The Joyful Experience of Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is customarily a 4-hour service in the synagogue, punctuated by the shofar’s blowing. Followed by a festive meal and evening services, and a repeat the following day. If you are not Jewish, it’s difficult to explain why this is a joyful experience.

The prayers have been prescribed and ritualized for three thousand years, and yet each year, they are fresh and beautiful because they address the human condition – birth, death, and our process in this world. It’s a time to reflect, individually and communally, and pray for a sweet year to come without denying any of the trials we all experience.

It is this holiday that Leonard Cohen memorialized in his “Who by fire” song.

 

We all know we will die, but none of us knows how or when. This is how we read it in the synagogue prayerbook every year.

On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.

Even as a child, one confronts the abyss. And this prayer ends with:

“teshuva, tefillah and tzedaka maavirin et roah hagzera” – only  teshuva – repentance or self-correction,  tefillah -prayer, and tzedaka – deeds of justice and charity, have the potential to avert the severity of G-d’s decree.

Rabbi Lew, in his book One God Clapping (p110), explains it this way:

The essential act of the High Holidays is teshuva, a turning toward mindfulness, and the first step in this process is a kind of tuning in to examine our perceptive mechanisms. When the shofar blows, it reminds us to turn our gaze inward, to shift our focus from the outside world to the window through which we view this world. Teshuva, at this time of the year, is the opportunity to assess privately our own behaviour before G-d. The expression is that at this time, especially “G-d is in the field,” i.e. accessible to us human beings.

We are fortunate to be able to access communal services in person this year in Montreal, although with special reservations. Due to the pandemic, the service will be shortened to two hours instead of four. Masks are mandatory, along with proper distancing. It’s a particularly holy time, and I am grateful we will be able to participate in person even if it is truncated and in a tent. The tradition has been carried out this way from generation to generation, by example, custom, and joy.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in his message regarding our current time.

The various questionnaires and research exercises that have been done recently on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s lives came up with an unusual finding. Yes, of course, people missed the company. They felt cut off. They felt isolated. They felt deprived sometimes of work and sometimes of travel. All of that made an impact. But the single most significant impact of the pandemic and its consequences has been insecurity.

People have felt that they don’t really know what is going to happen – to their health, to their work, to their business, to society, to everyone and everything around them. They don’t know how long a lockdown will last or when new quarantine restrictions will be put in place or when masks will be required and when not required, and what is going to happen with testing regimes. People can’t plan for the future. They can’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.

And that is undermining their sense of security.

And he goes on to explain:

So, the question I simply want to ask these Yamim Noraim, on these Days of Awe, is, “how do we deal with insecurity?”. And the answer is contained, or at least the Jewish answer is contained, in that one word “bitachon” – the word that means security on the one hand and faith on the other.

How do you cope with insecurity? By faith. That has been the Jewish experience for almost 4,000 years. Judaism is about insecurity in a way perhaps that no other religion is, and Jews have experienced insecurity in a way no other people have. The Jewish story begins with Abraham and Sarah just hearing a voice, calling them away from their family and their birthplace to a land that they did not know, el ha’aretz asher areka, God doesn’t even tell them where they are going to. They are travelling to an unknown destination; they are travelling blind.

As I’ve argued many times, in Judaism, faith is not certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty.

And that’s what the Days of Awe are all about.

Rabbi Sacks explains it all here:

 

I wish you a  coming year as sweet as the honey on your table, a year of hope and good health and good tidings.

 

Korach’s Rebellion and the BLM Movement

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A couple of days ago in synagogues, Jews studied the Torah portion on Korach’s rebellion  (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) about Korach who led 250 of the Israelites’ leaders against the authority of Moses and Aaron in the desert.

In this Torah portion, 250 influential leaders confront  Moses and Aaron, regarding Moses’ leadership. Korach and his followers accuse Moses and Aaron of assuming power at the community’s expense. The commentaries point out that Korach’s challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, rather than legitimate complaints.  (Source: The Power Struggle Moses vs. Korach by Rabbi Rachel Cowan)

Torah Scholars worldwide have reflected on the parallels between Korach’s rebellion and the demonstrations and riots led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization happening worldwide.

Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks has spelled it out very clearly in his recent publication: How Not to Argue (Korach 5780). He refers to the lies that the BLM organization continues to propagate about Israel and how they continuously cancel any opinions that do not agree with theirs. Below are black scholars who have also spoken up to object to BLM claims and their methods. Candice OwensColeman HughesJohn Mcwhorter, and a video interview with Glenn Loury.

 

The death of George Floyd has flooded the airwaves – the internet, radio, and television. Racism, systemic racism, and police brutality are without doubt of great concern to all of us. However, after studying these issues over the last couple of days, I began to understand how the BLM’s argument against racism is more like the rebellion of Korach, a grab for fame and power – rather than an argument for truth and justice.

The antisemitic bias of BLM, which was exposed by the violent antisemitic riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere, is especially painful to me as a Jew. The Nazi ideology is the idea of the superiority of the Aryan (German) race as opposed to all other groups – Jews, blacks, LGBT, gypsies, Slavs, and it would have moved to Americans if it had been allowed to flourish. That was systemic racism – racism that was legitimized by governmental power and could only be opposed by the destruction of the leaders and their organized followers, the army, and administrations.

The United States, a democracy where free speech enshrined in the law, has made great strides in repudiating slavery and espousing freedom of opportunity for its citizens. Not to deny that prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, does not exist.

And here is a Canadian Muslim woman expressing her views about systemic racism in Canada.

 

Yes, there are problems, but the way to address them is not through violence, but through listening to each other and looking clearly at what can be done by people of goodwill working together.

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Lew: Comparing Buddhism and Judaism

In January 2012, I attended the naming ceremony of my niece, Shefa Rachel, at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California. I noticed that Rabbi Lew was to give a talk during the coming week. I’m familiar with his books, which were profound meditations of Jewish practice from a Zen point of view.

I extended my stay to hear him speak and film his talk, a part of which appears below. He did not disappoint. His lecture was a comparison of Judaism and Zen Buddhism and how each tradition deals with suffering.
The Fourth Noble truths expound the Buddhist philosophy of existence and the attainment of nirvana, which overcomes everyday suffering. In the first two Noble Truths, the Buddha diagnoses the problem – universal suffering is the natural state of affairs – and he also identifies its cause – craving or wanting what you do not have. The other two Noble Truths are the prescriptions for the cure of suffering, mostly finding ways to let go of cravings.

Rabbi Lew mentions that when he shares the First Noble Truth – that everybody suffers – with Jewish audiences, he always hears a big sigh of relief “You mean it’s not just us!”

 

He then refers to the Jewish discussion about suffering, which occurs very early in the first Massechet of the Talmud Berachot 5B. As is typical of the Talmud, the subject is discussed extensively from many different angles. Is there value in suffering? Is it good to suffer? Is it better to suffer than not to suffer? Is there a reward in suffering? As is typical of Talmudic discourse, the Gemara continues to discuss the issue of suffering and affliction for pages without reaching any conclusion and then ends with the following story:

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him and said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up.

The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.

After the class ended and we were sharing food and conversation, Rabbi Lew revealed that he had been a carefree and happy Zen Buddhist priest in San Francisco until he met his wife and fell in love. It was this experience that prompted him to move from becoming a carefree Buddhist to becoming a husband, father, and practicing Jew.

So what is the essential difference between Judaism and Buddhism? If you look at the third and fourth Noble Truths, you get to the 8-fold path to amend suffering which consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditative absorption or union). It seems to enlist the person on a moral path that will amend suffering: and this is the aim of Buddhism to amend suffering.

Rabbi Lew states in the above clip, “it is not the program of Judaism to amend suffering, Judaism is not indifferent to suffering”. He adds, “if I were to stand on one foot and say what the program of Judaism is, it is to realize the sacred in every moment.” And how do you realize the sacred in every moment? Judaism would answer by following the prescriptions regarding ‘How to live at every moment – how to eat how to relate to your wife and children, to your fellow man – this prescription is called the “halacha” – the way – the 613 mitzvot/directives for living the good life – deduced from the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – and enunciated in the oral Torah – the Mishna and Talmud.

So in the end, “right living” in Judaism is “bringing the holy to every moment” and it also happens to be the Jewish way to alleviating suffering.

So ultimately although the narrative is very different, the underlying them is the same – “right living” is the key to alleviating suffering in this world.

I was to meet Rabbi Lew one more time, at his home, before he passed away, rather suddenly, of a heart attack in 2009. zichrono l’ivracha – May his memory be a blessing.

I hope I have done justice to Rabbi Lew’s message.

Rabbi Lew’s books include:

  • One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi:
  • This Is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
  • Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life

 

Addendum:  Recently while going through my books I discovered and read Rabbi Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi. It is a wonderfully straightforward and honest biography of a man and his struggles with his family of origin, his wives and children, his navigation of the spiritual paths available to him in California of the sixties, and how he then found his way to Judaism and to becoming a hospice worker, and later an ordained rabbi with a growing congregation in San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz was the spiritual leader of Congregation Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalem (TBDJ), a synagogue in Montreal (1996 to 2016). In January 2016, Rabbi Steinmetz left Montreal to assume the pulpit of a prominent New York synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

During his time in Montreal, I often volunteered to film short five-minute sermons. I also share nine of Rabbi Steinmetz’s sermons found on the Kehilat Jeshurun (KJ) website. I found each one exceptional.

In Cases of Difficulty

The Yachad Revolution

What if Goliath Had Won?

When a Fossil Comes to Life

Yizkor and Yom HaShoah: Between Past and Present – Pesach 2016

The Jerusalem of the Simple Jew 2016

Never Underestimate Hatred

Between Purim And Passover: Survival and Tolerance

And, here are the 6 minute talks by Rabbi Steinmetz. that I video-recorded over the years

Rosh hashanah and pesach: Can you find the parallels?

A Joke That Has Legs

Are You Addicted to Being Right?

How to Keep Failure from Becoming a Defeat, Rosh Hashanah 2011

Steve Jobs, Noah, and Living Outside the Box

One of the lucky ones – Rabbi Steinmetz Rosh Hashanah

The Power of Questions: Rabbi Steinmetz

Being Selfless – Rabbi Steinmetz

Life has no Easy Button – Rabbi Steinmetz

Teenage Moot Court in Montreal

CHILDREN’S Guilt: Who and Why?

Rabbi Steinmetz: Jewish community being libelled: Ad matai!!!

Prepare Your Heart Before You Prepare your Plans: The Lesson of Bamidbar, The Book of Numbers

Tradition Why?

The High Holidays: The Power of Now: Part Three: RISING TO THE OCCASION

The Power of Now:

Part one: The challenge of Rosh Hashanah

Part Two:The Pull of the Past

Part Three: RISING TO THE OCCASION

Does One Need a Sanctuary

Hamming with the Rabbi

What the Bible says about blaming the Victim

Yom Yerusahalayim (Jerusalem Day) 2020

May 21 of this year is the 42nd day of the Omer (1), approximately 9th-week post-COVID-19, and Jerusalem Day – a Jewish holiday commemorating Jerusalem’s recapture on June 6, 1967, the 27th of Iyar 5727, on the Hebrew calendar.

On this day, Jews regained sovereignty over the temple mount and the entire city of Jerusalem. Almost 1900 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. It was not a war of conquest. Israel was threatened by her surrounding Arab neighbours, Egypt to the South, Syria to the North, and Jordan to the West for a long month before the war broke out. The outcome was not at all predictable. For a very long month, Egypt was threatening to destroy Israel and was building up military supplies while the UN turned a blind eye and the US urging against the war. Fear was mighty. The military itself was expecting a possible 100,000 dead and had delegated rabbis to expropriate parks as potential burial places.

I was studying and living in Israel from 1966-1971. I recall the tiny area of Jerusalem in Jewish hands before the war – two main streets, Yaffo and King George. I was not listening to the radio, but my parents in Montreal were observing the news. Not accepting my cheerful appraisal that there was nothing to worry about, my father arrived in Jerusalem to bring me home. We travelled to Haifa and stayed at a hotel. They were hanging blackout drapes on all the windows. We seemed to be the only ones there. We then travelled north to a farm settlement to visit my father’s cousin, who was digging a ditch as a shelter. I suddenly realized the seriousness of the situation, and I flew back to Montreal with my Dad.

The day we arrived in Montreal, the Israelis attacked. They took the initiative and trounced the Egyptian army in the south in six hours, destroying all 300 planes on the ground and in the airfields and capturing all of the Sinai. The Jordanians attacked in Jerusalem, which led to the routing of the Jordanian army and the recapture of the Holy City of Jerusalem by Jews after more than 1800 years of foreign occupation. The Syrians also attacked from the north and lost the Golan Heights to Israel.

Now, 52 years later, Jerusalem is a megalopolis with countless residential neighbourhoods on all the surrounding hills, schools, museums, courts, government offices, and a fast train and highway system connecting Jerusalem to all of Israel.

How did this happen?

Over the last few years, I had the tremendous good fortune to delve into

the Jewish canon with wonderful teachers in Montreal and Jerusalem. I acquired a new perspective of Jewish history, theology, philosophy, agriculture, civil and criminal law, and government. The Jewish nation exists today because it never let go of its rich cultural heritage. In good times and bad, we continued to study and hand down the legacy from generation to generation. Among the Five Books of Moses, the prophetic scrolls, the Talmud, and the commentaries, no subject under the sun has not been carefully dissected. Somewhere in these texts, the conversation continues into the present. (More about this in blogs to come.)

Rabbi Shlomo Vilk of Jerusalem gave a zoom class on “Why the temple was destroyed.” The Rabbis of the Talmud said that the temple was destroyed by corruption and dissension among the ruling Jewish priesthood. The Rabbis, who abandoned Jerusalem and continued to study and share their legacy via the creation of the Talmud, preserved the Jewish canon.

The classic statement is that the destruction of the temple was caused by violence and hatred among brothers (sinat hinam in Hebrew). The reconstruction of the temple will occur when the Jewish people can bring disparities together and treat every man as a brother.

Last night, I got up at 4 am to watch this fantastic video about the miracle of the Six-Day War, and Jerusalem. It’s an hour-long, but it shares both the present and the history of Jerusalem. I urge you to take the time to watch it. I think you will never again think of Jerusalem in quite the same way.

Jerusalem, the beating heart of Jewish faith

Jerusalem, the old new city for the old and renewed people. Yom Yerushalayim sameach! Happy Jerusalem Day!

Posted by Rabbi Sacks on Friday, 22 May 2020

 

Below is the Moscow Male Jewish Capella choir singing a traditional song about Jerusalem “Bring the Sabbath and Bring Peace to Jerusalem”, the prayer of all Israel.

Performed at the European Cantors Convention at Villa Seligman in Hannover, Germany, on January 26, 2020.

(1) Counting the Omer – The Torah commands the counting of forty-nine days from Passover to Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the giving of the Law (Torah) on Mount Sinai.