Guess Who's Coming to Shul? - Rosh Hashanah - 1 Tishrei 5777 - 3 October 2016
Oct 6th 2016

Josette and I extend best wishes for a Shana Tovah. We feel blessed by the growth of our family and by being part of this community.

Beth Tzedec is a bulwark, a strong support, for the totality of the Toronto Jewish community. When the leadership of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism met here recently, they were amazed to hear that over 150,000 people come through our doors during the year, that our membership is so involved in UJA and other organizations. This year, in particular, it has been heartening to hear so many people seeing the big picture of Beth Tzedec.

Ten days ago, our Executive Director received a call from Ms. Galit Baram, the new Consul General of the State of Israel. Would we be able to provide her and her family with seats for Kol Nidrei? Of course we agreed. Our Congregation has a history of deep support for the State of Israel and we have been the venue for many leaders of Israel to address the Toronto community.

Her request led me to a fantasy shared by my colleague and teacher, Rabbi Jack Riemer. Let me make a disclosure. I have already mailed in my ballot for the American election. I won’t disclose my vote, but I was proud to be present in the United States Senate chamber on both occasions when Senator Clinton was sworn into office.

How many of you follow the US campaign? Although Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump exhibit different personalities and articulate contrasting positions, they have one thing in common ... Each has a Jewish son-in-law.

Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, is married to Jared Kushner and Mrs. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, is married to Mark Mezevitsky.

Now the fantasy. What if Donald and Hillary woke up one day, called their sons-in-law and asked, “Can you get me two tickets to Kol Nidrei?” What do you imagine would happen? The two men would do their best. They would go to the Executive Directors of their synagogues and request seats for their meẖutanim.

Of course, the congregations will agree. But then complications will ensue. What about the six Secret Service guards? EIGHT SEATS IN THE FRONT FOR KOL NIDREI? …  But the Executive Director's assent.  “We want to be supportive of you.”  Where would the reporters sit? At that point, the synagogue leadership said, “Hmmm…. You know, … Maybe your in-laws would be happier davening somewhere else.”

So the sons-in-law meet and decide to go to the same shul. They want to find a service that would be engaging for the candidates, neither of whom is known to be fluent in Hebrew.

So, guess who’s coming to Beth Tzedec? They heard what a great community we have and what a fine guest Hazzan and choir we have. They have heard what a wise and modest Rabbi we have. So they called and we accommodated them. Mr. Trump will sit on the far right and Ms Clinton will be seated on the centre-left.

If you were the rabbi, what moral message, not political positioning or advocacy, would be appropriate for both to hear?

After welcoming them to Canada, the most stalwart ally and economic partner of the United States and thanking them for their commitment to their country, I would say that I hope they will be inspired by the beautiful melodies of Hazzan Moshe Fishel and the Lishmoah el Harina Ensemble. By the way, I am grateful to Shep Gangbar and Marvin Miller and their committee who worked so hard to make arrangements to bring the Hazzan, Musical Conductor Meir Briskman and these special voices to our community.

Then I would offer some counsel from our spiritual practices. We prepare during the month of Elul for the Days of Awe. We begin with the daily shofar blast and the recitation of the penitential psalm. As we get closer, we add Selihot prayers. Rosh Hashanah is a time for reflection and food. Moving toward Yom Kippur, we start to “feel the burn” of our spiritual struggles. We remove leather shoes, dress in white and fast, hoping that these acts will stimulate humility and teshuvah. Similarly, as the American campaign enters its last month, the intensity builds.

I would advise Mr. Trump and Ms Clinton to recite a short personal prayer every day, one found at the close of the Amidah.

נצור לשוני מרע ושפתי מדבר מרמה ~ Keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies.

When we are angry or hurt, we can utter the most malicious words. Later we may try to walk our words back, but once they are out—like feathers from a pillow—it is difficult to recall them. Perhaps this prayer might change the tone of the campaign which threatens efforts of previous generations to raise the level of public discourse. Be careful what you say.

Later this month we’ll initiate Project Genesis. We’ll be discussing particle physics and Jewish theology. But for today, let’s accept the traditional teaching that God spoke and the world came into being. Words have power to create worlds and to destroy them.

On Yom Kippur, we recite the great confessional, על חטא. Many of them refer to failings of speech. על חטא שחטאנו לפניך בטפשות פה ~ For the sin we have committed by stupid speech. Both of you have been guilty of this in the campaign. And it is a sin that many—including me—have committed more than once.  Why is it easier for us to accept the negative without actually fact-checking?

Our mahzor repeats and returns to the imperative of שמירת הלשון - guarding one’s tongue. I would say to the candidates: Regardless of what you have done until now, I ask you to be careful about what you say to each other in the next month. Avoid demonizing. Debate the issues. Don’t tear one another apart. Keep your tongues from evil, your lips from lies.

A second message: do the math. Not the polls, not the votes, not the electoral college. Count the number of times we will say the confessions of על חטא and אשמנו. There are 22 failings listed in אשמנו, arranged according to the Hebrew alphabet, and 44 sins in על חטא. They are each recited ten times during the sacred fast. 10x22 = 220 and 10 x 44 = 440. Six hundred and sixty times is a lot.

Could we really have committed all these sins? I don’t think so. Even if we worked at it full time. My teacher Rabbi Heschel used to remind us that while “some are guilty, all are responsible”. That is, we share in a collective responsibility for the state of our society. It’s not all one person’s fault. Don’t blame the many challenges of our society—political, social, economic—on one leader.

There is a third lesson that the world of the synagogue has for the world of politics. Take responsibility. In politics, rarely do leaders admit that they have done anything wrong. If you insult a Gold Star mother or ridicule a woman for her weight, you don’t say: “I did it and I am sorry”. Instead you say: “The reporters misinterpreted what I said. It is their fault, not mine.” If you say that the head of the FBI agreed that you were innocent, and that is not what he really said, you don’t say “I misstated him”.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, we emphasize memory. We declare that God remembers all that is forgotten. But we also challenge ourselves to recall what we did, how we contributed to problems and challenges.  We are responsible for what we say and for what we do, and if you do something wrong, you must own it. Don’t blame someone else.

A last message I would want to give to Hillary and Donald is that people have to find a way to co-exist after a conflict. A scorched earth program is not healthy for a country, a community or a couple. I have often witnessed parents deeply damage the children they love because of the pain and outrage of their current conflict. The deep disagreement of siblings who only see the justice of their own position, often makes it hard for their children, the cousins, to maintain a family relationship.

It is not enough to be right. Yehudah Amichai, the great Israeli poet, put it this way:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

If you malign one another, even if you win, you will have to govern a wounded and divided country. And that will make the task of the next president exceedingly difficult.

I have another fantasy, actually a prayer. I hope that the people here who may have hurt one another and said harsh things to each other—whether in business or at home, in a public setting or a private encounter—will find the courage (and it takes tremendous bravery) to seek each other out, acknowledge the pain caused, request forgiveness and offer to forgive.

All of Genesis is about feuding families who try to find a way to live together. The sons of Avraham only come together when he dies. The children of Yitzhak meet in a fateful encounter, kiss and go their separate ways. Only Yosef and his brothers actually forgive and reconcile. None of this happens easily or quickly. Healing takes time.

In an interview on TEDx, the former president of the State of Israel, Shimon Peresz”l, discussed his secret to a long life (“Start every day with a glass of lemon juice”). He went on to say something for all of us.

You all know that Mr. Peres had some challenging conflicts with other leaders. There were many who disagreed with his advocacy of the Oslo Accords. Yet, he came to be grudgingly admired and then greatly appreciated. He said something that resonated with me. “In the evening, I make a list of the mistakes I made during the day and the people I insulted, and I look for ways to correct them. In the morning, I make a list of the dreams I have and try to realize them.”

At the graveside last week, the current president of the State of Israel, Moshe Rivlin, said,

Shimon, I unashamedly confess, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, at your graveside … your forgiveness must be asked. We will ask your forgiveness. It was permitted to disagree with you. Your opponents had a duty to express their opinion. However, there were years in which red lines were crossed between ideological disputes and words and deeds which had no place. You always acted according to what you believed with all your heart was best for the people, whom you served.

I hope that our two American guests will learn from our wise tradition and from the life of Shimon Peresz”l to shift the balance of the campaign from insults and accusations to dreams for the future. That is something for each of us to do now and throughout our lives.

Shana Tovah U’metukah.

I’d also like to say something about our Congregation.

Our 60th anniversary was quite a year. From its beginning with the Cotler -Sharansky talk through the 60 Shabbat dinners, the weekend with Yehuda Kurtzer and the Gala dinner, culminating with our weekend with Steven Berk and our welcoming of Israeli combat veterans.

We had programming for the Book and Film Club, activities for mature adults, initiatives for little kids and parents and extensive family activities. While not complete, you are invited to peek into our new banquet hall. It also was a year of division, but we are a strong community and are facing forward with enthusiasm, excitement and hope. A wonderful aspect of Rosh Hashanah is the opportunity to refocus on what we hope for the future.

Today the world came into being. Hayom harat olam. It is a good time to remember the power of creation, which has evolved in ways that continue to amaze. As a community, we also continue to evolve. I am proud of the growing diversity of our membership, which has been increasingly welcoming of Jews by Choice, LGBTQ, and people with various challenges.

We have co-sponsored a welcoming place for young adults with social challenges. Just as we have developed new ways of engaging students in our Congregational School Experience, as we seek to provide Jewish connections for young professionals at an important time in their lives. This November, we’ll be the live host for Un-Orthodox, an edgy podcast, specially for young adults.

Our Congregation holds hands and faces outward from a circle, supporting all sorts of community endeavours. Our teens went to Northern Ontario as part of the Truth and Reconciliation process. Young adults went to Ethiopia as agents of tzedek and hesed. We welcomed a platoon of Israeli combat veterans through Peace of Mind to provide structured support for their post traumatic stress. We shall do this again and hope that you will get involved and support this important project.

The Torah states that the secret things are for God and the revealed are for us to do. But we are involved in many actions that are confidential. Many of our efforts are for individuals, in hospitals or homebound, for people in need of counsel and support, for families at times of sadness or celebration.

In the Connect Lounge now, there is a family here because so many of you cared. Two weeks ago, Tareq and Hanaa and their three children, Sanaa, Seba and Baysan, arrived in Canada. Their immigration was sponsored by our Congregation. This Ismaili family has been resettled near the family of a Canadian sister. Another sister—whose family was sponsored by JIAS—is nearby. A fourth sister still waits in a refugee camp. We have reunited a family in safety and given a welder, a statistics analyst and their children a future.

Wherever I go, colleagues tell me how they admire the many programs that we initiate, our outreach to various elements of the Jewish community, our commitment to spiritual care, our hesed and justice efforts and our commitment to maintain the integrity of a dynamic Conservative congregation. 

You may not realize that only 60 percent of our budget is covered by membership contributions. To run book clubs, scholar weekends, programs for youth and teenagers, millennials and elders, Out of the Cold and other social action initiatives, we need your additional support. Through your generosity, the programs and activities that provide so much will continue to affect peoples’ lives for good.

Kadeshenu be’mitzvotekha. We become holy by doing mitzvot, not simply through good intentions. Please consider us worthy of your tzedakah and share your blessings with us. Fold the tab card to support the Synagogue, staff and volunteers that create activities that touch the lives of thousands of families and the 150,000 women, men and children that enter Beth Tzedec every year.

As some of you know, there is a custom to indicate the Hebrew year with part of a verse that is equal in numerical value to that year. These chronograms are often found in traditional books, on tombstones and in written correspondence. It’s a nice way to give added meaning to the current year. One biblical phrase that equals תשע"ז 5777, is “So that you shall live and it will be good for you. לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיוּן֙ וְט֣וֹב לָכֶ֔ם  (Deuteronomy 5:30). We are a Congregation that lives 365 days a year, open from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., during floods, ice storms and power outages. We thrive and we do good.

I am grateful to Rabbi Jack Riemer for his inspiration for this sermon.