VaYishlach 5777 Dvar Avot Blessing

Posted December 19th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Parshat VaYishlach
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
December 17, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
Shabbat shalom.  In a moment, we will begin the Musaf Amidah with words we say twice a Shabbat morning every Shabbat: Elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzhak, veilohei Yakov; elohei Sarah, elohei Rivkah, elohei Rachel veilohei Leah.  God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob; God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah.
Why does the Amidah, the centerpiece of our liturgy, begin by invoking God as the divine being of our ancestors? This question might seem most pressing to our Talmud Torah students to whom the stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs are freshest.  And as they have observed, these biblical characters are a bit dodgy.
They are sometimes violent.  They are often selfish.  They do questionable things.  Abraham almost kills his son Isaac.  Sarah orders her husband to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, perhaps to die.  Isaac loves one son more than the other.  Rebecca loves the other son more and helps him plot against his brother.  Jacob steals his brother’s birthright and has four wives.  Rachel and Leah, two of these wives, are lifelong rivals for Jacob’s love.
As the Talmud Torah students taught in their Dvar Torah, Jacob is forced to wrestle an unnamed adversary before reuniting with his brother Esav, possibly because it is the only way Jacob will not run away as he has run away from every other difficult situation in his life.
Our Talmud Torah students are likely not alone in wondering why these are the particular individuals we read stories about as children, why these troubled persons are the ones we remind ourselves (and God) of every time we pray.
My personal answer to this question probably relies a bit too much on the idea that oral tradition is a source for many parts of our Torah, especially the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs in Genesis.
Before these stories became part of the written Torah, they were told around firesides or watering holes.  In some ways, these tales were the evening entertainment of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert or tried to establish their first homes in the land the Lord had promised them.  Back in the days before television or Shakespeare, these stories are entertainment and the dramas that conveyed history and culture from one generation to another.
That’s part of the reason the characters are so troubled and the stories often so violent.  No one wants to gather ‘round the hearth to hear “Little Kobe grew up surrounded by the love of his parents Rivka and Yitz.  He and his brother Savi sometimes argued over toys, but they loved each other and always wanted the best for each other.  There was peace in the land, the harvests were good, and everyone prospered.  The end.”  That story is boring.  It’s a story without drama.  There’s no character development, plot twists or conflict.
The stories that got told again and again and then passed down to us in the form of Torah are the ones in which things (often bad things) happened.  We know the stories we know from the Torah because they are interesting, not because they are necessarily uplifting or morally instructive.  We invoke these ancestors in our prayers because they are the ones fascinating enough that we know about them; thus, Elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzhak, etc. at the beginning of the Amidah.
The commentaries in our new siddur, Siddur Lev Shalem, take a less cynical approach.  One commentary points out that our matriarchs and patriarchs are complex characters, just as we are.  Yes, you could think of Abraham as the unstable father who almost sacrificed his son. Or, when you pray the Amidah, you could call to mind the Abraham who welcomed strangers to his home and defended the inhabitants of Sodom against God.  Sarah is not just the jealous wife who banishes Hagar; she is also the mother who persevered through a long wait for her beloved son Isaac and does what she can to protect him.
This perspective reminds us that we all have the parts of our personal histories we’d like people to remember and the parts that we would be happy to have disappear from the record.  As we begin Judaism’s most important prayer by recalling similarly difficult characters, we are thereby exhorting ourselves to do more of the things that are worthy in our pasts and less of the things that are shameful.
Not only does this blessing from the Amidah influence how we think of ourselves and our actions, but also it influences how we think of God and our relationship to God.
As another commentary to the Amidah points out, in other blessings, such as the ones over wine or Shabbat candles, God is melech haolam, “Sovereign of time and space.”  In those blessings, God is transcendent and remote.  But in the formula of blessing we use for the Amidah, we name God as the God of specific ancestors, reminding us and God that God is immanent, particular and in relationship with individuals.
Moreover, because we name these complex matriarchs and patriarchs, it is clear that God is in relationship not just with angelic individuals, but with individuals who, like us, are far from perfect.  This observation makes clear that, even at our worst, we are not alone.  God is still the God of us, caring and interested in what we do (even if God is most interested in us repenting of what we do).
It is for these reasons that we read those crazy stories in Talmud Torah or the sanctuary each week.  It is for these reasons that we invoke God, each time we pray the Amidah, as the God our matriarchs and patriarchs.  We are not perfect, but we can be better.  God is in relationship with us, regardless.  These are good reasons to begin the Amidah as we do.
  Shabbat shalom.
 
VaYishlach 5777 Dvar Avot Blessing for website

5777 Yom Kippur Day

Posted October 13th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Yom Kippur Day
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
October 12, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
*******
Gmar hatimah tovah.  May you be sealed for a good year.
A broken shard.  Withering grass.  A passing breeze.  These are the phrases from Untane Tokef used to describe what it means to be human.  The unknown poet who composed this prayer might have done better with phrases like “the fluttering heart,” “the jittery leg,” “the sleepless toss and turn.”
Yes, to be human is to be mortal.  Even more so, it sometimes seems, that to be human is to be anxious.
In fact, the High Holy Days in general and Untane Tokef in particular seem designed to heighten our anxiety.  The central idea for Yom Kippur is that we are judged and inscribed (or not) in the Book of Life.  Just before Untane Tokef describes us humans as fleeting, it lists in question form the fates that might bring about our end.  Who by flood?  Who by plague?  Who shall wander?  Who shall be tormented?
Of course, we are anxious!
Our anxiety could be global, personal or both.  The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and the hatred unleashed in the election south of our border are just two of the societal forces that might be keeping us awake at night.  On the individual level, our anxiety arises perhaps from illness or economic insecurity.   Awaiting test results from the doctor or plotting which bill to pay first with limited funds are perfect recipes for tossing and turning.
What then should we do with our anxiety?
First, let me say, some anxiety is clinical.  For this type of anxiety, the answer is: get treatement.  If you think you might be clinically anxious, get professional mental health treatment.  Just as someone with advanced diabetes should take insulin and regularly consult with her doctor, so too someone with an anxiety disorder should take prescribed medication and regularly meet with his therapist.
But not all anxiety is so acute or prolonged, and our options for coping with it are varied.
Some of our anxiety arises from situations susceptible to change, but far beyond our personal control.  No one of us alone can solve a refugee crisis.  No one of us alone can counteract the hatred fomenting in the U.S or here in Canada.
This is hardly, though, an excuse not to act.  Shimon Peres, zichrono livracha, who passed away just before the Days of Awe began, said that we Jews are “a nation born to be discontented.  Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.”  During his long life, Peres encountered much that exists to make him anxious.  Rather than tremble, he marched, literally and figuratively, to change for the better.  He acted on his convictions, and we too are empowered to act on ours.
Other anxieties cannot be controlled by us, or anyone else.  No one has the power to make the test result come back from the lab in your favor.  When you are sick, we include you in our weekly Prayer for Healing.  But the mishebeirach list is not the same as God’s to-do list.  I wish it were, but it isn’t.  So too, we can’t know where the next natural disaster will hit, and we can’t prevent accidents no one could foresee.
We can and should pray about what makes us anxious.  There is relief in unloading our anxieties even though we can’t make God answer our prayers.  Over certain anxieties, it is all in God’s hands, and we have no lever on the divine.
With these anxieties, all we can do is manage them.  We are anxious because we are vulnerable.  Untane Tokef calls our attention to the ways in which we are vulnerable – natural disasters, political unrest, disease – in order to heighten our anxiety.  The High Holy Days are designed to put us on edge, so that we will do teshuvah in earnestness.  Repentance is hard.  Untane Tokef is meant to make us realize that the stakes are high, so that we will do the hard work of repenting.
The High Holy Days are not, however, the sum total of the Jewish year.  Other emotions are on the calendar too.
God demands that we rejoice and be happy on Sukkot and gives us the tools to meet this demand.  A beautiful etrog, fragrant myrtle, red meat, wine, and pretty clothes are all commanded (yes, really commanded) on Sukkot.  (That’s why Sukkot is my favorite holiday.)  The joy of this holiday soothes the anxiety of the Days of Awe that precede it.
Passover gives us hope, reminding us that the ills of the world can be redeemed.  At seder, we relive the journey from slavery to freedom and learn that no problem, even one on a national scale, is unsolvable.
On Shavuot.  Well, who really attributes great things to Shavuot?  But cheesecake is a good once-a-year way to ease anxiety.
Shabbat is a weekly restorative.  Disconnecting once a week from all electronic sources of global and personal news gives us a break also from new sources of anxiety.  The restrictions on what we can do on Shabbat give us time to do what most of us do not do nearly enough: sleep.  A good night’s sleep works wonders on our perception of anxiety and our ability to cope with it.
Anxiety that is not clinical is not all-consuming.  The cycle of the Jewish year helps us live this reality so that we can manage our anxiety at the High Holy Days and other times.
The most tempting strategy to deal with anxiety is to hope for resolution.  Sometimes, our hopes will be rewarded, or at least appear to be so.  November 8th will be here and gone eventually.  Test results come in and, at least some of the time, the doctor gives the all clear.  Sometimes a new job or a lucky break untangles a financial mess.
More often, this seeming resolution, however, is just that: “seeming.”  No matter where or when in the election cycle, there will always be some portion of the population who hates.  In the long-term our good health is not, and cannot be, guaranteed.  The economy changes in unpredicted ways, and its effects are sometimes personal.
Our anxieties cannot be resolved completely, and for this we are fortunate.  Yes, fortunate.
We are fortunate because Judaism associates being anxious not just with being human but also with being righteous.
In his commentary on the story of Jacob, Rashi brings a midrash in which God says, “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the World to Come?  Why do they seek to settle in tranquility in this world too?!”  To the Sages, only for the wicked is everything settled.  Only for the likes of Esav or the generations leading up to the Flood is everything known.  For the righteous, like Noah or Abraham, there is drama and therefore, there is anxiety.  If you are feeling anxious, it is because God finds you good and takes enough interest in your outcome to have not decided it already.
We are fortunate too because Judaism associates being anxious not just with being human or being righteous but also with being alive.  Untane Tokef puts its questions of fates before us because our fates are still in question.  Those for whom a particular fate is known with absolute surety have already passed away.  If we are alive, then our fate remains uncertain.  We agonize over this uncertainty – fire or plague, peace or torment, riches or poverty – because we have a future.  We are alive, and we are fortunate to have a future about which to be anxious.
With this future, we can act to change what in our lives and our world makes us anxious and is susceptible to change.  We can get involved with the social movements we think will make a positive change.  We can donate to the organizations that are working for the change we want to happen.  Anxiety should not paralyze us.
With this future, we must also make room in our lives for joy, hope and rest.  Soon Yom Kippur will be over.  We have Sukkot on which to rejoice and Shabbat on which to rest.  We have good meals to enjoy with friends and family and new friends to meet.  Anxiety need not be our only emotion.
Gmar tov.  May we be sealed in the Book of Life for this year and may the ending of each of our books remain unknowable.
*******
5777-yk-am-sermon-for-website

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon

Posted October 6th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Rosh Hashanah Day 1
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
October 3, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
*****
Shanah tovah.  The Torah reading for today begins with the miraculous birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham.  It continues with another celebration, a feast in honor of Isaac’s weaning.
After that, a sour note is hit.  Sarah orders her husband to cast out his other wife, Hagar, and his other son, Ishmael.  Abraham refuses at first, but God orders him to heed Sarah’s voice.  Abraham sends them out into the desert woefully under-provisioned, with only one skin of water.  Abraham’s most reasonable expectation had to have been that Hagar and Ishmael would die.
Tomorrow’s Torah reading continues Abraham’s story.  It too is a difficult one.  Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac.  When an angel stays his hand at the last minute, Abraham returns to Beersheba without Isaac.
At the end of today’s Torah reading, between these stories of losing his sons, Abraham forms a treaty with Avimelech, King of Gerar.  In the course of their negotiations, Avimelech says to Abraham   אֱלֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה “God is with you in all that you do.”
Which raises one important question:  What?!
Abraham just sent his second wife and first son off to what he must have believed would be their deaths.  He did so at the command of his first wife, whom, the Torah suggests, he never speaks to again.  Soon, he will almost kill his second son, and never speak to him again either.
Yet, Avimelech says to him אֱלֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה, “God is with you in all that you do.”  What could Avimelech possibly be thinking?  How on earth could this be his read of Abraham’s situation?
Well, I can only assume that Avimelech’s impression came from reading Abraham’s Facebook posts.
Which is anachronistic, except that Rashi basically agrees with this interpretation.
Rashi explains that Avimelech had seen Abraham leave Sodom safe and sound even though God destroyed the entire area, had known about Abraham’s victory over King Kedarla’omer and his allies back in Genesis Chapter 14, and had heard that Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a child in their old age.  Apparently, Avimelech didn’t know how badly three of Abraham’s primary relationships were going, and he could not have known how horribly the fourth of his key relationships was about to go.
This sort of selective news that Avimelech had about his acquaintance Abraham is exactly the sort of selective news many of us have about the people with whom we went to high school and the friends we haven’t seen since university.  Regardless of whether we use Facebook, we are much more likely to know that our high school classmate got engaged than that another classmate’s long-time boyfriend just moved out.  We are much more likely to hear the good news that our bridge partner’s granddaughter got into Ivey than the bad news that our poker buddy’s grandson is in rehab again.
People are simply much more likely to broadcast the good things that happen to them and their families and to stay quiet about the setbacks, big or small.  In our culture of competitiveness, our own relatives pass on the accomplishments of our contemporaries as a passive-aggressive goad so that we will work harder and strive a little more.  If your mom even heard about the divorces and bankruptcies of her friends’ children, she has no need to share this info with you.  You’re too busy at work – or you should be, anyway.
Thus, we end up seeing the world through the same lens with which Avimelech viewed Abraham.  From the outside, everything looks good in everyone else’s lives.
At the High Holy Days, this point about Avimelech’s perspective can offer some comfort.  In the season of repentance, one of the sins which we confess in the Al Cheit prayer of Yom Kippur is the sin of envy.  We resent our colleague’s happy marriage or our cousin’s huge house in the right neighborhood, and we want these good fortunes for ourselves.  Yet, in the Al Cheit section of the Amidah, we say, “On account of the sin that we sinned before You of בצרות עין, ‘envy’ forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”  This confession is effective only if we resolve not to do it again.
We could change our nature, but it might be easier to take off our Avimelech glasses and realize that we almost certainly don’t have the full picture of anyone else’s life, not even of our close friends or family members.  The Torah reading for today and Avimelech’s wild misread of Abraham’s situation teach us that our envy is not only a sin, but also perhaps misplaced.
Just as Avimelech could not see the true state of Abraham’s life, so too we cannot see the true state of the lives of those whom we think to envy.  This sin of envy is much less tempting to commit when we realize it might be baseless.  That’s a comfort as we resolve to do better next year.
But the perspective of Avimelech presents a challenge at the High Holy Days too, and this challenge is potentially weightier than its comfort.
The danger is that we will leave our Avimelech glasses on when we look at our own lives.
According to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the Israeli Torah scholar, this challenge is one that even Abraham could not overcome.  Avimelech says to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do,” and Abraham believes him.  Zornberg writes that Abraham “is reassured by Avimelech’s unconsciously gnomic words… – which [Abraham] decodes as an assurance of his essential integrity in all the generous and imaginative acts of his life.  Even what seems most questionable in his biography is ultimately in tune with his noblest intentions.”
Unbelievable.  In the middle of estrangement from both wives and both sons, Abraham accepts the public personae view of himself as reality.  Because Avimelech focuses on Abraham’s “generous and imaginative acts,” so too does Abraham, never mind that he has already almost killed or is about to almost kill three of the four people closest to him.  According to Zornberg, Avimelech sees Abraham as in step with God, and Abraham takes this outsider perspective as a license to ignore his serious failings as a husband and father – his serious failings as a moral human being – and instead Abraham integrates all his questionable acts as in keeping with “his noblest intentions.”
Pay attention that this scene with Avimelech immediately precedes the Akedah, and Abraham’s final estrangement from both Isaac and Sarah.  It immediately follows his banishment of Ishmael and Hagar.  If ever there were a time for serious introspection, this is it.
Yet, Abraham chooses to see himself through the eyes of another, someone who does not have and could not have all the information.  Only Abraham knows exactly what Sarah and God said to him to get him to cast away his son and wife to an expected death.  Only Abraham knows what he was feeling at that time.  He needed to reflect on this very personal and private knowledge.
Instead, Abraham takes the easy way out and thinks only of the big news about his life, the information available to Avimelech and everyone else.  His deliverance from Sodom and G’morah, his victory over King Kedarlaomer, his child of his old age – these are the points of Abraham’s life that matter to everyone else, so they are good enough for him too.  What a coward.
The High Holy Days are supposed to be a time of cheshbon nefesh, a time when we examine our deeds and search our character.  This accounting of the soul can’t be done through a lens, like Avimelech’s, that filters out the brokenness.  We can hardly apply an unflinching eye to our deepest selves if we consider only the good face we present to the world.
The danger of the Avimelech lens is that we will start to believe about ourselves the carefully curated baloney we put on Facebook or that our grandfather tell his friends about us.
For us, as for Abraham, sometimes it is necessary to put only the good stuff out there.  (In fact, it is partly because of this biased information that Avimelech was willing to enter into a treaty with Abraham at all.)  But we are not permitted to confuse ourselves.  Our chance at atonement depends on an accounting of the soul that uses all that we know about ourselves, most especially the information we hide from others.
We are obligated to take a close look at all the sins in the Al Cheit confession (not just the sin of envy) and be truthful about whether it applies to us.  Never mind that no one else knows our pride, or foolishness or whatever other failing we hide so well.  We have all the information.  We just need to brave enough to take off our Avimelech glasses.
Shanah tovah.
*******
rh-day-1-sermon-5777-v3

Passover Day 7

Posted May 2nd, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Passover Day 7

April 29, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario

Chag sameach.  In December, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which makes halachic decisions for the Conservative Movement, approved a teshuvah allowing Jews of Ashkenazi descent to eat kitniyot on Passover.  It’s been a big topic of conversation around the shul the past week or two.  Who knew that rice and legumes could be such a window into important aspects of our Jewish lives?

One factor, I think, has been significant in determining whether to adopt this practice in our own kitchens.  It depends on how much we need our Judaism to be rational.

There’s certainly plenty of evidence that the Ashkenazi custom of eschewing rice, beans, corn, and especially peas and green beans is far from rational.  The Torah prohibits eating leaven on Passover; the Mishnah specifies that the term refers to products made from wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt that have had time to rise.  As you may have noticed, nothing in these texts should raise your suspicions about peanuts.  Yet, many Ashkenazi Jews have regarded peanuts as prohibited on Passover.

In his teshuvah on kitniyot, Rabbi David Golinkin examines the origin of the Ashkenazi custom of avoiding kitniyot on Passover.  Few of them would appeal to the rational-minded among us.

For instance, one of the earliest explanations is from Rabbi Asher of Lunel, who lived in the early 13th-century.  He points out that the word for hummus is either hiftzei or himtzei.  If the latter, himtzei, well then, that word sounds like chametz, so we shouldn’t eat hummus on Passover.  It’s an explanation that would make any sane etymologist cringe.

Another great one is recorded by Rabbeinu Peretz, a 13th-century French rabbi.  He notes that kitniyot are cooked in a pot, and dishes from grains are also cooked in a pot.  If we can eat one dish cooked in a pot, namely kitniyot, we might become confused and think we can eat any dish cooked in a pot, including ones made from grains.

It’s really hard to imagine anyone actually making this mistake.

For people who want logic in their Judaism, the recent CJLS teshuvah allowing Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot on Passover is very appealing.  Kitniyot are not leaven.  The historical justifications for the prohibition against kitniyot on Passover are nonsense.  It is not logical to avoid eating kitniyot on Passover.

That said, I haven’t eaten kitniyot this Passover, and there’s a good chance that I won’t next year either.  It doesn’t much bother me that the rule against kitniyot isn’t rational.  I don’t expect Judaism to be rational.

Rather, Judaism is a system of halacha.  We usually translate halacha as “Jewish law,” but it comes from the root “to walk.”  Judaism provides a way “to walk” through life.

And life is often not rational.  People lose livelihoods for reasons over which they have no control and could not have predicted.  People get sick.  Love fades.  Accidents happen.  Bad leaders are elected to office.  Natural disasters strike close to home.  I expect Judaism to guide us through these losses.

Sometimes this process is aided by rationality, but sometimes it is not – because life is often not rational.  In a few moments, many of you will recite Yizkor.  You will ask God to remember someone you love who has died.  A world of irrationality is contained in Yizkor.

To begin, what on earth (or in heaven) could it mean to ask God to remember?  Surely, God does not forget.  Moreover, God is timeless.  This person you love is not in God’s past, so what would remembering mean?

On a less cerebral level, you will recite Yizkor because you lost someone you love.  Where is the rationality in that loss?

Perhaps you lost a spouse who you still can’t believe – every morning when you wake up – isn’t there next to you.  Maybe you lost a parent, someone who loved you completely, who softened every blow the world threw at you, who rejoiced at your every success.  Or maybe you lost a parent who threw some blows at you too or who was emotionally distant or just plain mean.  Maybe you lost a child you only got to love for a few years, for whom you never got to see what kind of adult he would become.

Where is the rationality in that?  There is none.  At the level of love, pain, regret, longing – any of the intense emotions – the loss that leads to Yizkor makes no sense.

Judaism doesn’t try to make it make sense.  Rather, it gives you four times a year to feel these emotions within the supportive environment of your congregation.  Sometimes, reciting Yizkor helps, but sometimes it doesn’t, and it isn’t really predictable from year-to-year or person-to-person whether reciting Yizkor will help.  Loss is not logical, and all Judaism can do is try to comfort you in it, and sometimes that is not logical either.

Through the lens of Yizkor, kitniyot, really are, as their name implies, “small things.”  But their illogic helps us recognize the illogic of the life that Judaism is here to help us walk through.  Sometimes the journey will be no more rational than not eating kitniyot on Passover.  In neither situation, does Judaism necessarily try to make sense, and that’s ok.  Rather, Judaism tries only to provide a path, and that, I hope, will be enough.

Passover Day 7 Devar 5776

5776 Rosh Hashanah Day 2 Dvar

Posted September 16th, 2015 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
5776 Rosh Hashanah Day 2
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
September 15, 2015 ▪ London, Ontario
Thank you to John Stoffman for chanting haftarah and to Beryl Chernick, our ba’al kriyah, for chanting Torah.
*****
Shanah tovah! The Torah reading for today is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. It is horrific. God calls to Abraham telling him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham and Isaac travel to Mount Moriah. When they arrive, Abraham builds an altar, binds his son, and picks up a knife to slaughter him. An angel of the Lord interrupts and stops the murder. Abraham offers up a ram in Isaac’s place. Abraham departs for Beersheva. The story ends there. We aren’t told where Isaac goes.
As awful as the Torah reading for today is, its aftermath is as bad, perhaps worse. The very next parsha is Chayyei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” but that is not what the parsha is about. Rather, it is about her death. The parsha begins וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה. וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע, “Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to 127 years. Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba.”
The midrash makes much of the juxtaposition of the near-murder of Isaac with the death of Sarah. Midrash, ancient rabbinic interpretations of biblical texts, are creative and dense with meaning. One thing they are not, though, is consistent. Midrash provides at least three different explanations of how Sarah’s death is linked to the Akedah. Today we will focus on two of these explanations.
In one from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, a collection of midrash from around the 2nd-century, Satan goes and tells Sarah that her husband took Isaac and sacrificed him as a burnt offering while her son cried and wailed because he could not be saved. Sarah cries and wails and then dies.
Note that in this version of the story Sarah believes (wrongly we know, but she doesn’t have the same information we do) that Isaac is indeed dead. In this version of the midrash, it is entirely understandable that the news kills her. She believes that her son is dead and that her own husban killed him.
The second midrash, from VaYikra Rabbah, a later midrash of the first millennium, tells a story different in important details. Remember that the text of the Torah tells us that Abraham departed for Beersheva, but Isaac’s whereabouts are not reported. The midrash from VaYikra Rabbah supplies this information.
It imagines that Isaac returns to his mother. Sarah says to him, “Where have you been, my son?” His answer is literally heartbreaking, at least for Sarah. Isaac says to her, “My father took me and led me up hill and down valley, and up to the top of one mountain, and he built an altar and arranged the wood, and he bound me, and took the knife to slaughter me. And were it not that the angel called out from heaven, I would already be slaughtered.” And Sarah says to him, “Oy!… were it not for the angel from heaven, you would already be slaughtered!” Then, Sarah screams and dies.
This version of the midrash is even more disturbing than the first version. Here, the person telling Sarah about the Akedah is her own son. She can see and hear that Abraham did not in fact kill him. Isaac stands before her. She sees that he lives. Yet the horror of what Isaac has experienced at the hand of her husband kills her. Sarah screams and dies just as she did in the first version of the midrash, when she had every reason to believe that Isaac had died.
The contrast between the two midrashim is unsettling. It is unsettling because it illustrates, as we reflect on the year that just passed and on the year to come, that survival is not enough. Isaac survived, but it still destroyed Sarah, just as it did in the first midrash, when she believed him dead.
That survival is not enough is something we know in our own lives, even if it isn’t something we don’t always articulate. We survived last year. If we had not, we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning. But that is far from saying that we didn’t suffer debilitating loss – such that on some level, Sarah’s fatal response to Isaac’s news feels entirely understandable, perhaps the best option given the circumstances.
Untane Tokef, a gruesome liturgical poem that we recite each day of the High Holy Days, gets this point. Not all the fates its lists end in death. We ask not just “who by sword and who by beast; who by fire and who by drowning,” but also “who will rest and who will wander; who will be at peace and who will be tormented; who will grow rich and who will become poor.”
Modernizing these questions shows what is at stake: Who will celebrate a bris and who will suffer a miscarriage? Whose business will boom and who will have a fruitless job search? Who will get married and whose spouse will come home from work wanting a divorce? Who will enjoy great health and who will get a diagnosis? Who will travel the world together and who will lose a spouse?
The answer to these questions is not a matter of one’s own life and death, at least not right away. It isn’t survival but it makes all the difference in whether this past year was a good year or a year of almost unbearable pain. It will make all the difference in whether this next year is one filled with pictures and videos to enrich future happy times or whether this next year is one filled with worry, one a person never wants to look back upon. The wrong answer to one of these questions might not be deadly, but it is almost certainly devastating.
That is why survival is not enough, just like Isaac’s survival in the second midrash did not change the outcome for Sarah. The loss is still devastating, and we are left with the question of how to live with loss at a level above mere survival.
A commonality shared by the two midrashim has something to teach us on this point. At the end of the first midrash, from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, the one in which Satan tells Sarah that Isaac is, in fact, dead, Sarah cries three sobs, corresponding to the Tek’iah notes of the shofar, and she wails three more times, corresponding to the staccato notes of the shofar. Then she dies. At the end of the second midrash, from VaYikra Rabbah, the one in which Sarah knows that Isaac lives, Sarah screams six times corresponding to the six Tek’iah notes of the shofar, but before she can finish screaming, she dies.
What went wrong? In both midrashim, Sarah expresses her grief, but incompletely and the result is suffering so severe that it kills her. In the first midrash, as Avivah Zornberg, the Israeli Torah scholar points out, her staccato cries echo the abyss, rather than seek to connect. Sarah cries out with no possibility that anyone will hear her and respond. Her cry expects, and receives, no comfort.
In the second midrash, Sarah intends to cry out six times, but does not. She had more wailing to do, but for some reason, she is unable to finish crying. Her expression of loss is cut short.
Both midrashim are counterexamples to how we should cry out in times of devastating loss so that we can do more than just survive. Unlike Sarah in the first midrash, our cries must seek to connect us with those who can help. Friends can support you through pregnancy loss. Family members lean on each other after the death of one of their own. Social networks, including congregations, can create connections that lead to a job. There are support groups and mental health professionals to help with just about everything.
Unlike Sarah in the second midrash, we must finish our cries. We must find the friends who don’t callously think we should be “over it” already, but are willing to listen to the same pain again, if this is what we need. (Not incidentally, we each need to make sure that we are NOT the callous friend). Most importantly, we must allow ourselves to feel whatever it is we feel. Rarely do I see a coping mechanism more counterproductive than being mad or impatient with oneself for “still” being angry or sad or scared or whatever emotion one is feeling.
We must note also where it is that we hear the Tekiah and staccato notes, the same notes that Sarah cries, according to the midrsahsim. We hear these shofar sounds here, at shul, teaching us that a synagogue, including during services, can be a place to cry. Our liturgy is full of words which allow us to pour our hearts out to God. Our hope, our fear, our secrets, our dread – all of it is in there, making prayer an exactly right fit for emotion. If crying here is what will help you be not like Sarah, but able to live despite devastating loss, then cry here.
For that is the goal of grief – to be able to live fully despite loss and sorrow. Sarah was not able to do it. Isaac survived the Akedah, but it wasn’t enough. The Binding of Isaac killed Sarah anyway. According to the midrashim, she died because the expression of her grief over the horror of what Abraham had done and what Isaac had suffered was insufficient.
The liturgy of the High Holy Days, whether expressed through the Akedah or Untane Tokef, makes clear that our lives will include loss. However, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also give us the opportunity to express our pain so that we can live despite this loss.
LeShanah Tovah Tikateivu. May you be sealed for life in the new year.
*********
We continue with the Prayer for Our Country on page 197. Please rise. Let’s read all three English paragraphs together.

 

5776 RH2 Sermon v4

SISTERHOOD SHABBAT- SERMON- 2015

Posted April 23rd, 2015 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
SISTERHOOD SHABBAT- SERMON- 2015
Written and delivered by Janice Gorodzinsky for Sisterhood Shabbat
While many shudder at the thought of writing and giving a sermon, I want to tell you that it can be an amazing opportunity for self-directed learning. In the past weeks since confirming the participants for our annual Sisterhood Shabbat service, I have been focused (and at times totally pre-occupied) on the task of composing a sermon for this important gathering of the women of Congregation or Shalom and their families.
The first challenge was to choose a topic. Rabbi Clark had fortunately agreed to address the concepts presented in this week’s Parshah in her D’Var Torah, leaving me with the freedom to speak about almost any area of Jewish life holding meaning for our Sisterhood members. Dipping into the deep well of issues that face contemporary Jewish women, the possibilities were endless. As I considered the diverse membership of our congregation, it became so difficult to find a common denominator…..a topic that would resonate with everyone present this morning.
I tried to imagine who would be in attendance. Since I have belonged to Or Shalom since 1979, I can close my eyes, visualize members sitting in their seats, the composition of each section. Sadly, over the years, some seats have been left vacant, those where, for example, Haim and Muriel Ginsberg sat, or the row that was filled with the founding members of Sisterhood, the women who went to the hairdresser every Friday and came to shul every Saturday. Fortunately their seats are now filled with new faces and families but I must accept, many of those present today, may not know anything about the important role Haim and Muriel, for example, played in the growth of Or Shalom.
Each of us has a story and a reason to be here this morning. Whether it is due to a sense of obligation to attend because Rachelle Chodirker phoned and offered you an honour, or because she called for the first time and it feels great, or your child is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and you’ve been coming every week. Maybe you got back from Florida just before Pesach and this is a good opportunity to connect with friends. What matters is that we are all here.
Some of you, like the Chernicks, Marcus’ and Zaifmans, have been at Or Shalom since you were children. Others came in the exodus from Montreal, others joined to secure a Jewish education for their children. Maybe you sought out a place to explore your Jewish self as an adult. Some came to say Kaddish and stayed, others joined because we have a wonderful Rabbi. Whatever brought you here, led to the creation of relationships.
Deepening those relationships and fostering Jewish connectedness will sustain our congregation and help us survive in the face of challenging economics and shifting demographics. And that’s my topic …..deepening relationships and building meaningful connections at Or Shalom.
There are many who have raised their children at the Day School, celebrated B’Nai Mitzvah, danced at weddings and attended baby namings here at Or Shalom. For those of you who came because of your children but are now empty-nesters, there is the great challenge to recognize the changes within your own life and how to rebuild connections to the congregation that will now feed your soul. It is not necessarily the synagogue community that has changed. Our life experiences have changed us and the challenge is to find ways to connect with the spiritual, emotional and social needs of our members in order to create a congregational family again.
Dr. Ron Wolfson recently wrote a book, Relational Judaism, Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. He starts off by saying, “People will come to synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federations, and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they will stay for relationships.” If, we as a congregation create programs without considering how the program will create deeper connections to each other, then we will miss the boat. People will come in for the program, leave having said, ‘that was nice’ and find no lasting impact. He puts his cards on the table and says, “It’s not about programs. It’s not about marketing. It’s not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps. It’s not even about institutions. It’s about relationships.” Through relationships the Jewish community has thrived and through relationships the Jewish community will survive in the future.
Ellen Rosen will tell you that the Or Shalom musical she produced last year exceeded her expectations for community-building. Many people participated in the musical when their previous involvement in synagogue activities had been minimal or even non-existent. The relationships that developed among the cast and crew are long-lasting and will always be remembered. Yes, it was a very successful program and raised funds for our synagogue but the true measure of its success were the obvious connections so many people made while working on this joint venture.
Recently, Shelley Kaufman spear-headed a very enjoyable Purim celebration, involving a wide cross-section of the congregation. Her cohort is very, very busy with parenting and careers but she had a way of involving members that made them feel included and valued. There were no guilt trips, just the promise of a deep sense of satisfaction in organizing such a positive experience for children of all ages.
Anyone involved with the Rabbi in the community garden project will tell you that the experience of planting, weeding and gathering the food that was produced last season was truly a relationship-building project, a metaphor for the hard work of keeping something living healthy and productive.
We see from demographic studies that there is a great decline of participation in and affiliation with Jewish institutions and synagogues. Some say that it is because of the recent economic crisis and believe that “when the economy improves, campaigns will be more successful, and membership levels will come back.” But Ron Wolfson suggests that no, there are too many other factors involved: “lower birthrates, longer young adulthood, delayed marriage, intermarriage, and an exodus of aging baby boomers from synagogues and other groups.” Other studies confirm this. But they suggest that instead of calling those who are not connected to a synagogue, unaffiliated, they should be called, uninspired. And where is the inspiration? It comes from each of us.
When someone comes to Or Shalom for the first time or the first time in a long time, we need to make them feel welcomed and embraced. It’s not easy to walk into a new place not knowing anyone and if a connection is not made immediately, they will have just come for a service or program and will see no reason to return. It is up to every single one of us to reach out to those who walk through the doors. And if you’re not sure if someone has been here before or not, it’s better to overwelcome than not welcome at all.
While it is amazing to see everyone here this morning, it’s hard to develop deep meaningful relationship with everyone at one time. The relationships need to be built one at a time and should be developed in a deep rich manner. While we call ourselves a congregational family, we need to know each other’s stories and what inspires one another. We need to know the challenges that members face and how we can help.
A few months ago, it was necessary for the Rabbi and the Ritual Committee to address the ever-growing list of names on our Misha Berach list. What does this say about our congregation? The obvious answer is that a lot of our members need our prayers. As well, it says that our members care about those facing illness and want to be supportive. Reaching out to those on the Misha Berach list is an act of caring that is so simple and easy to demonstrate. A card, a phone message left on voice mail, a quick ‘thinking of you,’ e-mail reminds families that they are not forgotten.
Wolfson explains in his book, ‘building caring relationships is about creating the next steps of a Jewish journey. We have to ask, ‘how do our programs, events, and moments together grow our Judaism through connections to self, to family, to friends, to Jewish expression, to community, to Jewish peoplehood, to Israel, to the world, and to God?’ These statements help us measure our connection to Jewish identity. It’s not measured by how many services or programs or classes we attend. Not by how we celebrate Shabbat. Rather, it is measured through the relationships we develop.’
We join a community or engage in a relationship with a community because we want to feel connected. We want to feel valued. No one wants to walk into the sanctuary, the auditorium or an event, and not feel connected to the people around them. We can be in a room with three hundred people like on Yom Kippur and feel very alone if no connections are made. It is my hope that no one here today leaves feeling like they were alone in this room with all of us here. If you are here for the first time, or the first time in a long time, or you don’t know anyone, please, come up and say hello to Rabbi Clark and the other participants in the Shabbat service.
Sisterhood Shabbat is an opportunity to come forward and meet the women who work so hard behind the scenes to create environments that facilitate people coming together, making connections and feeling part of something that is very, very, Jewish.
Women’s League Sisterhood struggles to survive because many women question belonging to what appears to have become a traditional and outdated organization. Stop for a minute and think about Shabbat Kiddushim and how schmoozing and snacking has provided a context for you to visit with your friends and enjoy watching your children run freely in a safe space. Where else can they have as many cookies as they want? Where in this city can you find authentic holiday treats like honey cake, latkes and hamentashen?
But like the community garden, it’s not about the food……it is about the relationships that develop and deepen…. first of all, among the Sisterhood members while we make the food and then the relationships that develop as people share the Shabbat meals we prepare. On the surface, a meal prepared and delivered by Sisterhood members on the Ezra Committee to a family dealing with illness is a simple and helpful gesture. When we send food to a couple with a new baby, we are also delivering practical support. But the underlying message is that these people are valued by the congregation and that we willingly perform the mitzvah of Bikor Cholim when we visit and provide assistance.    
We need to explore more about this idea of Relational Judaism. We need to look at it through the lens of tzedakah and caring for those in our community; how relationships help us through the time of personal challenges; how we are a part of a community on the genetic level; and how we as a community share in each other’s life and memory.
We as a congregation do not exist without the deeper relationships that are created between one another. Otherwise, all we are is bricks, mortar and land. Instead, we are a family who cares for one another in all times. We are a family who loves one another. Remember, the purpose of Judaism and of all relationships is to love, find meaning and understanding, find our purpose in living, belong to community, and find blessings of gratitude and satisfaction.
​May we at Or Shalom continue to find ways of deepening our relationships with one another, finding our purpose in being a part of a community and family, and then acknowledging our many blessings. This is the next part of our journey together, building lasting, loving and living relationships for today and for our future.
Susan Hall and I, as co-presidents, want to thank everyone for participating in this annual celebration of Women’s League Sisterhood and hope that being here today reinforces a sense of connection that will bring you back again soon.  
Shabbat Shalom
 
Reference: Wolfson, Ronald, Relational Judaism-Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community. Jewishlights Publishers

Authorization for Sale of Chametz

Posted March 20th, 2015 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Return this completed form to Rabbi Clark before or after Sunday morning minyan on March 22 or March 29, or return it to the office. The deadline for selling chametz is Thursday, April 2 at 10:00 am. You do not need to have finished cleaning prior to arranging for the sale.
Please consider making a donation in appreciation of this transaction. All proceeds will go to the Special Events Fund to help cover the costs of celebrating holidays at Or Shalom.
Chag Kasher v’Sameach!
5775 Chametz Authorization

Tikkun Olam hits the road, helps others

Posted January 24th, 2013 by Or Shalom London with No Comments

In a recent Torah portion, VaEra, the Egyptians are struck by a plague of frogs. Aaron causes frogs to cover the land of Egypt, and then Pharaoh’s magicians, to prove their power, add to the problem by bringing up more frogs from the waters. Eventually, the frogs die, “and they piled them up in heaps, until the land stank” (Ex. 8:10). Imagine how hard it must have been to get around Egypt, with all those frogs everywhere.

It’s been hard to get around London the last few weeks too. The snow is pretty, but the sidewalks are slick, and the snow cleared from the streets is often piled up at the corners exactly where the sidewalk slopes so that it is supposed to be accessible to people in wheelchairs. Londoners who don’t drive or who need wheelchairs, canes or walkers to get around are facing some challenges this winter.

Or Shalom can help with that. The Tikkun Olam group is happy to give you a ride to shul, an appointment or the grocery store. To arrange a ride, contact Judy Silver at 519-858-9272 or judy.silver@gmail.com.

The Ezra Committee provides meals to people who are unwell or newly home from the hospital. The meals are tasty. If you would like one or you know of someone who would benefit from this care, please call Naomi Stoffman at 519-858-0711.

Unlike the Egyptians whose stubbornness kept adding to their problems, we can take care of each other in this winter weather.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Catharine Clark

PS – One of the activities you should get a ride to is our Kabbalat Shabbat service on February 15th. Aviva Chernick, star of the December AVIVA concert at Or Shalom, will be our guest shliach tzibbur. Using fresh and familiar melodies, Aviva will guide us in music that awakens our souls to the divine. See you there!

Shalom Aleichem and Shabbat

Posted January 14th, 2013 by Or Shalom London with No Comments

You wouldn’t know it, even if you went into almost every shul, dining room or kitchen in the world where Jews are having Shabbat dinner, but Shalom Aleichem, the song sung at the start of Shabbat dinner, is a very controversial poem and has been for centuries. It’s even controversial for lots of different reasons.

I’ll mention here just one point of dispute. The Vilna Gaon, the foremost 18th-century Talmudist, refused to sing it. You see, the piyyut asks angels to bless us with peace. He objected on the grounds that only God, not angels, has the ability to bless us. Nonetheless, Shalom Aleichem is immensely popular today. Sing it to kick-off your next Shabbat dinner and enjoy the blessings, angelic or divine!

Sing it: Yedid Nefesh

Posted December 26th, 2012 by Or Shalom London with No Comments

Yedid Nefesh is a 16th-century piyyut popularized by the Kabbalists of Safed. “Yedid Nefesh” translates as “Soul Mate.” The song is a love song, expressing a longing to bind one’s soul to God. In it, we are portrayed as lovesick for God. We sing it to begin the Kabbalat Shabbat service. It’s the first song the Sabbath bride hears when we welcome her into shul at the beginning of Shabbat.

Yedid Nefesh is also sung at seudah slishit, the third meal of Shabbat, eaten between minchah and ma’ariv on Shabbat late afternoon/early evening. At that time, it’s a song that says goodbye to the Sabbath bride until we see her again next week. The use of Yedid Nefesh to both begin and end Shabbat, escort the Sabbath bride in and say farewell until next week, is a reminder of how comforting repetition can be for all of us, especially the lovesick.