Joseph, Leonard Cohen, and You*
**Just added to my Event Calendar: “There is a Crack in Everything: Leonard Cohen’s Poetry of the Soul”
Welcome! You may be thinking that this will be a discourse or d’rasha, about Jews and Music…
Or, This post is going to be about the musical, ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat;
or that it’s about Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry;
it kinda makes sense, too, that this little d’rasha might be about Jews and Music because I’m Jewish and a musician.
But, as always, we’ll go a bit deeper…
In the last several weeks’ Torah readings we read about Joseph’s long saga, from being sold into slavery as a visionary youth, to being reunited with his father, Jacob. Jacob, long ago, had been told by his other sons, that Joseph was dead, torn apart by beasts. In Truth, though, we know that Joseph had been thrown into a pit by his brothers to die, and then they spared his life and sold him as a slave to a passing caravan.
And, we know from the Torah readings of the past few weeks, that despite enduring one of the worst sorts of familial deception, which leads to a life filled with other treacheries and deprivations; in the end, it all comes out okay for Joseph and his family.
- Joseph becomes the most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh;
- Joseph, the beloved son, is reunited with his father and embraces his brothers
- There is prosperity and expansion for the Hebrews of Goshen
So, It’s all good, and that could be the end of this presentation: right??
That is because the Big Thing that I have learned over the years, the Big Thing to love about studying Torah, is how the stories in it are your stories and mine, too.
So, How is that? How could I, a Modern Day, Single, Jewish, Female, Senior Citizen, ever relate to the story of a Young, Impetuous, Man, from the days of Ancient Patriarchy, named Joseph? or to his brothers’ stories, or his father’s? After all, there are a few seemingly irreconcilable differences between myself and these characters in this story. So, here’s how:
~~Here is a way of finding personal lessons and wisdom from the Torah; it works, for me, and maybe for you, too~~
First, let’s think about so-called ‘Wisdom’ stories or texts, from any culture, and think about how far back they originated. Here are a few examples to get you started: the I Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Koran, Australian Aboriginal Creation/Dreaming Stories, Native American traditional knowledge, Egyptian Book of the Dead….
Why do humans make these sort of stories, ones that are passed down for generations, from times well before writing began that have lasted for long afterwards? Because Sages, those people of great insight who have the gifts of being able to integrate what they
personally experience and observe with what they know and have been taught, and who have a deeply ingrained commitment or sense of purpose to preserve these lessons learned from the triumphs and follies of human experience so they will be available for future generations to learn from. By creating guidebooks, including the Torah, these wise people gave their generous gifts of love, compassion, and caring to us, their offspring, so that we could have them to guide us on our journeys, too.
Sometimes these books of wisdom, including Torah, can be hard to learn from. They are generally written in a poetic or mythological voice, often as metaphor and not as exact stories with exact lessons about exact people. This imprecision thus makes it possible for a Single, Female, Senior Citizen of modern day Toronto to see herself as Joseph in the Torah stories as much as a Young Adult Man could. In fact, being lost in the exactness of the characters–such as their gender, age, or ethnicity–removes the universal lessons that our elder sages so carefully prepared for us.
So, with that in mind, with the invitation to put yourself into the heart and mind of each of the characters of the Joseph story, let us continue!
We are introduced to a person named Joseph, who from the start of his life is different from everyone else. He has visions and presence that are real to him and his father, Jacob; but only pose a grave threat and create fear in his brothers. Jacob also nurtures Joseph differently from his brothers, and in a way that is appropriate to Joseph’s outstanding gifts of foresight and intelligence. However, his siblings only see a pompous brother who receives favouring. Their fear of Joseph fuels a cruelty beyond mere sibling rivalry and competition for parental attention: Joseph is disposed of, abandoned, but not killed outright.
For the next several decades of his life, Joseph will learn use his abilities and gifts over and over again, as we all try to do with ours, in order to survive. And, in addition, Joseph must also must learn how to use his great gifts in ways so they are no longer harmful to himself. His work is to learn how to let his visionary Truths shine, so that he can lead his siblings and family through famines to prosperity and become reunited as a stronger and more concordant family clan.
And living fully in your story or Truth is your work, and my work, too. This is the story of our lives.
I mentioned universal cultural stories. Here are a few that are parallel sagas to our Joseph story:
- Gilgamesh, the very earliest found full saga. About a youth who goes out into the world, meets life-threatening challenges, sorrowfully kills the thing he loves most, and returns home. Home is the same: it is Gilgamesh who is now changed.
- The South American book of shamanic wisdom, The Four Agreements, teaches us how we are born with our Truth intact, and that we are pressured to lose our natural self and become like everyone else through cultural ‘domestication’.
- Fred (Mr.) Rogers, who told children and parents for years, “I like you just the way you are”.
- The Native American cautionary tale of the Stick, Corn, and Mud people. The Stick people support the Corn people as they grow; but, if the Corn person grows too much toward the sky (think of the young Joseph’s dreams), the Stick people who supported them will pull away, and the spindly Corn person will fall and become mired down in the Mud.
- Then there is the story of the young Chinese Kung-Fu student who keeps asking his Master when he will be granted the honour of becoming a Master—and the Master answers by handing the student yet more stones to haul.
- And, as promised, here is Leonard Cohen:
In so many varieties of ways, Leonard Cohen tells us that our purpose is to keep peeling away the veils and layers that hide our personal Truth. That our mission is always visible, yet we find ways to evade it. In his Poem/Song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (listen here: https://youtu.be/netfyjdNBrU) he tells us:
The ponies run, the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep
I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed
I’m back on boogie street
You lose your grip and then you slip
Into the masterpiece
And maybe I had miles to drive
And promises to keep
You ditch it all to stay alive
A thousand kisses deep
And sometimes when the night is slow
The wretched and the meek
We gather up our hearts and go
A thousand kisses deep…**
We have indeed, just so much time apportioned to us. Those things which are most deeply entrenched and always with us, are our enduring personal, real, Truth. Cohen explains how things go our way for a while, “the ponies run, the girls are young…You win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak”. But our mission, however clumsy or challenging, is enduring–
is always there for us to master. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live your life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Does Joseph live his life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Let’s find out.
At so many turns, Joseph could have made the expected decisions of one who has become ‘domesticated’ or succumbed to societal expectations, such as: avoiding harm from his brothers by keeping his dreams and special multicoloured coat hidden; or partnering with Potiphor’s seductive wife, making them the ultimate ancient Egyptian ‘power-couple’; he could have not revealed who he was when his brothers came to Egypt during the famine; he could also have wrought revenge and had them all executed.
But, he did not. He was a visionary and knew that there was a further destiny he had to strive towards, ‘the summon’ as Leonard Cohen would say, to deal with the ‘invincible defeat’ of who he really was and what he needed to do. Choosing to be this way, overcoming defeat by choosing his invincible nature, brought him to a new relationship with his family, one that was as correct and fulfilling as ‘a thousand kisses deep’. Our duty, according to this Joseph story, is to know that immediate victories are temporary, and those tough things about ourselves that we are willing to embrace and struggle with, engage us as deeply as the most real and passionate experience of being.
Life is full of distractions, and like everyone else, I have many! if I allowed them, distractions could take over and control all the hours and days of my life: all the many online sales with demands to buy now!; staying on top of financial and home upkeep while the pandemic weaves uncertainty into everything; navigating family and friendships; maintaining the health and wellbeing of myself and my two rescue cats; navigating the complexity of my urban environs. The list of daily tasks seems to goes on and on. And each time, before embarking on any of these items, I pause and think of the Joseph story.
Like Joseph, I have been living out a long saga that has taken me to far off places and yet still know what drives me forward; it is not the daily temptations and distractions. I have other plans: to produce writing and music. One of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who, in addition to his work at JTS, was a congregational Cantor and music composer. He told me, “If I have to stay up until 2am to get my piece written, I will. It is my responsibility and no one else’s; otherwise, it won’t get done”. I hear in his words a Joseph, doing whatever it takes to not lose the most important part of his life’s work, while living his life.
The more important work for each of us is not laid out neatly elsewhere. And the life lessons of the Joseph saga are not limited to those who are chosen for world changing missions, or are visionary, or brilliant, or male. I see the life lessons of the Joseph saga as a template for each and every one of us: how we navigate the times when we come home to ourselves: giving birth, saying goodbye to loved ones, discovering our own mortality, times of questioning and hesitation.
Go home or to your study today, and understanding this, re-read the Joseph story. Think of steps taken in your past, present or future as a parallel to how Joseph moves through his. What distractions have popped up that throw you into a pit, what job or title or too-good-to-be-true bargains have seduced you. Which of these put you into a prison, put you up on a pedestal, or allowed you to be you? And, most important, take time to remember and draw closer and more intimate with your more enduring self, the one who you knew you were, right from your earliest recollections.
If you don’t have a strong recall or sense yet, be patient. Make room for your stories by going for a walk, window shopping, a long drive in the countryside, meditating, writing a poem or prayer.
For us, the lesson is about staying the course when disruptions arise, whatever form they take. This is the lesson of Joseph, Leonard Cohen, and You.
*Full text of my D’var Torah, presented to Temple Emanu-El on Shabbat 11 December 2021, Toronto, Canada
Jewish Music: The Sounds of Our Lives
Presented to Congregation Beth Shalom, September 1 2018:
I live, year in and year out, in a constant state of emptying and letting go, of internal inventory of what resonates as my truth, and what does not: it is my nature to do so; and I gain balance and meaning through being this way.
Thankfully, I have found a vocation that requires this sort of temperance: as a Jewish Spiritual Care Chaplain. Our extensive training is that when we pay a spiritual care call to someone, we must leave ourselves outside the door. We enter the room as an empty vessel, and create a sacred space with which to invite in the Divine Presence.
My other Profession, as a Musician, is the same. One must empty themselves of distractions as preparation for standing before an audience to perform; otherwise the music will be crowded out by unresolved thoughts and feelings.
This is even more so if one is a Prayer Leader, a shaliach tzibor: the prayers will not reach the heights and depths that touch the hearts and souls of congregants: the sad places, and the memories of joyous times, or of loved ones that have passed, if one’s being is preoccupied.
At no time of the Jewish year is this work of emptying and creating sacred space
for ourselves more important than at Selichot and during the Yamim Norai’im Days of Awe.
Just what defines Jewish music?
And…How do we learn to empty and renew as a pure vessel, and as Torah bids us, as newly fallen snow, to let go of the past year and be receptive to the New Year that lies ahead?
Maybe the secret can be found in the voice of the cantor on Yom Kippur at Kol Nidrey, the sound of the ancient Oboes in Temple Times, or in the sound of the Tekiah of the ram’s horn Shofar.
In other words, let’s talk about Jewish Music and how to prepare for the Jewish High Holy Days.
It is now accepted that humans had musical sounds before spoken language. That is not surprising: banging on logs or vocalizing to send and feel messages is something even animals do.
As humans we are unique in having created languages, but words speak primarily to our logical brain centers and thinking.
We have another equally important part of our brain that works alongside the logical mind, and it responds to felt stimuli. That means emotions, but also physically felt stimuli. Music.
Music is vibration. When we engage with music, we can turn off our busy thinking minds and let the experiential part of our bodies take over.
I know this as a Hospital Chaplain: how many times have I sat with a patient who was deeply feeling, but we agreed, couldn’t find words for what they were experiencing?
Listening to music or singing prayers is often the vehicle that moves patients through difficult experiences and allows them afterward to then articulate their needs and hopes.
According to Peter Gradenwitz, an instrument, “the halil occurs in the Bible for the first time in connection with the anointment of Solomon.
This instrument is not mentioned as having been used in the services of the 1st Temple, although one commentator thought it came from the days of Moses: in the 2nd Temple two to twelve halilim were used on twelve days of the year—at the first and second Passover sacrifice, on the first day of Passover, at Shavuot, and in the eight days of Sukkot.
Though in Modern Hebrew a halil is a flute, the Biblical equivalent has been interpreted as a double reed of the oboe family, because no flutes appear on any picture of neighboring civilizations at the time, and the Greek and Latin translators of the Bible were surely right when rendering “halil” by a word describing an oboe. In later Aramaic translations, the instrument is called an ‘abub’, the modern Hebrew word for oboe.”
These days, you can find YouTube videos of music as it was thought to have been performed in Temple Times. Go have a look.
But even before the Temples were built, King David wrote his Psalms. According to Alfred Sendrey, out of 150 psalms, 55 contain the introductory indication la-menazzeach.
Menazzeach is the singer chosen to lead the music or to officiate as precentor who probably instructed the choir, and may be considered the precursor of the Cantor or Hazzan. The first singing master of the Davidic music organization was Chenaniah. We read in (1Chron 15:22): “He was master in the song, because he was skillful”
Leaping from King David to the Exile we find a serious reference to musical instruments in Psalm 137:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and also wept when we remembered Zion. On the willow within it we hung our lyres. For there our captors requested words of song from us, with our lyres, playing joyous music. “Sing for us from Zion’s song!” How can we sing the song of Hashem God upon the alien’s soil?”
The psalm is wrought with the pain of not only being exiled from Jerusalem, but with the taunts of their captors, demanding they joyously play music of Zion for them. Instead, the exiles hang up their instruments upon the willows by the rivers of Babylon. And thus, in sorrow, ends the prominence of instrumental music in Jewish worship.
When the Temples were destroyed and Rabbinic Judaism began, music didn’t go entirely away. It became the tropes and nusahs that we use in our prayer liturgy and text readings. Ask any rabbinic student: studying page after page of Talmud is almost impossible without having the familiar sing-song chant with which to read it. The verses of Torah and Haftarah are written in metrical phrases designed to be sung, not read as prose.
The ways of singing and of performing music in both Temple and synagogue became a decisive factor in the development of Occidental music; for the earliest Christian precentors were brought up in the Jewish houses of worship, and only adapted ancient Hebrew custom to a new purpose when they converted to Christianity.
The church took over the responsorial singing of the Middle Eastern modal melodies and many other Oriental musical features.
The hand signs and accents, the trope marks, were also adopted and from these, called by the Church ‘neuma‘, which came from the Hebrew word ne’ima, for a modal song or melody, became in the Second Millennium CE the musical notations that now indicate the exact pitches and durations prescribed by a composer. Almost as we have today in sheet music.
So, over time, music left the synagogue.
Our sages, Poskim and Gaonim, decided after the Jewish Diaspora to move away from feelings and emphasize text and words; and then they decided that after centuries of music in the Temples that now carrying and playing musical instruments was deemed work that violated the Shabbat:
The logical part of our brains must have decided that!
Music became the thing of ceremonies, of celebrations. Musicians for weddings became known as ‘song vessels’ or klei zmir. “Klezmer” became the name for our unique style of Jewish popular music.
We Jews brought our instruments and music with us to the United States in the 19th-20th centuries, and deeply infiltrated and defined everything from Jazz to pop show tunes. There is a great documentary about Jewish music in Hollywood, I think on PBS or National Geographic.
So, Jewish music became entertainment. But that too is changing. Some teshuvah, or thought about return, is happening with regard to music in synagogue by some Jewish movements. The reasons for removing it have been reflected upon and felt, and changes are slowly being made. Many synagogues, including Conservative synagogues are embracing instrumental music as an essential partner to liturgical prayers.
Tonight, this evening of Selichot, of remembrance, forgiveness, and new opportunities to be better versions of ourselves, is also an opportunity to try a new way to enter Teshuvah. Let us try through the model of music.
As I said earlier, playing music requires becoming an empty vessel. And I thought I’d been playing oboe pretty well, until I decided it was time to wean myself from the comforts of sheet music and learn to play jazz improv. The first words of the improv workshop instructor knocked me off my seat:
She said, “Jazz is about listening and allowing empty space.”
Here was the bridge between music, chaplaincy, and teshuvah.
I have talked about the first two, music and spiritual care, now. But tonight, Selichot, is particularly themed about Teshuvah.
I going to presume that most of us here know the general formula:
*Reflect back on a regrettable situation from the past year.
*Think about what went well, what went wrong.
*Try to apologize to any other person involved, keeping it simple: no qualifiers such as justifying what you did; just a straight heartfelt apology is good.
*Have that talk with God: did you have a fallout or breakup or divorce with this spiritual relationship?
*And also remind yourself of why you decided that any of these were your best choices at the time, and allow yourself to feel. That part is hard, the regret, the sorrow, the hurt for a past decision. But let the feeling wash over you, and then it will pass, as if you were left lying cleansed on a beach after surviving a stormy sea.
*Forgiving yourself or the other person is essential: this is how we become cleansed, empty vessels. This is how we grow from the willful hanging on of hurts and baggage, to the willingness to become the engaged adult. This is Selichot.
*The final step comes in the future: if in the same situation, will you do the same thing, or were you able to let go of the wrong decisions of the past and grow into the better ones for the future?
You have to be empty and listen in order to do this work of teshuvah. You have to be able to turn off the thinking and noise in your head in order to feel the remorse and move on.
We Jews have evolved a clever way during Elul of shutting off the inner talk and texting that may be distracting us: We blast on the Shofar!
The Shofar is the remnant of Biblical instruments that is very much extant. No one shouts, Hey wake up and listen to God! Don’t text while praying! from the Bimah. It just won’t work. That would just be mere words.
But the Shofar, with its penetrating pure sound, makes a direct hit into our hearts and pulls us upward, releasing us from our bondage to words and thoughts.
No one wants to sit with difficult feelings all alone. That’s rough. The good news is that you don’t have to be alone; whether it happens in synagogue or the privacy of your home. Because on Rosh HaShanah, as always, God is present. And at this time of year we think of God as our King, but not a king to punish us for our past mistakes; a watchful King, a King who wants us to be strong the way God is Strong, too. We prepare by cleansing ourselves inside and out, and then march past, not knowing how the year will be, but knowing that we are accompanied by our King.
As we’ve discovered, Jewish music is everywhere, from Jazz to Gregorian chant to Hollywood to Bnei Mitzvoth and wedding celebrations.
This year, let Jewish music be part of your renewal. Remember our rich heritage of worship with music and musical instruments.
This year, we’ll have oboe music as you enter the sanctuary for Kol Nidrey; and when you hear the Shofar during the services, let the sound cleanse your mind, and allow the process of Teshuvah and Selichot to…
…Return You Home To Who You Really Are…
L’SHANA TOVA V’ZIMRA
Noach and Texas: Lessons from the Floods
This post is a D’var Torah (sermon) that I was invited to give on Shabbat Noach at Congregation Beth Shalom in Bermuda Dunes, CA on October 21st:
Last Shabbat, our Spiritual Leader, Ken Hailpern, gave an inspired d’var Torah about how so many of our Jewish values of caring for others and taking responsibility come from the earliest chapters of Beresheit (Genesis).
We heard how God brought words of comfort to Cayin (Cain) whose face fell after seeing how his brother Hevel’s (Abel’s) sacrifice was accepted, but not his own. And we heard how Cayin replied to God, “am I my brother’s keeper?” when God asked Cayin where his brother Hevel was. I will return to these sacred moments later.
Today’s parasha (weekly Torah reading), about Noach (Noah) and the Flood, apparently was an inspiration for Ken. He asked me to explore the Biblical Flood story in the contexts of recent worldwide natural flood and hurricane events, and with my participation as a volunteer American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care Chaplain, assisting with evacuees in southeast Texas.
But I have to go further back, to my first encounter with the Flood story, when I was about 3 or 4 years old,
plunked down for my first time in a Jewish Sunday school classroom, somewhere in the San Fernando Valley,
just as they were about to sing the “Arky-Arky” song. Anyone know it? (? Noah, he built him, he built him an Arky-Arky [repeat]?).
I wasn’t sure who this Noah fella was, but the song was great!
This fabulous song was followed by a discussion about who or what God was–did he sit on a throne in the sky? was he old? did he have a long white beard? or was God invisible and wise?
I was hooked on Judaism from that day onward.
now let’s go forward many decades to my current version of Jewish engagement:
In 2010, after decades of volunteer and lay leadership in the Jewish communities of Vancouver, BC, I decided to begin the arduous path of training to become a spiritual care chaplain. It took about 5 years of full time study and I am now an NAJC Professional Jewish Chaplain.
I moved to the Southern California desert this past May, not to take a job; but to enjoy better health in a serene and protected desert locale.
And then, just as I was unpacking and wondering what I might want to do in my new community, hurricane season came to the United States.
In response, my professional chaplaincy associations sent out emails for those who wished to fast track to join the American Red Cross for deployment.
I did not have to think much about going, except–that this deployment would not be restful, and it could cause me some health problems from exposure to contaminated water and lack of good sanitation.
I responded to the email anyway, went to my regional American Red Cross (ARC) Head Quarters, and after an introductory ‘boot camp’, I was sold.
I had responded online on Friday, and was in Houston four days later, on Tuesday September 5th.
I had the privilege of meeting the National director of Disaster Spiritual Care (DSC) at Houston HQ, and with his approval, was assigned the George R. Brown Convention Center mega shelter, which now housed 1,200 evacuees, down from 5,000 at one point.
The second day there, just as I was settling into getting to recognize residents’ faces and enjoy the company of newfound colleagues from other faith groups, I was told to join two others and drive to Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas. There were as yet no DSC chaplains at all, and the 3 of us would attend to shelter work for that entire region.
We each had our own rental vehicle because unlike anyone else, the three of us were to cover the entire southeast Texas area. We were housed in a staff shelter with 200 other volunteers, on cots, with freezing A/C blasting to keep germs at bay, and no potable water to bathe in or drink.
Over the usual breakfast of sugary granola bars and fruit cups and potato chips, we decided to split up and drive to different areas of the region to see where the greatest need was.
I settled on ministering in just one shelter—the Thomas Jefferson High School in Port Arthur, TX—“TJ”. Port Arthur is one of the poorest areas of southeast Texas, and the US in general. These people were now in their 3rd or 4th shelter, with all of their belongings stuffed into old bags or plastic storage bins beneath their cots.
I use the word ‘minister’; it is not a Christian word, it is noun and also a verb that is used in many contexts. For example, I lived in Canada for almost 40 years and there we have Ministers in our Provincial and Federal houses of government. Ministers administer services to people, both secular and faith-based. The work is ministry.
I had little trouble easing into ministry in Port Arthur. The residents, evacuees, were predominantly black, very low income, and often with health problems. Anyone affluent had already found alternative housing somewhere else, with a relative, friends, etc.
These remaining 250 or so people at TJ were looking for places to live, and were waiting for organizations such as FEMA to assess their homes for damage and give them funds to repair or rebuild.
Perhaps because of my life experiences as a cultural ‘outsider’, a single, middle-aged Jewish woman, living in predominately white Christian communities, and receiving chaplaincy training mainly with Christian peers–I was able communicate my otherness, go alongside others whose lives are not mainstream, earn trust, and be with them in their search for spiritual comfort.
I mainly roamed the vast rows of cots filling the two gyms at TJ, checking in with my eyes and ears and ‘Spidey Sense’ with residents. I was their advocate when needed services were not being given, a guide and motivator when the chips were down, prayed with and for them, held their hand if waiting for the ambulance, comforted and debriefed when traumatic incidents happened, ran interference when tempers flared, got crabby volunteers to loosen up, and made referrals to my colleagues in Disaster Mental Health and Disaster Medical Assistance Teams.
I also made sure kenneled pets were watered and fed, cleaned up childrens’ toys, and played maid and waiter to pamper burned-out parents.
When I arrived at TJ, the residents had already been there 10 days, and found their spiritual leaders—amongst themselves–an assistant minister and his wife; the maintenance man for the school itself was a church pastor.
I thought about other Bible characters, such as Amos and Elijah.
The example of the spiritual leader who is a regular person, someone who tends orchards, plows their own fields, and cleans schools for a living. We don’t know what Noach did for a living, but we do know that he was by nature righteous, and someone who walked with God; perhaps strolling together in conversation, as one would do with an earthly companion.
No one at TJ ever asked me, “Why did God do this to us?” or “God has sent a Flood like in the Bible, to punish us and the earth”
Instead, almost everyone I sat with talked about Faith. They had Faith that there would be relief. They had faith that despite the disaster, God was walking with them, and watching and taking care during this disaster. They often had anecdotes of previous hurricanes or floods they’d evacuated from, and how by trusting God and accepting the help that God had sent, that they had been taken care of then, and were certainly being helped now.
I think we Jews don’t talk enough about Faith like this. Much like the term ‘Minister’, Faith is seen as a Christian concept. In Judaism, we talk more about ‘Mitzvoth’ and Actions.
But I want to tell you that Faith and Mitzvoth are the same thing.
As an example, it is a mitzvah to keep kosher. Many of the rules of kashrut do not make logical sense. But observant people do them anyway. Why? because it is an act of faith.
Faith works in that we do not have to understand why, that by being consistent and having these structures of precise foods or ways of blessing them, we will grow inner, rather than outer, strength, grow stronger as individuals and as a people, and thus know God better.
In this same vein, the people of Port Arthur knew how to recognize God’s faith in them. They could graciously accept help because they knew they could not get by on their own–and that God was at work when neighbors helped neighbors, rescue operations came, shelters went up, and agencies came to assist.
They knew how to reach out to one another because their Christian teachings told them that that is the right thing to do; people from all over the world reached out to help.
It was a privilege that after only 3 days with them, the two TJ preachers asked me to co-lead a Sunday morning service. Having had the privilege of attending black gospel churches in Harlem and Brooklyn during my chaplaincy education, I was so very pleased to join them.
On Sunday, alongside a mighty preacher with his golden baritone voice, this man motivated by personal loss, by the flooded homes, and the pain and longing in that shelter; and alongside the assistant minister lovingly reading Psalm 27; I gave prayers of thanks to God for spreading his sheltering wings; and encouraging all to reach out to give help; and to reach out to accept help; and all of us came together in song to close.
These men and women of faith have become life-long friends. We led another service together the following Sunday in yet another shelter, which these 250 residents had been transferred into.
Now: Let’s go back to the stories of Beresheit, of Cayin and Hevel, and of Noach. From the story of Cayin we learn that even if we are God and try to reach out to comfort someone when their face has fallen, it is up to that person to accept what is. We cannot arrogantly expect to change or fix others, even when wearing an ARC cap and vest:
As a chaplain, I have learned to accept my clients’ choices. I stay out of their way because I have faith in them. Sometimes, by seeing my non-judgmental faith in them, they find restored faith in themselves or with God.
In parashat Noach, although the story of a destructive Flood outwardly seems so apropos to my situation, it was really the character of Noach and the instructions that God gave for building the Ark that characterized what I experienced amongst the evacuees.
In Gen 6:9, “Noach was a man of simple righteousness amongst his generation. A man who walked with God.” נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדרתיו את־האלהים התהלך־נח׃
Religion is not mentioned in the Noach story. God tells his walking partner, Noach, a man that stood out amongst others, that humans and all life have made a mess of things, and that he will destroy all of it but save a few good seeds, and start fresh.
And in Gen 6:14 what does God tell Noach to line this protective ark with, to keep it watertight and safe, inside and out? כפר pitch. The same root letters as kippur, as in atonement.
When we are ‘at-one-ment’, when we trust inside and out, when we follow illogical algorithms of faith, our lives become straighter and less complex.
We are then walking with God.
Far from being a punishment, many of the shelter residents expressed their belief that the hurricane was a blessing because it caused so many lives to be repaired.
Indeed, family members who had been estranged were now reaching out to each other to provide homes and assistance; people who had been isolated before were now flourishing by finding meaningful helping roles; people were returning to church; having lost excess baggage, many were now finding blessings and gratitude for small things.
In this hurricane flood Ark/shelter, they were finding at-one-ment.
Ken, you picked a great Shabbat for this d’rasha; I feel that my life has come full circle: my childhood affinity for Judaism and Jewish ways that began with the “Arky-Arky” song became manifest in the most unlikely of environments, and I thank you for allowing me this opportunity to both share the stories of the people of Beaumont Port Arthur, and to create a deeper understanding of the stories of Beresheit.
It was a privilege for me to know these people. I was fortunate to have a role where I could freely do my job. No one told me how to offer DSC to these people; we were deployed because we were seen to have the expertise to be self-directed and create an ark of at-one-ment for the people of Port Arthur.
I saw faith enacted, and it gives me comfort to see how powerful faith; in God, in one another, and in oneself, can be.
©Susan J Katz 2017
The Ki Tissa of RecoveryWhen we allow release to come, we find ourselves on the same sojourn through the wilderness our ancestors took; and if we allow ourselves to open to our potential, we may find the strength and maturity we so hope to develop along the way.
Ki Tissa is the section of the Israelites’ journey from Mitzrayim that takes us further along our way through the wilderness of discovery and formation. We leave Mitzrayim, Egypt, much like adolescents or runaways, with belongings slung hastily over a shoulder, barely wanting to look back.
Predictably, as soon as the thrill or high or novelty wears off, we are homesick for the familiar place, where our short memories recall fish and leeks to eat, and security.
As a loving parent who sees their maturing offspring lose focus, God finds that it is time to take a census, a time for our people to be counted and accountable for themselves to their Higher Power. It is time to say, Count me in, I’m my way to independence and responsibility, no longer to be kept and managed by our Egyptian overseers.
Part of becoming independent is surrendering to a Higher Power, of recognizing where our boundaries and limits of what we can realistically control lie. Here, in Ki Tissa, God instructs us to surrender what we can, to build the Mishkan. But, God does not instruct us all to do this in the same exact way: God, or our personal Higher Power, knows that we are not all the same, not all of the same talents, gifts, and abilities.
What we learn in Ki Tissa, is that those for whom surrendering material items is their best offering, are to do so, and they bring gold, silver, copper, fibers and pelts;
and those for whom surrendering their creative talents is their best offering, are to do so. They are instructed by God on how to smith, weave, sculpt and build the Mishkan from these materials.How do we understand this message?
One way is to take an account of who we are, and what our realms of abilities and being are, and what are not.
Another way is to let go of trying to be like someone we are not, or try to control how someone else is; maybe a family member or co-worker comes to mind. In recovery, we let go, and surrender to what our Higher Power asks or instructs of us.
We can let go, to leave others in God’s hands, too.
When you are on your way in the Wilderness of Uncertainty,
Who will you answer as when others or your Higher Power call to you? How will you take inventory of who and how you have been, and where you see yourself now?
This is the message of Ki Tissa.
Bo: What a Plot!
The reading for last Shabbat was parasha Bo, which is the 10th chapter of the 2nd book of the Torah, which is called Shemot in Hebrew, or Exodus in English.
Imagine it is Kabbalat Shabbat, here is my d’rasha for you, about Bo:
Has anyone seen the film, ‘The Ten Commandments’?
Anyone seen it…lately?
Ok. Well, I ask because yesterday was my grandmother’s birthday, z”l,
and her favourite movie was…The Ten Commandments!
as I was studying the parasha for tonight’s drasha
I could almost hear her voice kvelling,
She would say, “What a movie!! Such wonderful costumes, and acting…
Yes, Grandma, what a plot, indeed. And, then I started to wonder what it was, besides the fact that it’s THE TORAH, that makes this story have such a “great plot”?
I began to read the first line, and some answers started to come to me:
“God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants for the purpose of putting my signs in their midst. And so that you will tell into the ears of your children and the children of your children how I raised you up from Egypt and of my signs which I put in their midst, and they will know that I am YHVH.'”
What dramatic opening lines. Wow. COME to Pharaoh. Not GO to Pharaoh, because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the heart of his servants. Not his servants’ hearts. But the heart of his servants.
So, God is beckoning Moses toward Egypt, with the suggestion that God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart,
as a way for God to show God’s Might and Power,
and to escalate the tension between the Pharaoh and his people:
as his heart hardens, so does their desire close for more punishment from the plagues.
What is meant by heart?
My Biblical Hebrew teachers taught us that in Tanakh times, the HEART was the where one’s will resided. They didn’t know what the BRAIN did, except maybe make the limbs and bodily functions work.
So the WILL of the Egyptians was also becoming hardened and closed off.
The grand purpose of all this was to create a platform for raising the stakes between Pharaoh and Moses
so that God would need to manifest greater and greater powers,
through the signs, or plagues,
and thus once and for all, be shown as God Most High and Powerful to all of Egypt. And
This was to be told right into the ears of Moses’ children, and their children,
for all the generations of Israelites to come.
So that they will know that God alone is YHVH.
I think some of the appeal of this story line, that makes it such a good plot, as my grandmother would say,
Is that this dynamic happens not only in this one Biblical story,
But in our own lives, communities, and even world events. Sometimes, an idea or action that helped protect us from harm can go awry and go too far:
On the personal level, can you recollect times when you just kept resisting hearing someone’s needs or advice, and kept finding ways of ignoring obvious signs of seriousness until it was too late?
Or a community that ignores the needs of its poorest residents to the extent that the needs builds up and create an overwhelming housing and mental health services problem to contend with;
Or the hardening of hearts that at various times in history has led the world to a scary international escalation of terrorism, wars and arms threats.
One thing God is telling us in this passage
is that we can get ourselves into trouble by running around
creating great plots and
ways to avoid letting in what our opened hearts
we know is the truth.
With this story, we can remember,
through telling it year after year,
That God comes along with you
And is greater than any Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
My grandmother always encouraged me to be my best, and part of that is having the privilege to study Torah and remember that God is greater than Pharaoh.
Judaism, Women and Peace
I was a guest speaker, along with several other women, representing the Sikh, Christian, Muslim, and Aboriginal Peoples, at the Ahmadiyyah Muslim Community’s Women’s World Peace Conference today in Surrey, British Columbia.
The Conference was a huge island of hope for World Peace, with 400 women gathered together, childcare provided so they could attend, and a huge amount of speaking and listening from the heart. I was asked to present Judaism’s teachings about Peace. The following is my presentation:
Judaism’s Teachings about Peace
My name is Susan Katz, and I am here to present to you some of Judaism’s teachings about Peace.
Peace is a big topic! In preparing for this Conference, I needed to ask myself, “What can I choose to speak about that will create a memorable learning for the women who attend the Conference?”
Here’s what I decided:
The word *Shalom*