guest at a party, the man standing outside in the cold pressing his face against the window to see what’s going on. Because of this, in the past I wasn’t 100% comfortable listening to Christmas carols. 

But this time I profoundly moved. Here we were, at a rally to protect the religious rights of Sikhs, Jews and Muslims, and a group of Christians were lighting their Christmas tree in solidarity! Instead of being a divisive force, religion was bringing Jews and Christians together and demonstrating that religious belief can be a force for unity and dialogue.

Undoubtedly, many of the charter’s supporters were political opportunists, and some of them were out and out bigots and demagogues. But there were some idealists who truly believed secularism can bring greater peace and tranquility. They see religion as a dangerous force in the world, the cause of war and strife. So in the Charter they set out to marginalize religion, in order to foster greater unity.

What I saw at the joint Christmas tree and Menorah lighting is precisely what these idealists missed. Their assumption is unity is based on similarity; if we can get everyone to have the same beliefs and share the same culture, we will have a peaceful society. But this is profound mistake. Unity is possible without unanimity; in fact, we have a stronger unity when we learn how to embrace diversity.

After the World Trade Center attacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, was challenged to explain how religion can avoid violence. In response, he wrote a book entitled The Dignity Of Difference. He argues that the desire to universalize one’s worldview is the primary cause of political conflict; the more we demand everyone to act alike, the more likely we are to fight over differences.

Sacks makes a strong case for the idea that diversity must be respected in order for man to live in harmony. (He sees this lesson in the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel). Sacks also utilizes the Talmudic phrase “ways of peace” to serve as the paradigm of interfaith relationships. He reminds us that peace is a powerful religious value in itself, and the ability to bond with people who don’t share our beliefs is a primary religious responsibility.

This lesson is an important one for Quebec, and for all Canadians. At this first Christmas after the defeat of the Charter, we need to remember the dignity of difference, that good will for all is a critical ethical and religious value. And for myself, a Jew living in a sea of Christmas celebrations, Christmas reminds me of the friendships that respect I share with people of all faiths and all backgrounds.

A few years ago, in an article in the New York Times, several Jewish professionals told the reporter how they cover shifts for their Christian colleagues to enable them to celebrate Christmas at home. Dr. Robert van Amerongen, an Orthodox Jew who is director of pediatric emergency service at New York Methodist Hospital, told the newspaper that “although he is senior enough to be able to take Christmas off, he said, he always works. ''That just infuses good will,'' he said”.

This example is one we need to embrace. Good will is another expression of the “ways of peace”; and as we learned in Quebec in the last year, good will is something precious. Hopefully this Christmas, we will continue to embrace the dignity of difference.