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Torah Tidbits

RABBI ALAN GREEN, SHAAREY ZEDEK SYNAGOGUE, WINNIPEG

SERMON - YOM KIPPUR DAY – 5771

1.    "If you pay strict attention to my commandments—the commandments that I, God, command you this day—to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your hearts and souls—then I’ll give rain to your land in season…and you’ll harvest your grain, your wine, and your oil…But beware, lest your hearts be deceived, and you serve other gods, and worship them.  Then the anger of the Lord will blaze against you, and God will close the heavens; there’ll be no rain; and the earth won’t yield its fullness." 


2.    Before we understood anything about global warming, this passage would’ve seemed hopelessly primitive.  "Follow My laws, or I’ll punish you with drought"—didn’t sit very well with the modern scientific mind.  However, by now we’ve begun to realize that blind pursuit of materialism; conspicuous consumption; and unbridled exploitation of natural resources may well have permanently altered the weather of our planet. 


3.    So it’s most timely, and appropriate that Shaarey Zedek plays host to the visit of world renowned environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki next Sunday night. It’ll be a great way for all of us to begin the New Year.


4.    Global warming is one unintended consequence of our pursuit of the modern idols of life in the 21st century.  Another consequence—the North American flight from Jewish tradition--is something we discussed on the first day of Rosh Ha-shanah.  Just to summarize:


5.    For the last century or so, we North American Jews have attempted to live the dream of complete participation in the life of secular society; while maintaining a connection with Jewish religion and culture.  In former times a few holidays, supplemented with a few rituals did the trick. 


6.    Why?  Because our parents and grandparents retained memories of the kitchen aromas, accents, and world views of THEIR parents and grandparents.  They were, in a sense, living off the interest of the Jewish capital of previous generations.  But now?  We’ve ceased investing in Jewish capital. Most parents and grandparents don’t really practice Judaism these days.  Some have even stopped attending High Holy Day services.


7.    Jewish life today is fraught with discomfort.  Like Rebecca, in whose womb two nations struggled—we too are caught up in a struggle.  However, our problem isn’t strife between two fetuses.  Rather, are we caught in a conflict between two parts of our Jewish soul.


8.    It’s the dilemma that we experience upon realizing that we can’t be completely at home here in Canada; and, at the same time, live lives of real Jewish substance.  But we might wonder—does Jewish tradition have anything to say about this dilemma?  After all, we Jews have been living in Diaspora for thousands of years.  Surviving assimilation has been a constant, critical issue down through the ages.


9.    Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that there’s a holiday dedicated to this specific issue. Too much of the time, we make the mistake of thinking that Judaism consists mainly of fun activities for children.  So, we assume that Purim is cute and fun--but has nothing to say to adults about the most serious issues of our time.  But nothing could be further from the truth.


10.    On Purim, we read the scroll of Esther, which tells the story of the evil Haman, whose plot to annihilate the Jews is foiled by Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai.  In the end, Haman and his co-conspirators are executed, while the Jews celebrate an unlikely victory.


11.    On one level, the scroll of Esther is a story of palace intrigue and national survival in ancient Persia.  However, on closer examination, one discovers something much more profound.  To begin with, Mordecai and Esther have much in common with us today.  Why?


12.    In the setting of the Purim story, anyone would have recognized the link between the name, "Mordecai" and the Babylonian god, Marduk.  Similarly, the name "Esther" comes from the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar.  The modern-day equivalent would be like naming a Jewish child Chris, or Christine. 


13.    Certainly, this tells us something important about Mordecai and Esther’s parents.  Like many of us today, they wanted to blend in.  They didn’t want to stand out as Jews.


14.    And there’s more.  When Esther entered the contest to become part of the King’s harem, it states explicitly that "Esther, didn’t reveal she was Jewish, because Mordecai instructed her, not to say so" (Esther 2:20).  Clearly, Mordecai realized that Esther’s Jewishness might eliminate her from the competition.  Evidently, Moredecai and Esther were assimilated Jews, eager to climb society’s ladder by keeping their Jewishness private. 


15.    Judaism understands this tension very well.  The customs we observe on Purim reflect an awareness of that tension.  Take the custom of wearing costumes.  This isn’t about Purim being "the Jewish Halloween."  It isn’t a holiday about ghosts and goblins.


16.    Wearing costumes on Purim is a way of exploring the questions, "Who am I? Who do I want to be?  Do you recognize me?  And, do I want you to recognize me?"  Add to this the custom of getting drunk on Purim, and you find a holiday that attempts to afford some respite from the tension of resolving questions of Jewish identity.  


17.    One final point about the scroll of Esther and Purim, is that they’re essentially about secular Jews.  Alone among the books of the Bible, the scroll of Esther leaves out any mention of the word "God."  God plays no role in the lives of either Mordecai, or Esther.  Even when Mordecai has the opportunity to mention God, he refuses to do so.  In the speech in which he begs Queen Esther to intercede with the King on behalf of her people, Mordecai says:


18.    "If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other quarter…"  But the precise nature of that relief--Mordecai won’t say.  How similar this is to our contemporary situation!  We too hope for rescue and relief from our contemporary problems.  But from where will it come?


19.    For us, matters are very different than they were for Mordecai and Esther.  Here, in North America, the threat from which we need rescue and relief comes from the inability to bring energy, enthusiasm, and passion to our Jewish life.  Consequently, any rescue or relief that we might experience, will have to come from us. 


20.    Today, the survival of North American Judaism is firmly in our hands.  And Purim is all about making that survival a reality.  Of course, it’s not going to be easy.  To begin with, we need to recover our sense of "chosenness"—our sense of purpose—our reason for being Jewish.


21.    And what might that reason be?  Listen carefully, because almost no one is willing to say this out loud: we Jews are God’s shock troops in the battle of good against evil.  We’re God’s people--charged with the task of living lives of holiness and purity, to help bring heaven on earth.  We’re the Jedi Knights of God’s dream to recreate the Garden of Eden, right here and right now.


22.    We’re the leucocytes--the white blood cells of the immune system of humanity--defending the body of mankind against the forces of chaos and destruction.  This is the reason we’ve had as colorful and difficult a history as we’ve had.   Wherever and whenever Jews and evil exist in the same vicinity--generation after generation, we soon find one another—everyone, from the Egyptians, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians; from the Romans, to the Roman Catholics, to the Nazis; and today, to the forces of militant Islam.   


23.    And the miraculous result of all these confrontations?  Over the long run, good has vanquished evil in every case.  And how did we win these battles?  Certainly, we never prevailed through force of arms, although that was tried on a number of occasions.


24.    No--in nearly every case we prevailed, "’Not by might; not by power; but by (God’s) spirit."  We prevailed

by being "a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation."  We prevailed by being "a light to the nations of the world."  We prevailed by being "a people who dwells apart" from the common run of humanity. The challenge we face today, is how not to abandon our Jewish destiny. How do we keep from extinguishing our own great light?


25.    To do that, we need to completely re-vamp the way we raise and teach Jewish children and adults.  Indeed, we need to re-think many of the assumptions that have been the basis of North American Jewish life for generations.  How do we do that?  And where do we begin?


26.    Many adults engaged in serious Jewish study ask the same questions: "Why did I always think of Judaism, only as a bunch of fairy tales? Why is my own tradition so foreign to me?"


27.    There are many reasons why Judaism gets taught and transmitted the way it does.  But the most important factor is that most of us stop our Jewish learning while we’re still children.  Imagine if we stopped being taught about literature at age 13.   Would we still want to read?  Like Judaism, books would seem daunting, and ultimately irrelevant.


28.    Therefore, if we’re serious about having a Jewish future on this continent, we can’t allow Jewish education to stop at age 13, or even age 16—the age when we begin to develop the skills necessary for grappling with complex realities. 


29.    Jews who’ve been failed by educational systems which taught them far too little about serious Jewish life, must now educate themselves—or else find teachers who can make Torah come alive for them.  Further--this study will have to go far beyond surface comprehension.  I’d wager that most of us here today are long past ready for real depth in their Jewish understanding.


30.    Thoughtful people--experts and leaders in their respective fields--will find no excitement in a tradition that gives superficial answers to the great questions.  Although we sometimes catch the scent of sophistication in Judaism, we seldom take the opportunity to taste it.  However, if we’re ever to drink deeply from the wells of Jewish wisdom, we’ve no choice but to devote the time and energy to experience it firsthand. 


31.    Beyond revamping Jewish education, Judaism has always made it clear that our chosenness has little to do with who we are.  Our tradition has always insisted that we’re chosen if, and only if we live in such a way that we stand for God; for truth; for justice; and for morality.  The real substance of Jewish life simply cannot be understood without a strong commitment to the demands of Jewish learning, and Jewish observance. 


32.    Is there any area of life in which we dare to imagine that things can matter without demands being put upon us?  Relationships that matter, require effort.  Raising our children, requires effort.   Living a meaningful Jewish life—one that our children respect, rather than reject—also requires effort.


33.    At a certain point, North American Jews will need to acknowledge that Judaism only comes alive if it’s lived.  Judaism has never been, nor will it ever be, a spectator sport. 


34.    The liberal Jewish movements have always insisted on the primacy of Jewish knowledge.  Serious education can always take place regardless of one’s commitment to observance.  This has been the philosophy of our own Gray Academy for many decades.


35.    However, by now the pattern is clear and undeniable.  Jews who are committed to traditional observance tend to know more and study more.  Similarly--the less traditional a community, the lower the Jewish educational standard.  Why should this be?


36.    Because it’s impossible to separate Jewish values from Jewish observance.  Shabbat; Kashrut; Davennen; a commitment to Tikkun Olam—are the ways we give expression to Jewish values.  They’re the weapons with which we confront evil in ourselves, and in the world.  Without one, the other makes little sense. 


37.    At a certain point, there’s a contradiction between intensive Jewish learning and non-observance of Jewish tradition.  At a certain point, we need to decide: either to move in the direction of tradition; or else, to shut our ears to its voice.  Too often in this community, we choose the latter.


38.    We now know that the illusion of well-educated Jewish communities that don’t observe seriously is just that—an illusion.  The evidence is clear: secular Judaism consistently fails to create an educated laity; while more traditional communities raise generation after generation of learned, committed Jews.


39.    This isn’t to say that traditional communities alone will survive.  Only that wherever a community sits on the Jewish spectrum, it must inspire and facilitate some kind of intensive Jewish living. 


40.    Increasingly, there are passionate, committed Jews to be found in all the major movements.  Increasingly, Jews in all movements who seriously encounter Jewish values, become committed to living the tradition that expresses them. 


41.    Will all North American Jews buy into the project of passionate Jewish living?  Will they make the investment of time and energy that a fully lived Jewish life requires?  Undoubtedly, many will not.  They simply don’t care enough about Judaism to do so.  And there probably isn’t very much we can do to change their minds.  But then, I believe that many others will buy in.


42.    It remains true that ours is a generation who want to make a difference in the world.  Many of us want to live Jewish lives upon which we can look back and say, that we were a light, shining in the darkness.  We Jews want to know that we—as a chosen people—helped to fulfill God’s deepest dreams for humanity; and that the values that propelled us forward were more than just fads.  Jewish tradition, uniquely, offers us that opportunity.


43.    We’re heirs to a tradition that beckons us to join together, in the grand program of creating heaven on earth.  It begs us not to despair; but rather, to face today’s challenges with the belief that we, as a chosen people can still matter.  God’s original charge to Abraham in the book of Genesis still applies to us today: "Be a blessing to humanity…Be a blessing to humanity."  It really IS that simple.


44.    Judaism urges us to commit to a certain way of life, predicated on the belief that our greatest contributions belong, not to the past—but to a future of peace on earth, and good will among humanity--that still awaits us today.  May we see it soon, in this lifetime.


45.    G’MAR CHATIMAH TOVAH—May we all be SEALED for a beautiful New Year of peace, health, happiness, and blessing.  Amen.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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