The Masks We Need

There’s a provocative mystical teaching that Purim and Yom Kippur, two seemingly opposed holidays, are actually deeply related – that Yom Kippur is, in fact, a “yom k’Purim” (a day like Purim).

There are actually many ways in which, as the Vilna Gaon explains, the holidays are like two sides of the same coin. For instance, both of them involve revealing and concealing.

Mirroring God’s hiddenness in the Purim story, Purim is a holiday of masks and costumes. Yom Kippur, in which we feel God’s presence, is a day on which we cannot hide – we don’t even wear makeup or fancy clothes; we are nothing but our most basic selves.

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Rethinking Membership Structures

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, opens with each Israelite contributing a required half-shekel toward building the Tent of Meeting.  The Torah states that “The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less” (Exodus 30:15). Other verses describe additional voluntary contributions toward building the Tabernacle.

Today, this practice has inspired many synagogues to rethink membership structures. With younger Jews feeling less of an obligation to join and scores of folks of all ages feeling alienated, the fixed-dues model can discourage potential members.

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Becoming Free Like the Wilderness

In my work on campus, I am blessed to build relationships with many different kinds of Jewish students. Some have extensive Jewish education and ritual practice. Some have one Jewish parent. Some have felt excluded due to race, socio-economic standing, sexual orientation or gender identity. Some never had a chance to learn about their Jewish heritage. Some are ambivalent.

This week’s parashah, Yitro, includes the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The Midrash wonders why the Torah was given in the Sinai wilderness. It answers that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water and wilderness. Why? Because “just as these three are free to all inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them.”

I learned this text with a diverse group of student leaders recently. Continue reading

Blessing Our Children

The first time I recited the Friday night priestly blessing, my daughter was one day old. With Shabbat descending on Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, my husband and I took this tiny, not-yet-named being into our arms and blessed her in the name of our foremothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We wished for her in that moment an eternity of God’s goodness, the best the world could give her, a future of love and righteousness. Continue reading

Reaching Out

This week, Jacob sets out toward home after 20 years away and must face his brother Esau, whom he deceived before he left. Jacob carefully approaches Esau: he gradually announces his arrival with gifts, has his servants explain to Esau that the gifts are from “your servant Jacob” and bows seven times as he approaches, so it is clear Jacob doesn’t mean to fight Esau. The approach works. Even though Esau could understandably rebuff Jacob or fight him, instead, Esau embraces his brother and kisses him, asking to know his children.

Reaching out to someone you’re not sure wants to be in a relationship with you is hard, especially if you have past difficulty between you. This is also true in reaching out across differences as communities. The Jewish community can, at times, be hesitant to form partnerships with other communities, especially those with whom we have had historical disagreements.

But as we saw in the aftermath of the murders in Pittsburgh, it is those cross-communal relationships that can bring comfort, protection and strength in difficult times. This was exemplified by the rings of peace organized by mosques and churches across the city, cards received by the University of Toronto Hillel from other faith groups on campus, presence at vigils and allies calling out anti-Semitism. I felt devastated by the tragedy, and then comforted that we are not alone.

These relationships come from hard work. We can learn from Jacob. We must approach each other by offering the gift of our care for the other group – enough care to explore our disagreements. We must approach each other with a desire to learn, to serve and to be guided, instead of assuming we know the answer. And we must be clear in our wanting to work together, building trust.

When we do this work of partnering and building a better society together, we not only draw strength in difficult times, but we are also able to celebrate our successes and joys together.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Infertility and Jewish Continuity

In this week’s Torah portion, God comes to Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they will conceive a child, even though they are, respectively, 100 and 90 years old. When Sarah overhears God sharing this news with Abraham, she laughs.

For those of us experiencing infertility, we may have lost our laughter altogether. A hope for a child can become a long, emotionally draining journey with no certain end. In the Jewish community, with such a focus on family and producing a next generation, those experiencing infertility can feel doubly isolated. And yet, one in six Jews experiences infertility.

In our community settings, we should remember how prevalent difficulty conceiving really is. At baby welcoming ceremonies, express blessings for those trying to conceive. Don’t ask newly married couples about family planning or joke about how long it’s taking. Address the stigma that still surrounds infertility by talking more about it, as an article in these pages did last month. And whenever discussing “Jewish continuity,” acknowledge that there are many ways of sustaining the Jewish community, not just biologically.

For those on fertility journeys, there is support in the Jewish community. There are increasing numbers of community organizations dedicated to supporting Jews experiencing infertility, including in Canada. New rituals and prayers have been created – for example, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s collection Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope and infertility mikveh rituals by Boston’s community mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim.

A midrash teaches that when God remembered Sarah and she gave birth, people of all kinds experienced miracles, including many other barren women. My hope for our community is that one person or couple’s miracle can spread, through information, support and connection. For all on the journey of fertility, I hope that tears be replaced soon with laughter – of relief and true joy.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Taking Action for Miracles

After fasting for 25 hours, we usually want to spend the next day recuperating, drinking some electrolyte water and eating leftover coffee cake from the break-fast. The last thing we want to do is drag a pile of two-by-fours out of the garage and somehow assemble it into a hut. And yet, our tradition has it that the first thing we do after Yom Kippur is hammer in the first nail of our sukkah. Why?

The Midrash teaches that when the Israelites reached the shore of the Red Sea, they stopped. Behind them, the Egyptians were closing in with their chariots. One tribe said, “I don’t want to go in.” Another said, “Me neither.” Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav looked around, saw no one else was going and walked right into the water. Up to his waist. His shoulders. His nose. The top of his head. And only at that moment did the Israelites merit the parting of the sea. God’s miracle was ready, but it needed the partnership of faithful action.

The joy of Sukkot is in having survived the judgment of Yom Kippur. But, oddly, we celebrate by experiencing the temporary nature of life, living in an actual temporary hut. The point is to be surrounded and protected by God’s presence, even while exposed to the elements – like the Israelites were when they wandered the desert for 40 years, or like our ancestors whenever they faced uncertainty.

We hammer in that first nail right after Yom Kippur as if to say we hope for God’s embracing presence during Sukkot. And yet, like Nachshon, we ourselves must take action, to provide a place in which God’s presence can dwell. As we dwell in our sukkot, my hope is that we take faithful action toward a world in which all people can feel God’s presence and security, in which no one is at the mercy of the elements, and in which everyone can find joy.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Yom Kippur: The Near Death Experience

Unetaneh Tokef is one of the central prayers of the High Holidays. It paints a picture of God judging all creation, even the angels. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed …  who shall live and who shall die … who by water and who by fire…” Some of us reject its theology of God meting out death sentences as punishment. But for some of us, Unetaneh Tokef can feel uncomfortably real.

The good things we want might not happen. Disaster might strike, God forbid. The central words of the prayer are actually true: some of us will be here next year, and some of us won’t. We don’t know who. We don’t know why. We confront, face to face, the fragility of our lives.

More than that, we encounter death. On Yom Kippur, we change our behaviours dramatically. Some interpretations focus on the ways in which we are imitating the angels. But we are also acting out our own deaths. We dress in white shrouds – the white kitel the service leader wears is also what we are traditionally buried in. We don’t eat, we don’t have sex, we don’t bathe – we are not fully living. And then, in the very last moments of the Neilah service to conclude Yom Kippur, we recite the Shema, traditionally the last words we say before our death.

We actually enact our own deaths and come through the other side.

People who have near-death experiences often report bursts of clarity and gratitude. You might be one of those people. We are all one of those people after Yom Kippur. We get the chance to be grateful for what we have, to make time for what’s important, to hold our people close and to celebrate the wonderful things in our lives. We don’t need to wait until, God forbid, something terrible happens. We can live fully, gratefully and wholeheartedly right now.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

How I’ll Remember Rabbi Ron Aigen z”l

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My strongest image of Rabbi Ron Aigen is one that pretty much no one else got to see. A Friday afternoon, edging toward 4:30 p.m., the sun getting lower in the spring sky. Ron sits at his desk, several books open and face down. Hand-written pages in his small script in front of him. He’s working on his dvar Torah for the next morning.

I’m stopping at his office on my way out to say good shabbes, that he’s the last one left in the building and to lock up behind him. “Hey, got any texts to talk about the need for contemplation?” he asks, or “Have you read Ron Wolfson’s new book? What did you think? I’m talking about community building,” or “I’m trying to work out something about peoplehood and the next generation…” I put my bag down, sit in the chair opposite him, and we hash it out a bit. He listens intently, gazes at his computer screen, jots some notes.

I finally say I have to run to get my daughter from daycare. He wishes me good shabbes with a smile. I leave him there at his desk, surrounded by his favourite books, photos of his family, binders from training he’s completed, awards for his publications, his rabbinical degree on the wall and artwork from his haggadah. He was always the last one to leave on Fridays. I think he relished the quiet of the empty synagogue to gather his thoughts.

On May 8, we lost Ron suddenly to a stroke. He had just survived a heart attack mere weeks earlier. He was weeks from retirement, after serving Montreal’s Congregation Dorshei Emet, his one and only pulpit, for 40 years.

Ron was an amazing mentor, colleague, and friend to me over my four years in Montreal, two as his assistant rabbi. As a young rabbi just starting out, Ron believed in me. He shared with me his pulpit and leadership of the congregation he’d led for 40 years, even though at this time in his career he didn’t need to be generous. Ron treated me as a colleague and a peer, even though he had decades more experience.

He was wise and humble. His generosity pushed me to believe in myself and my rabbinic voice and my instincts.

And in this way, he made space not only for me, but for people of all stripes, creating a welcoming Jewish community that propelled congregants to find their own way in to Judaism. Indeed, he would try to match congregants’ skills and interests with whatever we were working on, to bring their expertise into Jewish life.

Ron was always learning, whether spending his summers in Israel learning Yiddish, or participating in the Hartman Institute’s rabbinic programs, or taking the latest Institute for Jewish Spirituality training, or just reading the latest book on progressive trends in the North American Jewish world. And he was always striving to enhance his spiritual practice. Through meditation, through music, through text, through contemplation, Ron cultivated his own spiritual life and tried to offer that path to the congregation. 

Ron could have retreated to his scholarship. An accomplished liturgist, he published a well-received siddur, machzor, and haggadah of his own translation, interpretation, and sometimes creation. A leading voice in the Reconstructionist movement, he could have left Montreal, taken an academic position at a rabbinical school or institute. But he preferred to stay with his people, to have his hands dirty with the work of the world. In a city where he was one of the only liberal rabbis, Ron created a haven for spiritual seekers, progressives, and the intellectually curious. He created a safe space for nuance – about religious life, about Israel, about ethical living.

I thought when I was ordained that I would surely do organizational work. Ron showed me an inspired vision of what congregational service could be. I feel grateful to have worked alongside him, and I hope to someday have built the kind of rabbinate he did.

Ron, your impact has been great. I will miss you, and our time spent thinking together in those quiet moments before Shabbat. Your memory is a blessing for us all. 

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.