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Rosh Hashanah 5779 - "And a Child Shall Lead Us"

As you may recall from my High Holy Day message in the Kesher, I was touched and moved by the documentary movie on Mr. Rogers which came out this past Summer. For decades, he stood out as a spiritual and moral guardian for children. Little did I realize until I saw the film how influenced I was as a child while sitting in front of the screen watching his show.

Rosh Hashanah is about the centrality of the child. Just consider our Torah and Haftarah readings for the two days of Rosh Hashanah: The birth and early years of Isaac, his interaction with his half-brother Yishmael, his being bound by his father on the mountain; the birth and early years of the prophet Samuel; the grieving mother Rachel weeping over her children who have been exiled to Babylonia, refusing to be comforted. All the readings focus on the centrality of the child.

Did you know that the Ark containing our Torahs facing East mirrors the portable Ark which was housed in the ancient portable Mishkan and in later years the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? In ancient times, however, there was a distinctive feature, which is missing today. The Torah commands about the previous institutions of worship that two Keruvim-Cherubs hovered over both sides of the holy Ark. What were these Cherubs?

According to Rashi and other classical commentators, these winged creatures had the faces of babies. That's right! When our ancestors faced the Ark, they faced children and remembered the religious mandate to focus on their wellbeing.

In the pages of our Torah, the two Cherubs face each other. However, in a restatement found in the book of Chronicles, the Cherubs face away from each other. Which is it? According to the Midrash, when the Jewish people are faithful to God's will, those little children face each other. When the Jewish people are not faithful to God's will, then the little children face away from each other. You see - Children are smart. They can sense when their adult role models are sincere and consistent or not. Do we see our best selves when we look at the centrality of our children? Can we imagine their faces and their positions when we face the Ark today?

As we usher in the new year of 5779, I gaze at many Holocaust survivors and their families. Do the math - Today's survivors were the young children I speak about today when they were liberated in 1945. Many of them grew up never knowing their parents, siblings, or other relatives. The story is told of Rabbi Herschel Shachter, then a U.S. Army chaplain when he was part of the liberation of Buchwald in 1945. After seeing piles and piles of corpses, as he continues to walk around, he hears a voice from one of the piles. He hears the voice of a child, who would be the youngest survivor of Buchenwald. After saving the child, Rabbi Shachter asks the young boy, "How old are you?" The boy responds, "I am older than you." How so," asks Rabbi Shachter. The boy explains, "You can laugh and cry as a normal person. I don't remember ever laughing, and I am beyond tears. So, I am older than you."

Who was this youngest survivor of Buchenwald? His name - Israel Meir Lau - who one day would become the chief Rabbi of the State of Israel.

There are many stories about the last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto. One centers around the youngest child of the family, a boy named Moshe. After reciting the Ma Nishtana, as the youngest child does, Moshe then adds one more question to his father. "Who will be here to ask and answer the questions next year? Abba - Will you be alive next Pesach? Will I be alive next Pesach to ask them again?"

The father answers Moshe by saying, "I don't know if you or I will be alive next Pesach, but children, children of Israel will be alive on this earth next year, and all the years after that, to recite Ma Nishtanah."

Our shul, Beth Emeth, has intuitively engrained these stories into our shul's very spiritual and physical fiber. The Samuel Edelstein Children's Garden is all about honoring the lives of the children of the Holocaust who did not have a chance. If you have not yet dedicated a paving stone to honor the life of a child, or some other feature in the garden, I kindly ask, "what are you waiting for?"

Our Haftarah scroll and its mantle are dedicated to the memory of the 1.5 million children who did not have a chance. Member families have dedicated particular haftarot of choice to commemorate any meaningful occasion in their lives, with their names inscribed on to the parchment of their respective haftarah. There are many haftarot still remaining. The scroll itself and its mantle are all about the children of the Shoah, likened to the Cherubs who once hovered over the Ark. I kindly ask, "What are you waiting for?"

How many of us bless our children and/or grandchildren at the Shabbat and Yom Tov table? I actually did not grow up with this practice, but I have observed it as a parent every week. These words prompted me to look deeply into the eyes, hearts, and souls of my children at least once a week. To those who have never done it, I suggest to you, "Try it, you'll like it." It makes sense that we bless our daughters to grow in the footsteps of our founding matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. However, we do not invoke the names of the three founding patriarchs when blessing our sons. Rather, we use the names of Ephraim and Menashe, Jacob's grandsons, Why so? On one hand, the patriarchs did not always treat their families well: Abraham mistreated Hagar; Isaac shared sibling rivalry with Ishmael; Jacob shared sibling rivalry with Esau. Jacob favored particular children over other. In addition, Ephraim and Menashe were the only two males in the book of Genesis who spent their entire lives in the Diaspora and who, according to tradition, maintained their heritage. If they could do so, we can too.

For those of us who may not have biological children or grandchildren to bless, I offer to you that there are many ways today to feel responsible for the children of our heritage. The child of your future could be a nephew or niece, an adopted child, a surrogate who has carried a child, an orphan in the community, or any person you choose to consider as your particular child of the people Israel.

As we focus on the centrality of the child today, what are you doing to best ensure your child's commitment to Judaism? Does he or she have a distinctive pathway amongst the many lanes of the Jewish highway? Have you considered making a contribution to the Jewish tuition assistance fund which has been set up through The Center for Jewish Education to help ensure affordable Jewish education?

This year will mark my first full year as an empty nester. My younger son, Yonah, begins his third year in the IDF. He defines his Jewishness by the uniform he wears, a love for his people, his land, his Hebrew language and his Jewish culture He is doing his Jewishness his way. My older son, Elie, was hired this past May, a year after receiving his degree in meteorology, to be the chief (and only) meteorologist of Alpena, Michigan. There, among a handful of Jews, Elie wears his kippah at all times even while on the air giving the nightly forecast. He is doing his Jewishness his way. May each of our children be educated and directed seriously so that they can all find their distinctive pathway to living Jewishly their way.

May the Cherubs always face each other. May we celebrate God's will in a meaningful way. May we, as the children of God and as the children of Israel face each other with love, care, and compassion.

I wish us all Shanah Tovah U'Metukah - May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet, healthy, peaceful, and purposeful new year!

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Yom Kippur 5779 - "The Imperfect Must Strive for Perfection"

I have never met a perfect person - Have you? I do not know of any perfect country - Do you?

In Pirkei Avot - The Ethics of the Sages, we are taught, "Lo Alecha Ha'Melacha Ligmor, V'Lo Attah Ben Chorin L'hibatel mimenah - You are not expected to complete the task, but you’re not exempt from striving to do so."

I love the State of Israel! I marvel at her! What other place has come so far and accomplished so much in 70 years of Statehood? While colleagues and others may disagree with me, I do not feel that I have the right to publicly criticize Israel equal to Israelis. It is not enough that I contribute to Israel, invest in Israel, and have studied in Israel. Until I have lived in Israel and have donned the IDF uniform, my voice is not and should not be the same as one who does live in Israel and who dons the IDF uniform. I might wake up to loud traffic on Sheppard and Bathurst. But I do not wake up to the sounds of missiles in Sderot.

To say that Israel is imperfect is not to criticize Israel. It is the obvious. No human institution of any sort can claim to being perfect. When I lament at one of Israel's imperfections to the point that I become terribly upset, rather than write diatribes in Diaspora publications, I work with people who think like me and who have made the commitment to live in Israel to advance my cause which is also their cause.

Case in point -- This past July 19, a couple of days prior to Tisha B'Av, a Masorti (Israeli Conservative) Rabbi, Dov Haiyun, was detained by police officials in Haifa at 5:30AM for having performed a Jewish wedding in Israel. We all know that only weddings performed by the chief rabbinate's ultra - Orthodox office are legally recognized in Israel. We all know that Israelis leaving Israel to get married civilly, whether or not they be straight, gay, or interfaith can return to Israel with their marriage legally recognized by the State.

Did you know that in 2013, a law was passed in Israel which allows any officiant outside the chief rabbinate's office who performs a Jewish wedding in Israel to be imprisoned for up to two years? Did you know that the case of Rabbi Dov Haiyun was the first consequence of such actions? Did you know that hundreds if not thousands of non-recognized weddings have been performed in Israel by Reform, Conservative, and yes, even moderate Orthodox rabbis, where either a civil wedding license has been obtained in another country or not?

I did not protest about this issue publicly in Toronto or in New York. I did not write an article about it in the Diaspora Jewish newspapers. Rather, I added my voice of support to the Masorti Movement in Israel, the voice of Conservative Judaism by those who live for, die for, and breathe the air of Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, on a daily basis.

Yes - Israel is an imperfect country. So what? As I said last year and will say over and over again, our ancestors who lived two thousand years ago, and our grandparents or great grandparents who lived in lands of persecution and annihilation mere decades ago could only have dreamt for a strong secure State of Israel. Yes - Israel is imperfect and is struggling with the issues of religious pluralism within the Jewish community.

More importantly, Israel is faithful to the ideal of the imperfect striving for perfection, or as I quoted from Pirkei Avot, "You are not expected to complete the task, but you are not exempt from striving to do so."

My Israel will not be defined by an Israeli Conservative Rabbi in Haifa. My Israel will not be defined by a politicized ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. My Israel will not be defined by this past Summer's passing of a Nation-State list of principles which leaves as many questions as answers on a number of fundamental topics.

My Israel will be defined Operation Good Neighbor and Operation Doctor's Appointment. While barely reported, Israel has done so much good to help and treat the victims and casualties of the Syrian horrors for well over a year.

My Israel will be defined by Israeli technology will helped to rescue 12 cave trapped Thailand boys and their soccer coach. Did you know it was an Israeli company that made available to first responders the most sophisticated emergency mobile communications tools?

Three times seven days a week, the service basically concludes with the passage entitled, "Aleinu." In its second paragraph, one of the most important Jewish values is stated: "L'Takein Olam B'Malchut Shaddai - To perfect the world under God's sovereignty." Yes - The imperfect must strive to make an imperfect world perfect, notwithstanding the impossibility of doing so. Others understand the imperative of "L'Takein" as to repair, mend, or improve, since we really cannot make the world perfect. Still, I prefer to translate "L'Takein as "to perfect," to remind us of our ultimate mission at hand.

During the Summer, I purchased and read an amazing new book about how I like to define My Israel. "Thou shalt innovate - How Israeli ingenuity repairs the world." Okay - the author translated "L'Takein" as "repairs." Here are some excerpts to inspire you. It is a book worth acquiring:

"full of inspiring stories revealing the ancient roots of Israel's innovative spirit, and how that drive to IMPROVE the world continues to play out on a global stage... Thou Shalt Innovate tells the remarkable story of how Israeli technology has helped not only Israelis, but the entire world. No country in history has contributed so much to humankind in the first seventy years of its existence... The secret of Israel's innovation is about leadership, determination, and perhaps above all, about seeing opportunity when others predict failure... Israeli innovators that are collectively changing the lives of billions of people around the world . . . how Israelis are helping to feed the hungry, cure the sick, protect the defenseless, and make the desert bloom. Israel is playing a disproportionate role in helping solve some of the world's biggest challenges by tapping into the nation's soul: the spirit of Tikkun Olam - the Jewish concept of repairing the world... If one paralyzed person can walk again, then perhaps no one has to be bound to a wheelchair. If one hungry person can eat, then perhaps we can solve world hunger… repairing the world through technology and innovation.

David Ben-Gurion once famously said, 'In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.' Israel is proof positive that miracles do happen.'"

Judaism's universalism manifests itself in its concern for humanity at large, not merely for its own. The Talmud states (Gittin 61A): Our Rabbis teach: We sustain the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of the Jews, visit the sick of the non-Jews along with the sick of the Jews; bury the dead of the non-Jews as well as the dead of the Jews - mipnei darchei shalom, because of the ways of peace.

What will you do this year to help perfect, repair, improve, and mend a world that is inherently imperfect, governed by people who are inherently imperfect? Amongst a bundle of worthy suggestions, invest in the State of Israel! Subscribe to the kind of Israel that I do. By purchasing an Israel Bond of whatever denomination; by twinning your Israel Bond with Beth Emeth's Israel Bonds, you will do a double Mitzvah with your Bond. More importantly, you will directly connect yourself to your brothers and sisters in Israel who are positively and productively changing the landscape of Israel, literally and spiritually, and who are also literally and spiritually changing the landscape of the world.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah!

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Sat, 11 July 2020 19 Tammuz 5780