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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!

 

 

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Bringing Light to the Darkness

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Brrrrrrrrrrr, it’s getting cold out there!

Part of being Canadian, I’ve learned, is talking about the weather. So let’s talk about the weather.

We’ve reached the time of year when temperatures drop mercilessly, when you have to consider trading in that fall jacket for a real winter coat, and when it’s possible to eat both breakfast and dinner in darkness.

During this cold, dark time of the year, we want to bring light and warmth into the world. We light up our fireplaces and roast our marshmallows, and we celebrate festivals of light. Many religious traditions have some kind of festival of light during this time of year. Even as Jews are lighting up our chanukiyot and putting them in the windows, our Christian and Hindu neighbours have similar traditions. Clearly, it is a basic human instinct to want to light up a dark world.

For many, the darkness of the season is also a reminder that our world can sometimes be a metaphorically dark place as well: poverty and homelessness; war and hatred. Judaism teaches us that we have a responsibility to do Tikkun– to try to repair what is broken.

This year, we have two opportunities as a congregation to bring light to a dark world – one literal and one metaphorical.

On Friday, December 15, the Shabbat during Chanukah, we will gather at 6:30 pm for our annual Night of a Thousand Candles. It is an amazing evening - We’ll join in a Rock and Roll Shabbat/Chanukah service. And we invite everyone to bring their own menorah and candles as we illumine our sanctuary together!

A few days later, on Wednesday, December 20, Kol Ami will once again be hosting Out of the Cold. On this night, we partner with Temple Har Zion to provide a warm meal and shelter for dozens of homeless guests. It is an incredible mitzvah. Please contact the office if you can cook or be involved.

It’s getting cold and dark out there. Let’s work together to create warmth and light. A happy Chanukah to all.

L’shalom,

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

People of the Book

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Jews are often referred to as People of the Book.

The term was actually given to us in the Islamic world. The Quran refers to both Jews and Christians – monotheistic religions based around Scripture – as “people of the book,” and for this reason they were considered protected minorities in Muslim society. Amongst Jews the term stuck, perhaps because we identify so deeply as a people with books and all that they represent.

What does it mean to be people of the book? It means that we make meaning by writing and by reading. The Mishnah (Peah 1:1) says, “Talmud Torah k’negged kulam – Study of Torah is equal to all of the mitzvot.” Indeed, we know that study and literacy have long been central to Jewish life. In fact, when a child becomes an adult – when he or she stands on the bima for the first time as Bar/Bat Mitzvah - one of the first things we do is hand them a Torah scroll (the most important book we have) and invite them to carry it into the congregation. It is through books that we receive traditions that have been passed down to us through many generations; and it is through books that we pass those generations on to the next generation.

We are fortunate this month to have two very special new books being launched at Kol Ami. First, on November 3 during Friday night services, we will host the launch of Six Lost Years, the story of Amek Adler’s experiences during the Shoah. Amek, who passed away last year, was a long-time member of Kol Ami and a respected Holocaust educator. We are so grateful that his daughter, our member Rose A. Weinberg, will speak that evening about her father’s experiences and about his legacy.

The following weekend – Saturday, November 11 in the evening – we are privileged to host Ellin Bessner, a veteran journalist whose book Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II tells the “untold stories of how and why Canada’s Jewish community sent 17,000 men and women in uniform to defeat Hitler and the Axis in the Second World War.” This extraordinary lecture will be held in memory of our own Jack Cahan, himself a veteran of Canada’s Armed Forces and a passionate public speaker.

Two books, many stories. Please come and join us for these special events as we celebrate books, memory, and legacy.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Hineini: Celebrating Jewish Choices

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Following is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning, 5778 (2017). It outlines my decision to begin officiating at weddings that include a non-Jewish partner.


 

In ancient times, long before they were synagogues or rabbis or prayerbooks, there was the shofar.

In those days, the shofar was sounded outdoors, in the Temple courtyard at the centre of Jerusalem. And it was meant to call the people to be present. When there was threat of war, the shofar was sounded and the people would come together to serve their nation. At festival times, it called them to gather at the Temple and celebrate. And at the New Year, it summoned them to be present because the holiest day of the year was approaching.

The High Holy Days are a time when we are called upon to be present – both physically be spiritually. The shofar calls us to mindful awareness. And the Torah portions for the High Holy Days reflect this idea as well.  Last week on Rosh Hashanah, we read the Akeida - the very challenging story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son. Three times during that passage the patriarch’s name is called – once by God, once by Isaac, and once by an angel. And each time, Abraham answers “Hineini.”

The word Hineini literally means “Here I am.” But it signifies much more than a physical location. It is, according to Rabbi Gershom Barnard, a statement of “openness and responsiveness” to the other.[1] When Abraham says Hineini - to his son, to God, to anybody - he is saying “I am here with you and here for you.” He is opting into a relationship.

The Torah portion for this morning also speaks to that act of opting into relationship – this time on a communal level. In this parashah, our people are standing all together in the wilderness, and Moses says to them:

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem.
Today, ALL of you stand before Adonai your God. Men, women and children. Chieftains, wood choppers and water drawers. Even the stranger who lives among us.

And in so doing, he says, by being present today you enter into covenant.

This is a description of our people saying Hineini – entering into a relationship with God and with each other. One of the most powerful things about this parashah is how careful it is to make clear that the covenant includes everybody who is present - regardless of gender, occupation, socioeconomic status. Even regardless of religious or ethnic background, since the ger, the non-Jew is included as well. This is a purposeful choice. It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim - We stand together, everyone whose mother is Jewish.” Or “Atem nitzavim, everyone who keeps kosher and had a Bar Mitzvah.” It doesn’t say, “Atem nitzavim - “Everyone who eats bagels and knows how to swear in Yiddish” (though I’d like to read that Torah). It says that we all stand together - all of us who have chosen to be here.

In order to fully grasp the power of this statement, we have to recognize the fundamental truth that Jewish life is a choice. This has always been true to some extent, but it is especially true in the 21st century. Alan Dershowitz writes that "we are witnessing a significant diminution of the external factors that have traditionally" kept Jews insulated.[2] In past ages, anti-Semitic social exclusion and sometimes even legal requirement made sure that Jews essentially stayed within the Jewish community. But in 2017, there are no outside forces compelling us to affiliate or participate in Judaism. To be sure, we might feel guilt (most of us do have Jewish mothers after all). We might feel family pressure or social pressure. We might feel the weight of history. But at the end of the day, all of us are Jews by choice.

On the one hand, that’s a scary thought. Because it means that all of this is entirely voluntary - any one of us could simply stand up, walk out that door, and never return. And lots of people have. That’s why the Jewish community has been obsessing over this for 20 years - organizing conferences on “Jewish continuity,” and writing articles about the threat of assimilation.

But the other side of that same coin is the recognition that if Jewish life is entirely a choice, that means that millions of us are making that choice every single day.

That is something to celebrate.

Every person in this room represents someone who has chosen to participate in Jewish life. Every member of every synagogue and JCC, every donor to Federation or JNF, represents someone who has opted into Jewish community. And so, by the way, does every candle lit on a Friday night, and every dreidel that is spun, and every Seder plate that is lifted, and every child who is called to the Torah, AND…every couple that stands under a chuppah.

I believe that the role of the Jewish community in the 21st century is to celebrate and nurture Jewish choices - to recognize when individuals are saying Hineini, are saying “Here we are,” and to say Hineini right back to them. And along those lines, I’d like to talk to you about a change that I have decided to make in my rabbinic practice.

Over the course of my time in the rabbinate, I have been approached a number of times by couples who were seeking to be married in a Jewish ritual - who wanted to stand under a chuppah, to say prayers in Hebrew, and to be married by a rabbi – even though one of the partners was not Jewish. Up until now, I have always politely said no to officiating those ceremonies. Starting now, in many circumstances, I plan to say yes.

Saying yes to those weddings comes from a place of wanting to acknowledge – in fact, wanting to celebrate – the couple’s Jewish choice. It comes out of a firm conviction that interfaith families are Jewish families, especially when they are welcomed in and given the tools they need to live Jewish lives. And it comes out of my belief that opening our doors wider, creating a welcoming and inclusive community, is the best way both to nurture Jewish families and to build a Jewish future.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. This idea has been present in Judaism since the very first Jews. The midrash teaches that Abraham and Sarah would keep their tent open on all sides so that they could greet guests and welcome them. They did so because Hachnasat Orchim – welcoming the stranger – is a fundamental Jewish value. But it turns out that it was also a pretty good way to build their tribe. The Torah says that when Abraham and Sarah first arrived in the land of Israel, they already had with them a whole group of people who had been welcomed in, with whom they had shared food and learning and ritual, and who had committed themselves to Jewish life and to the Jewish future.

In other words, the sharing of ritual and learning became an opportunity to foster a longer-term relationship through which people came to say “Hineini,” through which people opted to become part of the community. Of course, in those days people mostly converted to Judaism in order to opt in. And that’s often still the case. But more and more, we are blessed to have individuals who join our synagogues, who marry Jews and raise Jewish children, and who are seeking to be participants in Jewish life, but for whatever reason do not want to become Jewish themselves. I think it’s important to recognize all the ways that those individuals are opting in. Abraham and Sarah’s approach teaches us that by saying yes, by engaging them, and learning with then, we can foster a relationship.

And interestingly enough, what the Patriarchs knew 3000 years ago has been corroborated much more recently by sociological data. Major surveys of the American Jewish population (since we don’t have any similar data yet in Canada), show that there has been an important shift in the habits of intermarried families over the last 25 years. I learned from Dr. Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University that in 1990, only 26% of all intermarried couples that included a Jew were raising their children Jewish[3], but by 2013, the number had risen to 63%[4] - nearly 2/3 of those couples considered themselves to be raising their children as Jews in some way.

That is a startling shift in 23 years – from 26% to 63%. So what changed during the interim? Among other things, the Jewish community shifted significantly in its attitude toward interfaith families. Led largely by the leadership of the Reform movement, congregations started working to become more inclusive, and to shift the discourse from the threat of intermarriage to welcoming interfaith families. And in turn, interfaith families began to opt in - to congregational membership, to religious school, to other forms of participation in Jewish life. In other words, when the community opened its door to them, they said “Hineini.” They said, “Here we are.”

Our congregation has been doing that kind of work as well. For years now, we have been thoughtfully exploring what it means to us to be an inclusive and welcoming community - through study sessions, and sermons, and Scholar in Residence weekends. Our Interfaith Committee, which many of you are aware of, is another very important manifestation of this valuable work. They have been working for a year now to learn about the experience of our members – both interfaith and otherwise. And they will be leading us in a series of discussions about community, ritual, and governance matters starting October 14. (The outcomes of these discussions, by the way, are not in any way determined. That's why we need to have the discussions.)

I'm proud that Kol Ami has put inclusiveness at the centre of its identity. My decision – to officiate at Jewish weddings that include a non-Jewish partner - is one piece of a much larger puzzle, as we work to figure out our congregational approach to these important questions.

So let me tell you some of the specifics of what I’m planning:

First, I’m not making a blanket statement that I’ll officiate every wedding. I’ll have to work with couples individually to determine if what they’re interested in is what I do. I plan to perform a Jewish ceremony, one that includes the basic rituals and symbols of the traditional Jewish wedding, though with some of the language changed a bit to make it appropriate to a mixed couple). And I don’t intend to co-officiate with non-Jewish clergy or to perform weddings that include blended religious symbols or rituals. But even more important than all of that, I want to take a page out of Abraham and Sarah’s playbook – I want to have the ritual be an opportunity for a relationship. Each time I perform a wedding, I will have spent the year before that wedding meeting with the couple, engaging in study, having important conversations - about Judaism and about what it is to build a home together. And at the same time I’ll be asking them to be part of the congregation, encouraging them to attend services and immerse themselves in the community. My hope is that we can transform a 20 minute ceremony into a lifetime of Jewish living and learning.

I also want to make clear that I don’t intend to remove conversion from the table as an option. Becoming Jewish is a beautiful process and a deeply personal decision. I look forward to continuing to work with those who choose that journey into becoming part of Am Yisrael, part of the people of Israel. At the same time, though, I believe that there should be an option for those for are seeking to be part of Jewish life, but for whom conversion is not the right decision.

Now I know that this is a big change. I know there will be questions and concerns, or you may just want to talk to me about how I made this decision and what it means. So I want to invite you to please reach out to me. You can call or email or make an appointment. I look forward to talking to you about it.

I have to share with you how excited I am about this change. I think it reflects the values our congregation; and for me personally, it truly feels like an expression of my beliefs and my rabbinic conscience. I believe that we have the chance to welcome and engage families who might otherwise feel marginalized, and to give them the tools to lead rich Jewish lives as part of a welcoming synagogue. And at the same time, to enrich our congregational life in immeasurable ways by embracing those who choose to stand beside us on this journey. As it says in this morning’s Torah portion: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem. We stand – all of us – as one community.

There is a widely circulated story about Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism who was a professor of homiletics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently his practice was to give a sermon to the class each Monday, and then assign one of the students to give a sermon on the same parashah that Friday. And he was well known for his blistering criticism of every sermon.

So one Monday a particularly creative student copied down Rabbi Kaplan’s sermon word for word, and when Friday came, he simply delivered it back exactly as it had been given. When he finished, Kaplan stood up and thundered, “That was terrible!” To which the student replied, “Rabbi, that was the sermon that you gave on Monday.” And Dr. Kaplan responded, “Yes, but I have grown since then.”

As Jews, we are always growing and evolving. Always reaching towards new understandings, and striving for new answers to ancient questions.

This year, may we recognize that our community also grows in strength, with each new voice that is welcomed into it.

May we, like our ancestors, hear the call of the shofar as an invitation to be present for one another, to reach out to those who are sharing in this Jewish journey with us.

And may we say Hineini – may we say “Here I am” – to each other and to the Jewish future.

Amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.nhs-cba.org/RH2-HereIAm.htm.

[2] Dershowitz, Alan M. The Vanishing American Jew. Page 29.

[3] National Jewish Population Survey, 1990.

[4] Pew Survey of American Jewry, 2013.

From Human Being to Human Doing: A Yom Kippur Sermon About Mindfuness

Micah Streiffer

I’d like to introduce you to the philosophical treatise that has most influenced my life: Calvin & Hobbes. You may laugh, but anyone who’s ever read Calvin & Hobbes knows that it addresses serious questions about existence and values and meaning…all through the eyes of the world’s most precocious 6-year-old and his imaginary tiger friend.

In one of my very favourite strips, the two of them are sitting under a tree and Calvin asks out of the blue, “Why do you suppose we’re here?”

Hobbes answers, “Because we walked here.”

“No, no…” Calvin insists, “I mean here on earth.”

The tiger responds, a little nonplussed, “Because earth can support life.”

“No,” Calvin is frustrated now, “I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?”

Hobbes, looking perplexed at the question, replies, “Because we were born.”

To which Calvin sulks, “Forget it.” And Hobbes snipes back, “I will, thank you.”

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/46/dd/aa/46ddaa802056af2143de2d276e2cafd1.png

 

Yom Kippur is kind of like the Jewish version of sitting under a tree and asking, “Why are we here?” It’s a time when we are supposed to do Cheshbon HaNefesh – to take an accounting of our soul. Dr. Richard Sarason writes that “We are challenged to reevaluate our lives in the light of what really matters: our ultimate values, our relationships, and our limitations.”[1]

It is a peculiar choice to start each year this way. In our secular lives, New Year’s Eve is a time for parties, New Years Day is a time of hangovers, and January 2 we are back to work. But on the Jewish calendar, the year begins with a 10-day period of contemplation and preparation. With asking ourselves hard questions and making plans for what we want to be in the coming year. It you think about it, that’s pretty smart. Before you start anything new, it’s worthwhile to take time out and prepare for it.  Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Yom Kippur is our day to do the work of preparing for the coming year.  But it’s not easy work at all. In fact, it goes against some of our most basic habits. Again, Dr. Sarason writes, “The pace of our lives today is very fast and only getting faster. We are often so preoccupied with the business of daily living that we don’t pause to consider the bigger picture.”

In another Calvin and Hobbes strip, the two of them are sledding downhill at breakneck pace, dodging obstacles and holding on for dear life. Calvin is once again asking philosophical questions: “Do you think people are basically good with a few bad tendencies or basically bad with a few good tendencies?”  But Hobbes keeps interrupting him:

            “Watch out for those trees.”

            “There’s a rock up ahead! Look out!”

            “Not so close to the ledge!”

            “Aughhhh. I can’t look.”

Finally they crash into a tree and go flying. And then Calvin, buried in snow up to his eyeballs, grumbles, “It’s very rude of you to keep changing the subject after every sentence.”

 

That’s what life does to us – it keeps changing the subject after every sentence. We spend our lives busy, running around from one obligation to the next, from one achievement to the next. So much so that we begin to define ourselves by our obligations and our achievements.

The old joke goes that on Kol Nidrei night, the rabbi walked onto the bima, prostrated himself, and cried out, "Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!" Then the Cantor was so moved by this demonstration of piety that he threw himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cried, "Oh, God! Before you, I am nothing!" Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor in the 17th row, prostrated himself in the aisle and cried, "Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!" At which point the cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, "Hey, look who thinks he's nothing."

We’re always trying to prove ourselves.  And unlike the people in the joke, who are trying to prove that they are “nothing,” most of us are busy trying to prove that we are something – that our lives are worthwhile, that we have something to contribute to the world around us.

Dr. Lissa Rankin writes that we ”wear busyness as a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable.”[2]

I don’t know about you, but I have not one, not two, but six to-do lists! Aided by my iPhone’s handy-dandy list app, I keep lists for work, for home, for the grocery store, for personal things, clothes I need to buy, and house repairs. And while that may be my own special brand of neurosis, I don’t think most of us are so different. We evaluate ourselves based on how much we have to do and how much we have done.

But it’s not making us happier.

Dr. Brene Brown, the bestselling author and public speaker, says that busyness is a numbing technique that we use to ignore our own unhappiness, that maybe “if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

All I know is that all of those lists and tasks don’t bring meaning to our lives. We may be busier, but we are also emptier. We may get more done more, but we feel less accomplished.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who is considered the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, sees this conundrum between seeking achievement and seeking meaning as being built into the human condition. In his classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” he points out that the Torah has two Creation stories, and thus two different descriptions of the Creation of human beings. In the first account, the story of the 7 days, Adam is created as a striver and a doer, the pinnacle of all Creation. This is the version of the story that says we were created in God’s image – we are also creators and achievers, like God.

But the Adam of the second Creation account, the story of Garden of Eden, is very different. He is a gardener and a caretaker. The focus of this “Adam the Second,” as Soloveitchik calls him, is on “understand[ing] the living world into which he has been cast…. encounter[ing] the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur.”[3]

These are the two sides of our nature, the two pieces to what it is to be human: the achiever and the contemplator; the master of the world and the appreciator of the world; the human doing and the human being.

We need both of these sides of us. Without Adam the First, we wouldn’t build society or create technology. We wouldn’t have the drive to envision a better future and work toward it. But Adam the Second is the one who puts it into perspective, who searches for meaning, who strives just to “be” - and to appreciate the here and now. We are not always very good at cultivating that piece of ourselves. And the result is the busy, stressed-out lives that we are living.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the renowned creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, writes that we spend much of our lives only “partially conscious.”

He writes:

Because of [our] inner busyness, we are liable either to miss a lot of the texture of our life experience or to discount its value and meaning.[4]

Not long ago, I had a personal experience that taught me this lesson. On a visit to my parents’ house in New Orleans, I encountered a lizard sitting on a fence post. It was such an iconic scene that I wanted to take the perfect picture of it, so I took out my phone and started snapping pictures, looking for the right angle and trying to frame the shot perfectly. And then I was dreaming about all the comments I might get when I posted the picture on social media. And that was when it hit me, I wasn’t looking at or thinking about the lizard at all. I was looking at a screen while thinking about my Facebook account. 

How much of the time are we really present? Try this experiment for one day: try to notice how you often your mind is focused on what is right in front of you, and how often it’s planning something, or worrying about something, or stressing about something that has already happened. We spend more of lives in the past and future than we do in the here and now.

Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, agrees that we spend much of our lives not fully conscious. And he believes that the High Holy Days are the antidote. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes sound of the shofar is intended to call to us “Uru yesheinim misheinatchem – Awaken from your sleep, you slumberers! Awaken and ponder your deeds!”

Have you ever done this?  One day about a year ago, after having recently moved into a new house, I was driving home after Friday night services. I must have been lost in thought about something, because when I looked up I had driven – completely unconsciously – to my old house, almost 15 minutes away from where I was now living. I was so disoriented and confused that it actually took me a few seconds to figure out where I was. It was as if I had woken up from being asleep.

One of the tasks of Yom Kippur is to help us wake up, to help us cultivate mindful awareness and be present in the here and now. The idea is that for one day, the world stops – there are no obligations to attend to; the are no achievements to be made. There are only ourselves and the work we have to do.

Those of us who have spent Yom Kippur in Israel have witnessed the national manifestation of this. Almost the entire country shuts down – no one drives; no one goes to work; things are quiet. There simply is nowhere to be except here and now. Living in the diaspora we have to work a little harder to make this happen, by spending the day in thoughtful prayer and study. But the idea is the same.

And beyond this one day, this can be a larger model for our lives -  a practice of taking time out to be in the here and now. Practitioners of mindfulness are familiar with what’s called the body scan – the practice where you lie still for a period of time (often 20 to 30 minutes), and attentively shift your focus from one part of your body to another. How do my toes feel today? What are my shins experiencing right now? When you do this, what’s amazing is that you often become aware of sensations or feelings that you hadn’t noticed before – things that you were actually experiencing, but that you were just too busy to take note of.

When we cultivate that kind of mindful awareness – on Yom Kippur or any day of the year – we become more attuned to our own experiences. And we become more grateful for them as well.

The Dalai Lama was once asked what a person should do in order to develop their own happiness. He answered, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life and I am not going to waste it.”

In fact, this is not so far from Jewish practice. Traditionally, we are supposed to start each day by saying “Modeh ani l’fanecha” – God, I am grateful that you have returned my soul to me this morning.” And then we continue with a series of blessings for seemingly mundane acts – opening our eyes, sitting up in bed, putting on clothing, taking steps. When we sanctify those little acts with a blessing, they aren’t little acts anymore. They are miracles.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel tells the story of a boy who ate a delicious sandwich and thanked his mother for it. But she replied, "Don’t just thank me. I only prepared the food." So the boy went and thanked the baker who had made his bread. But the baker said “I only bake the bread; I don’t make the flour."
So next the boy when to the miller and thanked him, but the miller sent him to thank the farmer who had grown the wheat. And when arrived to thank the farmer, he was told “I only plant the seed and harvest the grain. It is the sunshine, and rain, and the rich earth from God that make it grow.”[5]

The Chassidic masters were particularly adept at cultivating that sense of radical amazement – the sense that everything in the world is a miracle. They believed it brought us closer to God.

I think it might also bring us closer to ourselves. All of the evidence shows that people who cultivate gratitude on a daily basis feel healthier and happier, and better equipped to weather life’s difficult moments.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains why:

Consider the mindset of a grateful person: ‘Look what [this person] did for me; he really likes me. Look how [such and such] helped me; she really cares about me.’ As we cultivate the feeling of gratitude, we also cultivate a feeling of being loved.[6]

When we feel loved, we can love others. When we feel cared for, we are more capable of reaching out to care for others. When we feel secure, we can live by our own values.

Return with me for a moment to Maimonides. In the Mishneh Torah he says that the Shofar calls to us:

עוּרוּ יְשֵנִים מִשְנַתְכֶם

Awaken from your slumber!

וְחַפְשׂוּ בְמַעֲשֵיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִתְשׁוּבָה

Examine your deeds and return in repentance.[7]

It is a not only a call to awaken – not only a call to awareness. But also a call to examine our deeds and consider our best selves. The shofar is an invitation to self-awareness.

Ultimately, the goal of this day – and really the goal of every day – is to live a life driven by our own values, a life that we are proud of and that reflects our deepest sense of self. This is something that you can start to plan for on Yom Kippur, but it has to be cultivated on a daily basis.

In mindfulness there is another practice called STOP. It is a short practice – about a minute or less – that involves taking stock at any given moment of the day. The word STOP is an acronym that stands for:

Stop
Take a Breath
Observe
Proceed

The idea behind this practice is to bring mindful awareness to what we’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing in a given moment. What is motivating our actions? What is causing us to behave in a certain way? When we are aware of our motivations, we have a greater amount of agency over what we do.

That’s exactly the work of Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah – exploring your own motivations and actions so that you can shift them in ways that are in accordance with your values.

When we are just rushing around getting things done, likely to be reacting to whatever’s going on around us. But when we stop and consider, then we control your own destiny. As Stephen Covey writes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
 

Yom Kippur is that pause in the rushing river of life. It is the moment in which we stop to consider our actions and our choices, and whether they are in line with our own values. And it can be a model for the way we live our lives each and every day.

By slowing down, by cultivating a sense of gratitude and awareness, we open up that space to live our own lives, to focus on what matters rather than on what presents itself, to shift ourselves from frenzy toward meaning, from busyness toward happiness.

In the final comic strip of the Calvin and Hobbes series, the boy and his tiger step out the door to find a world blanketed in snow.

"Wow," they say, "It really snowed last night! The world looks brand new! A new year… A fresh, clean start!" Then they sit down on their sled and prepare to shove off, and just before they do, Calvin looks at his friend and says, "It's a magical world, ol' buddy. Let's go exploring."

May we, too, spend the New Year exploring – exploring this extraordinary gift of a life we’ve been given; exploring our true selves and the selves we would like to become. And may this Day of Atonement – this day of awe and dread and aching and opportunity – be the catalyst that spurs us toward greater awareness, toward greater thankfulness, toward a greater commitment to serve others. Toward the happiness that we are capable of achieving.

Amen.

 

 


[1] Sarason, Richard. “Why Do We Need This Day of Atonement?” Mishkan HaNefesh, p. xx.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/owning-pink/201404/are-you-addicted-being-busy

[3] Ibid 17.

[4] Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living. Page 10.

[5] Rossel, Seymour. When a Jew Prays. Page 48.

[6] Telushkin, Joseph. A Code of Jewish Ethics. Page 96.

[7] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4.

A time to Rejoice

Rabbi Streiffer

The Biblical book of Ecclesiastes (and also the 60s rock group The Byrds) once said:

To everything there is a season

And a time for every purpose under heaven.

A time to dance, a time to mourn.

A time to laugh, a time to weep.

As we move our way through this High Holy Day cycle, we are aware of the litany of emotions that assail us: the majesty of the New Year; the dread of the Day of Atonement; the joy of being together with family; the aching hunger of Yom Kippur afternoon.

We often think of the “High Holy Days” as ending with Yom Kippur, but as the Day of Atonement comes to an end and we begin October, we are only in the middle of the Fall holiday cycle. And in many ways, the best is yet to come.

The festival of Sukkot is one of the three ancient Pilgrimage Festivals, when Israelites would make a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. It was a time when our earliest ancestors would build outdoor booths, live and eat in them, and enjoy the outdoors. In fact, since so many Jewish practices have changed over the years, building a Sukkah may be one of the oldest still-observed practices in all of Judaism.

I love the idea that we are still doing almost exactly what our grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’ were doing 100 generations ago. And at the same time, Sukkot is a fulfillment of all kinds of modern values: connecting with the earth, sharing meals together, being aware of the transience of life. This is truly a holiday with something for everyone.

Don’t let the holidays end with Yom Kippur. It is “a time to rejoice.” This year, in addition to our Sukkot morning service on the first day of the holiday (Thursday, October 5 at 9am), we will gather for Sukkot in the Park on Sunday afternoon, October 8, at a time and place TBA. A chance to eat, drink, and be together outdoors. And since it’s traditional to read Ecclesiastes on Sukkot, maybe we’ll even sing The Byrds.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Have you Seen My Alps?

Rabbi Streiffer

The great nineteenth century Orthodox leader, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, once surprised his students by insisting that he needed to visit Switzerland. When his students asked him why it was so important, he answered: "When I reach the gates of heaven, I will be asked many questions. And I will have good answers for most of them. But what will I say when God asks me, 'Nu Samson, did you see my Alps?'"

We usually refer to the September holidays as the High Holy Days. It is a name that highlights the austerity and sanctification of this special time. Sometimes we call them the Yamim Nora'im - the Days of Awe. By using that name, we stress the dread and fear sometimes associated with these holidays. But my preferred name for this season is Aseret Y'mai Teshuvah - the Ten Days of Repentance. Because that title emphasizes the unique spiritual process that we undertake during this season.

Teshuvah - repentance - doesn't only mean to feel sorry for what you've done wrong. It comes from the Hebrew root שוב - "to return." To do teshuvah is to return to our true values, to the path that God intends for us and that we intend for ourselves. To do teshuvah means to ask ourselves: Which parts of myself need work? Which of my goals stand unfulfilled? Which of my paths have led me to fulfillment and which have not? Which tasks have I not yet taken on, and which places (maybe the Alps!) have I not yet seen?

When we gather in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is with this purpose in mind: to reconnect not only with the synagogue and with one another, but also with ourselves. With the selves we wish to be.

I look forward to seeing all of you as we begin a new Jewish year. 5778 promises to be a busy and exciting year filled with learning, celebration, and community. I can’t wait to share it with you.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Dog Days

Rabbi Streiffer

In his poem “Summer Sun,” Robert Louis Stevenson writes:

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

We are entering the time of year when all we want to do is spend time in the sunshine! As you all know (and I’ve quickly learned), summers are short here in Ontario, so we need to enjoy them while they last.

In one sense, synagogue life seems to slow down over the summer. We have fewer programs; Hebrew school takes a break. And yet, Judaism doesn’t take a vacation for July and August. In fact, this is a wonderful time of year to be Jewish, because there are fewer high-intensity holidays and more opportunities to be outside and appreciate God’s world. Our “Rock Shabbat in the Park” last month was a great example of this. More than 100 of us gathered to welcome Shabbat outdoors, to sing and pray and eat in the sunshine. It is a good time of year to be Jewish.

Many of us arrange our Jewish lives around holidays. We finish the High Holy Days and start looking to Chanukah; then we put away our latke oil and begin looking forward to hamantaschen. But believe it or not, Judaism is not a religion of holidays. It is not a religion that is dependent on special events, or once-a-year celebrations, or even on being indoors. It is a way of life that teaches us to appreciate every moment. No matter where we are or what time of year – even in the dog days of summer – Judaism can guide us toward mindfulness, and appreciation, and connection with one another.

That is our challenge for the summer, as we head off on holidays and to our cottages: to find little ways to celebrate being Jewish. If you’re travelling this summer, look up the Jewish community wherever you may be. Try to attend a service and connect with fellow Jews. Who knows – you may even get invited to somebody’s home for Shabbat dinner. If you’re going to be at the cottage, find ways to make Shabbat special: go for a walk in the great outdoors, appreciate being in nature, make Kiddush and Hamotzi under the stars.

Of course, Shabbat services and learning continue at Kol Ami over the summer. I look forward to seeing you at our “Homestyle Shabbat” services or at Sushi and Study.

Have a wonderful summer,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Wherein I Reveal The Meaning of Life

Rabbi Steiffer

In Douglas Adams's cult novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, several characters build a giant computer to tell them the meaning of life. After millions of years of experimentation, the computer (with much fanfare) finally spits out an answer: the number 42.

But that makes no sense! How can “42” be the answer to life, the universe, and everything? The computer has some insight into this: “I think the problem is that you've never actually known what the question is.”

Judaism, perhaps like sci-fi, is also an attempt to find meaning in life. But the Jewish way isn’t to do it through complex computer equations, but rather through the way we live. When the Rabbis of the Talmud asked this question, they didn’t come up with a number, but a set of instructions:

The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of kindness. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

This is the Rabbis’ threefold “recipe” for a meaningful life:

Torah – Study is absolutely central to Jewish life. It is the route by which we learn about ourselves and about the world around us. Through study, we reach for meaning intellectually, by trying to understand it.

Worship – We might expand this to “spirituality.” It is the act of building a relationship with what is larger than us (however we conceive it – as a supernatural God or as the natural processes that make for meaning). This might look like prayer, mindfulness, meditation, or reciting blessings. Through worship, we reach for meaning by trying to touch it.

Acts of Kindness – As Jews we are called upon not only to think, not only to strive for meaning, but to do things that actively make our world better. Through Tikkun Olam, we reach for meaning by trying to actualize it.

Living a Jewish life is ultimately a search for meaning through the combination of these three acts. Looking over our calendar of events, I am proud of the ways that our community engages together. This month alone, we will come together for creative and musical worship services, for stimulating learning activities, and for acts of repair and renewal for our world. I hope to see you at Sushi & Study, or Ruach Shabbat, or Rock Shabbat in the Park, or the blood drive, or any of the other many times we will come together. These aren’t just activities – they are ingredients in our individual and congregational search for meaning.

I think Adams got it right: the meaning of life isn't an answer – it's a question. And we answer that question through the way we live. I’m glad that we, as a congregation, as on that journey together.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

For Our Teachers and Their Students

Rabbi Streiffer

An ancient Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter for yourself.”

This is not a Jewish saying, but it is a Jewish idea. Our tradition prizes learning and teaching perhaps above all else. We are taught in the Mishnah that a life of learning is of equal weight to all of the mitzvot put together. We even created a special honourific name for teachers – the word “Rabbi,” which literally means “The Great One” in Hebrew. (As if rabbis need any help singing their own praises…)

And like the Chinese proverb above, Judaism reminds us that learning is not the responsibility of the teacher but of the learner. Throughout our texts, we are exhorted to be lifelong learners of Torah. To be wrestlers with God and with tradition. To strive toward our best and most knowledgeable selves.

The Hebrew word for Scholar is Talmid Chacham which means, ironically, “Wise Student.” To be a teacher is to be a lifelong learner. To be a scholar is to know that there is much you do not know.

We Jews build our lives around this notion, and we have done so at Kol Ami as well. A few years ago, we revamped our Madrichim (Teacher Helper) program and combined it with our Confirmation (Post-B’nai Mitzvah learning) program. All of our student teachers - our teens who serve as helpers and role models for younger students – are learners in their own right. They spend time together on Shabbat mornings discussing Judaism from a teen perspective and delving into their own beliefs. By the same token, our Religious School teachers go through regular learning and enrichment sessions, led by Judy Silver who herself models the value of learning. This month, Judy will receive the Masters of Jewish Education toward which she has been working for 2 years. Mazal Tov Judy!!

This month we honour our teachers and our learners, particularly at two events: Teacher Appreciation Shabbat (May 12 at 6:30pm, as part of Rock Shabbat) is an opportunity to thank those who educate our young people. And our Confirmation service (May 30 at 7:30pm Shavuot services) is a chance to recognize the student learners who have committed themselves to Jewish learning all the way through Grade 10. I hope you will join us for both of these services.

Every Shabbat we recite the Learner’s Kaddish together: “For our teachers and their students, and the students of the students, we ask for peace and loving-kindness.” May we commit ourselves to be lifelong learners and teachers. And may our community always be one that puts this important Jewish value to action.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Free Your Mind

On Sunday, March 26, 2017

Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

When Hamlet says these words, he is trying to convince Horatio to believe in ghosts - specifically, the ghost that has just appeared right before his eyes. But in these words is a lesson for all of us: the universe is a big place, filled with many experiences, phenomena, philosophies, and beliefs. We can’t assume we know it all.

How often do we operate on the assumption that other people’s experience and knowledge bases are essentially the same as ours? How often do we project our own beliefs, understandings, and faults onto others...and then judge them for behaving differently than we might? I know I’m guilty of this, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

Judaism teaches us to strive to see beyond our own narrow worldview. Abraham became the first Jew by looking beyond his upbringing and adopting a brand new philosophy – the Oneness of God. The Rabbis of the Talmud spent pages upon pages debating every angle of the law, often without ever deciding which one was “right.” And in the Midrash, a voice comes from heaven to settle an argument between Hillel and Shammai by declaring “Both opinions are the words of the living God.”

We are commanded as Jews to open our minds, to try to understand the experiences and beliefs of others, and in so doing, to grow in our knowledge, wisdom, and compassion. This month we have three separate events that are opportunities to do so, each in its own way:

Sharing Values, Building Bridges: This important panel discussion on April 1 is an opportunity to learn more about the experience of Indigenous Canadians, and to build connections between our two communities.

The Passover Seder is, as always, a chance to invite new people into our homes and to incorporate new traditions into our rituals. If you have a spot at your Seder table, please let me know.

Our Carlebach Shabbat Service on April 28 is an attempt to do something new and different on a Friday night. This extremely musical, a cappella style of prayer was developed in the Orthodox world, but transfers really nicely to our setting.

Please see the monthly Voice or contact me for more information on these programs.

“To everything there is a season.” If you’re looking to broaden your Jewish experience through learning, prayer, volunteering, or community, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with me. I look forward to hearing from you.

 

L’shalom,
Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Fri, November 24 2017 6 Kislev 5778