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teachings from our rabbi

NEWS AND VIEWS FROM RABBI MICAH STREIFFER


 

Read below for sermons, writings, and messages from our rabbi. Feel free to email  Rabbi Streiffer with thoughts or comments!

 

 

Recent Posts:

 

What I Learned About Judaism From Children's Television

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

When my kids were little, they loved the TV cartoon Phineas and Ferb. It was about two boys who were bored during summer vacation, so they filled the time by building outlandish things, such as the tallest skyscraper in the world, a robot to do their homework, a NASCAR remote control, and a lawn gnome beach party of terror. You name it, Phineas and Ferb built it! Without the laws of physics as a barrier, the writers let their imagination be their guide toward creating amazing things (and I’m not even addressing the “secret agent platypus” storyline of the show). You’ll just have to watch it for yourself. Man, I miss that show….

What was cool about Phineas and Ferb was that the characters were always learning. Often, during one of their schemes, something would go wrong and the two would have to reassess and go in a different direction. In that sense, they embodied the deeply held Jewish belief that the more we learn, the more capable we are.

When we learn, we take ownership over the subject we are learning about. We leave algebra class with a greater sense of ownership of the laws of mathematics than we entered with, as well as a sense of how to use them and how they apply to our lives. Then, when we use mathematical principles in everyday life, we are putting into practice what we learned theoretically in the classroom.

Learning about Judaism is the same. The more we delve into the history, beliefs, and practices of the Jewish people, the more they belong to us. By exploring the meanings of the prayers, or the literature of the Holocaust, or the laws of Shabbat, we give ourselves permission for those things to become part of ourselves. Then, like Phineas and Ferb, we can use them to build things, such as a spiritual life, a supportive community, and a sense of belonging to something larger.

In the end, learning is so important in Judaism because it is a building block of creativity and ownership. As Reform Jews, it is our right and our responsibility to learn and think deeply about our Jewish practice so that we can build a Jewish life that is meaningful to us as individuals. What does your Shabbat practice look like? How do you keep kosher? What is your relationship with prayer and ritual? These decisions are different for each of us, and we are best equipped to make them when we are engaged in regular Jewish learning.

This month we have a number of opportunities for Jewish learning of different types:

  • Saturday, November 10 at 9am: Rabbi Yael Karrie joins us from Israel
  • Sunday, November 11 at 7pm: Jack Cahan Memorial Lecture
  • Wednesday, November 14, 21, 28 at 6pm: A Walk Through the Prayerbook with Rabbi Streiffer

Please come out and join us for some or all of these programs. We may not build a roller coaster to the moon, but we’ll certainly build knowledge and important connections between ourselves, others, and Jewish tradition.

L’shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Giving Thanks

Rabbi Micah Steiffer

When I lived in the States, I used to joke that Thanksgiving was my favourite Jewish holiday. After all, it has almost all the elements of a great Jewish celebration (food, family, community) plus football to boot! In Canada, for a variety of reasons, Thanksgiving is a somewhat lesser celebrated holiday in the Jewish community. And yet, many of us will gather around tables to celebrate with people we love this weekend.

Thanksgiving may not be a Jewish holiday, but thankfulness is a deeply Jewish value. In fact, it is traditional to start each day, even before getting out of bed, with the words “Modeh ani l’fanecha – God, I am thankful to you.” The act of saying blessings over food and drink, the tradition of praying three times a day, even the laws of kashrut – all of these are acts of mindful thanksgiving designed to imbue in us a sense of gratitude for the world and its blessings.

When I came to Kol Ami seven years ago, I was introduced to a new tradition: pausing for a moment of silence before the Modim prayer during the service. At first the tradition was foreign and jarring to me (“Why do we need TWO moments of silence?”) but over the years I have come to really appreciate its purpose. We live fast paced lives, running from one place to the next, trying to accomplish and build and get things done. It is not often that we take time simply to stop; to appreciate; to take stock and give thanks. That is the power of the moment of silence reflection. It is the power of the Thanksgiving holiday as well – a sanctuary of calm in the midst of the rushing river of life. I can think of no more Jewish a value than that one.

Here’s a fun fact: In Hebrew, the word hodu means both “thanks” and “turkey.” So as we enter into October, I wish you and your loved ones a Yom Hodu Sameach – a happy day of eating good food and giving thanks.

L’shalom,

 

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Wood Choppers and Water Drawers

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

If you show up at camp, you get put to work.

I am writing this message just back from my annual week at Camp George, which is our regional Reform Jewish summer camp – one of almost 20 camps around North America that belong to the Union for Reform Judaism. Camp George is a place where kids go for the summer to swim, ski, climb, cook, sing, pray, and love being Jewish. I’ve watched my own kids go there, year after year, and come back taller, tanner, stronger, more independent, and with their brains full of Jewish songs and ideas.

As a rabbi, it is my privilege (and my children’s chagrin) to spend a week each summer at camp as a member of the “Faculty.” It’s a good opportunity to connect with kids from the congregation in a very different setting, and to bring together Judaism and the great outdoors. (Camp George just might be one of the most beautiful places on earth). Usually our job as faculty is leading services and running Jewish programming for the campers. But, as I wrote above, if you show up at camp, you get put to work.

This year, when the running water went out, it was “all hands-on deck” – passing out bottles of water, making sure campers understood the limitations of the septic tank. These are NOT things that rabbinical school trained me for. But the highlight was Thursday morning when six faculty members were asked to pile into cars and drive an hour to Gravenhurst to pick up 147 giant jugs of drinking water. That was when I was reminded of a passage from the Torah portion called Nitzavim:

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“You stand today, all of you, before the Eternal (Deuteronomy 29:9-10)God – men, women, and children – from wood chopper to water drawer.”

The meaning of this passage always kind of eluded me. What do wood choppers and water drawers have to do with covenant? But as I drove back to camp with 20 jugs (50 lbs each!) rolling around in the back of my car, I realized: It’s about the ways that we support one another, and about working together when the times get tough. It’s about community.

 

Community sits at the centre of Jewish life. As we enter September and begin a new Jewish year, we are growing and changing as a community. We are undertaking the project of bringing together two congregations, forming something new that will represent the best of what we all bring. This is both exciting and daunting. There will be new faces, new melodies, and new locations. I encourage us all to jump in with an open mind and an open heart – to recognize that during this time of transition we will thrive most if we have “all hands on deck.” The more we are all willing to think outside the box, to reach out to one another, and to share our talents and experiences, the stronger our community will be going forward.

That’s what I learned during my brief stint as a water drawer at Camp George. (Maybe next year they’ll let me chop down a tree.)

I am looking forward to spending this holiday season with each one of you. Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year.

L’shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

 

Jewish Every Day

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Jewish Every Day

 

As an aspiring Canadian, I’ve learned that weather is really important. We talk about it. Complain about it. Worry about it. It determines our activities: If you want to go sledding you need enough snow; it’s hard to skate when the temperature is above freezing.

 

That’s why we look forward to this time of year when the sun shines, the weather is warm, and the outdoors beckon. When I first moved here, I was amazed by Toronto’s Cottage Culture: the fact that so many people skip town on weekends and find places to enjoy the great outdoors. Even for those of us who don’t have cottages, there are festivals, concerts, and ample opportunities to enjoy being outside while still in the city. You have to enjoy it while you’ve got it!

 

In some ways, therefore, synagogue life slows down a bit in the summer, since so many people are out of town and there are so many other options. But Judaism doesn’t slow down; Judaism is with us every day.

 

Our Jewish tradition teaches us to spend each day cultivating a sense of appreciation, a sense that the world around us is a gift. When we see a thing of natural beauty, we are traditionally supposed to say a blessing:

 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכָּֽכָה לּוֹ בְּעוֹלָמוֹ.

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, sheh-kachah lo b’olamo.

Blessed are you, Eternal God, whose world contains such a thing!

 

It is a statement of awe and thankfulness, an attempt to see the world as a blessing, and an act of mindfulness – of being in the moment.

 

This summer we will experience many beautiful things: cool breezes, pretty sunsets, and moments of connection with friends and family. May we remember that these are not only nice moments; they are holy moments. Whether or not we say a blessing, our Jewish sense of appreciation can be with us all the time.

 

Meanwhile, synagogue life continues here at Kol Ami. Over the summer, Shabbat morning Torah Study and services continue (with a slightly altered schedule). Friday night services will be held four times (July 2 and 20, August 10 and 24) in people’s homes, followed by a potluck dinner. And, of course, we can’t live without Sushi & Study.

 

I look forward to seeing you in the coming weeks, or to catching up about our travels when fall hits. Have a wonderful summer.

 

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Together

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Together

“The whole world is one town.”

(Yiddish proverb)

Each year in late winter (around the time we’d all like to scatter to warmer climates) we read a Torah portion about the importance of togetherness:

וַיַקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶ֗ה אֶֽת־כָל־עֲדַ֛ת בְנֵ֥י יִשְרָאֵ֖ל

Vayak’hel Moshe et kol adat v’nei Yisrael.

Moses brought together the people of Israel…(Exodus 35:1)

These are the opening words of the Torah portion called Vayak’hel, in which Moses speaks about the importance of Shabbat and about how to build our sanctuary. The Hebrew word vayak’hel (וַיַקְהֵ֣ל) comes from a root that means “gathering” or “congregation.” (The word kehilah, community, comes from the same root.) It is noteworthy that when Moses goes about teaching our people about these most important Jewish practices, he וַיַקְהֵ֣ל - he brings us together to forge us into a congregation.

This is, of course, one of the most basic lessons of Judaism: our Jewish lives – and indeed, our lives in general – are richer when they are lived together.

This year, we have some Vayak’hel to do ourselves, as we will be undertaking the project of welcoming the members of Neshamah and forging a single, stronger community from the identities, practices, and traditions of our two congregations.

There is much that Kol Ami brings to this venture. As you know, we are an active, learned, intimate community whose members support one another throughout the year. We have an incredible menu of services, programs, and learning – at a very high level – yet we still manage to be what some have termed the “Cheersof synagogues: the place where everybody knows your name.[1] Neshamah also brings a great deal: a strong commitment to youth education, willingness to think outside of traditional boxes, a spirit of ritual creativity. (Wait until you experience “Visual T’filah!”) Our task will be to maintain and celebrate those values, strengths, and experiences that are core to our congregational life, while opening ourselves up to the project of building something together.

This is an exciting moment in our congregational life! The road will not be without bumps – some of what we do over the next year will feel new; there will be experimentation; there will be trials and errors. This is all part of the process of forging our path ahead. As a congregation, I hope we can commit to two things: First is a commitment to enter into this project with excitement and curiosity, with faith in the power of what people can build when they come together. Second is a commitment to Hachnasat Orchim – the Jewish value of hospitality. There will be new faces at shul in the coming months. Please reach out and welcome our newest members when you see them. Please try to think of yourself as a host, welcoming new family members into your home.

Our first opportunity to be hosts will be at Rock Shabbat in the Park on Friday, June 15 at 6:30. For the third year in a row, we will gather at the outdoor amphitheatre of the North Thornhill Community Centre. This year, we will be inviting the members of Neshamah to celebrate with us as well. Please mark your calendar to come sing, pray, eat, and Vayak’hel – bring together our whole community!

Kol Ami means “Voice of My People.” This has always been a congregation where every voice matters. Thank you for lending your voice to this extraordinary community. I am looking forward to exciting times ahead!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

[1] Can you believe the rabbi just compared our synagogue to a bar??

 

A Part of Something Larger

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

  “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

(African Proverb)

Judaism is a team sport. That’s why we count a minyan of ten people when we are gathering for services, or a mezuman of three when we say the blessing after the meal. It’s not that you can’t pray or eat alone – but there is a special sanctity to doing these things together. In fact, the Mishnah even teaches that when people gather in study or prayer, God’s presence dwells among them. We are so powerful that just by being together, we invite God into the world!

The communities we form are very important in our Jewish lives. It is interesting to think of our Jewish ties as a series of concentric circles:

We are part of Jewish families that come in all shapes and sizes. Some gather regularly for holidays and family meals. Most now include non-Jewish members.

We are part of a congregation that gathers regularly to eat, pray, and study. A congregation is committed to educating the next generation AND to building a meaningful Jewish life for this generation.

We are part of Toronto Jewry, one of the largest and most active communities in the world, which boasts a level of learning, culture, and religious activity unmatched in most cities.

We are part of the Reform Movement – the largest religious Jewish movement in the world today. Imagine nine hundred congregations all over North America that share our values of inclusiveness, informed choices, and balancing of tradition with modernity!

We are part of K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish people, who live all around the world and lead lives as different from one another as can be, yet see ourselves as part of a greater whole.

To be Jewish is to be part of something larger, actually, many somethings larger. This month, we have several opportunities to celebrate the connections and communities that we form:

On Saturday, May 5, at Torah Study (9 am), we welcome Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs has been instrumental in setting the agenda of inclusiveness and open tent in Reform Judaism across North America.

On Friday night, May 11 (6:30 pm), we celebrate Teacher Appreciation at Rock Shabbat. It is a chance to recognize the teachers who are helping educate our next generation and making our community stronger.

On Wednesday, May 16 (6 pm), our new Challah Club is a chance to be together and schmooze, while making challah dough to take home!

On Saturday night, May 19 (7:30 pm), we celebrate Confirmation, honouring those students whose commitment to Jewish life and to our congregation has kept them active and involved all the way through the end of Grade 10.

Of course, there are plenty of other events going on this month. See the Voice for more details. As always, I feel fortunate to be part of such a busy and active congregation. More importantly, I feel lucky to be part of a strong community.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Under the Chuppah

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

“The voice of joy and the voice of gladness. The voices of feasting and singing”
(From the wedding liturgy)

The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 48:9) teaches that the tent of Abraham and Sarah was open on all sides so that the patriarch and matriarch could rush out to greet people and welcome them in. This is a symbol for hospitality, welcome, and inclusiveness in Judaism.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Reform Movement, has taught that when we open our tent, when we make an effort to welcome people into Jewish life, we provide “an ongoing invitation to be part of community—and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process.” In other words, it is nice to be welcoming – it is an expression of our values. And at the same time, it is good for the Jewish people, in that we bring people in, instead of pushing them away.

That welcome, that inclusiveness, is the symbolism of the open tent. And interestingly enough, there is a second open tent in Jewish life: the chuppah.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/66/71/65/667165ce3924adfa1924088430346b6c.jpgThe Jewish marriage canopy is a representation of the home that a couple is creating together. It is also reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah’s tent. This is true physically, in that it has no walls. It is also true symbolically, in that the couple invites their community inside the chuppah (metaphorically speaking, since most chuppot aren't that big) to celebrate, to be part of the life that they are building together.

When a couple chooses to stand under a chuppah, it is a powerful symbol for building a life based on Jewish values and traditions. And it presents to the community an opportunity to respond by opening its tent, by being welcoming and inclusive.

On Yom Kippur morning, I stood before you and announced a significant shift in my practice: that I would begin officiating at Jewish weddings that involve a non-Jewish partner. At that time, there was an outpouring from members of the congregation – of support, questions, concerns, and excitement. It has been clear that our community is deeply engaged in this issue, that it matters to us on a number of levels: personally and philosophically, as a family matter and as a matter of Jewish identity.

Since that time, I have performed two such weddings. In the time leading up to these weddings I worked closely with the couples to engage in Jewish learning and to have important conversations about religious life. We examined the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people, and the ways that they apply in modern life - questions that we as Jews are always meant to be exploring. It has been, for me, an extraordinary experience to delve deeply into questions of meaning, tradition, and commitment with thoughtful people who are seeking to build lives together. This is the true privilege of being a rabbi – to be invited into people’s lives at significant and important moments. I believe that by engaging in these conversations and welcoming these families, we are furthering the mission of our congregation: “We strive to help people of all ages and backgrounds find joy, meaning and support through Judaism.”

In other words, to use the language of the midrash, we are opening our tent.

As always, I welcome your questions and feedback. Please know that my door is always open.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

What I Learned About Pesach from Grade 10 Geometry

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

My high school geometry teacher, Mr. Antoine, was a real character. Picture a tall African American man with a vaguely Cajun accent who wore alligator-skin boots, a cowboy hat, and a large, silver belt buckle.  I can still remember him, in his own unique way, explaining the plotting of points on a graph. “There are two foci,” he would say while tapping the ellipse drawn on the blackboard.

I have to admit geometry wasn't my forte (though it wasn’t as bad as calculus, which is what ultimately drove me to become a rabbi). And yet, the idea of “two foci” came back to me as I was considering the meaning of Pesach, the holiday we will celebrate at the end of this month. According to the dictionary, a “focus” is the “centre of interest or activity.” In geometry, the foci of the ellipse can be used to find its centre point using the equation c2 = a2 - b2 where c is the distance from the centre to the focus (and now my brain hurts again). In Judaism, we can distill the focus of a celebration or holiday by seeking to understand what that holiday makes us think about and the emotions or memories it raises in us.

It turns out that Pesach, like an ellipse, has two foci. On the one hand, Pesach is a celebration of freedom. Around the Seder table, we tell the story of the Exodus and give thanks for that ancient moment (whether real or mythological) in which we were set free and put on the path toward becoming Jews. None of us were there when our ancestors walked through the Red Sea (after all, it probably didn't even really happen), but that story has shaped us in innumerable ways and continues to do so.

At the same time, Pesach is a celebration of bounty, the Spring harvest festival. At this time of year, Israelite farmers would harvest their crops and watch their flocks giving birth, and they would take an accounting and give thanks for this year’s yield. Similarly, we have the opportunity at Pesach time to take an accounting of our bounty: What are we proud of? What did we accomplish? What do we have to be thankful for here and now? Freedom and bounty; past and present; what we have been given, and what we are choosing to become. These are the two “foci” of Pesach, and truly of all of Judaism.

As Jews, we are always looking backward and ahead. We are always aware of the forces of history, mythology, literature and thought that have shaped us, and at the same time of our immense capacity to grow and learn and accomplish.  These two basic truths guide our Jewish lives not only at Pesach but all year long and throughout our lives: to be a Jew is to be part of an ancient tradition, to be the recipient of wisdom and tradition that have been passed down through the generations and that are worthy of our continued attention and love. It is also to know that past generations do not define us, that we are defined by our own actions, our own blessings, the goodness and generosity and learning and Tikkun (repair) that we bring into the world. That is what sits at the centre of Judaism, and if you know your foci, you can find your centre: c2 = a2 - b2.

Thanks, Mr. Antoine.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Live a Little

Rabbi Streiffer

Live a Little

Why so serious all the time??

  • On the High Holy Days, we focus our time and energy on repentance, sin, and setting things right.
  •  On Pesach, it’s freedom and slavery - and their very real implications in our history and in our world today.
  •  On Shavuot, we are thankful for Torah, and for the teaching, instruction, and morality that it represents.
  • And on Shabbat we dig into the serious business of rest and mindfulness.

Judaism is serious business: making meaning, building a spiritual life, and repairing the world, which are no small tasks. But Judaism is not only serious, it is also about enjoying life. In contrast to some other religious traditions that essentially teach that this world is an anteroom to the afterlife and that our task is to suffer through this life to get to the next one, Judaism puts the focus on this world, on this life; it teaches that we should enjoy life.

The book of Ecclesiastes says: “There is no better for a person than to eat and drink and enjoy his/her work. For this, too, comes from God” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

The Jerusalem Talmud, in response to those who would vow to forbid themselves enjoyable things out of devotion to God, asks incredulously, “Is it not enough what the Torah has forbidden you, that you wish to forbid yourself more things??” (Nedarim 9:1)

Indeed, Judaism is both about serious things and about enjoying life. The High Holy Days are not only about repentance but about community. Pesach is about freedom, but also about really good food. On Shavuot, we punctuate our discussion of Torah and morality with cheesecake and blintzes. One of the primary mitzvot of Shabbat is Oneg – enjoying or delighting in the day.

Purim is the holiday of enjoyment par excellence! Here is a day of silliness, enjoyment, fun and dessert, where it is encouraged to make a fool of yourself and it is a mitzvah to drink (within reason)! When we come together on Purim – to hear the Megillah and to celebrate – we take part in what is perhaps the most basic and most important Jewish activity: living.

Our Purim celebration, “New Queen on the Block,” features the music of the 80s and 90s. We will gather the evening of February 28 at 6:00 pm for a megillah reading, spiel, and a NEW, IMPROVED carnival. Special addition this year is Haman’s Hideaway with drinks, games, and fun for the adult set. It all promises to be a good time! I’m looking forward to celebrating with you.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

O Jerusalem

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.
Psalm 137

The first time I saw Jerusalem, the city looked like it was made of gold.

It was dusk, and I only been in Israel 2 hours. Having arrived at Ben Gurion airport that afternoon as part of a High School study group, I was almost immediately swept away from the airport and onto Israel’s Highway 1 (the highway connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem). I watched from my bus window as flat plains turned to gentle slopes and the road began to wind its way through terraced foothills, ascending (making aliyah, so to speak, since the word literally means “ascending”) toward Jerusalem.

When you sit at Mt. Scopus and look down onto the city at dusk, the light plays off of the stone buildings in such a way that they appear to shimmer like gold. That is what I saw the first time I looked over the city. It is what generations of people have seen as they looked down upon Jerusalem. It is, in fact, the origin of the term “Jerusalem of Gold,” which only became a hit song in 1967 but has been a nickname for the city since at least the first century.

There is an aura about Jerusalem, as though the city is made not of stone but of dreams and memories. It is a city so ancient that it hides secrets that are still being discovered, but it is also the modern, sprawling capital of a thriving state (and maybe someday of two?). And it is holy to half the world’s population. Jerusalem is a “City of Peace” (Jerusalem = Ir Shalom) which sits at the centre of an ancient conflict. And it is, for Jews, both an actual, historical place and a symbol. The place: where our kings reigned and then fell, where our Temple stood and then was razed, and stood again and was again razed, where priests made sacrifices and prophets cried out to God, where freedom fighters fought and civilians lost their lives and paratroopers wept tears onto the stones. And the symbol: for God’s presence, for homeland and sovereignty, for the repair of the world, for the national aspirations of a people, for an end to exile.

The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote these words:

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
and dreams
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.

 

Jerusalem is always in the news, but perhaps especially right now. Last month, a certain president south of the border made headlines by announcing a change in policy – to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Since then, the press has focused largely on the timing of the announcement and its violent aftermath – important topics for sure. Amidst all of that is a larger story, and it is now an opportune time for us to explore what Jerusalem means to us. If you haven’t been, I encourage you to read up on the current events coming out of Israel. The sands are continuing to shift there every day.

As a community, we will gather to learn and talk about Jerusalem in a class I’ll be teaching entitled “If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem.” Please join me three Monday evenings in a row (January 15, 22, and 29 at 7:30 pm) as we explore what Jerusalem means and has meant for Jews throughout our history, delving into the history, symbolism, meaning, and significance of the Holy City.

L’shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Fri, November 16 2018 8 Kislev 5779