Posts tagged #Drashot

Unforgivable — Yom Kippur 2015

Lara Lubitz

Here we are, gathered together in the holy of holies of Jewish time. And the central theme of this time is forgiveness. So what is forgiveness? What, if anything, is unforgivable?

Yom Kippur is the day on which Moses descended Mt Sinai with the second set of tablets and the Jewish people were forgiven for the sin of worshiping the golden calf. Debbie Masel said, “Today Jews throughout the world stand together, barefooted, as their collective act of repentance opens the gates of heaven to flood the world with the light of forgiveness.”

The thoughts that I am going to share are largely based on ideas from  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.

He cites Maimonides who rules that if a person does not apologise one is still “free to forgive.”

It is interesting to me to frame forgiveness as a human freedom. Because even though one might have been personally assaulted, violated or hurt, he can still choose to transcend passive victimhood and become an autonomous agent of forgiveness and positive change.

Forgiveness is the radical circuit breaker of violence. When a cycle of violence or hatred has been enduring, forgiveness can be the unexpected human response which has the potential to be transformative of a culture of conflict. As Rabbi Sacks says: “Because of forgiveness we are not condemned endlessly to replay the conflicts of the past. And that is why forgiveness is logically and psychologically related to hope.”

This magnanimous human decision to forgive requires the forgiver to be moved to prioritise the future over the past. To place relationship at the centre. 

When you are facing the future you can forgive, because what matters to you is not what happened but what can be re-built. Being unable to forgive is being tied to a strong sense of reverence to the past and maybe even a loyalty to our own pain. R Sacks says: “We should not ask what happened to our grandparents, we should ask what kind of world do we want to create for our grandchildren?”

I am not saying that we should be expected to pursue close relationships with those who have wronged us, but thatforgiveness allows the forgiver to discharge a heavy burden and contemplate another reality. It frees us up.

Forgiving does not mean forgetting. It means living with the past but not living in the past, and if this is the case, is there anything that is unforgiveable?

Let me quote from one of the world’s greatest forgivers, Nelson Mandela, who said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

We have a chance today to put to bed our old burdens. May we all travel lighter and redirect our energy towards today’s palace of time and tomorrow’s spiritual opportunity.

Posted on October 2, 2015 .

Yom Kippur Drasha 5776 — Free Will and Repentance

Ellyse Borghi

I’d like to start with a question. Are we responsible for our sins?

I ask this because I’ve recently started working in criminal law. Most of the time the accused pleads guilty and then the job of their lawyer is to explain to the judge the mitigating circumstances that led up to the offending. We explain about broken homes, family violence, lack of education or stable employment, their drug and alcohol dependency and mental illness. We explain to the judge that a conspiracy of circumstances has led the client to make these mistakes, that my client is less culpable, less at fault and less responsible because of their circumstances. Perhaps indeed they are a victim of circumstance.

And perhaps we could say the same thing about ourselves. We say that if only you knew what my parents were like you would understand why I react this way. Or that I snapped at you because I was stressed. Or that I can’t give charity right now because I’m saving for something else. We tell ourselves that it’s our families, our stressed out lives and sometimes even our DNA that makes us do the wrong thing. We say that circumstances are to blame.

And on the one hand this is true. To bring it back to my clients, fate has dealt them a poor hand. They have had limited options and disadvantage can mean that the choices available restrict their ability to make good decisions. But on the other hand I am perhaps doing my client a disservice. In making these arguments, that it was circumstances that led my client to where they are now, I am disempowering them. In a way I am saying that they had no control over their choices.

Another way of seeing this is that they made those decisions. And just like they have the ability to choose bad and harmful actions so too they have the ability to choose to do the right thing. Perhaps then I could say to a judge that my client made those decisions and is taking full responsibility for their actions, no excuses. And that they are also taking responsibility to make better decisions in the future, that they are committed to choosing a different path.

Or in other words that they are doing teshuva.

This idea of free choice is fundamental to our humanity and is certainly a core tenant of Judaism and Teshuva.

The Alei Shur wrote “Let us examine ourselves. How often do we make use of our freedom (“power of choice”)? Personal disposition, education, habit, and interests maintain almost absolute rule over us from childhood to old age. It is even possible for a person to go through her entire life without ever making use of her freedom!... If we really examine ourselves, we’ll see that we use our freedom only on rare occasions. “Freedom is given”—and yet in practice, personal disposition, education, habit, and interests carry the day, whether in large, fateful decisions or in small, day-to-day ones. And where is freedom?... It is clear from this that freedom is not at all part of humanity’s daily spiritual bread. It is, rather, one of the noble virtues which one must labor to attain. It is not lesser than love, and fear, and cleaving to God, acquiring which clearly demands great effort. We can obtain freedom, and therefore we must strive for it.

Freedom of choice is our right but it is not a given. If we do not make conscious efforts to exercise our free will then it is only a right in theory but not in practice. Freedom is a project and it takes work. It can be terrifying to do away with our justifications and excuses and to accept full responsibility for our actions. But to do so, is empowering. And just as last year we might have made poor choices, this year we can resolve and wholly exercise our free will and choose something better. Just as my clients stand before a judge so too today we stand before the judge of judges, the king of kings and we take responsibility for our previous actions. We take responsibility to choose goodness.

I’d like to end with a short bracha

Yehi ratzon milfanecha adonai elochainu v’elochai avoteinu she t’varech otanu b’bechirat chofshit u’bkoach l’bchor et hanachon, et toratecha u’mitzvotecha, v’livchor et haemet kol yemei chayeinu.

May it be Your will, Adonai my God and God of my ancestors that you bless us with free will and with the strength to choose what is correct; your torah and your mitzvoth and to choose the truth all the days of our lives.


Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Knowledge 1:1-2 1.

Each and every person possesses many character traits….With regard to all the traits: a person has some from the beginning of his conception, in accordance with his bodily nature. Some are appropriate to a person's nature and will [therefore] be acquired more easily than other traits. Some traits he does not have from birth. He may have learned them from others, or turned to them on his own. This may have come as a result of his own thoughts, or because he heard that this was a proper trait for him, which he ought to attain. [Therefore,] he accustomed himself to it until it became a part of himself.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, On Repentance, pp. 142-144.

The assumption that man is free, that he has been endowed with the spiritual courage to make choices and with the power to determine the fate of his religious and moral life—this assumption cannot rely on the idea of belief by itself; it also depends on knowledge, on a feeling of being wholly charged by the tension present in this God-given factor of free choice. Free will should implant in man a sense of responsibility... That is the meaning of Maimonides’ “to know”: a continuous awareness of maximal responsibility by man without even a moment’s inattentiveness!... It is a positive commandment to be conscious of the existence of free choice which makes man responsible for his actions... One is forbidden to take one’s mind off the principle of free choice, for it was not given to man only from without or by tradition; it is also something in the nature of self-discovery and must always remain part of the self—the knowledge that man can create worlds and destroy them.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Alei Shur, vol. 1, pp. 155-156.

Let us examine ourselves. How often do we make use of our freedom (“power of choice”)? Personal disposition, education, habit, and interests maintain almost absolute rule over us from childhood to old age. It is even possible for a person to go through her entire life without ever making use of her freedom!... If we really examine ourselves, we’ll see that we use our freedom only on rare occasions. “Freedom is given”—and yet in practice, personal disposition, education, habit, and interests carry the day, whether in large, fateful decisions or in small, day-to-day ones. And where is freedom?... It is clear from this that freedom is not at all part of humanity’s daily spiritual bread. It is, rather, one of the noble virtues which one must labor to attain. It is not lesser than love, and fear, and cleaving to God, acquiring which clearly demands great effort. We can obtain freedom, and therefore we must acquire it.

Posted on September 27, 2015 .

Standing still — Kol Nidrei 2015/5776

I want to acknowledge Kerryn and Mark Baker who are so central to the shule, and to say we miss them very much tonight as they have been missed every week in shule. Our thoughts are with them tonight as they are all the time.


Good yontef.

Shira Hadasha literally means a new song. And while that is also a metaphor for doing things a little differently, singing to a new tune perhaps, it is very much the case that actual singing - new and old songs is central to the life of this shule. Here, as in many shuls, the evocative power of music is a huge part of tfila especially at this time of year and we cherish the wordless nigun as we did moments ago, the beauty of voices joining together in the choir and the poetry of the liturgy:  established prayer as well as of newer songs in Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

A song I’ve heard many times this year is by Regina Spektor, a Russian/American/Jewish songwriter who wrote the song “You’ve got time” especially for Orange is the New Black  a TV series set in a women’s prison that looks at a huge contemporary issue in the US – the obscenely high number of people in prisons, the over use and the failure of prison system and explores these against the back stories of the women, and the circumstances of their lives that led them to prison.

Think of all the roads
Think of all their crossings
Taking steps is easy
Standing still is hard

So perhaps it’s the context of judgment and punishment. Or the way in which the main character of the series challenges our idea of what is evil, criminal. Or maybe the ideas played out in the series of how so much of what happens to people is the result of the circumstances of birth.

But whatever the reason, for me this song evokes the yamim noraim.

And these words especially: “Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard” capture a beautiful theme of the yamim noraim, the play between on one side: contemplation and reflection, and on the other: movement and change.

The parshayot we read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana and then the Shabbat before Yom Kippur are called Nitzavim and Vayelech.

Nitzavim means standing - the people are instructed to stand - and in contrast with the standing of Nitzavim, Vayeilach means “go” and represents movement.

For transformation, for the process of change and renewal both elements are necessary: we need contemplation, reflection and also the steadfastness in the idea of standing - and certainly we literally stand a lot on Yom Kippur -  but of course we also need action, traction, movement if we are to change the way we live and behave.

And these next 24 hours certainly provide the time and the form for reflection, and in shule the sound track to accompany that.

And the contemplation is not necessarily easy – the themes and melodies of this day take us to dark places. We are told as children that Yom Kippur is solemn rather than sad – perhaps another lie told to children - but for me as an adult , and especially since coming to this shule, Yom Kippur also has an ache; it has become a moment of stillness, surrender, to feel the hardest truths about being alive. Here in the heart of suburban Caulfield, in this … bridge club, we are beckoned on Yom Kippur  by  voices of angels to see fragility, how heartbreakingly easily our lives can be thrown up in the air, and all the while those voices sing to us to hold onto the  beauty of living fully.

And that stillness stands in deep contrast to almost all the days of the year, when we grab life with both hands.

Just days ago we read in the Torah, in parshat Nitzavim: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life – uvecharta chayim - and we do choose life and all its enterprise. We battle to control our physical environment, we build political and social order to ward off the chaos, we fight illness and aging in any way we can, and we create: children, families, careers, communities – and to do so, we have to turn away from and deny death – but today we stand still and we face into our frailty and our mortality.  

The liturgy doesn’t mince words. “Adam yesodo mei’afar ve sofo l’afar. People come from dust and end in dust. Our lives are like a breath of wind, whirling dust, like a dream that slips away”.

The words grab us and hold us still, even as they wound us.

Like mourners, we don’t wear leather, we don’t bathe or perfume ourselves, intimacy is off the agenda. But in truth we are more than mourners - we rehearse death on this day. We don’t eat or drink, and we clothe ourselves in white – rags of light and purity, it’s true but also evoking the shroud of burial.

And we stand.

And this standing it is not always an easy thing. Standing still is hard.

And in the days leading up to Yom Kippur there is another dimension to this play between taking steps and standing still.  In these days the contrasting themes of surrender and action present themselves to us as different responses not only to the knowledge that everything that lives, must die - which has its own coherence at least - but to the frequent experience of the universe as chaotic, unfair and unjust. Nature is unpredictable, people are cruel, suffering is random.

In the understated elegance of the language of Ecclesiastes, it’s a “hevel” a futility that so often goodness goes unrewarded while evil thrives.    

One response in Jewish tradition to this experience of God’s indifference is resignation. It’s a view that we can’t understand God’s designs which can only be met with awe, acceptance and humility – that we just can’t understand the majesty of God’s intentions for the world.  

And if that’s what standing still means today then standing still is hard, too hard for me anyway.

When terrible things happen in our lives, when people we love are felled by illness or accident, when we are troubled, struggling with circumstances, with pain, loss and fear – it’s not enough, not possible to just accept that this is God’s will.

The voices in Jewish texts and traditions that are most compelling to me are those that are honest about God’s absence, honest that sometimes bad things just happen and aren’t deserved, that it is impossible to see design.

The texts I respond most fully to are those which offer instead the idea that people are adequate,  a vision of people as partners with God, able and obliged to take this world in both hands – to bring our creativity, our intelligence, our decency and our dignity to the brokenness.

There is cause for despair in what people to do to each other, but still I believe that people can and do make things better. In this room are parents, nurses, therapists, doctors, builders, teachers, journalists, political activists, musicians, writers, film makers, gardeners -  lives are enriched, eased and improved by what people are capable of, by what you do and more than anything  by our connections – by friendship, compassion and kindness.

And I really do believe in the power that love has to dance us through the panic till we’re slowly gathered in. 

We respond to more than the practical effect of human effort; we are moved, perhaps comforted  by the sense that there is something bigger, something holy in the potential of people; we are transformed by the exquisite possibilities in the divine spark ignited by human autonomy.

A very moving description of this note in our tradition is offered in a text I referred to earlier – the TV series OITNB. There are powerful TV moments – and there is one when Cindy who until her encounter with Judaism has not really wanted to take responsibility for anything much in her life explains to the visiting rabbi why she wants to be Jewish:

“I was raised … to believe and to pray and If I was bad I’d go to hell and if I was good I’d go to heaven.

and here y’all say there ain’t no hell

You’re not sure about heaven and if you do something wrong you’ve got to figure it out yourself 

and as far as God is concerned it’s your job to keep asking questions and to keep learning and to keep arguing 

It’s like verb. You do God”

I love it, yes absolutely for me the best of Judaism is like verb.

And this idea of people as partners with the divine in navigating and developing guidance on how to live with meaning and beauty is realised most fully in Halacha, the bedrock of Jewish practice –Halacha literally means a path for walking – in the tradition divinely inspired, but the path itself is  laid out by us.

And so we walk.

And is there anyone in Torah who walked more than Avraham Avinu (Abraham our forefather) who walked the length and breadth of the land in an odyssey – a search for truth, a journey to build a life of meaning and purpose?

Tradition tell us that Avraham was always a person of action  - from the age of three he wandered in his mind, turning  over the world he observed, rejecting the practices around him because they made no sense to him.

And so it is when God reveals himself to Avraham he tells him to walk. Lech lecha he says. You shall walk.

Move he is told, Go. Leave everything behind, start afresh. And he is not told where to go, although it is very clear what needs to be left behind: his land, his birthplace, the house of his father.

And so we understand - birth is not destiny. We don’t choose where we are born, and to whom, we don’t choose our genes, or our circumstances. But we have at least some choice and for Avraham the choice to live a full, meaningful, purposeful life began with that walk, and with not accepting his circumstances as inevitable.

There is an enigmatic Midrash about Avraham which offers a very beautiful way to consider what it means to walk towards meaning.

Midrash broadly is a description of the way the rabbis understood and explained biblical texts, providing additional detail or commentary – and this text is from a body of stories known as the Midrash Rabba.

The Lord said to Avram. Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house …To what may this be compared? To a man who was travelling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: is it possible to say that the palace lacks an owner? The owner of the palace looked out at him and said I am the owner of the palace so Avraham our father said is it possible to say the world lacks a master. God looked out at him and said I am the master of the world”

The dilemma is clear. Avram sees not just any building but a palace, a beautiful, complex structure which did not just build itself. And yet it is in flames – there is disorder, chaos, the threat of total loss.

And so Avram asks - and it may be asked in scepticism, it may be in terror - is there a master and if so where is he?

It is a question we all ask at some point – is there a master and where is he? Why was this world created with such beauty and promise only to be left to burn?

And Avram receives an answer that is not an answer. God declares himself “I am the master” but gives no explanation.

The Hasidic commentator Meir HaShiloah, the Ishbitzer rebbe provides a way to read this.

“The master looks out at him”- the midrash says.

It is Avram who is the subject of the master’s gaze. In the moment that Avram despairs at the absurdity of the world, the  gaze draws Avraham’s attention to himself.  He has to look inwards, he has to look to himself as he sets out on this journey. Before he can move, he has to know what he is capable of.

Maybe more: maybe it’s God who is trapped in the fire, calling for help, calling for us to extinguish the fire - the fullest response to the damage being done to the beautiful design of the palace is not humility, it is action.

We are the firefighters. That’s the design. We come into this world with all its beauty and danger but from here it’s up to us. There is no one but us to save the palace.

Perhaps it’s this quality in Avraham, this impulse to take responsibility which we also see other episodes in the Torah, that led the rabbis to describe Avraham as walking before God. Not next to or with God – but before God.

It’s a radical and powerful idea however you conceive of God – that Avraham’s goodness, the momentum he creates through his deeds and his questions make it possible for God to be in the world and not the other way around.

And it would be nice to finish here, with this idea that the very possibility of God is enabled by human action. But finishing would be less than be honest about tradition, because we know also that in the story of the Akedah, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac, this model is undercut by Avraham’s total obedience to God’s instructions. Avraham the challenger also readily agrees to do the unimaginable, the unspeakable. Where is his moral autonomy? How is this a man who walks before God?

There is no answer. Biblical and rabbinic traditions include both. A path of human dignity, responsibility and challenge, and a response that demands stillness and resignation and acceptance before God’s will which is unknowable.

Tradition doesn’t attempt to integrate the two. There is no coherent view, the tradition never tells us how much emphasis  to give to either approach. It is up to each of us to make those choices for ourselves.

When to stand and when to walk.

And so it remains with us. And we will spend much of the next 24 hours in this room, standing in the ways I’ve talked about and I’m sure others.  And the process is as individual and possibly as lonely as Jewish life can be, we stand together but we each undergo this day on our own. And yet of course there is always the communal in Jewish life.  And will end this day as we begin it, with verb: singing collectively.

But now as Spektor sings “You’ve got time”. We have 24 hours of standing, of stillness and surrender, but also 24 hours of walking, wandering in our own minds. Moving inwards so we can move onwards

So you’ve got time. We’ve got time.

Inspirations (and reading, listening and viewing suggestions): Burton Visotzky: Reading the Book; Jonathan Sacks: The letter in the Scroll; David Hartman: A Living Covenant; Aviva Zornberg: The Beginning of Desire; Regina Spektor: You’ve got time; Jenji Kohan: Orange is the New Black; Leonard Cohen: Dance me to the end of loveIf it be thy will; Elie Wiesel: Messengers of God; Eliezer Berkovitz: Not in Heaven

Posted on September 25, 2015 .

Rosh Hashana Drasha 5776

Race, Racism and the Creation of Mankind

Ittay Flescher


When you woke up in the morning today, many of you put on your nicest clothes in honour of the chag and began your journey to shul. As you walked down Balaclava Rd, you wished Shana Tova to the people you passed, and exchanged hugs and reminisced with friends not seen for some time. One thing you may not have done, is wish someone ‘Happy Birthday.’ Many of us don't realize that the reason we are here today is to mark the birth of two people.

Two people, initially created as one, born of no parents, with no religion, separated from each other at birth. They walked the earth 2000 years before the first Jew was born, and 2500 years before we were proclaimed a people at Mt Sinai. Their names were Adam and Eve. According to the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 29:1), today is their birthday.

The words ‘Hayom Harat Olam,’  “Today the world was brought into being” mark the creation of the first human soul. The Talmud asks in Masechet Sanhedrin, "Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole world; Man was also created alone so that no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, 'Our father was born first'; and, finally, to give testimony to the greatness of the Lord, who caused the wonderful diversity of mankind to emanate from one type. And why was Adam created last of all beings? To teach him humility; for should he ever become arrogant, let him remember that the little fly preceded him in the order of creation."

The Yalkut Shimoni 1:13 elaborates on this idea by stating God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world—yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore no one can declare to any people that they do not belong since this soil is the source from which we all emerged.

There are more texts in this vein which go to great lengths to express the idea that all mankind is descended from one Adam, a being who was neither male nor female, whose body held the potential to be a vessel for all future genders, races, and possibilities of human identity.

This principle, that all mankind originates from one, exists in many faiths, and is also enshrined in the pre-amble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the “inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

The first article of this declaration which has been endorsed by almost every nation on earth states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The Guinness Book of Records describes the Declaration as the world's "Most Translated Document." Even though it is not legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948 and served as the foundation for a growing number of national laws and international laws.
Sometimes I read it to my children as a bedtime story.

That said, in spite of this desire for mankind to be colour blind, articulated in both Jewish and civil law, so many events have occurred in the past year to show the opposite is true. I’d like to explore cases from two different countries that will be familiar to many of you here today.

Twenty years after Nicky Winmar famously lifted his jumper and declared ''I'm black - and I'm proud to be black!'' the response of Adam Goodes to a racist taunt from a 13 year old girl has now become a defining moment in Australian race relations. The day following the incident, Goodes explained his response:

“It’s not the first time on the footy field I’ve been referred to as a monkey or an ape. It was shattering. This week is a celebration of our people and our culture. Last night, I was able to make a stand for myself and say racism has a face, and it’s a 13-year-old girl, but it’s not her fault. She’s 13, she’s still so innocent. I don’t put any blame on her. Unfortunately it’s what she hears, the environment she’s grown up in that has made her think it’s ok to call people names.”

A year later, Goodes was honoured with the title of Australian of the Year for his activism against racism. Whilst he was honoured by many, a small minority started booing him at AFL matches, the trauma of which led to him taking some time out of football in August this year. Amongst a great deal of commentary about this, I was incredibly moved to read these words of Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant in the Guardian:

“I may be overly sensitive. I may see insult where none is intended. Maybe my position of relative success and privilege today should have healed deep scars of racism and the pain of growing up Indigenous in Australia. The same could be said of Adam. And perhaps that is right. But this is how Australia makes us feel. Estranged in the land of our ancestors, marooned by the tides of history on the fringes of one of the richest and demonstrably most peaceful, secure and cohesive nations on earth. The “wealth for toil” we praise in our anthem has remained out of our reach. Our position at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator tragically belies the Australian economic miracle. From childhood I often cringed against my race. To be Aboriginal was to be ashamed. Ashamed of our poverty. Ashamed of the second-hand clothes with the giveaway smell of mothballs and another boy’s name on the shirt collar. Ashamed of the way my mother and grandmother had to go to the Smith Family or Salvation Army for food vouchers.”

I have met with a number of inspiring elders over the past few years through my participation in the Yorta Yorta Beyachad program at Mount Scopus. These moving words of Stan Grant are not new to me, and underlie how far we still need to travel as a nation before the aspirations of our anthem are realised.


The country I’d like to explore next is an ocean away from us, but very close to the hearts of many in this room. From 1948, its government had the dubious reputation of being one of the most racist in the world. I am speaking of South Africa. A country ruled by the British or Dutch since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 until the end of apartheid in 1994. Afrikaner nationalists spoke of themselves as a chosen people, ordained by God to rule South Africa to the exclusion of all others.  

Being one of what sometimes feel like a minority of Jews in Melbourne who is not South African, the history of this country has always fascinated me. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting this most beautiful and challenging of places as a guest of Limmud South Africa

Before my visit, most of what I knew about the country was based on memories of watching the Power of One and the 1995 Rugby world cup with many South African school friends who ate Biltong and lived in Doncaster. I remember the symbolism of Mandela wearing the once hated springbok jersey, and seeing the now multi-racial rugby team win over New Zealand. It was an incredibly inspiring moment demonstrating the power of reconciliation.

Like many Australians, I also heard many stories about Nelson Mandela, who seems to occupy a special place in the western imagination together with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr as being one of the greatest champions of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and transformational leadership.

A month after Mandela was elected president in 1994, he famously said of his people, “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

Last week, I re-watched the final minutes of the 1995 rugby world cup where South Africa defeated New Zealand. The first thing the Australian commentator said when the final whistle was blown was; “It's over. A triumph for the rainbow nation.” 

The 1995 World Cup was but one many symbols demonstrating that South Africa had left its wicked past behind. The flag was not the only symbol that changed to rainbow colours when apartheid ended. There was also a change in the names many roads, airports, and public squares that had been named after apartheid era leaders. Now named leaders of the struggle for liberation, what more potent a symbol could there be that South Africa was leaving its path of racism behind?

Most poignantly for me, was a change in mottos. When the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, the official coat of arms carried an Afrikaans Motto which read “Unity Makes Strength.” Since the end of apartheid, the new coat of arms features two Khosian human figures, representing the indigenous people of the land. The Motto now reads “Unity in Diversity.”

These many powerful examples of cultural change since 1994, made we wonder, Is South Africa a Rainbow nation today? 20 years after the end of apartheid, has it finally overcome its demons of history? Was this nation that categorised all of its people into black, white and coloured for so many years, able to implement the idea in Talmud Sanhedrin, that we are all created equal and are all from the same source?

On one hand, I found many examples to answer this question in the affirmative. Most striking was my visit to Constitution Hill which is the site of a former Johannesburg prison that incarcerated hundreds of black and white members of the ANC, three of whom went on to become Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Today it is home to the highest court in the land. The Constitutional Court on this site enforces what is arguably one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.  Not only does it guarantee the traditional civil rights such as the right to vote, free expression, the rights of association and assembly, but also important social rights such as the right to clean water, health and to be gay or lesbian without being discriminated against. It ruled in favour of same sex marriage in 2005, passed strong laws against the death penalty, and has even tried a deputy president whilst in office. This court was an incredible prize to all who participated in the struggle for liberation.

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    Visit to the Constitutional Court with former prisoner Alan Fine

Visit to the Constitutional Court with former prisoner Alan Fine

However, just outside the court, there were signs all over the city saying “Johannesburg says no to Xenophobia". These were a reference to a spate of racist attacks against foreigners in South Africa from Zimbabwe, and Congo, Somalia and Mozambique. 7 people lost their lives to this violence in April 2015.

The issues that motivated those who perpetrated the violence against the foreigners included competition for jobs, commodities, housing and nationalism. Clearly in these cases, even though both the victims and perpetrators shared the same skin colour, there was enough difference within the ethnic identities and lived reality to bring them to such tragic consequences.

In addition to this phenomenon of xenophobia, the #RhodesMustFall 

movement which successfully lobbied for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town this year has generated much discussion around the issues of white privilege in South Africa. These have included strong debates about the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiative, which gives preference to Black and Coloured South Africans in the awarding of government contracts and university places, as well as the strong feelings of alienation by black students who are still learning in courses where Afrikaans is the language of instructions such as Stellenbosch University.

In light of these issues, of all the descriptions that are used to describe the South African people today on their journey to liberation, ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’ are not the words I would choose.
Even though we have only explored two countries today, stories about social, political and economic equality based on race can be easily found in almost every country on earth. With this in mind, I’d like to share a simple hope for the coming year 5776.

Many people of conscience throughout the world would like our planet to return to being a Garden of Eden without racial discrimination, but before that can happen, we need to acknowledge the legacy of racism, the privilege that some races still hold over others and the tikkun required before we can again return to an idea we are celebrating today on the creation of the first human. 

May we all one day live in a world where our behaviour is colour blind, where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin.


Shana Tova

Posted on September 18, 2015 .

Toldot — Departing Dvar Torah

Yardena Prawer

I have been coming to Shira since its inception and Hamakom before that. As a young girl I sat in awe of those who I saw as the educational giants of this community. Everything I was being exposed to was so wildly different to my Jewish learning experience at Yavneh and I was enthralled by the colour, imagination and deep love with which the texts were being taught. From Debbie Mazel z”l to Nathan to Michael to Melanie to Mark, Naor, Ittai and the list goes on each of you inspired a very real continued engagement with my Judaism, from the beautiful to the difficult and everything in-between. I think it is for this reason that I have yet to deliver a Dvar Torah at Shul. I have taken on many other roles in this environment but somehow speaking to all of you was a little too intimidating. I decided however that my last week was probably the best time to undertake this but also that I couldn’t leave this beautiful community that has shaped who I am in so many ways without expressing how I feel about this place, shining a light on its beauty, through the prism of some wonderful Torah.

I do not know the torah like Mark Symons, the Zohar like Nathan, Rambam like Michael or genocide like Mark Baker but one thing I do know is Kids. Lucky for me this week’s parashah has every developmental psychologists favourite type of children, twins and a real exemplar of how not to parent. It is indeed about the kind of love that Yitschak and Rivkah bestow upon their children into which I wish to delve deeper. I want to ask some critical questions about the nature of love, parental and other. I wish to look at what we can learn from different models, what we should strive for and what is reasonable to expect of ourselves.

What is often focused on in the story of Rivkah and Yitschak’s parenting of their twins is the favouritism they each display for one of their children. Hoewever there is another important parenting lesson that can be learnt this week from the qualitative difference in their love and hence in the attachment that they each share with their respective favourites. The pasuk tells us that

The evident qualitative difference between each of these parents’ love is that Yitschak’s love is contingent upon his son being a hunter and therefore providing his father with food whereas Rivka loves her son without any conditions or reasons specified. The most appropriate terms we may give these different types of love are conditional and unconditional love. Yitschak’s love for his child comes with an expectation of some personal gain in the relationship whilst Rivkah is displaying the kind of selfless parental love that is traditionally seen as “mother’s love”. Rivka’s is a love not only without expectation but one for which she would sacrifice herself for her child. Indeed when she encourages Yaakov to steal the birth right from his brother, she tells him if his father discovers the ruse and curses, rather than blesses, him, "your curse will be on me, my son."

Two models of love are presented to us here in this story. Our instinct of course would be to assume that the terms unconditional and parental should be interchangeable with regards to love, that Rivka’s love must be superior and that her attachment with her son Yaakov reflects this. How realistic is this however? Are parents actually capable of unconditional love or is the concept a mere cultural construct reinforced to perpetuate our race? Is Rivkah’s love truly unconditional or does she derive some benefit albeit emotional? Can we achieve it or does it lie beyond a human’s capacities.

Different fields of psychology have addressed this question from different angles. The pervasive position of evolutionary psychologists is that we must view acts of selfess love through the lens of perpetuation of an individual’s genes. That is to say it is survival of the fittest for the genes not the individuals. It is for this reason that parents protect their offspring.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging studies (albeit limited in their precision and capacity to truly test these phenomena) claim to have identified different neural pathways for maternal love and unconditional love both of which however seem to heavily involve the reward centres of the brain. So whilst we could argue that a love without expectation of material gain may exist, there is sufficient evidence to my mind that we are programmed to derive at least psychological pleasure from that interaction.

So perhaps a truly unconditional love does not exist and perhaps the distinction we should be looking at is between different types of conditional love material and other. Or perhaps it is indeed a question of how we use that which we receive from conditional love. In discussion with rabbi Josh Back (commonly known as the rib) he pointed out something interesting; that the fatal flaw of so many relationships is the desired of each party to receive unconditional love and the incapability of the each party to truly provide it. Perhaps a mythical love like that portrayed by Rivkah in this week’s parasha is that for which we spend our lives searching but cannot receive because it is beyond human capacity to provide. When we desire to take more from those we love than they have we set up in in balance that cannot be sustained and results either in the demise of the relationship or the breakdown of one of the partners. Perhaps conditional love is the secret to the perpetuation of love. If loving someone gives us pleasure, happiness, strength, a sense of self worth, a reprieve from loneliness and a reason for being we can take the strength we have derived to power more love, to give more often and more widely. It is the reality of the rechargeable battery versus the wasteful single use one that has such severe limitations to its power capacity.

Despite the fact that I often have a child firmly secured to my waist, I have not yet had the privilege of being a parent, I do however feel in my line of work that almost every normative principle of human interaction is based entirely on the fundamentals of kindergarten and on the principles of the first most important relationship in our lives that of a child with their parent. So what lessons can we derive from the models of parental love in Toldot? And at the risk of sounding a little bit preachy with what message can I leave you, my beautiful community Shira and with what blessings. 

Community is an incredible force. It is a collective that supports and ties people together creating a sense of belonging and identity. According to data from the World Values Survey, Social capital, as measured by the strength of religious and community ties, is found to support both physical health and subjective well–being. One of the great realisations of atheists over the past few years has been the detrimental absence of community when one has exited a religious lifestyle. As such, many secular communities are now trying to create communal interactions that mimic that of the synagogue, church or mosque, highlighting its centrality. So when we love our community it is not without return. It comes with a spiritual rejuvenation, an education for our children and ourselves, intellectual stimulation, food rosters, a supportive peer group and even if we are lucky bissle of herring. Whilst we might derive all of these invaluable services we must ask ourselves what we do with the strength that belonging to this shul has provided us. I can only speak for myself in saying that the more I have given, the more I have received. The cycle of love, friendship and support has continued turning bringing with it the unexpected wonders. My love has been conditional yet somehow the love I have received has felt unconditional. I plan to take all that I have received from being a part of Shira and use it to strengthen my future endeavours as I become a part of new communities, educate other children and give to new causes. My blessing to you, my community of 10 years is that we take fruits of our labour and sew the seeds right back into the earth so that they make grow into trees that provide for us and for future generations.

May he who blessed our forefathers Avraham, Yitschak and Yaakov and our foremother Sara, Rivka Rachel and Leah, bless all of this holy congregation, together with all other holy congregations, them and all of their families and all that they have. And all those who occupy themselves with the needs of the congregation, may they be blessed, may they be kept from all sickness, may their bodies be healed and may they be forgiven any transgressions, and may blessing and success be upon all of their endeavours.

May this congregation be strengthened with wisdom, compassion and integrity. May it continue to raise others’ spirits through song, to inspire through learning and to push boundaries on behalf of the marginalised. May our shul forever be filled with the heart-warming sound of children, the young voices of those entering Jewish adulthood with pride and the Wisdom of those with knowledge. May we continue to shine a light on the torah by living it with derech eretz all of our days and let us say Amen.

Posted on November 23, 2014 .

Noach Drasha

Esther Takac


I love the story of Noah and the ark.  

Children the world over know it as it’s often read to them from pretty picture books with cute illustrations of the animals marching two by two to the ark. Show pic Pignataro of ark and children’s book.

Naomi Rosenblatt, psychotherapist and author of “Wrestling with Angels” explains the appeal of the story for young children: “Children crave the security of an orderly domestic routine. What better metaphor of safety and security amid chaos than the sanctuary of Noah’s ark in the storm? ...No matter how fiercely the winds and rain rage outside, the ark is always warm, safe and dry.”

Another reference to the ark as a metaphor for safety comes from Thomas Keneally. He had thought to call his book Schindler’s Ark, referring to the ark of safety Schindler gave the jews in the horror and chaos of the holocaust.

But of course in the Jewish tradition of commentary things are not so simple and there are many layers to be unwrapped.

We will discover this isn’t just a sweet children’s story of cute animals in a warm ark . Rather it has deeper hidden layers with relevance for how we live our lives today.

So just last week in parashat Bereshit we read about how God created humankind. In the beginning Adam and Eve were created from the breath of God above and the earth below and placed in the world to take care of it. People were created with free will, to choose to do good or evil. But in the ten generations from Adam to Noah people had forgotten their special place in the world and had chosen to do evil – they were cruel, selfish and violent.

In that time there were no laws. God had not yet given the 10 commandments or the Noahide laws (the 7 laws that God gave after the flood for all people to keep.) Perhaps the bad behaviour of people at that time shows what can happen to a society when there aren’t any laws.

Then the Torah tells us “It was into this generation that Noah was born. Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation”.

But what kind of a rigtheous man was Noah?

The question of who Noah is, as a man and a leader, an analysis of his behaviour at that time of crisis, the measure of his righteousness, is discussed at length by the commentators. 

Rashi explained the phrase “perfect in his generation” in two ways.  It can be understood as a compliment to Noah.  Noah managed to remain a righteous man even when all the people around him were selfish and cruel. He had the courage not to be influenced by people around him, but to stick to his own path. This is not an easy thing to do. Its like if you were doing an important test and every single person in the room was cheating by noticing that the teacher had mistakenly left some important information on the board and copying it into the test. What would you have done if you were in Noah’s shoes?

But on the other hand, Rashi and other commentators also understood “perfect in his generation” as a criticism of Noah.  Noah stood out as a righteous man in that generation of evil people, but had he lived in a different generation of good people, he would not have stood out as any more righteous than the others. 

The Biblical commentators view the Torah text as a single entity and often their interpretations are based on cross comparisons with other people in similar situations.

Rashi and other Rabbis reveal a deeper understanding of Noah through comparing him with Abraham and Moshe. They  compare Noah with Abraham because, just as God tells Noah that all people will be destroyed because of their evil ways, so too God tells Abraham that all the people living in  Sodom and Gemorrah will be destroyed because of their evil ways.  But, whilst Noah does not argue with God, Abraham pleads, argues and bargains passionately with God not to destroy the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. 

They compare Noah with Moshe because both are placed adrift in a ‘teva” (an ark or basket) on waters as a wayto save them.   But, when God was angry with the children of Israel for praying to the golden calf, Moses argued with God and sought mercy for them.  But Noah did not intercede on behalf of the generation of the flood.

Some commentators look at the Hebrew translation of Noah’s name.   The word ‘Noah’ means ‘comfort.’  Noah was to bring comfort to the world, and humankind was saved through him.  But Noah has been critisized because he stayed within his own comfort zone.  He did as God commanded him, but he didn’t extend himself beyond. He didn’t move out of his comfort zone to plead with God not to destroy the rest of humanity. Noah looked after himself and his family but he didn’t reach out to save others. 

But are we being unfair to Noah?? Avram Burg has written a book of commentary on the Torah called Very Near To You  - Human Readings on the Torah. There he writes about his change of heart about Noah. “For years I was extremely critical of Noah. I didn’t like his silent character, his failure to open his mouth, to utter even a single word of protest as God stormed across the world in his watery rage…..” But then Burg changes his view. He realized that it’s not fair to compare Noah to Abraham or to Moshe – Noah is not that sort of guy. Burg writes “That is not his place. In the biblical story Noah is neither a lawgiver nor a prophetic voice. Noah belongs among the peole who build and do, not those who think and speak. Noah is a pioneer, not an intellectual, a manual laborer rather than a philosopher. ..He was good at big arks, rescue missions and practical detials, not at creating theories and revealing truths.”

So throughout the story of Noah, there is a question lurking beneath the surface: “How righteous a man was Noah?  Was he a perfectly righteous man, or was he a fairly good man who could have done better?” 

And that brings up the broader issue of what it means to be a good person. And does being a good person involve the same qualities as being a good leader? And what does it mean to be righteous? Does it mean to follow all the laws and mitzvoth, keeping to “the letter of the law”? Or does it mean to go beyond following all the laws and be involved in the world beyond (what could be seen as “the spirit of the law”)?

The issue of Noah’s relative righteousness is picked up by Avivah Zornberg.

Aviva, ever sensitive to the particular nuances pf the Biblical Hebrew language, notices that the Torah writes  “Noah came into the ark. And God shut him in”. Pic of closed door. Surely Noah could have closed the ark door himself. Zornberg explains that the ark saves Noah but in some ways the closed space of the ark is also a prison.

In describing this prison-like quality Zornberg writes “And God shut him in” – An ambiguous slam of the door, protecting, imprisoning. Claustrophobia sets in, as we read of all the animal flesh, male and female, enclosed with Noah for twelve months.”  Perhaps in some senses Noah’s experience in the ark was a punishment for his not having reached out to save others.

OK so now Noah and his family are stuck in an ark with thousands of animals. Who knows how long they stayed in the ark for?

And what would looking after all those animals for a year have involved?

 

Feed nocturnal animals in the middle of the night.

Clean the poo of the elephants.

Be careful not to get bitten by the lions.

Clean up after sea sick vomiting animals.

 

God could have saved Noah and the animals in many ways. So why did God choose this rather arduous way to save Noah and the animals? 

What is the function of Noah’s yearlong journey in the ark?

Various commentators pick up on this theme and describe the ark as a lesson in responsibility and caring for others.

As Harav David Cohen writes “The ark had to be more than a protection against the raging elements without; it had to enclose within it a disparate collection of thousands of creatures led and cared for by Noah and his family, forcing them together, imposing upon them an awesome regime of selflessness that allowed not a free moment for self-indulgence.  For Noah this was a vital lesson.  He was taken to task for not having shown sufficient concern for his generation, for not reproving them, praying for them – saving them.  He had been content to protect his own righteousness.  His labours in the ark demonstrated to him that he must feel a responsibility for all others”. 

In this way the ark becomes a bridge between the old world and the new - an enclosed space where Noah has to learn to care for others.

So when the flood ended Noah and his family emerged from the ark with a new understanding of their place in the world, their respsonsiblity to the rest of creation -  which was the model for the post flood world. Whilst one world was being destroyed, God was busy creating a new world.

So if we think of the story of Noah as relevant for us today where does that take us?

I was fascinated to hear Rabbi Benny Lau (Rosh Yeshiva of Beit Midrash for Social Justice at Beit Morasha and head of the Human Rights and Judaism in Action Project at the Israel Democracy Institute) relate the concept of Noah and the ark to Israeli society. He spoke about the gap between what he calls “Medinat Yerushalayim” and Tel Aviv in a way that critisized the datiyim - religious. He described how the important social justice movement in Israel  - protesting against the deterioration of health and education services and the rise in the cost of living… is an overwhelmingly secular movement. Most religious have not become involved – instead they have closed themselves in, and these were his words – “like in Noah’s ark where there is comfort inside and chaos outside”.

Does the commentators’ criticism of Noah relate to our own current government, which has decided that its Ok for Australians to close the doors of our ark — and slash 4.5 billion dollars of foreign aid, prevent asylum seekers from landing on our shores, and not worry about our contribution to global warming.

What would be the equivalent of the flood that would wake us up to the understanding that we are all in this together??

And finally what does the story of Noah have to say to each of us about what it means to be a righteous person?

Like Noah, we in our own lives try to live a good moral life.  And we also create an ark of safety around ourselves. We create that ark in our family and homes in Caulfield or Armadale or Toorak. And I hope for all of us that ark is safe. But its very easy after long day at work/school to hide away and relax at home. Often when the world feels difficult and complicated we withdraw into the comfort of our ark. But the story of Noah is teaching us that living our own good life in our ark is not enough.

To be a truly righteous person you have to step outside your ark of comfort and help to fix the world beyond.

Posted on October 27, 2014 .

Yizkor Drasha – Repent. Pray. Give.

Parts in Regular font read by Ittay Flescher

Parts in bold read by Carm Rose 

Hey there everybody. Each week I try and listen to my two favourite podcasts, This American Life and its Hebrew cousin Sipur Yisraeli (now also available in English). They each choose a theme and bring you different stories on that theme. Today being Yom Kippur, for those who have never heard the podcast before, we are presenting to you three stories around the theme, Teshuva, Tfilla and Tzedakah, as seen in Shira’s version of Julia Robert’s film, Repent Pray Give.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This Shira Life. I'm Ittay Flescher. Stay with us. 

Act One: Repent

We searched far and wide for a meaningful story of teshuva, and are pleased to share the work of Israeli author Etgar Keret, in our first story about what Teshuva means to him.

My strangest Yom Kippur apology story began when I was 4. One of the kids in my new preschool group was a pretty, sweet girl named Noa. She was quiet and smiley, two qualities I was not blessed with, and when I once accidentally touched her thick blonde hair, it felt like sticky cotton candy. I really wanted to play with her but didn’t exactly know how to do it, so after six months of looking at her from a distance, I decided to make a move, and one morning, when I saw her running next to me in the yard, I stuck out my foot and tripped her.

Noa fell and hurt herself. She started to cry, and when the teacher ran over to help her, Noa pointed at me and said, “He did it. He tripped me.” The teacher, who liked me very much, asked me if it was true, and I immediately said no.

The teacher rebuked Noa, “Etgar is a good boy who never lies. Why are you making up such terrible things about him? You should be ashamed of yourself!” Noa, who’d almost stopped crying, started all over again, and the teacher stroked my head and walked off angrily. Right then I wanted to tell Noa I was sorry and confess to the teacher that I’d lied, but I couldn’t find the courage. Meanwhile, another girl helped Noa walk over to the fountain so she could wash her scraped knee, and I remained standing in the yard.

An unsaid sorry can keep you awake at night. Or in this case, 13 years. Finally, at age 17, Etgar Keret decides to apologise.

 “Noa?” I said in a very shrill voice. Noa stopped, took off her headphones, and studied me. “I’m Etgar,” I said, “Etgar Keret. We were once in the same preschool together.” She smiled and said she remembered preschool but didn’t remember me. I told her about how I tripped her and lied, and how she cried because of the affront and a little because of the pain, but she didn’t remember any of it.

“It was a long time ago,” she said, half-apologetically.

“But I remember,” I persisted, “and soon it’s going to be Yom Kippur, and I wanted to apologize.”

“Apologize for something stupid you did when you were 4?” she said and smiled that lovely smile I remembered from preschool. “Apology accepted,” she said after a brief pause, and then put her orange headphones over her ears and left.

I remember going home from school on that day having done my teshuva. I rode my bike, the pedals turned easily, the road felt smooth, and even the uphill parts felt like they were downhill. I never saw her again, but since then, whenever I have a strong urge not to tell the truth, I think of her outside her high-school classroom, smiling broadly, her face full of pimples, saying she accepted my apology. Then I take a deep breath, and lie.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer. He also writes a regular column  from Israel for Tablet.

We now enter the second part of this Yom Kippur Episode

Act 2: Pray

Fifty one years ago, American President John F. Kennedy organized a meeting of religious leaders to discuss civil rights issues at the White House. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel responded to the President with a telegram that has since become famous: 

I look forward to the privilege of being present at the meeting tomorrow four pm. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leader’s personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary towards funds for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Heschel was expressing his firm belief that the religious experience of worship could not be divorced from one’s actions outside the synagogue walls; those who failed to act publicly against injustice could not claim to be religious.

Frequently cited in these circles is the statement Heschel made following the Selma Civil Rights March in 1965, when he joined with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other religious and political figures in a third — and finally successful — attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, and demand voting rights for African Americans at the Alabama state capital:

For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.

In 1965 Heschel prayed with his legs, today in this shul, we pray with our lips. But how will we pray on the other 364 days of the year? Prayer may be in shul, but it may also be done through actions of Social Justice. And, maybe, that that is exactly what God wants from us.

This brings us to the third part.

Act 3: Give  

10 days ago, the Jewish calendar entered the year of shmitta. The sabbatical year is mentioned several times in the Bible, starting with Shmot. Here’s God. She’s going to read a bit of the Torah she gave us now.

“Hi God”

“Hi Ittay”

“Big day huh?”
“Yeah, I’m feeling the love”

“So shmitta. How is this year different from all other years?”

“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year, which started ten days ago, you are to let the land lie unplowed and unused.” (Exodus 23:10)

“No ploughing? I love ploughing”

“No. NO ploughing. Come back seven years!”

“Ok, so what about my fields?”

The poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” (Exodus 23:11)

That’s a wonderful idea God, but if I don’t work my field for a whole year, what am I going to eat?

Fear not my son. I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it should yield a crop enough for three years (Leviticus 25:21)

Wow. That’s amazing. So I take a whole year off, and you provide me with a massive bonus. Is there anything else that I have do on the shmitta year?

Yes my humble servant. Every seventh year you shall practice release of debts. This shall be the nature of the release: every creditor shall release his authority over what he claims from his neighbour. (Deuteronomy 15. see here see here for a great article by Adam Zagroria-Moffet)

So why am I releasing these debts? Why am I leaving the land? What’s it about?

“You may think you hold the title and deeds, but the land is Mine; for you are but a tenant occupying my earth! That Land is not yours. I let you live on it through my generosity.  (Leviticus 25:23)

My stay here is brief like a passing shadow. Ultimately nothing I own is really mine.

That’s right. You just need to let it go, let it go, don’t plough the land any more

After that exchange with God, one would think Jews would be thrilled about keeping shmitta to the letter of the law. Unfortunately this is not what happens in practice.

In practice, Shmita has become mired in legal, political, and economic issues that obscure its historical and ethical origins. For most Israelis, the topic of Shmita has been relegated either to the kitchen (kashrut observers must choose between a complex set of Shmita standards) or the garden (when am I allowed to cut the grass?!). The fierce debates around these issues not only exacerbate tensions between the secular and religious communities, but also detract from the underlying significance of Shmita.

Our final guest on today’s program, in Act 3, Einat Kramer, Founder and Director of Teva Ivri; a non-profit organization promoting Jewish environmental responsibility in Israel. 

My story, which you can find on the Times of Israel, started during my maternity leave for my fourth baby. I stepped out from my normal life, work, politics, and just took time out. It reminded me so much of the shmitta year, where we leave our normal busy life on the land, and just rest.

It seemed resting wasn’t in Einat’s nature though, so she went on to set up an exciting new venture – the Israeli Shmita Initiative. To her great surprise, it was warmly received by many organisations across the religious spectrum, and three Israeli ministries endorsed it in the Knesset. You may be wondering, what is the Israeli Shmitta initiative? Here’s Einat again:

The Israeli Shmita Initiative believes that this shmitta year, property assumes less importance, time is less pressured and nature becomes much more than a resource to be exploited. Shmita presents an alternative to the race of modern life and is characterized by love of the people and Land of Israel, a heightened sense of social responsibility, and a framework for environmental practice. After two years of active preparation, we can already see that this Shmita year will look different to any that has gone before.

Here are some of the initiatives Einat’s organisation has supported this shmitta year:

  • A financial recovery program, spearheaded by Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon engages philanthropists, banks, and professional consultants in helping needy families settle their debts and begin the journey toward financial recovery.
  • An online Time Bank enables one to “give up” time on behalf of youth at risk, disadvantaged families, and others in need, based on one’s availability and skill set.
  • A think tank for cinematographers, and new media specialists to explore Shmita and produce new-old expressions of Israeli society.
  • The Merkam youth group – a network of secular and religious communities – initiated a collective “disconnect” from Facebook for the sake of real social interaction, face to face.
  • In New York, Amichai Lau Lavie has also created Fallowlab.com, a year-long journey of exploring better balance between our virtual and actual lives. Inspired by the Jewish Shmita tradition, this journey reinterprets the biblical agricultural practice of a year of release to the land and to the farmer, reapplied for today’s social, economic and digital reality.

Einat continues her story here:

Israeli Shmita invites everyone to learn about the mitzvah of Shmita and consider how he or she can actualize it on a personal and communal level. There is no limit to what you can “take on” in order to internalize the messages of Shmita – reducing the number of hours at work, joining a study group or class, buying more local, ethically sourced and seasonal food… Everyone needs a bit more shmitta in their lives. Trust me you won’t regret it! 

Conclusion

So, we have now heard three stories. Etgar Keret’s attempt to do Teshuva, and repent to Noa. Heschel’s story of tefilla, praying with his legs on the march from Selma to Montgomery and Einat Kramer’s enterprise to give tzedaka, through the Israeli Shmitta Initiative.

These are but three of thousands of stories we could have chosen about Teshuva, Tfilla and Tzedakah. Each of us has our own. Please share them.

Without stories, so much of Judaism ends up having no meaning, becoming a list of do’s and don’ts rather than a canvass of hows and whys.

In a few minutes from now, this room will fall silent. Those of us who remain, will say the words, Yizkor Elohim nishmat, may God remember the soul of…. After we will insert the name of a loved one and affirm to give tzedakah in their memory. 

Perhaps some of you may be inspired do more than just give tzedakah after yizkor. Maybe you will find your own meaning of shmitta this year. Ask yourself,

What does it mean for Israelis to accept that they are only the stewards and not the owners of the land?

What does it mean to let go of work stress, digital overload or other fears that stop us from being who we want to be?

What does it mean to forgive the debts, and maybe the wrongs, committed against us by our neighbours and friends?

Each of you will have your own answers to these questions, so at this point, I’ll bid you farewell, and pray that we may all find ways to have a meaningful shmitta year, as we pray to be inscribed in the book of life.

May you also have a story worthy year.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

Posted on October 7, 2014 .

Ktoret's Batmi Drasha

Shabbat shalom. Thank you all for coming from far and near, up and down, from around Australia and the world, from Barcelona and Jerusalem. Today is my batmitzvah, it’s the day I have been preparing for, for a long time and I am very excited. I have a few thoughts about my parashah that I want to share with you.

After all of creation, Hashem says it is good but after the creation of humans God says it is very good. Maybe Hashem was the happiest with people out of all of creation. Humans are going to be the beings that can be trusted because they are in the image of God.  Each human is completely different but all humans have a part of God inside them. Every human, from every county and every religion. This means that all humans can connect to each other from that little part that is the same. Whether they are enemies or not, we are still the same and belong to each other.

Allowing Adam to name the animals is a way of giving humans the opportunity to practise their leadership of the world as helpers of Hashem. Hashem also didn’t name all the creatures because humanity is going to have to interact with them. But maybe Hashem keeps a unique way of addressing the animals that humanity doesn’t understand.

It’s not fair that God gave humanity its name, but man gave the woman her name. When I started learning for my batmitzvah, a lot of kids in my grade started asking me why I was reading from the Torah, and that girls are not allowed to read from the Torah and that it is a zilzul, like to mess around with the Torah, and I kept on telling them, “In my shule, a lot of women read from the Torah, they participate in services. Just because you are not used to that in your tradition and your family, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in other traditions.” It was very hurtful. I learnt to stand up for my values, and that if people expect things from you that conflict with your values, you don’t have to do them and you don’t have to listen to them. I am very proud to be part of this community, this family, that is there to support me in so many ways. I have all these role models that encourage me to do the unexpected. Over the past years I have learnt that if someone has a big influence on you, and encourages you, you can change yourself, you can change anything if people believe in you. People believing in you is a very big thing in life. I may only be 12 but I have courage and if I believe I can do amazing things.

 After Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Hashem comes looking for them and asks “Where are you?” ?איכה Hashem used to be the only one who knew things and now humans also know things, maybe things that would be easier not to know. But that is part of being human.

Even though they have just done a huge sin, he says “?איכה” where are you? And I read it softly as I imagined Hashem’s voice- Hashem is angry but so powerful, there is no need to yell. Even just softly saying “Where are you?” will get the message across. It might even get your attention more when someone is talking seriously than when someone is screaming at you without a meaning.

Although Adam and Chava are holy and the first children of Hashem, they can behave immaturely by blaming one another. I personally think that what Adam says is the most hurtful and disloyal because he not only blames Chava for her sin, but for her being – and he also blames Hashem for creating her הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה עִמָּדִי, הִוא נָתְנָה-לִּי מִן-הָעֵץ וָאֹכֵל. He doesn’t only blame one but he has to blame two. He doesn’t only blame his wife he blames his” father” too.

After the sin of the forbidden eating, Adam, Chava and the snake all get cursed.

For those who noticed when it comes to the woman’s curse it says

אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה אָמַר, הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה עִצְּבוֹנֵךְ וְהֵרֹנֵךְ--בְּעֶצֶב, תֵּלְדִי בָנִים; וְאֶל-אִישֵׁךְ, תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ, וְהוּא, יִמְשָׁל-בָּךְ. “To the woman he said: a lot of pain in your pregnancy, in sadness you will have children.  And your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”

The first time I read this verse I said to myself “Not in my house. We live in a feminist age. This curse has been broken because we are living in a time now where some women are free from, and others are fighting for all women to be free.“

Also, about pain and suffering in childbirth. I know women who enjoy childbirth. Not every hard thing is a bad thing. You have to let life teach you and as long as you live the more you learn. Two years ago my great grandmother Nana Trude passed away on this day. From the stories I have heard and know, her death was quite magical. She was close with family and friends. Before she died a nurse said to her “Enjoy the journey, love” . That line has spoken to me in a lot of different ways. It’s made me think that death can be wonderful in its right way and at the right time. It also made me see that people can be important to you even if you have just met them- or heard about them- and that stories change the way you see the life you have.  I am sure that she is enjoying the journey and I want her to enjoy it forever as we should be blessed to enjoy ours in its right time.  

After Cain- Kayin kills Hevel- Abel, God asks Ayeh Hevel Achiha, Where is Hevel you brother? And Cain answers לֹא יָדַעְתִּי, הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי. I didn’t know, am I supposed to look after my brother?

And God says: “What did you do, your brother’s blood is screaming to me from the ground” מֶה עָשִׂיתָ; קוֹל דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, צֹעֲקִים אֵלַי מִן-הָאֲדָמָה.

Cain killed his brother because of jealousy, since God accepted Hevel’s offering and not Cain’s. That made Cain angry, so angry to the point of killing his own brother. Jealousy always leads somewhere. On the one hand, jealousy means that you like something so much you also want it. But on the other hand, someone else has the thing that you want and you don’t have it. This second point leads to something bad because you are holding a grudge against the person. But on the first way of looking at it we can use the other person as an inspiration for us to help us understand what we want, as opposed to leading to a destructive result such as damage to people or things.

Everyone,  siblings or not, we all each other’s keepers. Even if you always fight, if one falls you will help him or her get up. If one cries, you will give him or her a shoulder to cry on. No matter what happens you always need to nurture the other. That’s what it is to be human. You always have care. It just depends how much you show you have care. Even when we fight, at the end of the day we’re family, and we care about each other and look after each other.  There’s still love between us.

To be my sibling’s keeper in the wider communal sense means that we extend our care and concern beyond our family for emotional and physical support for others.

You may have noticed that in the sixth aliyah there is a long list of names. At first I wondered why read this long list year after year. But it is important to know where you are coming from in order to understand how you got here and where you are going. Family history is a very important thing in life. If your father had heart disease, then genetically chances are that you will too. Genetics are the main reasons why you look the way you do. I have red hair, that means that someone in my family must have had red hair even though I am not sure who that is. To understand your past it gives you a hint of the future. Now it’s the present, and I am inspired by my ancestors. From good and bad stories I learn about life, how it used to be, how my ancestors lived and that inspires me to live life. You have one chance at life and I have learnt to make the most of it and so far I have.

I want to thank my batmitzvah teacher Ronit Prawer, and Idan Deshowitz who helped with my haftorah, for helping me learn and discover my parsha and open the whole world of reading from the Torah for me with much patience and lots of chocolate.

My vision for the future is that I want to make a change. Spiderman once said “I was born normal, and decided to make a change in the world, now living a normal life isn’t an option anymore”. I want everyone in this room to live an abnormal life, to explore, to dream, to make a change.

Thank you for being here. Shabbat shalom.

Posted on October 1, 2013 .

Melanie Landau's Kol Nidrei Drasha, 5774

It is wonderful to be here, in my home community, with family and friends, nothing replaces this feeling of being together. We have made another year, decorated it with our good deeds. We need each other. Its a big blessing.  What’s real? We are hungry for what is real. As I’m standing here now I want to acknowledge and bless the memory of our friend Devorah bat Hannah aleha shalom, it was she who was giving the Kol Nidre drasha the last time I was @ Shira Hadasha Melbourne. I have heard her say that what is real is how we touch people and how we make a difference to each other that outlives us. We carry around that difference that someone has made to our life, and it affects how we are to other people, and what matters thus spreads and its what we exchange with each other. Its actually the sacred fibre of the world, our relationships with each other. That’s what creates the world. We see it literally with children born into the matrix of their parents and that matrix creates the world for the child,  the child sees the world as mediated through the vessel the parents create and reflect.  And it is this fabric, this sacred fibre, that we are mending and darning and weaving through Yom Kippur.

As we enter Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre service, we’ll begin with a verse “or zarua letzadik uleyishrei lev simcha” light is sowed for the righteous and joy for the straighthearted...In Jerusalem 12 years ago, I went in to labour to this tune. 

Almost immediately after this mention of righteous people, we ask permission from the heavenly and earthly courts to pray with transgressors, avaryanim. It’s this dynamic I want to look at, our capacity to access the transgressor (avaryan) in ourselves, and also our capacity to access the righteous (tzaddik) aspect of ourselves.

As you may well be aware, the foundational rabbinic text, the Mishnah in Yoma says that Yom Kippur (etzem hayom) provides atonement for the transgressions between you and God, but for the issues between you and other people you actually need to go up to the person. This requires us to be as specific as possible, and ask for forgiveness, and more than once, even up to 3 times if necessary-  and people have been known to ask for more.

I want to focus on what’s going on between people but I’ll just make a few comments about what’s going on with God, so to speak. When it says Yom Kippur itself releases things between us and God,  Emanuel Levinas understands that to mean that the spiritual state that YK brings about- through fasting and prayer- leads us to the state of being forgiven beings. When we approach another person they can refuse our request for forgiveness but between us and God, we are forgiven. It is as if the instrument of forgiveness is in our own hands.  You may think it is easier or less significant but Levinas argues it actually demands a lot from us: the ritual transgressions I want to erase without resorting to the help of others would be precisely the ones that demand all my personality: it is the work of teshuva- for which no one can take my place.  It is something we have to do inside ourselves. We repeat ‘salachti kidvarecha’ again and again. As if God is saying ‘I have forgiven you as you asked’. But we need to internalise it. This internalisation of deep forgiveness is  an inner rebirth we are granted in a communal delivery room which is right here!  This sense of harmony can only take place within the privacy of my interiority, and in a certain sense it is within my power. The Talmud tells the story of R. Elazar ben Dordai who called on the mountains and the sun and moon, to help him do teshuva and they were all busy with their own existence. And he sat between two mountains and put his head between his knees and he cried. And he took the power to make amends on his own life. It is within each of our powers to make amends on our life. Ein hadavar talui elah bi. It depends me alone, on no one else. It is one of the precious gifts that Yom Kippur bestows upon us.  Great . Done. We’ll all be having a busy 24 hours.

But that’s not the whole story, although it is sounding very sweet. Now I would like to move to fixing things between each other. Last Shabbat, in Jerusalem, Idan Dershowitz was saying that he doesn’t like how the requirement to ask for forgiveness from others has become a rudimentary task that does not necessarily function to get people to take responsibility nor to right wrongs in their relationships. To the contrary, it can stay really general, not facilitate any more sharing but simultaneously feign a kind of working things out while many things pass under the bridge undealt with.

I’m calling on another mishnah in Yoma to help us think about how to be with one another and how to facilitate this process between people. Somewhere inside this process is our inner tzaddik, our righteous person. In the first chapter of Yoma, in the description of the preparation of the High Priest- Cohen Gadol-  he is made to swear that he is not going to change any of the rituals.  Basically he is not trusted automatically. He is going to be alone in the holy of holies and carrying out the crucial temple service on behalf of the whole community. The mishnah goes on to say that he cries (because he is suspected) and the Priestly elders all cry because they had to suspect him. Bingo! The Priestly elders need to work in the best interests of everyone and they need to do their due diligence but at the same time- they are connected to their righteousness- even if they well know the reasons- it devastates them that they have to suspect the high priest about to perform the service on behalf of all of Israel. Basically we all have that place inside us where it actually pains us to do wrong- it may be under more or less layers of rationalizations, arguments, constrictions, other pain, but deep deep down- and even more- no joy is achieved through our misdeeds, and the separations they reflect and further create.  But it’s tricky because the way a lot of our systems work when someone does something wrong we punish that person usually, and don’t see his or her wrong as a cry for help. If a child has been hit we usually comfort that child or castigate the one who hit. I’m not saying that we don’t need to protect society, or that people don’t have responsibility for their actions- they surely do, but we can expand our vision.

I had another stellar example of this principle. A dear friend was being provoked by another friend , someone around her age, and she slapped him on the face. After he went home she burst out crying and was in shock that she could do such a thing, “I hit him”, she knew it wasn’t how she wanted to act and she acknowledged that she lost control of herself for those moments. It was incredible to see the natural regret process in play. I know some people are so wounded that it is near impossible for them to access their remorse. Tremendous healings are also possible.

In fact, Rabbi Steinsaltz interprets Kol Nidre- the nullification of past and future vows to be an invitation to ourselves not to get stuck in past patterns, and ideas of who we think we are but to continually renew ourselves with no prejudice.

If we take on board this idea that we really don’t want to hurt another person- the Priestly elders cried when they had to suspect the High Priest- and conversely that other people did not really want to hurt us (they need to go together), then that means that by being available to offer forgiveness for those who offended us, we restore their basic sense of goodness and integrity to those who wronged us. We give them back their righteousness. As a victim we move from woundedness to generosity in being able to offer up to the offender his or her righteousness. 

The rabbis took this idea of restoring someone’s righteousness back to them very seriously. For the sake of the offender they were known to appear before the person who offended them so that person could ask for forgiveness. In a reversal of obligation the offended party worries about the foregiveness that the wrongdoer has not concerned him or herself with.  Sometimes from that place of wrongdoing we isolate ourselves and hole ourselves up as part of self-blame and castigation. When the offended party pursues the wrongdoer so he or she can ask for forgiveness the offended party actually takes power and shifts from being a victim to being the one that can bestow and return the wrongdoer to his or her real state of goodness and righteousness.

So next time someone does you wrong, or if you are holding on to something that someone has done to you, try that shift in your mind, in your being, and see how you can be present for that person to give them the opportunity to connect to their own integrity and their own goodness. To see the hurt from which they are acting from. The readiness to make that shift is not something we can impose on someone. Each person or community needs to come to that realization in his or her own process. Because it is not only an individual matter, whole communities are tied up in the bonds of their woundedness. It’s a big part of the maintenance of protracted conflicts. People are not to blame that they get stuck and confused in their woundedness and pain.

I work in conflict transformation through an educational organization called Encounter, bringing Jewish leaders to meet with Palestinians and incorporate Palestinian perspectives in their nuanced understanding of Israel and of the conflict. We also create space for Jews to be able to dialogue with each other reducing the polarization that usually accompanies discussion about Israel.

I can’t think about personal hurts and loss without thinking about Syria at the moment (100,000 people killed and 2 million refugees) , and of course without thinking about Israelis and Palestinians.

On Monday I visited Shu’fat refugee camp as a briefing by UNRWA.  Less than 5 minutes away from Hebrew University. It brought up a lot. Even to hear from UNRWA and not from Palestinians themselves raised a myriad of difficulties for me. Shu’fat is within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Within 2 square kms live 25,000 people. Lawlessness abounds. As we drove around the perimeters of the camp, we passed drug dealers who wait in their cars in broad daylight. It has its own self-regulating power structures.  The primary school of 2000 students (with shifts for girls and boys) had no running water until a few months ago. Sewerage runs through the camp and into the valley nearby. The camp and adjacent neighbourhoods are now totally surrounded by the security barrier with one entry and access point. There’s a lot more to be said. And of course nothing is black and white or straightforward. But for now, I wanted to say that one of the most important things in protracted conflict- even before questions of apology and forgiveness- is the acknowledgement of hurt wherever it may lie, by the one who has been hurt and by the offender.  And often all parties are wrapped up in and wrenched by their own hurt. When we’re hurting it’s hard to see a big picture. One positive image from the camp was the student government of the school deciding to plan not just for one year but for three and taking the lead in planning for environmental health.

I’m also mentioning something beyond the personal because I want our circle of acknowledgement of hurt, of pain, of making things right, and ultimately of forgiveness to be widened, even if for now this vision remains what seems like far away.

At the end of the mishnah of Yoma, it says that the Jewish people are joyous because God, so to speak, cleanses them and they can be cleansed- of the breaches between them and God- when they do the inner work as we said- because God is their mikveh.

Being in God’s image is serious business.  Just like God, so to speak, we can actually be the mikveh for each other, the tzaddik, the righteous one in you can be the mikveh for the transgressor in me, and the tzaddik  in me can be the mikveh for the transgressor in you- bathing you in waters that offer you cleansing and rebirth, that remind you who you are and that allow you to let go and start again. 

By allowing someone to ask our forgiveness we allow him or her to connect to that place of goodness before the wrongdoing.  We also strengthen our connection to that place of goodness inside ourselves. We all have that place of deep acceptance, pre-conditional, before the eating of the forbidden fruit, before we covered ourselves, before  we were ashamed. There is no short cut.  The only way back to gan eden  is the way of the revolving sword. We need to evoke enough self-compassion to bear the pain of seeing where we have transgressed- and then from that place we can move to freedom. And we can return and live the full big lives that emerge once we come out from under the heavy shadows under which many of us have known. We need each other.

May it be Your will. Ken yehi ratzon ve’haya.

Posted on October 1, 2013 .

Yom Kippur Neilah, 5774

By Ittay Flescher 

This is a drasha I shared with the shira community in the moments before Neila, 5774. It imagines what prayer would be like if it was a dialogue, rather than a monologue. The following letter imagines how I would like God to respond to our prayers.

Imagining God’s Letter to the Jewish People

My Dear Children of Israel,

Over the past 24 hours, you have praised me, cried out to me, begged for forgiveness and sought atonement from me and your neighbours. What an honour to share this day with you. To be the address for your teshuva, for your desire to be a better a person.

Intoning and enumerating your sins, you have beaten your right fist into our left breast no fewer than 860 times. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…

But I say to you now, in the last hour of this shabbat shabtot, the holiest of holy days, enough.

No more guilt. For the last hour, abstain from guilt. True atonement has nothing to do with guilt, and everything to do with responsibility.

Please stop feeling guilty

For not being the parent you wanted to be,

For procrastinating too much before you achieved the things to you wanted to do

For criticising your friends and family without suggesting alternatives on how they could do better

For criticising your politicians with too many suggestions on how they could do better

And perhaps, for some of you, not taking the time to do teshuva seriously.

Instead of feeling guilty, please take this last hour on this most holy of days, to focus on responsibilities. Let the beautiful singing that pervades this room, be the backing track to your meditation and reflection on the responsibilities you’d like to take upon yourself in the coming year.

Will you take responsibility for being more generous in the way you give tzedakah?

Will you have more time for your family?

Will you speak less lashon hara?

Will you think more carefully about all of my 613 mitzvot before you accept or reject them?

Will you engage more honestly in your work?

Will you give more freely of your time to those who need it most?

These questions are for you to answer.

My Dear Children of Israel,

In the past year, far too many of my creations having been doing things in my name, which I am not happy about. In my name, people have advanced the cause of racism, intolerance, sexism, homophobia, war and xenophobia. Those who advance these causes in my name, forget that I have created all of you in my image. With equal rights, and equal dignity. Shaming your fellow human in my name, shames me. Loving your fellow creation, honours me. 

--

The siddur you are all holding in your hands, please use it wisely in the next hour. From what I have heard so far, this holy book is filled with adjectives about me. How great, wonderful, mighty and powerful I am.  So many times, I have heard you describe my 13 attributes of mercy

That I am gracious, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.

These words about my nature are true. I am forgiving and want you to succeed in doing teshuva.

-

However, I also wanted to let you know something else which isn’t included in the siddur. I know that your teshuva will be incomplete.

I know that many of the promises you will make today, will be broken. After all, why else would so many of you come to shule last night to annul your vows during Kol Nidre?

I created you in an imperfect way, with free choice, to choose good and to choose evil. To choose to kill and to choose to heal. To weep and to laugh, To mourn and to dance.

To acquire and to lose, to be silent and speak.

I gave you the ability to gas people in Syria, to be blind to the suffering of the asylum seekers and strangers in your midst, to ignore the hungry and the homeless, and to use violence on far too many occasions when words would have sufficed. I gave you the ability to commit unimaginable crimes and also to stop them. I have given you all the ability, on each and every day, to be a perpetrator, victim, bystander and upstander.

Every day, I look at the world and I see what’s going on. I don’t need google to find out. Because I am the only one who knows more than google.

I am acutely aware of your cognitive dissonance. Of the many occasions when your actions don’t match your ideas and beliefs. On this day, I forgive you for that too. As long as you can promise me that after today, we have an agreement, that you want to be better.

Better parents, better children, better partners, better citizens and better humans.

Whatever happens in the coming year, irrespective of whether you create more obstacles or making the choices necessary to overcome them, please remember, that I will always love you.

We are created in the same image. Sometimes broken, sometimes while, but always deserving of love.

-

I understand that many of you in this shule are fans of the Canadian prophet I sent you many years ago. One Mr Leonard Cohen. He was one of my better creations, so I can understand why you like him.

There is a song of his which I have heard from the floor of this room, which no other congregation has shared. If it be your will. If I could sing one line back to you, it would sound like this.

Now it is my will, that I speak no more

My voice will now be still, as it was before

From this broken Hill, all my praises you did ring

Now it is my will, for you to sing.

Gmar Chatima Tova

Posted on September 16, 2013 .

Yizkor Drasha

What is the purpose of remembering?

By Ittay Flescher

In a few minutes, the tone and the mood in this room will change quite dramatically. In a short moment, we will transition from joyful singing and prayer, to a serious amournful time of the service called Yizkor. 

This Yizkor service first appeared in the Machzor during the Middle Ages in Europe, where it was recited on Yom Kippur in order to remember the many martyrs slain during the Crusades. Such a memorial list was first recited in Nuremberg in 1295, and the custom soon spread. 

Later, the practice began of saying it on the festivals as well. There were those who opposed this, since grieving over the dead is not in the spirit of the festivals, which are days of joy and gladness. Over time, popular custom and desire overcame rabbinic reluctance, and the recitation of Yizkor became strongly rooted.

For me when I was young, I always associated Yizkor with playing down ball at St Kilda shule. Yizkor back then, was wondrous adult free time for kids to run and play outside the shule for hours until the end of musaf. As a young child, I had imagined that perhaps the reason all the adults asked the children to leave was because they were doing a special ceremony to honour the dead where everyone would one-by-one, public share stories of their loved ones. 

Since my father Reuven Getzel z”l passed away when I was just 21 years old in 1999, Yizkor time has been very different for me. Now that I say the prayer, I have learnt that:

1) It only takes about 5 minutes to say

2) At only two sentences, it doesn’t say much, and is more of a promise to givetzedaka in their memory, rather than a retelling of the person’s life story, which is what I had imagined as child. 

I think this is shame. Given the large amount of time we spend in shule on Yom Kippur, I think there should be a more unscripted part of the tfilla where each of us does get an opportunity to share and honour the past of our loved ones. However, with Yizkor being the way it is, I’d like to take a moment to consider what purpose the Yizkor should be for us today. Why do we need to remember our loved ones, or the holocaust, or the crusades on Yom Kippur? And does this act of remembering have any impact on our present and future?

As a first step to answering this question, I’d like to draw your attention to a book written in 1982 by Yosef Yerushalmi called Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory.”

“Zakhor” is an examination of the conflict between the collective stories that Jews share as a culture and the verifiable chronicle of history itself. 

In the book, Yerushalmi observes, ''Many Jews today are in search of a past, but they do not want the past that is offered by the historian. Such Jews often turn instead literature and ideology.'' 

In the modern age explains Yerushalmi, “learning history from classical Jewish Scripture has been replaced by history as the validating arbiter of Jewish ideologies and the replacement has yielded chaos… since it cannot credit God’s will as the active cause behind Jewish events, and it cannot regard Jewish history as being unique.”

Sociologist Uri Ram of Ben-Gurion University gives an example of how the replacement of Jewish history with Jewish memory happened in the years preceding the founding of the Jewish State.

“The Hebrew culture that was created in Palestine before the establishment of the state was a far cry from the Jewish culture elsewhere. Jews immigrating to Palestine were rapidly socialized into it, and their “Sabra” offspring contrived a narrative founded on settlement, community and soldiering. They spoke only Hebrew and were ignorant ofHalacha, they were oblivious to the culture of their parents, let alone their grandparents. Regarding the diaspora, theirs was a culture of pure amnesia. They forgot the diasporic Talmud but remembered the biblical stories, they forgot Jewish names and choose Hebrew names for their offspring, they forgot the rabbis of Yavneh and remembered the rebellion of bar Kochba, they forgot the Holocaust, but remembered the heroic ghetto rebellions (Yom Hashoah veHagvurah).”

Israeli writer Haim Hazaz who was the first recipient of the Israel Prize in 1953 depicts this desire of many of the early Zionists to replace history with memory in his 1942 book, "The Sermon."

The main character, Yudka, whose defining characteristic is a reluctance to speak in public, asks to deliver a statement before the committee of his kibbutz to discuss the school curriculum. At first Yudka has trouble articulating even the beginning of his idea, but then he gathers himself to declare,

"I want to state . . . that I am opposed to Jewish history . . . because we didn't make our own history, the goyim made it for us. . . . What is there in it? Oppression, defamation, persecution, martyrdom. And again oppression, defamation, persecution, and martyrdom. And again and again and again, without end. . . . Just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning, and wailing wretches always begging for mercy. . . . I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors' shame? I would just say to them: 'Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we've been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.'"

The story concludes with Yudke explaining that what he does want to teach our children to remember is the “great deeds and stories, heroes, bold spirited fighters andconquerors. In a word, I want them to remember a world full of heroism.” Yudke conceived of Zionism as a revolt against Jewish history 

One could understand why adopting such a narrative of history, one that saw Jews as heroes rather than victims, as agents rather than actors in history, would have served a purpose in for the early Zionists like Haim Hazaz in 1942. As Rommel’s Nazi troops were in Egypt and heading towards Palestine, the yishuv in Palestine was not just facing an existential crisis, but also a physical one. Adopting a new memory of the past, and a new way of being Jewish was essential to both their survival and to the success of the Zionist enterprise.

In responding to this story, the historian Yosef Yerushalmi acknowledges that Yudkawho wants kibbutz history classes to jump from the tanach to the plamch, still does have a past “only with an intermission of almost two millennia.”

Why does this matter? Why are we still arguing about our history? Why has the act of memory we do on Yizkor become a religious imperative for an entire people?

Yerushalmi explains the question of whether the voice of Yudke’s memory or voice of the historian is the one heard is not without consequence. “There are myths that are life sustaining and deserve to be reinterpreted for our age. BUT, there are also some myths that lead astray and must be redefined. Others are dangerous and must be exposed.

Yerushalmi generalizes that that "many Jews today are in search of a past, but they patently do not want the past that is offered by the historian"

With that in mind, what should we remember this Yizkor?

For those of us who will stay in the room now to remember our loved ones during thisYizkor we all have to make a choice about what we remember.

Will we try to think less of the times when our parents or children challenged us, criticized us, or didn’t have time for our company? Or will instead remember thetimes they showed kindness and love towards us, the meals and holidays we shared together and the life cycle events we celebrated as families.

Will we remember the arguments and broigeses that divided our friends and family? Or the values of respect and humility that we learned through imitation that remain with us long after our loved ones are here no more.  

And what of other events in our lives in the past year. Should we remember them accurately as history, a more romantically as a memory?

Having being blessed with witnessing the birth of a beautiful son four month ago, when I look back on the past year, this event will undoubtedly be the defining one ofmy year. Over the past four months, I have been asked constantly asked, How’s the baby? In the corridor at work, at shule, by random passers by in the street. Everyone asks, How’s the baby?

There are many ways to answer this question. Should I talk about the sleepless nights, the vomit on every piece of clothing I wear, the smelly nappies or the absence of quiet time in my home?

Or should talk about the fun of dancing with Eitan on my chest during kabbalat Shabbat, the glow I get I see him laughing with his big sister Nava, the warmth I get from his cuddles and joy that radiates from his beautiful smile.

In other words, should I describe the last four months through the prism of history (what actually happened) or memory (how I’d like it be remembered).  

The choices we all make in regards to how we talk about the past and present of our family members in public will not only impact on we relate to them now, but will also influence their reputations and character by the rest of the community.

The choice we make to questions like these matters. Because what is remembered, which means the pictures and stories we share of our life moments on Facebook or place and the walls of our homes, often become far more important that what actually happened.

Historian Deborah Lipstadt makes this point beautifully in the following teaching. “When we remember, irrespective of whom we are remembering—a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, an aunt or uncle, teacher or mentor—these memories become part of us. As we internalize these memories they change us and we evolve, we grow. So, too, those who will follow us and remember us may be changed by their memories of us.

Memory is not just a link from generation to another. It also has its lateral aspects. Every human action, as Yerushalmi notes, “elicits certain inevitable results.” If I remember something and am changed by it, that change may, in turn, elicit a reaction from those around me. In other words, the impact of remembering travels down from generation to generation but also cuts across all generations.

Memory is an act done in the past present and future.

With that in mind, may all your memories, from those you have at Yizkor, to those you consider during the rest of the year, create a future for you that leaves us all tzurara be tzror hachayim, Bound up in the bond of life.

And for all of us in this room who will one day be remembered by a future generation, I wish you one thing, again in the words of Deborah Lipstadt.

"May we live lives of such privilege and security, be blessed with the wisdom and humility to live in a way that is worthy of not just being remembered, but of being emulated by those who follow us.

Shana Tova and Gmar Chatima Tova

 

Sources and Further Reading

Yizkor: Yom Kippur and Remembrance - By Deborah Lipstadt

http://www.jofa.org/uploadedFiles/site/Education/RH-5773-3.pdf

Culture and Collective memory – By Leon Wieseltier

http://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/15/books/culture-and-collective-memory.html

The Sermon - By Haim Hazaz, 1942

http://zionismspring2010.wikispaces.com/file/detail/Haim+Hazaz+The+Sermon.pdf

Fiction and Memory: Zakhor Revisited By Sidra DeKoven. Ezrahi

http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/jewish_quarterly_review/v097/97.4ezrahi.html

Yerushalmi on memory & history

http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2010/09/yerushalmi-on-memory-history.html

Yizkor: The Memorial Service – By Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

http://myjewishlearning.com/texts/Liturgy_and_Prayers/Siddur_Prayer_Book/Shabbat_and_Holiday_Prayers/Yizkor.shtml

Posted on September 27, 2012 .

Ne'ilah Drasha

By Lionel Lubitz

So it has come to this. We have reached the destination. But isn’t life an exploration of the journey not the destination. What does it mean to have reached this point? We have all participated in this journey, different pathways, different timings, and different needs.

Some of us started this part of the journey at the beginning of Ellul with the daily sound of the shofar reminding us that the time of reflection, returning to our roots had begun. For some of us this is a year round journey, for others it is a brief but sweet reconnection with something that attaches us to our community or our inner spirit.

The Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur experience is a powerful start. The yamim noraim…the days of awe.

What is Rosh Hashana? What are the sign posts that it is here? Like the power of the Hagadah on Pesach.

There are no special foods like Matzah at Pesach and Cheesecake at Shavuot. No huts to build and sit in the rain for Sukkot, not even a Hannukiah for Hannukah. It may seem somewhat empty, an anti climax. Just a bit of apple dipped in honey for a sweet year. Not even the promise of fireworks and alcohol-induced euphoria that the secular New Year offers. An evening service that is over soon after it begins with little to distinguish it from a weekday maariv.

So what is it all about?

It is about the start of our introspection. The journey inwards to find our true self. What are we, what matters, where have we got it right and where have we got it wrong?

The niggunim that are so familiar, even going back to childhood memories of my father humming the Yigdal tune as he prepared for shul on erev Rosh Hashana. There, in the heart of Africa where we, with the Shoah in our consciousness struggled with the new generation of oppressed. Where the Jude star was not needed, for the African people wore it on their skin and suffered the humiliation as second-class citizens. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur give us the opportunity to connect ourselves with the oppressed and dispossessed whether it is our own people or the greater community of humanity. We who were the ‘boat people’ 60 or 70 years ago know what happens when intolerance and suspicion drives people into a state of prejudice and hate.

  The Yom Kippur experience takes us from the particular to the universal.

The shofar with nothing but pure breath driving its pure simple sound stirring so much within us as it penetrates to our core, helping us on the inward journey.

 The Torah reading on Rosh Hashana starts with Sarah and Avraham and ends on Yom Kippur with Yonah. Two stories that take us from the particular to the universal.

 Let’s look at it in depth.

The Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashana takes us deep into that place with Sarah in a state of hope and ecstasy as she is told that despite her old age she would have a son Yitzhak. Soon that hope and joy was followed by jealousy and intolerance as she drives Hagar and Ishmael from Avraham’s home. Yes, kind, loving Sarah capable of such joy followed by jealousy and anger.

What do we learn about joy, jealousy and anger? As Bob Dylan wrote ‘the line is thinly drawn ‘tween joy and sorrow’

On the second day of Rosh Hashana we are taken on a journey of blind faith where Avraham takes his only precious son and without protest prepares to sacrifice him.

Avraham so connected to his faith and devotion to G-d that he doesn’t question the directive to sacrifice him.

What do we learn about faith?

What do we do with that adherence without questioning for  ourselves?

When do we accept and when do we question?

Yes he who was the epitome of chesed prepared to sacrifice his son without a whimper

What was he thinking!

In the Haftorah on RH We followed the story of Hannah who also childless promised her son to G-d if she ever had one and so it happened that she had a son Samuel and did give him to the priesthood.

What do we learn about attachment?

We give our children life and love but we do not own them nor control their destiny.

 After Rosh Hashana we are imbued with all those attributes from love to kindness to sacrifice of different sorts and ultimate redemption as Isaac survives, Ishmael is promised that he will also be the progenitor of a great nation.

The next 10 days takes us through the days of penitence where we look at ourselves to see where we can do better.

This culminates in the Kol Nidre opening Yom Kippur.

We stand in silence as the Torah comes out and our Baal tefilah utters those words initially in hushed tones building to a crescendo at the third reading. The day of words, songs, emotional reflections including the Yizkor for those we have lost and the confessions, vidui, as we search ourselves for how to become better, less burdened more accepting of ourselves and others, more loving.

On Yom Kippur afternoon along comes Yonah who is told to go and warn the people of Nineveh to change their ways and find redemption.

Who are these people?

Are they our people?

No they are not.

“Go to Nineveh,” says God, “and save that city from its wickedness.”  Historically, Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian Empire. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. They besieged Jerusalem, humiliated its king, and carried off its treasures. For an Israelite, Nineveh was the enemy, the world centre of evil, and the heart of darkness.

Save Nineveh?

Why would Jonah want to save Nineveh?

Nineveh is ‘other’ not ‘unsere’

Yonah exercises free will and decides not to go, as he is not up to the task. But circumstances change and he is driven back and given a second chance to do G-d’s will. The people of Nineveh do change, they change their ways and they find redemption.

This story has been repeated in every generation since then.

And here we are playing out the same story. We need to find peace with our so called enemies because of what enmity and hatred does to us not just to them….yes we are not immune to the effects of hatred and suspicion on our own inner beings. We need peace with our enemies for their sake and for ours.

To know our story is part of the Yom Kippur journey, to understand who we are the frailties that our forefathers and mothers carried helps us to understand who we are and become better, more fulfilled more generous, giving and loving……Teshuvah,Tzedaka and Tefillah that’s all there is.

Some of us have taken the long route starting at the beginning of Ellul, some started with Rosh Hashana and some of us came today. Some for just a few moments, some for many hours. All with an authentic desire to connect with our story, to belong to our people. For some shul is a place of worship, for some a place to reflect and for some a place to connect with our parents, to make dad happy that we came, a place to remember fathers and mothers who have passed on. But we all belong here and we all form part of that rich tapestry of devotion that stretches from the hallowed, organ filled halls of the Temple (up the road) to the Adass shteible around the corner to all sorts of colours and patterns in between all weaving the rich fabric of which we all are a part.

Neilah is now upon us. The day is ending and we have just a short time left to find some meaning in the day. You may choose to utter more words, so many already said, or stand or sit quietly looking within to find meaning, or looking at your mum or neighbour in gratitude, or sing one last niggun to bring the joyful spirit of Shira into this place and into your heart.

So as the ‘gates’ prepare to close Let’s spend the next hour trying to find that part of us that is free from cynicism, free from judgement and find the purity within ourselves that will inscribe and indeed seal us in the book of life.

Posted on September 26, 2012 .

Rosh Hashana Drasha

By Yvonne Fein

On Simchat Torah, when we come to the very end of the scroll, it is traditional then to lay it on the Bimah and roll it swiftly right back to its beginning, before binding it shut and covering it. Rolling it back through Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus, Exodus — all the way to Genesis. And each year as I watch it being rolled, I feel as though I’m watching time flying in reverse, till we reach the very beginnings of Creation. From an orderly, controlled, chapter by chapter progression throughout the year, on this day, there’s something wildly exuberant about the reverse refurling.

But on the second day of Rosh Hashanna, there seems to be no method, no nicety or design — and no exuberance, either. Just a kind of madness in the story we’re forced to read time and again — out of sequence, out of order — about Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father, and that highly problematic incident with his son and the knife. We’ve been reading about it all the while knowing that a few chapters previously Avraham had argued at some length with God about saving those upright citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, but in today’s chapter he did not utter a single word that might possibly have changed the good Lord’s mind about sacrificing his awesome, awestruck son — this child of Yir’ah — from the knife’s blade on Mount Moriah.

Now, when we were at school, we were told the story of Terah, Avraham’s father, who was the town’s leading idol manufacturer. Who remembers this tale? Anyway, for those of you who were away that day, I’ll tell it briefly. It was a busy afternoon in the idol shop, but Terah had to go to the quarry and buy some more marble supplies for the next batch of idols. “Avremeleh,” he said to his favourite son, “I need you to look after the gescheft for me this afternoon. I’ll be back before sundown.”

But as the sun began to set and his father still had not returned, Abraham looked at the sky and noticed the clouds spiked strangely with deep purple waves and surges of pale green that seemed to promise a strange storm. Almost without knowing what or why he was about to do this mad, inexplicable thing, he took the stone baseball bat that his father kept behind the counter in case of robbers and smashed the store’s entire stock of idols.

“I didn’t do it,” Abraham claimed when his father came home. “It was that big idol. The only one left standing. The one holding the baseball bat.

Terah was furious. “A creature of stone I’ve made with my own hands can’t destroy anything, let alone my entire Autumn range of idols for the harvest season.”

As soon as the words had left his lips, Terah realised he had fallen into the trap so cleverly set by his son

What he did not realise was that the stage had been set. Monotheism, in its earliest power, stood shivering in the doorway of what had once been Terah’s Emporium of Stone for all Occasions.

But I know this story, one way or another, is familiar to many of you. And I know too that the eternal dilemma of how a father — Abraham, son of Terah, destroyer of idols, bringer of God to humanity —  could not plead for the life of his son when he had no problem at all pleading for the lives of desperados, rapists and murderers is also a tale that has been told almost too many times to be  listened to yet again.

But if I will not try to fathom this story again, what is it that today’s text can offer up? I suspect the Haftorah may well provide if not new answers, then at least new questions.

Today Jeremiah tells us of the grief of Rachel, our youngest matriarch: “A cry is heard in Ramah” — the prophet declares — “Wailing, bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children who are gone.” Reading on, we see how God promises her everything: restoration, reward, an end to exile. And there is godly compassion. God begs Rachel: “Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears... for there is hope for your future. Your children shall return to their country.”

But Rachel makes no response. She is not Job, ready to forgive and forget. She has lost those most beloved to her and nothing will make her believe or trust that she can have restored to her that which should never have been taken in the first place. Nowhere  is it written that Rachel has been comforted for the loss of her children, even by  the extravagant blandishments of God. She weeps and we hear and taste her tears millennia after she first wept them.

We know Job forgave God even if we never quite understand why; we don’t know how Abraham would have reacted if God had not stayed his hand or even if, heaven forbid, Abraham’s hand had slipped in the horror of the moment and his son had paid the ultimate price of his father’s angst.  All we have is Abraham’s silence; his refusal to stand for his son. But we do learn on this day that Rachel refuses to be comforted. She will not retreat. That is where she stands. Some things, even godly things, her actions tell us, are unforgivable. Perhaps it is her very stubbornness that ultimately makes God take her life in childbirth, for has not God described himself as one filled with vengefulness.

Now I could make this an issue of gender politics. Rachel, the woman cries and ultimately dies in the act of giving birth, while Abraham, the man, doesn’t even say a word in his son’s defence; but how simplistic — though maybe just a little tempting —  that would be. Because I honestly believe the truth is, that we need something of both attributes contained in Rachel and in Abraham .

Perhaps, paradoxically, the very strength of Abraham lies in his precise ability to support and uphold the unjustifiable, that which is beyond the Pale, and then — this is even more remarkable — he stops trying when he realises he has gone as far as God will allow in that extraordinary dialogue between man and the Divine.

And perhaps it is just possible that Rachel’s weakness, not her strength, lies in her intransigence, her refusal to be moved, to be comforted.

I do not know. These are questions that have literally been keeping me awake at night.

I do know that to achieve any sort of equilibrium we need both parts to this frustrating equation, but both parts inevitably confront us with scenarios that are filled with profound pain. Because certainly the only viable way of living is about balance. But what if that balance is ultimately about suffering — evaluating its lesser or greater nature?

Take Hesed, for example, loving kindness. If that is all you have in the universe without Din, without judgement which contains harshness, we may end up creating a world where we reward the sinner because we are too full of love to chastise him or we punish the righteous, because we cannot exercise justice. Without balance — without those prepared to stand and die, or conversely, retreat in silence, we will have a universe that must crack on the very axis supposed to keep it stable.

But Rachel and Avraham are archetypes. They are not the stuff of day to day human beings. Rather they are the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; they are prototypes. Cinderella is the archetypical victim turned accidental heroine. Fairytale characters, biblical characters — we don’t expect to meet them at Glicks or Chadstone. They exist to show us how life might be lived — right or wrong..

That said, what are we to make of Rachel and Avraham? How do we position them in our everyday lives so that they can have real meaning and be more than mythical characters? How do two such opposites provide us with the balance we need?

Perhaps a story will help and I begin it by asking you to consider the language of German. As Jews, we have pretty strong views on it, one way or another. Now, ironically, when many of our parents met during or just after the war, German was often the only language they had in common. If a Polish Jew fell in love with a Czechoslovakian or Hungarian Jew — I think they called them mixed marriages — before they could learn one another’s languages, German was all they could speak. It became their language of love. I was witness to many second generation children growing up, hearing, learning and becoming fluent in German because of this. Many still are. They can’t hate it because it was always so redolent of tenderness in households too often filled with torment.

It became a question of balance. To whom did the language belong? Hitler? Goebbels, Eichmann or Heine, Mahler, Mendelssohn?

So hold that thought.

Someone close to me lives in Sydney, but in Sydney there is no Shira; so this friend found she had nowhere and no way to sing the Jewish part of her the way we women here are so fortunate to be able to do. A fluent reader of music with a lovely voice, she found a community choir and all went well until one day the choir master handed around sheets with the music of Wagner.

Now we know that the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra periodically argues the morality of performing Wagner, but my friend was not in Jerusalem and after one session in suburban Sydney she realised she profoundly did not wish to sing Wagner. So what did she do, this child who had grown up with German as a second language? Did she stand and walk away, refusing the blandishments of the choir master who did not want to lose her? Or her voice? Or did she sing and hate herself for doing so? Was she Rachel or was she Abraham? Was she Hesed or was she Din?

I actually believe she achieved Tiferet, that sublime meeting of the extremes of the world of loving kindness and judgement, where balance and beauty take each other’s hands and dance the dance of ages.

She explained to the choir master her feelings about Wagner, informed by her Jewishness, Holocaust background, and yes, her true appreciation of German culture. Then she said she hoped he’d understand  that when the choir performed Wagner, she’d leave the room, returning when the next piece of music was about to be  staged. And as I thought about her actions I realised that in my friend I had actually found both Abraham’s silence and Rachel’s stubbornness.

We are none of us those brave Australian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan; nor are most of us Israelis putting our lives on the line, not just in the armed forces, but often merely by going to a discotheque or a pizza house. We are not matriarchs and patriarchs communing with God, but circumstances will nevertheless arise that, even though they are not issues of life or death, they still cut to the very  heart of what we believe in on a day-to-day basis and therefore how we live our lives.

So let me conclude by saying that there is not one easy answer to the questions of where do you stand? When is it right to be silent? When is it right to cry out in protest? When do you lay down your life? These questions are eternal. It is their answers that are elusive and it is our job on this earth to continue to grapple with them.

Posted on September 19, 2012 .

Why be Jewish?

Yom Kippur Drasha by Ittay Flescher

Over the past year there has been a great deal of debate about the future of the Jewish community in Australia in light of results of the
GEN08 survey. The survey was reported in a manner anticipating all sorts of doom and gloom by the AJN which led with the story by putting a tombstone on its front cover and writing an accompanying editorial expressing great distress for the future.

This was followed by a very well attended panel on the future of the Jewish community at Monash University entitled “The Jewish Community, what’s in it for me?” The discussion on the panel mainly focused on three issues. How should we deal with the rising costs of Jewish Education? How should we deal the rising house prices in Jewish areas such as Caulfield and St Kilda? How can we fundraise better as a community?

Whilst these questions are all important, I felt that all of them missed the point in some way. This was most reflected in the question at the end of the panel by Habonim bogeret Jessica Tavassoli who asked, “For the past hour, everyone has been talking about how to be Jewish, but no one has addressed the elephant in the room, which is the question of why be Jewish?”

What I’d like to do in this address is to try and formulate an answer to that question which lies at the heart of everything we do as a Jewish community.
I’d like to begin with four responses which I believe, from my 10 years’ experience teaching at a range of Jewish day Schools in Melbourne, are not compelling reasons to maintain a high level of Jewish engagement.

  • We must be Jewish because we are commanded to be. In an increasingly secular age, to do things because of authority, tradition or revelation are no longer compelling reasons for critical thinking youth.
  • Because we are a ‘chosen people’. In an increasingly egalitarian age where the desire of minorities is to integrate and assimilate as much as possible into the mainstream, the idea of being ‘chosen’, which could also mean being different, special or superior, is not that appealing.
  • To make my grandparents happy. Whilst we all love our grandparents, and it’s not just because of your undying love and chicken soup, acting out of our loyalty to you is unlikely to sustain serious commitment.
  • We must be Jewish because of Anti-Semitism. Too many people have suffered immeasurable trauma and even paid the ultimate price for the continuation of this faith, that it would be a disgrace for you to give it up today.  

Why are these answers insufficient?

Harold M. Schulweis, who is the Rabbi of Valley Beit Shalom in California, explains “For decades the justification for our fidelity to Judaism has leaned entirely on the Shoah. The Shoah has become our instant raison d'ètre, the short-cut answer to the penetrating questions of our children: "Why should I not marry out of the faith? Why should I join a synagogue? Why should I support Israel? Why should I be Jewish?" We have relied on a singular imperative: "Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.” That answer will not work. To live in spite, to say "no" to Hitler is a far cry from living "yes" to Judaism. Judaism that is ‘in spite’, offers no serious sustaining rationale for our identity and continuity. It is a far call from offering a dominant narrative that affirms Jewish life.
Judaism, for many, has assumed the posture of anti-anti-Semitism. Anti-anti-Semitism can only produce a reactionary Judaism. The double negation of anti-anti-Semitism reduces the depth of Jewish culture to a shallow and weak defensive posture.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow once observed, "If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like nails." That is a pathological outlook. The whole world is not a bed of nails.

For too long, we have presented our children with either/or options.
What happens to our students when we say…
Either love of my people or love of humanity
Either glatt kosher or glatt treif
Either keep Jewish rituals or ethics
Either for Israel or against Israel
Either secular or religious
Either loyalty to my denomination or loyalty to Klal Yisrael

These dichotomized either/or formulations force false options on us. To succumb to the either/or mind-set is to see with a one-eyed vision.”

In a very moving letter written by American Oleh Haim Watzman to his 17 year daughter before she was to go on a trip to Poland with her Israeli high school, Watzman wrote,
“I don’t want my children to be Jews who are Jews because they are victims. I don’t want my children to be Israelis because the world hates them. Our history, tradition and culture are rich and powerful and provide adequate reason to want to be a Jew and an Israeli even if Hitler had never been born and the swastika never had reigned.”

Watzman argues that we must have new reasons for engaging with Judaism.  “Why not say “I’m a Jew because the Jewish people produced the Bible, whose stories and poetry have become the common heritage of mankind?”

Why not: “I’m a Jew because of my people’s ethos of learning, argument and dialogue, because of the Talmud, Midrashim, and Thinkers ranging from Maimonides to Spinoza to Soleveitchik?”

Why not: “I’m a Jew because my people preserved its language and culture through centuries of dispersion and re-established and recreated them in the modern State of Israel?”

In addition to Watzman’s reasons, I would like to add three more.

A. It gives meaning to my life

This was the answer that Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl came up with after several years in Theresienstadt and Dachau. He wrote that whilst “the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour, what matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment….When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” It is vital that Judaism be meaningful to young people, no matter how eccentric a way they wish to interpret their faith, tradition and culture.

Some examples are:

•Using a Biblical quote as a status update on facebook,
•Playing Yiddish or Hebrew music at your next Simcha
•The myths and stories you teach your children will be based on those of our ancestors
•Collective manner in which we mark lifecycle events

You may look at these examples above and say, some are more authentic to being Jewish, whilst others are more relevant. This ancient tension between authenticity and relevancy in Jewish practice is one that every Jewish denomination wrestles with. Those who are in the integrationist streams which advocate for feminism, egalitarianism and pluralism are said to place a greater emphasis on relevancy, whilst those who advocate for separate dress, language and lifestyle are said to emphasise authenticity. However this tension between authenticity and relevancy is, in my opinion, a false dilemma.   
I once invited members of the Orthodox, Conservative and Progressive communities in Melbourne to present to my class on why their stream of Judaism has the best answers to the important Jewish questions of our time. Even though each speaker presented on a different day, all ended their presentations with more or less the same statement: “If Rabbi Akiva were alive today, he would daven at
my shule.” All three emphasised how relevant their religious practices were to young 21st century Jews, but all three also needed to claim Rabbi Akiva as one of their own for the sake of proving their authenticity.

In our modern age, I believe that finding the balance between Authenticity and Relevancy is no longer a challenge that is limited to the denominations who have faith in God. To quote Jonathan Safran Foer, - “Just because you’re an atheist, that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t love for things to have reasons for why they are.”

B. It inspires me to be a better person

Almost
 everyone I know thinks of themselves as a good person most of the time.  These same people are also always looking for ways to be better. Better students, better employees, better environmentalists, better friends and better lovers. It would be wonderful if each person had one teaching, idea or historical lesson from Judaism that they could interpret it in a way that makes them a better person.
 
For some it may be someone like Abraham Joshua Heschel who
marched side by side with Martin Luther King Jnr in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery 1965. At the end of that march, he said, “For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

I personally derive great inspiration to be a better person from Arnold Zable who is a master of the ancient Jewish art of listening to and sharing stories. The way he uses these stories to humanise and generate compassion for the most vulnerable people in our country serves as a strong example of how to use one’s Jewish experience for the betterment of our society.

C. It is a worthwhile endeavour

Everyone has something that they like to do to fill their spare time. It may be following the news or football obsessively, embracing all forms of art, surfing the net, or thinking about God. It is vital that Judaism enters this mix as a culture, ethnicity of religion that is desirous of endeavour.

A person who I felt has inspired a great deal of reflection on why one should be Jewish and Zionist more than any other this year is Daphnee Leef.

For those who don’t know, in June this year Daphane Leef received a notice to vacate the apartment that she had rented in Tel Aviv for the previous three years. After several weeks of searching to no avail for a new apartment within reach of her financial situation, Leef discovered that the rental prices in the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area had doubled in the previous five years.

As an act of protest Leef decided to pitch a tent at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on July 14th (see www.J14.org.il). Leef also opened a Facebook protest page and began inviting people to join the protest in the streets. Soon afterward the protests gained momentum as thousands joined the protests, pitching tents in the central streets of cities across Israel, sparking off the 2011 Israel housing protests.

These protests gradually grew larger until they peaked on the night of September 3rd where 460 000 Israelis marched under the heading “ העם דורש צדק חברתי The nation Demands Social Justice.” Just to put that in context, that is 7% of Israel’s population!  

An opinion poll released by Channel 10 television on August 9th showed that 88% of respondents said they supported the movement. In her speech that night, Daphne said the following words

“I’m 25 years old. What are my biggest memories of this country? The 2nd Lebanon War; the period of terrorism; friends who were killed then; the assassination of Rabin; Gilad Shalit. And that’s even without going into the fact that I’m a 3rd generation Holocaust survivor. This was my consciousness. Moments and memories laced with death, loss, pain, fear, and the feeling that everything is temporary. 

At the demonstration in Afula I saw a sign: “For 31 days I have been proud to be Israeli”. I stand before you and I am now proud to be an Israeli for 7 weeks. I feel we are together building here our self-worth as a society. To say “I deserve” means that someone else also deserves, that we deserve. This summer brought with it many good moments and memories – of hope, of change, fraternity, listening.

A discourse of life has been created. It’s the most important awakening there has been here. We are not here just to survive; we are here in order to live. We are not here just because we have nowhere else. We are here because we want to be here. We choose to be here, we choose to be in a good place, in a just society, we want to live in society as a society – not as a collection of lonely individuals who each sit in front of one box, the TV, and once every four years put a slip in another box – the polling box. 

We are here, not because we have no other land. We are here because this is the land we want. Without our even noticing, people have begun to return from abroad, suddenly there’s a feeling that something’s happening here that mustn’t be missed.”



For me, the most compelling line of that speech was where she said
“We are not here just to survive, we are here in order to live.” If I had to summarise it in one line, that is my message today to all those who worry about the future of the Jewish community. We do not exist in order to survive and multiply. We need to exist in order to live in a meaningful way.

That’s why we need to stop talking about Jewish continuity and start talking about Jewish engagement. Continually holding panel’s asking the question “what can we do to save our youth from assimilation” misses the point. What we need is to give people space to think and reflect in shule’s, schools, movements and homes about the question, “Is Judaism a worthwhile endeavour for me?” To quote Victor Frankl again, “He who knows the “why” for his existence will be able to bear almost any “how”.

I conclude by wishing that you not just to be stamped and sealed in a book of life, but that your experience in shule today leaves you with a somewhat better understanding of why you have been blessed to be a part of this beautiful religion, and what you are going to do with this gift.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Posted on October 11, 2011 .

Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana Drasha by Yvonne Fein

A thought came into my head yesterday during the davening and before I begin my drash, I’d like to share it with you...

I realised that it is often on the yom toivim that we miss the ones who were closest to us and in this case, that notion took me to my mother (z”l). I remember when my sister and I were young, how our parents used to take us to Kew shul and how each year, our Dad used to buy Mum a seat in the front row — a little high up in the ladies section, perhaps, but right opposite the bimah. And every year, without fail, as soon as the rabbi began his drash, Mum would fall asleep. And not just asleep, but her head would drop down and periodically she would wake with a start. Impossible to miss. This embarrassed Dad to a great extent, but because he could never envisage buying a seat in anything less than the front row and because Mum couldn’t promise never to fall asleep, she simply stopped going — until HaMakom/Shira started up and then this most non-religious, unmusical of women would leave a service and say, “The music! The singing! And I could listen to that intelligent Mark Baker for hours! So I couldn’t help thinking, hoping, Mum, that somehow you found your way into our shul yesterday because the most beautiful singing, harmonious and unifying, led by Avrom and Yael,would have delighted you. and I’m sure that the intelligent Mark Baker’s drash would have kept you wide awake.

That said, let me begin with some other thoughts for the day. In 1919, in the wake of the horrendous destruction and loss of life caused by WW I, Yeats, the Irish poet, coined a phrase — “the centre cannot hold.” “Things fall apart;” he wrote, “the centre cannot hold.”

anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is set loose, and everywhere
innocence is drowned...

He was meditating on a world filled with inexplicable cruelty that looked to be exponentially increasing. He died in 1939, spared from having to bear witness to the next great war.

But only a few decades later, Elie Wiesel, who actually survived it, wrote this: “My father, an enlightened spirit, believed in man. My grandfather, a fervent Hasid, believed in God. The one taught me to speak, the other to sing. Both loved stories. And when I tell mine, I hear their voices. Whispering from beyond the silenced storm, they are what links the survivor to their memory.” While acknowledging the destruction, Wiesel chose to believe that somehow, the centre does, can and must hold.

Which one of them was right? I believe it is a dilemma that troubles many of us. What sort of universe do we live in? One where the centre does or doesn’t hold? And if we conclude that it doesn’t, then what sort of God governs it?

In trying to answer this question my thoughts eventually alighted upon memory. How Yeats remembered the First World War or Wiesel the Second, memory, whether we honour it or try to erase it — is an essential element of the human condition. So it makes sense that virtually all of us remember with great vividness those times when the centre did not hold, when it seemed the very ground we stood upon was falling away.

For example: Anyone in their late 50s, and over, will probably remember where they were when the news of President John Kennedy’s assassination hit.

The most recent example of the centre not holding, of everything falling apart, it goes almost without saying — and yet how can it not be said — is 9/11. If I went around this room and asked each person here to describe the circumstances under which he or she heard or saw that news, the stories would keep us here till well after Ma’ariv.

Yet, in a strange way, it is those stories which anchor us. Telling others where we were or what we did when something truly appalling happened is a way of returning to our own centre, of making sense — or at least trying to — of the senseless. In some strange way, the stories unite us. If we’re sharing them, it means we’re still alive to tell the tale. Stories — and surely stories are just another word for memories — are a way to affirm life when trying to live it feels most difficult.

I remember when I wrote my first novel, a tale of a private eye, Jewish and female, hunting down Nazis who had eluded the immigration authorities and were hiding in the Australian outback. On the publicity trail, I was asked more than once, what’s a nice Jewish girl like you doing writing a novel about crime and private detectives? Where’s your experience in the field? Friends asked me the same question, as did members of audiences when I sat on panels or participated in discussion groups. You live in Caulfield. If you cross over Dandenong Road it’s a major expedition on which you take your GPS. So what are your credentials for crime writing? It took me a while to find the answer, but once I had it, I knew I had stumbled upon an essential truth — not just for me personally, but perhaps for all the people who indulge in either the writing or the reading of this kind of yarn-spinning.

Crime writing is real genre writing and you don’t break the formula. The tale is always told in the first person — the hero takes centre stage and it is the nature of the hero, of the private eye who walks the mean streets alone, that her moral compass is always pointed towards true good — not to be confused with magnetic good, which is the misleading direction most of the rest of the world follows. In the end, right triumphs over might, good triumphs over evil, even if sometimes that victory comes at a great cost. But the centre holds and the hero can continue fighting the battles of morality and integrity because in the fictional world of the private detective, she cannot ever lose — neither the battle nor her life. If the centre doesn’t hold, there can be no story. This is what attracted me to the world of crime writing and made me want to write within it. Because as a child of survivors, you grow up knowing that the centre cannot hold, that good people die and evil has great power.

So how does all this relate to Rosh Hashana? Today our Torah reading takes us back to an event that may or may not have happened in real archeologically provable time, but still resides insistently in our collective memory as part of our foundation narrative. Today we remember, as it were, the “akedah”, the sacrifice God asked Abraham to make of the son born to him and Sarah in their old age. Now what I have learned in my delvings into the tales contained in the Tanakh is that where there is one story in Genesis, later on, in the section of Prophets or Writings, there will be another story that somehow presents the first story as a mirror image. In this case, the story that reflects the almost-sacrifice of Isaac is the story in the Book of Judges that relates the tragedy of Jephthah, the warrior-judge.

Briefly, his story is that of a son of a prostitute, despised not only by his brothers but also by his tribe of Menashe. He moved away from home which was in Gilead and hung out with a rowdy bunch of hooligans, but for all that he was regarded as a great fighter and strategist. Thus, when the Israelites were threatened by their enemies, the Ammonites, the elders approached Jephthah and asked him to be their leader. On behalf of Israel as a whole and in reliance on the might of God the Judge, Jephthah challenged the Ammonites and swore an oath to God: "If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever first comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered up by me as a burnt offering." It was not the wisest of vows, because even though he expected a sheep or a goat to be the first out of his gate, unfortunately it was his daughter felt duty bound to sacrifice her.

Talmudic sages link this story to the Akedah, to the sacrifice of Isaac. Isaac was Abraham’s only son through his beloved Sarah, his yachid; Jephthah’s daughter was his only child, his yechidah. Is it possible that this illegitimate son of a prostitute suddenly yearned to break out of his lowly sphere and rise to the level of Abraham? Is it conceivable that his plan was to go beyond the Patriarch by going further than Abraham had ever gone — Abraham stopping, or being stopped, just in time from killing his offspring?

Here we have two stories in dynamic tension, one where the centre holds — God’s angel stays Abraham’s knife-wielding hand — and another, its mirror image, where the centre falls away, and the unimaginable happens: Jephthah makes a sacrifice he could have avoided (the talmudic halachic discussion is clear on that) a sacrifice that God doesn’t want. That is the story we don’t read on Rosh Hashana.

Why? Perhaps the answer to that is the ultimate fabric I can attempt to weave from the disparate notions I have raised today: of life’s ability to change from one moment to the next; of whether the centre can or cannot hold; of memory and of conflicting stories in our collective Jewish chronicling and consciousness.

Rosh Hashana is surely a time when the centre shivers on its axis and may or may not hold. Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we have 10 days in which to convince God to inscribe us into the Book of Life. There is no certainly, just supplication and waiting and hoping and doing the best we can. Even after the 10 days are up, we can have no notion of what the coming year might bring. But on this day we remember the stories we learned long ago, about Abraham’s trial and Isaac’s awe and we remember even the Midrash that tells us that Satan caused Sarah to die of shock by telling her what Abraham and Isaac were up to. But just as it seems the centre is about to fall away, the sacrifice is halted and Isaac lives long enough — and beyond — to marry Rebecca and love her and find comfort in her arms after his mother’s death. A covenant has been struck between God and humanity with these stories. Perhaps the centre can hold now, as it did in days of old, and every year, as we come back here to test the truth of it and its life-affirming possibilities.

Posted on October 11, 2011 .

Being Real

Being Real in our Judaism, Being Real in our Lives
Yom Kippur 5771
(This drasha is written partly in shorthand, please excuse any mistakes )

I’d like to start with a tip for Yom Kippur. I got this by email before RH:

Alongside the list of viduy, list of sins, in the silent amidah, why don’t we say a list of things you did well. ‘I cared for my friends and relatives’; ‘I gave tzedaka this year’; ‘I was a good spouse’.”

We got a lot of stuff wrong this year, made quite a few mistakes. But I’m sure between all of us in this room we got quite a lot of stuff right as well. We had moments of which we can be proud of, moments we’d like to emulate, return and strengthen for next year.

Elana and I have been coming here on and off for 6 years, 4th visit.
I’d like to point out things on this shuls good list, things I learned from this shul, from all of you.
Singing: I’d remember our first Kabbalat Shabbat – the singing was soaring, running, breaking through the walls of the week into a world of Shabbat. Davening like a footy match. Singing as a spiritual practice. The Hasidic masters noted that the songs we sing on Shabbat are not called shirim but zemirot זמירות – the word for song which also means “to prune” – לזמור. Wen we are singing in davening we are pruning our soul. This is the kind of singing we do at Shira.
A way of
being Australian. I see here not only pride in your nationality, but also a willingness to take responsibility for issues. Not a resident alien mentality, but deeply rooted in the place you are. And not just the good news about Oz, but the bad news as well – immigration, aboriginal issues, racism. Jews often make politics completely ethnically based – Israel decides all. Here I learned a model where Israel is always at the heart, but politics are about deeply caring for this land for what it is. Bringin this caring to shul is truly remarkable. That’s what shul is at Shira – a place where we care.
Gender and Inclusiveness: not only the bold decision to include women in the service as much as Halakha would allow, but a deep spirit of including people in the shul no matter their age or background. Two weeks ago a ten year old gave the most moving derasha, sharing his concern for prejudice against autistic people, advocating for his friend. This was just before his mother gave a deep and learned derasha herself. How many other shuls would showcase those voices as their central speakers?
Those are some of the things on the “good list” of this community, I think, and alongside the brow beating, I’d like to recognize those,
strengthen that positive center, and build from it to grow ourselves more this yom Kippur.
What combines all of these traits? It’s an attempt to be real. Real in our singing. Real in our membership both in our Judaism and in our australianism. Real in our relationship between genders. Real in our Judaism.

Real-ness. The calling for real-ness in our Judaism comes from the most powerful Talmudic story for me personally.

Yoma 69b:
For R. Joshua b. Levi said: Why were they called men of the Great Assembly [Knesset]? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its ancient completeness. [For] Moses had said: 'The great God, the mighty, and the awesome'. (Deut. 10:17) Then Jeremiah came and said: Aliens are destroying His Temple. Where are, then, His awesome deeds? Hence he omitted [the attribute] the ‘awesome’ (Jer. 32:17). Daniel came and said: Foreigners are enslaving his sons. Where are His mighty deeds? Hence he omitted the word ‘mighty’(Dan. 9:4). But they [the men of the great assembly] came and said: On the contrary! Therein lie His mighty deeds that He suppresses His wrath, that He extends long-suffering to the wicked. Therein lie His awful powers: For but for the fear of Him, how could one [single] nation persist among the [many] nations! But how could [the earlier] Rabbis [Jeremiah, Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? R. Eleazar said: Since they knew that the Blessed Holy One is real, they could not ascribe false [things] to Him.

Just like those prophets, knowing that god is real to us, knowing the our Juadism is real for us, therefore we can’t lie about. We can’t be fake in it.
My inspiration from Shira is about bringing that kind of “realness” to the shul experience, to our Judaism. Tradition can often prevent us from being real. We are doing this today because we did it yesterday – thank God for that, but also how terrible is that.
None of us was here six years ago. This shul is not a place you go to simply because you went last year, because you are expected to by outside standards.
If we are here, it is because we want to be here. We are here deliberately, and we are bringing our full selves.
But alongside that we are sticking to the old recipes. We deeply respect our traditions, we do not change the basic structures that bind us to community and to the past, rather we reinterpret. Powerfully, radically if needed. Why? Because just like those Prophets, Jeremiah and Daniel, because we know our Judaism is real, perhaps even because we know God to be real, we can’t lie about it.
That’s the end of the compliments. Now to the brow beating:
What would it mean for us to translate that concept of real-ness to our wider lives? Since we know our lives are real, we can’t lie about them, we can’t fake our way through them. I’d like to suggest YK is a waking up for us to be real in our lives. We purge our actions, the good and the bad, and awaken a deeper self.
It is so hard to be real in our lives. Not to fake it, hoping that no one is watching too closely. It’s easier to do things simply because we’ve done them before. To say “this moment doesn’t count”. To fake through a moment without giving it much thought. Being truly authentic in the moment, demanding from ourselves that kind of presence.
The Kotzker rebbe said: If you davened today because you davened yesterday – that’s avodah zarah. A powerful statement that our religious lives, our connection to God cannot be by rote, but through full presence and authenticity.
What happens when I say that about my wife? Kiss today because of yesterday – that’s adultery!
And that’s about the good deeds in our lives.
The Talmud says “a person only sins if a moment of silliness, of discombobulation.” If we can stay real, we usually don’t sin.
What does it mean to be “real” in our lives?
We are real when we are being deliberate about our lives. When we are acting in a way that we are willing to be defined by.
Relationships
My parents, my children. My friends.
“In general I want to be good, but not right now” “In general I don’t recoil, be angry, but this is differnet” – so many of those moemnts – those are the “not for real” moments, when we allow ourselves to not be real
What’s the dynamic in the relationship
– is this what I want it to be about?
“this counts” – when we are acting as we would like to.
Critique: When we do not compartmentalize, but bring our full presence to bear. Not hiding our opinions or critiques, but bringing them to light so they ca be aired and the relationship can improve.
Financial
Often something overlooked in “Jewish talk”
Moving from simply whats “legal” and “obligatory” to the what is just, right and good
Pirated material, copyright infinrgement – might not count, but it’s not right and good. Taxes. Being upfront and faithful in our business trnasactions.
הטוב והישר doing the good and the just
Not because I’ll get caught, but because I know it to be the right thing
Not an outside barometer, but the inside one
With ourselves
This moment counts. The times when we aren’t cheating ourselves, cutting corners.
Diet
Finding the moment that we would be willing to be defined by

The challenge: to be real this year. In our relationships, in our politics. In our financial choices. In our Judaism.
For me, this is what God is about.
ה' אלהיכם אמת
God is ultimate reality. It almost doesn’t matter if you believe in him or not. God in our culture represents “the real”, creation, din – judgement. All those things are about being real. What does it mean to stand before something truly real? That is yom ha-din. But that is what life is. Only most of the year we can’t take it. Once a year we get together. We don’t eat, because food so often distracts us. Lack of food reminds us how real our bodies are, how fragile our lives.
ואתה הוא מלך אל חי וקים
חיים
Another way to day it is through life. When we talk about the books of life and death opening, not necessarily actual end of life, although that is to often the case. It’s also about” will we be ALIVE this year”? will we take control of our lives, live our lives in full?
זכרנו לחיים – remember us into life. Bring us to life. God is the God of life, life-force itself. Being connected to life is being connected to God, and that something worth crying about.
So what does it mean to stand in front of god on Yom Kippur with this desire for real and life?
People who make me feel fake. Real people. Standing in front of them, it suddenly becomes oh so clear all the thigs I need to improve in my life. All the קליפות – the layers of falsity and dried behaviours that I need to peel off. Every time the Aron opens – it is like that.

But come on. It is so hard to be “real” like that. How can we possibly be expected to be like that all year?
Looking at the YK ritual, we discover it is more complicated than that.
The ritual we just read this morning mentions two acts of purification, of atonement: the sacrificial goat, the scape goat who bears our sins and “gets rid” of them very literally.
But there is also the purging of the altar. A strange ritual where the kohen sprinkles the blood of the animal on the altar. This is what we’ll repeat in
seder haAvodah in about an hour nad a half.
What is that about?
The Kohen Gadol enters the holy of holies, which is never entered into the whole year, that most intimate, dangerous, delicate place. The place which represents the fact that God chose to dwell among us.
ועשו לי משכן ושכנתי בתוכם – the whole idea of the mishkan was the crazy idea that God wanted to dwell among the people. (In hasidut – the person itself)

Once inside the holy of holies, the high priest purges the altar.
What?
As Jacob Milgrom, z”l, explains: all year the sins of the people of Israel rest on the altar. Like a “dirty conscience”, a collective one, the altar collects the residue of all of our mistakes and malicious actions.
What’s so moving to me about this idea is that it accepts the fact that there are going to be mistakes. There are even going to be malicious actions, purposeful hurts in this relationship. God knows that. He never expected otherwise.
This is the secret of the verse: השוכן איתם בתוך טומאותם - God understands that he is residing among us, in our impurtuies. In our inadequacies. That is the secret of true committed relationship.
Friend hwo is dating – I know I want her good sides. But am I willing to be שוכן איתם בתוך טומאותם? And God says – Yes! I am! I know there will be all kinds of impurities, and still I want to dwell with you.
But there is a limit. A point after which that altar gets too crowded with ill will. At that point, God could not take it anymore, so to speak, and would leave his dwelling among us.
That is why we must purge the altar once a year. A thorough cleaning, and a riddance of the ill will that has accumulated. A forgivement of all past greviencas, all emotional debts. And a fresh start.
That is the meaning of the
avodah of YK.

To translate this back into our previous discussion:
Yom Kippur understands that we aren’t always going to be “real” in that full sense we described before. That there will be all kinds of moemnts.
But it calls upon us to purge ourselves. to be reminded of who we can be when we are real.
To bring us back into full presence with ourselves.
Through fasting, through prayer, through some brow beating. Through purging singing.

And I think that is what god wants. He wants us to be real. YK is a an opportunity to be real again.

Zusha – scariest story in hassidut.
Zushya of Anipoli – on YK, or maybe on Carlisle street having a coffee – starts to shake – child asks, why are you crying?
I had a vision I was dying, and at the gates they asked me a question:
They didn’t ask me why I wasn’t Moshe Rabbeinu, why I wasn’t Abraham or Sarah, or Devorah the prophet
Why weren’t I Zushya. That’s what they asked me when I met my maker. And that’s why I cried in the middle of Carlisle street: Will I be able to be myself?

Posted on September 21, 2010 .

Psalm 102

Rosh Hashana Drasha by Melanie Landau

Psalm 102: My days are like a lengthening shadow; and I, like grass that will wither. But You, YHVH, sit enthroned forever; and your memory from generation to generation.

Shana tova. These awesome days cast our attention to our mortality and invite us to use this awareness to propel us forth to express our truths, show ourselves, live the lives that we want to live, and recommit ourselves to our visions for ourselves and for a redeemed world. Relationship is the heart of our life's purpose and the key motif of RH — the question of who we are and what are we doing in the world and with whom we are doing it? RH addresses us on an individual level. This drasha is both an advertisement for our glorious imperfection and an invitation to mediate dangerously in our lives — the danger that comes from being present in our relationships and taking the risk in engaging honestly, showing ourselves, not knowing where it will take us, knowing we haven't been there before, letting go of all that is familiar.

On Rosh Hashanah, we each crown the divine, we each undergo judgement. Who are we to crown God and what is the meaning of this judgement? By crowning God we take responsibility, take ourselves out of the victim role, despite our severe limitations, and we remind ourselves that we can make a difference. Crowning God — putting our attention on something utterly non-human, is a way of seeing ourselves in our human imperfection. RH is about our smallness and our significance — the intensely personal and the resoundingly cosmic.

How should we relate to the judgement of today? Sometimes spiritual practices reinforce the habits and patterns that we have and get moulded to fit in to everything that we already know. We take them and we whip ourselves like we've been whipped as long as we can remember — and when it's not someone else who's criticising us, we've got a whole cacophony on the inside doing it to. We're not to blame for taking on these habits. But the good news is God's judgement is not about being guilty or innocent. They are the wrong categories. No one is innocent — we're human, we're imperfect. Our holy ancestors started out with great examples of these imperfections and that was truly very generous of them. And we could possibly spend our lifetimes accepting our human imperfections with grace and delight.

The judgement that I'm advocating today is an examination, getting to have a good look, a look at ourselves, having the opportunity to take stock, acknowledging and praising us for what we've done and how we've done it. Let's allow our life to flash by this RH. We all truly have much to be praised for. (Think of something you did which you're pleased about.) We can determine if the judgement has been successful, if after it we walk away with anticipation and gratitude, with an increased capacity to delight in our selves and in others and be of service to the world. Naturally any sadness would be a result of our own heartbreak at where we have struggled and where we couldn't act as the good people we really are. I know that no one is an exception to this.

I've participated in a few Vipassana meditation retreats, where you sit for 10 days in meditation. Most of the pain that I felt was the judgement and the harshness meted out by the self to the self. And every so often after it built up it would crack and dissolve with some tears. The very last session they give you a tool called “metta”, that's their version of the 13 midot of hessed, lovingkindness — but why wait till the end! We don't need to wait to Neilah to be swept up in the glorious abundance of lovingkindness, we need it now and always! We're not going to be able to look at ourselves very well if we don't activate this compassion and lovingkindness.

I just participated in a transformative weekend workshop on Ending White Racism led by the great granddaughter of Sir Edmund Barton, the first Prime Minister of Australia and the Father of Federation. Some of you may recall that the Barton government's first piece of legislation was the Immigration Restriction Act, which put the White Australia policy into law that restricted non-white immigration to Australia. She has big plans for Australia and for the role she can play in transforming racism here. She has visions of treaties with Indigenous landowners, of the re-possession of crown land and of the valuing of Indigenous culture and language through the educational and health systems. Interestingly though, she is not coming at this challenge from a position of guilt. Her perspective is that we can't do this work and undo our oppressor patterns unless we are totally delighted with ourselves. Most of the weekend we got to see what stands in the way of us being totally delighted with ourselves and with others. Racism gets to stay in place because it makes everyone feel bad about themselves. It also divides the beneficiaries of white privilege between the “good” whites and the “bad” whites. It was a very early when we got the hurt of no longer being delighted in ourselves. It's not our fault and it's not even our parents' fault. But we no longer need to suffer from the hurt of it. Crowning God, and recognising the relative insignificance of ourselves and our lives in terms of eternity, can be a way to reclaim the full potential of that human limit.

Let's come back to what I've called the heart of this process — the centrality of relationships, its relationship to the story of Hagar we just read and its application as the crucible of our life journeys in personal and collective ways. Our security is based on our relationships. We can and do learn the most fundamental lessons of our lives through relationships. They're not the side dish — they're the main course. We just read about Hagar and Ishmael's banishment from the House of Abraham through Sarah's instigation. What is that doing here on the first day of RH? Well for one, RH links us back through Jewish motifs but back to universal humanity (where Pesach is birth of Jewish nation). To reinforce this we bring to the heart of our service, our collective memory of our oppressive actions. I say our, because we're not going to use this story to blame Sarah, we're going to use this to thank her for opening up the possibilities and the freedom of what it means to acknowledge that we too have that oppressor part — and that even that — as part of us can be acknowledged and transformed. When have we been too scared to act in a way we know is right in the face of someone else's feelings and pressure? When have we transferred our feeling bad to blaming another person, or making them feel bad? We can do it in overt ways and we can do it in more subtle energetic ways. I bump up next to someone, they're bounding energy and beaming light and I need to cut them down because somehow they evoke terrible feelings in me, their light shines on how bad I feel about myself. Other times I may be able to recognise their light and their vitality as a reflection and extension of my own. There's lots of levels we need to forgive our self on and lots of levels and degrees — more and less subtle — in which we can grow.

Let's have another look at the narrative more closely: It seems to me that Sarah's feeling of shame and feeling like a victim was at the root of her sending out Hagar and transferring that shame. It started with her saying that Hashem has made her a “tzhok” (could be laugh or laughing stock) and then Sarah saw Ishmael “playing” or “mocking” and she reacted by asking Avraham to chase him and his mother out of the household. Everything can be read in different ways. God tells Abraham not to worry about the boy and his mother and to listen to Sarah's voice. Maybe that could have meant that he didn't need to do what she said, he just needed to listen to the pain that she was expressing through her words. Her desire for banishment of Hagar and Ishmael came from a place of pain within her. We are called to bring compassion to the one who has acted as an oppressor. It has to begin with ourselves but has to extend to those to whom we don't want it to extend. No one is left out of the circle. We are called to reconciliation. Hagar calls to God and is answered, and God also promises to make a great nation from her son Ishmael. It is only at the time of Abraham's death that the two brothers are finally reconciled to each other, set free from the divisive narrative into which they were born, without choice. US poet Edwin Markham in “Outwitted" could have been describing this reconciliation from Ishmael's perspective, at least at the end of Avraham's life. He writes: He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in!

Last week I had a great privilege at Monash, to teach overseas students in a seminar on "Interfaith Relations in the 21st Century". There were students from Brunei, Malaysia, Pakistan and China, several of whom had never met a Jew. Of course, this was no obstacle to them having lots of ideas about Jews. I started the class with some basic introductions and then I got them to go in pairs and share with each other their earliest memories of hearing about Jews and/or meeting them. After they shared with each other I invited them to report back to the class. People covered their hands with their mouths because they felt bad about the thoughts they had had, the sentiments they had heard and shared. I told them I was delighted — the more they would say to me, the happier I'd be. It makes it safer to have all of that baggage upfront. Someone I met described this encounter as “mediating dangerously” in the good sense. This is so because we push ourselves to the limits with others where it would be dangerous, because we have no map, no idea where we are going but it is in those places that we effect transformation. We open ourselves in the face of negativity coming our way, staying in our knowledge of our own power despite the scrumptious pull to identify in the position of victim.

This Shabbes Shuva marks the 9th anniversary of 9/11 and there are planned demonstrations against the building of Cordoba mosque and cultural centre near ground zero. Part of the controversy around the building of the mosque is the fear of it being interpreted as some kind of triumphalism. On the other hand, people who support its building see it as a chance for Muslims to be able to express their commitment to promoting interfaith dialogue and for recasting the dynamics of Muslim-non-Muslim relationships in the US since 9/11. Not all Muslims are supportive of the proposal. I don't wish to advocate for an outcome in this forum, but I do want to express my concern about the demonstration that will be taking place on Shabbat Shuva that I fear will provoke hatred of Islam and Muslims, failing to distinguish between those responsible for 9/11 and the vast majority of other people. Our community is also in danger of falling in to this undiscerning hatred – fear mongering now spreads like wildfire on the internet — I pray that we use the wisdom of this day to strengthen ourselves to avoid all the ways that we can turn humans, any human — into “others” — thus avoiding the interpersonal wounds we create through demonization and stereotype.

Once we commit to being delighted in ourselves and also deeply understanding when we fall short, it's not a big ask for us to decide to end all family “broigas” and disputes. What do we have to overcome in ourselves to reconcile with every single person in our lives. What feelings of rage and resentment, hurt, humiliation, and betrayal will we need to (feel and then) put down? And if we can do this with ourselves, what is possible on a communal level? I've got great hopes. On a small scale I'm planning an intra-community closed dialogue on Israel making space for the expression of diversity of opinion that blossoms from this community. What becomes possible on a national, international level? With our imperfect humanity and open heartedness let's mediate dangerously in our own lives, and make space for our relationships to grow and transform taking us to new places, one's we didn't know existed. Let's use our insignificance to our advantage by not letting ideas of who we think we are come in the way of what we need to do.

There is nothing better I know than the groan of the shofar; the cry; the breath; to reflect back to us the power and goodness of humanity in our imperfection.

Psalm 102: My days are like a lengthening shadow; and I, like grass that will wither. But You, YHVH, sit enthroned forever; and your memory from generation to generation.

Posted on September 20, 2010 .

Neila

Yom Kippur Drasha by Ittay Flescher

Just as Yom Kippur is the climax of the 10 days of repentance, so Neila is the climax of Yom Kippur. The heavenly judgement inscribed on Rosh Hashana is sealed during Neilah. According to the Artscroll siddur, one should try and bring oneself to tears during Neila. In order to facilitate the added fervour required for Neila, various customs have been adopted:

  • Open Ark
  • A respected rabbi leads the tfilla
  • Stand for the whole time
  • Moving melodies are used
  • Avinu malkeinu is recited
  • Before neila, a respected leader of the congregation exhorts the people to tearful repentance.

What can I say to make you cry? Nothing. But I can make you think.

The l
iturgy of yamim noraim with its constant refrains to choose between teshuva or death, invites us to ponder big questions about justice in this world.
-Is there justice in the world?
-Does justice mean everyone gets what they deserve?
-Is God just?

In the Book of Job this question is answered in the affirmative, but in the story of Sodom, perhaps the answer is no. In the story of Sodom God wants to inflict collective punishment on the entire city for the sins of having too much chessed or maybe not enough.

Is there a time when we should argue with God about justice like Avraham did when he said “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?

Avraham bargained for human life. He scolded God saying
“Far be it from you!
Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:25)

Why argue with God? Would he really change his mind?

There was once a sage in Sodom, who would walk the streets shouting at the people to change their ways. At first some of them listened. But over time, they stopped listening and returned to their old lives. The sage continued to walk the streets and shout. One day a small boy approached the Sage. ‘Do you not know that they do not listen to you?’
the boy asked. ‘Yes, I know,” replied the Sage. “Then why do you keep shouting?”
“If I still shout,” answered the Sage, “it is no longer to change them, it is so they do not change me.” – Sage in Sodom (Elie Wiesel), told by Donna Jacobs Sife

In today’s world, I sometimes wonder whether we have lost the holy chutzpah to make the case for justice when injustice is being done in the name of God.

In today’s world there are so many crimes committed in the name of religion that faith has gone from being described as something noble and virtuous to something that is irrational and even immoral.

It doesn’t need be this way. In 2008, Karen Armstrong started a movement to change religion. As an academic who researched all of the world’s major religions, she found that every ‘major’ religion put at its core what's become known as the ‘Golden Rule’.

For Example:
Confucianism: “One concept sums up the basis of all good conduct… loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (Analects 15:23)
Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you” (Mahabharata 5:1517)
Islam (hadith): “None of you (truly) believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.
Taoism: Regard your neigbours gain as your own gain, and your neighbours loss as your own loss.
Christianity: In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. –Jesus, Matthew 7:12
Bahai: Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.
Judaism: Masechet Shabbat 31a

A certain heathen came to Shammai [a first century B.C.E. rabbi] and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon he repulsed him with the rod which was in his hand. When he went to [Rabbi] Hillel, he said to him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn.”

Noticing that these religions had so much in common, Karen Armstrong launched the Charter for compassion in 2008. The aim of this charter was to get as many religious leaders and followers as possible to sign the charter. Armstrong felt that this would be the best way to turn religion from a force for evil, to a force for good. An extract from the charter reads:

Charter for compassion
We therefore call upon all men and women ~ to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.

Thus far it has been signed by Dalai Lama, Tariq Ramadan, Desmond Tutu, Rabbi David Saperstein, Queen Nor of Jordan and has institutional support from Cordoba Initiative in New York to the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Israel. It has also been signed by over 50 000 other individual around the world.

This is one way to interpret religion.
I know what you thinking. How naïve is this. Religions exist to separate people by highlighting their differences and uniqueness. If one believed that we were all the same, it is more likely the text of choice would be john lennon’s imagine than it would be a text from any one of the holy books. That’s why when we are called to the torah we say ‘asher bachar banu MI call ha’amim” and not “asher bachar banu IM(with) kol ha’amim.

This Nihilistic view that religion and life are doomed to cause strife and should therefore be abandoned was one that confronted Viktor Frankl in his famous book, “Man’s search for meaning”

His friend says to him, “You must realize that the world is a joke. There is no justice, everything is random. Only when you realize this will you take yourself seriously. There is no grand purpose in the universe, it just is. There’s no particular meaning in what decision you make today about how to act.”

In our hyper “reality” driven world where fame is what happens to the person in Australia who can make the best guava custard snow egg on masterchef, this description seems highly apt.

However, this view must not prevail. In the final chapter of Frankl’s book aptly titled "The Case for a Tragic Optimism" Frankl makes the case that people will benefit from an optimistic perspective of life no matter what their hardships. According to logotherapy, meaning is a tangible, down to earth concept. Frankl reiterates the three ways for people to arrive at meaning: accomplishing something, experiencing something or encountering someone, or turning a personal tragedy into triumph.
Frankl’s golden rule is this:

“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted wrongly the first time.”
I think the strongest case for optimism and compassion in the world comes from the prophet Yishayahu. The biggest dreamer of them all. He dreams that one day “all nations will beat their swords into plow shares and turn their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, and that they shall never again know war.” (Isaiah 2:4)

I argue that dreaming about utopian visions about what the world could be is not utopian or naïve. It is actually the most Jewish thing to do of all.

Yom Kippur is going to end in one hour. What will you take from this day?
In Isaiah’s time, the people were complaining to him that their Yom Kippur fast was not working. Isaiah tells us what the people had said to him.

They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
They say, “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”

Yishayhu answers in the name of Hashem
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress your workers!
Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers?
When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?

"The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:2-7)

What Isaiah is telling us is that the best form of fasting and prayer is one that leads to action. In 1955, when Abraham Joshua Heschel joined Martin Luther King in the civil rights march he said. "For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship.
I felt my legs were praying." In 5771, please

Pray with your wallet, by donating to good causes
pray with your facebook profile, by promoting awareness of injustice
pray with you time, by volunteering
pray with your eyes, by not turning away from seeing
pray with your ears, by listening to peoples stories
pray with your kitchen by cooking food for the sick
Given that at this final hour of Yom Kippur, Shira doesn’t have “a respected leader of the congregation exhorts the people to tearful repentance.” I will quote from a very person who, if we had a rabbi, might be up at the bimah now. Not because of his Talmudic knowledge or sermon giving ability, but because of his ability to move us through song. The man is of course, Leonard Cohen.

And even though, It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Posted on September 19, 2010 .

San Luis Rey

Yom Kippur Drasha by Debbie Masel (Miller)

A few months ago my friend Howard Goldenberg lent me a very little book that asks a very big question. The book is called The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by the American novelist Thornton Wilder, and it opens with an account of the collapse of a bridge in Peru at noon on the 20th of July, in the year 1714, about a century after it was woven from osier by the Incas. In the collapse, five people plunge to their deaths.

The big question is asked by a little monk who observes the disaster. Why, he asks, did these five people die at this exact time? Were they just in the wrong place at the wrong time, the victims of chance and circumstance? Or were their lives and their deaths the direct work of God?

Are we blown about willy nilly like driven leaves, like wind along the waste? Or is everything in this world, all the way down to the fall of every sparrow directed by the hand of God?

Perhaps the biggest question of all is how to reconcile faith in divine direction with a world that tolerates chaos, suffering and pain.

In Wilder’s novel, the little monk is the only one of the many witnesses to the disaster to ask the big question.

The others quite humanly exclaim,
“It could have been me!”
“I was just about to cross…”
“I just crossed over that bridge one minute ago!”
“I’ve been saved by a miracle!”

Disasters inevitably give rise to accounts of miraculous survival.

All of us here who are old enough to remember must have read the ones that made their way around the internet in the wake of 9/11.

“I would have been there, but I had a toothache and got an emergency dentist appointment and so I didn’t get to work on time!”

“My car broke down!”
“I got caught in traffic!”
“I went to help a sick friend!”
“It was a miracle! I was saved by a miracle!”

These stories bring us back to the little monk’s big question. Even those who tell of their miraculous survival must surely also think:

“What about the guy from the 16th floor of the North Tower in the office next to mine whose car didn’t break down?”
“What about the woman across the hall who didn’t get stuck in traffic and got to work at the World Trade Centre on time that morning?”
Was God not watching over them? What does it mean?

In his book on life and death in the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl writes that it is the search for meaning, the faith in meaning, even in the most shattering circumstances, that defines us as human. He says that we must never give up the search for meaning, even in a world that seems incomprehensible.

Yet at the very start of his book, Frankl acknowledges that those who survived the camps, survived by sheer luck. By blind chance. “The best of us,” he writes, “did not return.”

According to Frankl and many other survivors, from our human perspective, life is a lottery. Our ancient sages agree. Yom Kippur, they say is a Yom k’Purim, a day like Purim.
At first glance the two days couldn’t seem more different — one so utterly material, the other so purely spiritual, yet the concept of chance, of blind luck, is a central feature of both.

In the story of Purim, Haman chooses the day for the genocide of the Jews by casting lots. On Yom Kippur, the high priest takes two goats and draws lots to determine which will be sanctified, and which will be flung, like the five who died in the collapse of the Bridge of San Lui Rey, into the abyss.

Along with Viktor Frankl, the sages seem to be saying that from our human perspective, life and death is a matter of chance.

But when we look into this more deeply, it is not a matter of chance at all. There is no option. It is a matter of fact. We are all going to die. God created us mortal. Every year, every day, every moment, people are born and people die.

So when we ask to be written into the Book of Life, what are we really asking of God? Are we asking that it not be us, that it be someone else, someone far away on the other side of the world, someone we don’t know? Are we begging God to send the Angel of Death anywhere but here, the further and more foreign the better?

Or are we asking something more fundamental? Are we asking God to go back to the beginning and change the blueprint of creation, to recreate a new, different world in which death has no part?

Nathan Wolski’s recently published book on the Zohar clarified for me something about the mystics’ interpretation of creation. God didn’t just create the blueprint in which death is so vital an ingredient. God is the blueprint.

The mystics teach that Creation depends as much upon on God’s absence as upon His presence. In a sense, there could be no creation without what might be called “the death of God.” They explain that in His deep desire for a world, God withdrew His infinite light, to make space for creation, for us. In this act of love, of stepping back, He left a divine imprint, a hidden memory of love, breathed into the first human and transferred throughout the generations, from one soul to another.

And now, on the eve of this Sabbath of Sabbaths we are about to step into that hidden imprint of love, created by God’s withdrawal. We are about to enter the soulbreath of creation. The Talmud teaches that if only the Jewish people kept two Sabbaths, they would be immediately redeemed. This is usually understood to mean that if every Jew in the world fully observed two consecutive Shabbats, the age of Moshiach would dawn.A beautiful Hassidic interpretation, however, suggests that “two Shabbatot” refers not to two consecutive Shabbats, but to two Sabbaths that coincide on a single day. That can only be today, right now, when Yom Kippur, which the Torah calls Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, and the weekly Sabbath are one and the same day. Right now, we are entering the holiest of days, a moment of infinite possibility. The busyness of the six days of the week are right now being replaced by the still peace of Shabbat and by the pure spirituality of Yom Kippur, when we divest ourselves, with faith, of what we need to sustain life, and step into the souls of angels. Tomorrow morning we will return to this room and look out onto the park and see joggers and dog walkers and tennis players. We’ll hear car horns blare and trams rumble along Balaclava Road.

But, as the poet Doris Brett said to me the other day, we will be like the birds who sing from the treetops in the park to the tune of their own rhythms, oblivious to the sounds of the surrounding city. We will be here, inside the inside, in the still centre, beyond all that busyness, inside the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, standing before God.

This day is unique in all the year. It is the innermost sanctum, the holy of holies.

To me the most mysterious thing of all is that according to the law of Torah, it is not God, but we who create this sanctuary.

In the Torah, God commands us to set aside the tenth day of the seventh month for our annual Day of Atonement, but the sages stress that it is up to us to decide which particular day this will be. After the end of the lunar cycle, we proclaim the new moon. We determine which day will be the first of the month, and hence, which will be the tenth. We decide that this particular evening, this Shabbat, these clouds, this sky shall be the sky of Yom Kippur. It is we who sanctify time. We decide that on this particular day, our prayers will open all the gates of heaven.

If we can establish the holiness of Yom Kippur how much more can we create the beauty of a regular day?

The Hassidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav used to say that each day is unique, born of its own song, and we are the singers of that song.
We cannot stop the day from dying, and that is part of its glory, but if we don’t sing it into being it will pass us by like a driven leaf, like wind along the waste, as if it never was.
We can’t change the way the world was made, but we can change the way we wear it.

On Shabbat Shuva Gabbi reminded us that Rebbe Meir, the great illuminator of the Torah, changed an ayin to an aleph and transformed begged or, our shameful coverings of leather, into begged ohr, our radiant rags of light. And from the Zohar, we learn that like Rebbe Meir every one of us has the power to transform each day into a garment of light that illuminates the soul.

In Thornton Wilder’s novel, the little monk who asked the big question was as aware as Rebbe Meir of his power to illuminate his life. He had perfect faith in divine providence.
He knew in his heart of hearts that God watches over the fall of every feather of every sparrow. His meticulous research was only to convince others.

But after years of painstaking study of every detail of the lives of the five who died he was forced to admit that he could not discern a higher plan. He could find no evidence of Divine will in the disaster at the Bridge of San Luis Reh. Nor could he find any rhyme or reason for the happy or sad, short or prolonged lives of a group of Peruvians he chose to observe over a long period of time.

Ultimately, along with Viktor Frankl, he concluded that from our perspective the five deaths were a matter of sheer chance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Despite his best efforts, the little monk failed to find any statistical evidence of Higher Will or any verifiable meaning for life, but his pure faith was not damaged. In fact it was strengthened by the awesomeness of the mystery with which we humans are presented. He had never needed proof. His faith in the meaning of life and death had nothing to do with scientifically verifiable facts. Even if it had, he didn’t consider himself worthy to judge the deeds of others, let alone the mind of God, so how from his theological framework how could he know which of the five had been blessed and released from a full and good life into an everlasting world hereafter, and which lives had been cut short due to sin and wilfulness?

What he knew came not from his head or even from his eyes, but from his heart. The faith that he could neither prove nor intellectually grasp was the imprint of divine love that he shared with his fellow creatures and with his God.

Because he happened to be in Peru at the time of the Peruvian Inquisition, his inconclusive conclusions were condemned as heresy and he was burned at the stake, along with his voluminous notes. The locals who gathered to watch the auto da fe were those he had been trying to convince, and instead of being swayed by statistics they were moved by his great burning faith and imprinted with the love he carried.

It was R. Nachman who also famously said that kol ha’olum kulo, gesher tzar meod.. whole world is a very narrow bridge. A few days ago I learned that only one in ten traditional Cambodian dancers survived the Pol Pot genocide in the Nineteen Seventies. Tomorrow at the emotional highlight of our service we will recite the story of the ten Talmudic sages brutally martyred by the Romans. According to Midrash, they were killed to atone for the nine brothers who sold Joseph, while Rabbi Akiva, the tenth, atoned for the complicity of God. The mystics say that God is a living fusion of ten divine attributes. And God commanded that Yom Kippur shall fall on the Tenth of the month. Ten Plagues, Ten commandments, Ten sayings of creation. I could go on. I could search for meaning, and I believe that the beauty and magnificence of Torah is hidden inside that search.
But the only thing of which I am sure is that I will never arrive at a definitive answer. How could I, when I am such a large part of the question?

We are all walking on the woven Bridge of San Luis Rey, but what binds us is greater than meaning and stronger than all the osier of the Incas. Like the little monk, we cannot explain the ways of God. We cannot know who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted.

But that is not the main thing. The main thing, said R. Nachman, is lo l’fached klal…not to be at all afraid.

The little monk could not explain the ways of God to man, but he carried the imprint of the love that God first breathed into Adam, who passed it down from soul to soul, all the way to Abraham.The Midrash likens our father Abraham to a jar of perfume which instead of lying untouched in some forgotten corner was moved from its place and opened, filling the world with its sweet fragrance.

From Abraham the fragrance passed from soul to soul all the way to Moses, who in these weeks around the High Holy Days, as we read the closing portions of his Torah, passes it on to every soul who is about to cross the River Jordan. Moses, who is condemned by God to remain behind, nonetheless crosses over. We carry him across in the imprint that he carried from Abraham, whose imprint was carried from Adam, who was imprinted with the nefesh hayyim, the living breath of God, and each one of us passes it on to every single person whose life touches ours.

Even God forbid a child who dies before it has a chance to live is loved by the mother who carried it, and the imprint of that love transforms the mother who loved, and imprints itself upon everyone who comes in contact with her.

Way beyond the few generations who remember an individual, the imprint left by love is woven into the fabric of life, stronger than the osier of the Peruvian Incas, stronger even than death.The American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

If in the next twentyfour hours we are to create a palace in time, if we are to make of this bowling club a holy temple where we prostrate ourselves before God, our prayers must weave themselves into the prayers of our neighbours. All the imprints of love that we carry, from that very first divine breath, imprints still fresh in our lives and imprints of ancient and forgotten light passed down from generation to generation, from soul to soul, must weave themselves now into this very narrow bridge.

This is what it means to be written into the Book of Life.

To leave an imprint of love that weaves itself through time and space, bringing this whole great spinning world together into this moment, this holy of holies, this day that according to our sages is the most joyous of the entire year.

The great joy of Yom Kippur, they say, is equal only to the great joy of the little festival of Tu b’Av, when people let go of their differences and dance, ultimately forming a great circle with God in the middle, equidistant from each one of them. Yom Kippur also culminates in a great mechol, a great dance of mechila — forgiveness, whose every step creates a new imprint of love. As on the little festival of Tu B’Av, each of us, divested of material differences, dances equidistant around God, who is the kol d’mama daka, the gentle sound of silence at the heart of this great spinning world.

As we enter this Sabbath of Sabbaths, let us all be High Priests stepping into the heart of light. Let us celebrate the great divine mystery of life and death that weaves itself into a world in which beauty is so incomprehensibly possible.

Let us open ourselves up with Abraham and with the little monk and fill this room with holy fragrance. Let the love we imprint upon each other travel in time and in space, imprinting itself on others in times to come, times within memory and times beyond memory, until the whole world is filled with the scent of the incense from this holy of holies.

Thornton Wilder ends his little book with the words: “Soon we shall die and all the memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. “Even memory is not necessary for love. “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Shabbat shalom, Gmar Chatima tova, may we seal and sign each other as we dance together in the imprint of that great love that was, that is, and that always will be.

Posted on September 19, 2010 .