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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:

 

Antisemitism

Rabbi Streiffer

 

Antisemitism is Not A Good Enough Reason to be Jewish

(But It’s Really Important to Talk About Anyway!)

 

Emil Fackenheim may have been one of the most creative Jewish thinkers of our time. He was a German Reform rabbi who was arrested on Kristallnacht and survived Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, before making his way to Canada and serving as a professor at the University of Toronto.

 

One of Fackenheim’s most important contributions to Jewish thought was the idea he termed the 614th Commandment: “Not to hand Hitler posthumous victories.” In other words, he teaches that in the post-Holocaust world, it is the responsibility of the Jew to ensure Jewish continuance.

 

This is a powerful notion, and an empowering one, because it says that even though some others might hate us - indeed, perhaps because some others hate us – we will survive and thrive nonetheless. And truly, for better and for worse, antisemitism does sit quite centrally in our Jewish identity. Organizations like CIJA and the ADL spend a lot of time focused on them. (More as we see a rise in antisemitic voices and incidents around us.) In Toronto, we have a Federation agency and a week of our year dedicated to Holocaust education. Israel’s society and psyche have been shaped by the trauma of the Holocaust in very deep ways. We even half-jokingly summarize our holidays in terms of antisemitism: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”

 

As a minority people, we have been shaped by the experience of persecution. With a few exceptions (several of them, fortunately, existing today), Jews have been oppressed outsiders for much of our history. Though no one would ever choose this, it has served us in a few ways: it has built a unique sense of cohesiveness and peoplehood; it has shaped our commitment to social justice and Tikkun Olam. It is fair to say that Judaism would not be what it is today if we had a different history.

 

That being said, antisemitism in itself is not a strong foundation on which to build a Jewish future, especially for a younger generation that lives largely in freedom and is 70 years removed from the Shoah. Jews today (like Jews in every age) are seeking positive, joyful connections to their Judaism, through community, learning, spirituality, ritual, and social action. This – far more than either fear about assimilation or a sense of responsibility to past generations – can be passed on from generation to generation. As Rabbi Mark Gellman put it bluntly in Newsweek in 2005: “I am Jewish… because I believe Judaism is loving, just, joyous, hopeful and true. I am not Jewish, and I did not teach my children or my students to be Jewish, just to spite Hitler.”

 

Thus, in 2019 we have two parallel responsibilities:

 

  • To continue to talk about antisemitism, to understand its origins and combat its adherents, for the good of our people all over the world.
  • To continue to fashion a Judaism that is not a response to antisemitism – one that is hopeful, joyful, meaningful, and forward-looking – for the good of ourselves and future generations.

This year, our Bernstein Family Scholar in Residence is Professor Kalman Weiser of York University. Dr. Weiser will teach us on the topic of “Antisemitism: Then and Now.” Please see below in the Voice for more details, and please consider joining us the weekend of May 24-25 for talks Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday evening.

 

We are deeply thankful to Dawn and Barry Bernstein for their generosity in bringing this important learning program to Kol Ami for over ten years.

 

I look forward to a weekend of learning on an important and fascinating topic.

 

Bivracha – In Blessing,

 

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

The Holy Act of Eating

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

We Jews just don’t seem to be able to do anything without food, do we?

Torah study: Breakfast.

Shabbat service: Oneg.

Passover Storytelling: Family meal.

It’s not just that we like to eat. (Though that’s also true…) This predilection for eating together is actually built into the fabric of Judaism, and it was a purposeful choice made by the early Rabbis who framed our tradition. Our tradition sees the act of eating – and especially eating together – as a holy act.

In ancient times, Jews found atonement and spirituality at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Through sacrifice and prayer, we connected with God and with one another.   But the Temple has long since been destroyed, and the Talmud  (Menachot 97a) teaches that “now that the Temple is no longer standing, a person’s table provides atonement” instead. In other words, a dinner table is a holy place, even to the point of being a replacement for the holiness of the ancient Temple. In Hebrew this is called Mikdash M’at – the “Small Sanctuary.” It is a recognition that the act of sharing a meal is an act of holiness.

This makes sense. When you are with your family at a holiday meal, do you feel a sense of transcendence? Do you feel like you are part of something larger, or like you are “where you’re supposed to be?” Judaism teaches that when we gather around our tables – like we do on Shabbat and festivals - we are there to connect with loved ones, and we also have the opportunity to connect with God.

(As an aside, I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine who is an Imam. He confirmed that the Jewish love for food is paralleled in Muslim practice. This is a point of connection with our cousins!)

The holiness of Mikdash M’at applies at every Shabbat and every holiday, but it is at Pesach that most of us are likely to be at family and community meals. At this season of joy, let us strive to recognize that holiness in the act of eating together – that simply by sitting around the Seder tables, we are connected with generations past, with Jews all over the world, and with God, in whatever way we may conceive God.

Is there room at your Mikdash M’at this year? If you have a place or two at your table – or if you are looking for a place to have seder – please let me know and we will connect you.

Chag Sameach – a joyous and festive holiday season to all,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Move Over, Mel Brooks

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Last month when I saw this headline:

Israel’s first moon mission blasts off from Florida

It made me think of this classic movie scene:

Jews in Space

You can understand why, right??

Granted, certain key elements of my childhood identity were formed by Mel Brooks movies, so it seems only reasonable to filter the real world through the lens of History of the World, Spaceballs, and Young Frankenstein.

(By the way, if you have not yet seen Mel Brooks’s epic History of the World, Part 1, including the “Jews in Space” epilogue, my rabbinic advice is that you run, not walk, to correct that grievous error.)

One of the great contributions that the Jewish people have made to society is our humour. Mel Brooks himself has written about how humour is a great coping mechanism, a response to our sometimes-tragic history. The 2013 Pew Study found that a sense of humour continues to be an important element of Jewish identity for Jews in North America. (Slightly below intellectual curiosity, and statistically even with caring about Israel!)

What is it about the world that makes us Jews think it’s so funny? I believe it is our sense of optimism. The sense that world can be a good place – that there is always the capacity to decrease the suffering around us, and that maybe being able to laugh is the first step.

 

There will be plenty of laughing at our Purim Spiel on Wednesday, March 20, humourWe don’t have to blast into space to find great 6pm. With a theme of “Shushan Rhapsody,” we’ll be pairing great humour with amazing music, based on the songs of the classic rock band Queen. The spiel is followed by our Purim carnival, with fun for all ages (and even a separate “hideaway” for adults)! I look forward to seeing you all there.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Bar/Bat Mitzvah: More Than a Service

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Some humorous soul once wrote this “traditional Jewish Haiku” to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah:      

Now I am a man.
Tomorrow I will go back
To the seventh grade.

It’s a funny age, 13. Certainly not an adult yet, but not really a kid anymore. Maybe that is why 13 is the age that Judaism has chosen to mark as a transition from childhood into adulthood: the moment in which one becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

In everyday speech, we tend to say “I had a Bar Mitzvah,” or “I got Bat Mitzvahed,” as though it is something you can put in your pocket, or something that someone else does to you. But it is neither. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a person: a responsible Jewish adult; a son or daughter of the commandments. In the traditional understanding, every Jew over the age of 13 is automatically a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. You don’t have to read from the Torah; you don’t have to lead a service; you don’t have be lifted in a chair or have your voice crack embarrassingly in front of your relatives. Simply by virtue of reaching the age of majority, you are understood to take on responsibility for your Jewish actions, and you are eligible to be called to the Torah and be counted in a minyan.

Which begs the question: If you are automatically counted as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah regardless, why do you need to do all that stuff? The answer is that technically, you don’t. But when kids reach the age at which they are empowered to participate as a leader in services, we want to celebrate with them by inviting them to do so. The “B’nai Mitzvah Service” is a relatively recent invention – an opportunity for young people to be surrounded by their community, and to conspicuously participate in congregational services for the first time in their new adult role.

That’s why I love Kol Ami’s congregational model of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Because we are such an active Shabbat morning community, our B’nai Mitzvah students stand on the bima surrounded by their family and friends, their Grade 7 classmates, amd by the congregational community that comes regularly to pray. By leading services in our sanctuary, they affirm that they are part of a Kehilah Kedoshah – a holy congregation built around prayer, study, community, and Tikkun Olam.

In the past two years, two of my own kids have become B’nai Mitzvah in our sanctuary, and both times I have been deeply moved not only by their own “performance” on the bima, but also by the outpouring of kindness and support from Kol Ami members. Our congregational kids all tend to feel that. Even when they feel a little overwhelmed by it (“Dad, who ARE all these people??”), they have a sense of being loved, and of being part of something special. We can be proud of that as a community.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah is so much more than a service. It is a moment of transition, of taking responsibility, and of community engagement. We are all B’nai Mitzvah (at least, those of us over the age of 13), and perhaps the most important mitzvah for which we are responsible is building a supportive, welcoming Jewish community.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Tikkun: Repair

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

It may sound trite, but I LOVE the idea of New Year’s resolutions. I think it’s a good practice once a year (or better, twice a year – once at the secular New Year and once at the Jewish New Year) to sit down and give serious thought to the choices we have made and the changes we would like to make. In Hebrew we call this Tikkun – repair. And Jewish tradition teaches us that not only is it worthwhile to spend time thinking about how we can repair ourselves and our world, but the wellbeing of the world may hinge on it.

The idea that we now call Tikkun Olam (“Repairing the World”) arose almost 500 years ago, in the wake of the Spanish Expulsion. In 1492, the Jews of Spain – an old, venerable, and highly educated community – were forcibly expelled from the country that had been their home for centuries. This event was extraordinarily traumatic – uprooting the ancient Sephardic community, turning their world on its head, and sending them wandering in the world.

In the wake of their expulsion, many Sephardic Jews turned inward, asking, “What is wrong with our world, that such a thing could have happened?” Out of that question they developed a new and powerful idea: Something IS wrong with our world, and we have the power to fix it.

Rabbi Isaac Luria was a mystical rabbi who lived in the town of Tzfat (sometimes spelled Safed) in northern Israel, a generation after the expulsion. He taught, in good mystical style, that what is wrong with the world is the result of a cosmic accident: When God created the world, he taught, God’s divine light – which represents God’s perfect, holy nature – was placed into clay vessels to be sorted for various purposes in Creation. But the vessels could not hold the light, for it was too powerful, and they shattered. The sparks of God’s light were spread all through creation – some returned upward to God, and others became embedded in the world of matter.

This cosmic “shattering” is Luria’s metaphor for the brokenness of our world. (Or maybe he meant it literally - he was a mystic, after all!) Our entire world is in exile, he taught, and the path to repairing it is to perform mitzvot: to access the goodness inherent in the world and release the sparks. Luria believed that when all of the sparks of divine light were released, the Messiah would come and the world would be redeemed.

Even without being medieval Kabbalists (and without believing in a personal Messiah) we can appreciate the power of this teaching. Rabbi Luria’s ideas validate something we know instinctively: that our world is far from the way it should be. There is so much suffering, hatred, and poverty in the world around us. But Luria’s teachings also validate our power to change that: by doing mitzvot, by performing holy acts on earth, we can bring the world closer to the perfection that we envision.

That means that you don’t have to change the world in order to change the world. All you have to do is make one small change, make one thing better. We can do that dozens of times a day with our words, our actions, our donations, and our smallest choices. If we think of ourselves as “releasing divine sparks,” perhaps it will impel us to act at all times in ways that reflect our better values. And it will remind us that we have the power to do Tikkun – to repair both what is inside of us, and what is around us.

I look forward to seeing you at services, Torah Study, Religious School, and other events in the coming weeks.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Be the light

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

 

Hanna Szenes was a Hungarian-Jewish poet and soldier who is most famous for her poem Eli Eli (“My God, My God, I pray that these things never end”).

 

Her second most widely known poem is called “Blessed is the Match.” It says:

 

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart's secret places.

Blessed is the heart that knows, for honor’s sake, to stop its beating.

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

 

This poem is about self-sacrifice, the ways that we humans sometimes have to give of ourselves in order to provide life for others. Actually, she was talking about martyrdom. Szenes understood the meaning of these words first hand: as a Hungarian Jew, she immigrated to Palestine just at the beginning of World War II. She then volunteered as a paratrooper to be dropped back behind enemy lines to assist in the rescue of Hungarian Jews. There – only weeks after writing this poem - she was captured, arrested, tortured, and executed.

 

Fortunately, few of us are called upon to make this ultimate sacrifice for others, but Szenes’s main point is that when the world is dark, we are called upon to bring light into it. The “match” is the catalyst for creating goodness where previously there was none.

 

During this cold, dark time of year, we celebrate Chanukah with light. There is much darkness in our society as well: poverty, homelessness, hatred. It is our responsibility to do what we can to alleviate it; to be the light in the darkness.

 

Please consider participating in our Grade 7 mitzvah project by donating unopened toiletries, non-perishable foods, and other supplies to create “Blessing Bags” for those in need. (Call the school or check our Facebook page for more information about what is needed.)

 

I would urge you, as well, to consider committing a night of your family Chanukah celebration to volunteering or buying gifts for families in need.

 

We have the capacity to do so much, to bring so much light into a dark world. This holiday season let us commit ourselves to giving to others, so that we might make the world a little brighter.

 

Blessed is the match.

 

L’Shalom,

Rabbi Streiffer

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:

the

“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

 

Mon, May 20 2019 15 Iyar 5779