Judaism - Torah

Showing, not Seeing

I am Canadian. Often, this is immediately noticeable – I have an extensive collection of plaid shirts, an unabashed love of cold weather, and I tend to apologize a lot.

It’s important that you know this, not just because I’m proud of my heritage, but because it’s a key part of one of the most significant and trying events I’ve had in my life. An event that, remarkably, has changed my thinking on this Refugee Shabbat.

A little over three months ago, on the very first day when I was supposed to start working here at Sixth & I, I learned of a monumental bureaucratic error that meant I didn’t receive proper authorization to work legally here in the United States.

I was told that it could be up to a year before I would receive authorization.

I couldn’t officially start my job. So I volunteered my time and energy. But I couldn’t really be recognized for this thrilling new step in my life. I couldn’t post anything online, for fear that someone at Homeland Security might misinterpret it as me doing something illegal.

For the past three months, I’ve been waiting in the dark limbo that is United States Citizenship and Immigration applications, FBI background checks, and paying fees to the Department of Homeland Security.

I have felt as though I’ve been living in hiding. Never have I wanted so badly to have a Microsoft Outlook calendar and meeting invites – the markers of normalcy. Continue reading “Showing, not Seeing”

Judaism - Torah

Moral Outrage | Yom Kippur 5779

Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Draco Malfoy – one of the antagonists in the Harry Potter series – is an elitist. He lacks compassion and empathy, revels in bullying, and – depending on where you stand in your reading of the books – he may have been an attempted murderer.

If you are not among the legions of those who have read or watched the Harry Potter canon, bear with me for a moment, as I paint a scene of Draco Malfoy’s malevolence. And if you know the series by heart, pay attention, because you might discover something new, like I recently did.

There’s this moment from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – my favourite of the books:

While Harry and his best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, are waiting in line for dinner, Draco Malfoy parades in. He’s obnoxiously reading aloud a newspaper article highly critical of Ron’s father. And then he fires off a crude insult about Ron’s mother’s weight.

Harry comes to Ron’s defense. He takes a pot-shot of his own at Draco’s mother.

And this is when Draco Malfoy casts a spell aimed at Harry, while his back is turned.

Like I said, Draco Malfoy is a jerk.

Nearby, one of their teachers, Mad-Eye Moody, has been watching. Not wanting Harry to get shot in the back, he casts his own defensive spell, turning Draco into a ferret. With magic, he torments the Malfoy ferret, tossing him around from floor to ceiling.

And this is when the calm, yet stern Professor McGonagall shows up. She puts an end to the draconian punishment. And with her trademark stoicism, she informs Mad-Eye Moody that this is not how they punish students.


This is from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, and by now, our brewing anger and disdain for Malfoy has reached a boiling point. We’ve spent three and a half books learning of his cruelty toward Harry, and yet he never gets judged or punished. We feel morally justified in our anger toward him – just like Harry and Mad-Eye. Which is why it’s so satisfying to us when Draco is turned into a ferret.

But while a commitment to morals is one thing, resorting to outrageous and divisive acts in its name is another thing entirely.

I’ve been re-watching and re-reading the entire Harry Potter canon. It started off as pure entertainment, but the last time I read the first book, it was half a lifetime ago. Today, I’m struck by how remarkably they touch on some of the very challenges we confront every day: Fear of the stranger. Divisiveness. Unease at public dissent. Moral outrage. Continue reading “Moral Outrage | Yom Kippur 5779”

Judaism - Torah

Spiritual Jet Lag | Kol Nidre 5779

It was 3:00 AM, and I was in a hotel room in Azerbaijan, lying awake. I was on the first night of a trip through Central Asia, jet-lagged, and disoriented. I groped around the room, looking for the alarm clock. I was so frustrated. Eight hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, my body thought that now would be a good time to get things going for the day. Somehow, I had convinced my body to fall asleep a few hours earlier, but jet lag is among the most powerful of forces. Despite my will, it would not be tamed after just one night. While my mind craved sleep, my body was busy making other plans. All I could do was lie in bed and – since it was evening on the East Coast – play HQ on my iPhone.

Jet lag is a vicious, vicious fiend. Continue reading “Spiritual Jet Lag | Kol Nidre 5779”

Judaism - Torah

If you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah

Last week, this Forward article by Bethany Mandel popped up in my feeds: Please Leave Politics Out Of Your High Holiday Sermons.

Some version of it appears every year. Different author. Same message. Everyone quibbles about it.

Now there’s a twitter poll asking rabbis what they think.

I was thinking about this yesterday, when a community member said to me, with just a *tinge* of sarcasm: “Well, if you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah.”

The Torah *is* a political document. The Tanakh *most definitely* is a political document. The Talmud is seeping with political wisdom.

If you don’t read the Torah and think about our responsibilities to the immigrants and refugees in our midst; if you don’t read the Tanakh and think about our fundamental religious obligations to lift up the most vulnerable; if you don’t read the Talmud and think about how to engage in civil discourse… then you’re missing some of the most fundamental messages of these texts.

Continue reading “If you want to keep politics out of your Judaism, I guess you probably shouldn’t read the Torah”

Judaism - Torah

“Love your Neighbour as Yourself.” But not all Neighbours are Loveable… | Rosh Hashanah Shacharit 5779

A little over a year ago, we watched, horrified, as torch-wielding Neo-Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, including “Jews will not replace us!” Since then, white supremacist violence has raged in ways most of us never thought we would see again in our lifetimes.

And then white supremacists told us they would march again, this time through the streets of our city. Though outnumbered, the hate was palpable.

I must admit that it feels almost absurd to give a sermon or try to teach Torah about white supremacy. For one – you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that Nazis are evil. And even more so, isn’t our time better spent mobilizing in response?

When this hatred rises, there have been, and will continue to be counter-protests, and teach-ins, and vigils. We will stand up for a vision of a world that affirms that humanity was created out of one being – adam harishon – the first human – so that no person could ever say: “my ancestors are better than yours.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

We will stand up for a vision of the world that says humanity was created out of the dust from every corner of the earth, so that no person could ever say: “the place I come from is better than the place you come from.” (Rashi on Gen. 2:7; Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer 11)

Hate will be confronted with love.

There will be a lot of love.

But there’s still a lot of hate.

What do we do with it? Continue reading ““Love your Neighbour as Yourself.” But not all Neighbours are Loveable… | Rosh Hashanah Shacharit 5779″

Judaism - Torah

It’s Going to Be Okay | Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

In the middle of the night on June 18th, 1947, on Pan Am flight 121 from Calcutta, India to New York City, an engine stopped working.[1]

Which caused the other engines to overheat, which in turn caused a fire.

Which caused a panic.

While the pilot attempted to land the plane, the 25-year-old co-pilot unbuckled himself.

He left the cockpit, going back into the main cabin to help with the passengers.

He saw a young woman who was alone, crying in fear.

He sat next to her, and told her it was going to be okay.

He told her this as out the window, he watched the engine continue to burn.

He told her this as he watched the engine fall from the wing.

He told her this as fuel lines became exposed, as fire overtook the aircraft, and as the plane pitched downward.

“It’s going to be okay.”

He told her this knowing that every single person on that plane was about to die. Continue reading “It’s Going to Be Okay | Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779”

Judaism - Torah

Our Long-Nosed God – Parashat Vayikra

Despite my family’s French heritage, I’m not what you would call a sophisticated wine drinker.

I enjoy a glass of red every now and then, I know the difference between a Malbec and a Cabernet, and I’ve even recently rediscovered that white wine has its merits. But if you asked me to pair a wine with a dish for dinner, I would be totally lost. I can’t really discern overtones from undernotes, and I certainly have no idea why someone would want to drink a wine that is described as tobacco-like.

Having said that, I do know something about some of wine’s other well-known characteristics. If you have you ever come home after a long day of work, exhausted; perhaps stressed the tasks still remaining to be done, and poured yourself a glass of wine to help alleviate some of that stress, then you know, as I do, that a glass of wine can be quite relaxing.

Now I’m not advocating that we all turn to wine to solve all of life’s problems. But if you are familiar with this experience, I want to say: congratulations, you’re in good company.

Even the Creator of the universe, our rabbis teach, knows the value of a relaxing glass of wine.

Whoever becomes more relaxed after a glass of wine, says Rabbi Hanina of the Talmud, has an element of God within them, since God acted similarly after smelling the sweet aromas of a sacrifice. (BT Eruvin 65a)

Remember the story of what happened to Noah after the flood?

Noah and his family emerged from the ark, and Noah offered a sacrifice to God. The sweet aroma of the burnt offering rose up to God, and, our rabbis tell us, God was relaxed, and said: I won’t ever again curse the ground because of humanity” (Gen. 8:21).

It’s as if, after a particularly stressful day (of nearly wiping out humanity) God sits back, inhales the sweet scent of Noah’s sacrificial offering, and just… mellows out. The smell of Noah’s gracious offering is just as potent as drinking a glass of wine.

This pleasing sent – a ריח ניחוח – is a frequent motif throughout the Torah. After Noah, it appears a total of sixteen times in the book of Leviticus, which we begin reading this Shabbat. And it will appear seventeen more times in Numbers. In total, God is pleased by a ריח ניחוח thirty-six times throughout the Torah! God, clearly, likes to kick back and relax after a hard day of being the Master of the Universe!

But what is it about the ריח ניחוח that acts so potently upon God?

Have you ever smelled a scent that acted upon you immediately? In particular – have you ever smelled a scent that spirits you away to another place, triggering ancient memories?

Marcel Proust was one of the first to suggest that smell is the sense most linked to memory. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust writes:

“When nothing else subsists from the long-distant past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell… of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”

The scent of musty corridors of an old building triggers for me vivid images of exploring the cellar of my Great Aunt’s house as a five-year-old, trying to find the deep-freezer, so I could pick out an ice-cream treat.

When I smell my scented beard oil, I am immediately whisked away to my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Ontario, and filled with memories of playing pine-walled home where my father grew up.

And every autumn, the smell of biodegrading leaves and fresh mud takes me back to years of playing in the farm fields where I used to go to school.

What do your memories smell like?

God, we are taught, also responds emotionally to scents.

“The sense of smell, in the Holy [Hebrew] Language,” writes Rabbi Moses Mendellsohn, “corresponds to the power of memory in the soul, for the idea of memory is the remaining impression in the soul, after the tangible experience has passed. That is the unique property of scent… one which will provoke the desired memory before God.”

I wonder what God is thinking about when smelling the pleasing scents of the ריח ניחוח?

One idea is that God is remembering the promise to be compassionate toward humanity that God made to Noah.

There’s a great clue to this: in the Torah, we learn that one of God’s attributes is ארך אפיים – which we usually translate as being “slow to anger.” You might be familiar with this from Rosh Hashanah or other chagim, as we recite a list of the thirteen attributes of the Holy Blessed One.

But ארך אפיים doesn’t literally mean “slow to anger,” it actually means “long-nosed”! Why does the Torah have this imagery of God with a long nose?

Perhaps because it is through this metaphoric nose that we arouse God’s compassion. A longer nose equals more smelling power!

It’s a powerful, very human metaphor: God’s patient, gentle attitude toward us is triggered in a way remarkably familiar to us – by these powerful, pungent scent-memories that Proust spoke of.

The ריח ניחוח are the result of what we call sacrifices, but the English word “sacrifice” is not an adequate translation. In Hebrew, they are called korbanot – which comes from the root “to draw near.”

Just like scents can bring us remarkably closer to past memories, the ancient Israelites’ sacrifices were an attempt to get closer to God, to arouse God’s compassion, and remind God of memories of our covenantal relationship.

We don’t offer sacrifices anymore. But we still live in covenant with God, and we still want God’s compassion. And we still emit things into the world.

The things we send out into the world – both literal and figurative – can have both creative and destructive power.

You might think about this environmentally: is what are we emitting sustaining the world, or harming it? Is it pleasing, or polluting?

Or you can think of it emotionally: does the attitude we send out into the world create room for others to draw nearer, or does it close off?

You could think of this spiritually, as our ancestors certainly did: are the prayers and blessings we offer to God perfunctory, or do they come from a place of serious intention, of a desire to elevate our spirits and brings us closer to the holy and the transcendent?

Just as everything we “give off” here on earth is received physically and emotionally by others, we have an image of a long-nosed God who acts similarly. Everything we “give off” can either push us away or draw us closer to God.

How might we work to ensure that what what we put out into the world draws us nearer to God and to each other?

These ריח ניחוח, these pleasant aromas, were not pleasing to God because of their smell alone, but because of the intention of the person performing the sacrifice.

Just as scents are only the tiniest, microscopic of particles of something much greater, the ריח ניחוח were just the tip of the iceberg, a small hint of something much larger.

The ריח ניחוח are a taste – or scent, as it were – of the depth of intentions that each person brought to their offering. And that’s why this idea is so powerful – our offerings to God have always been a just a small taste of something more to come.

They point to something much greater than ourselves.

My Bubby Jeanne, zichronah livrachah, used to make classic French dishes for Shabbat dinner. My favourite was her Coq au Vin – chicken and wine, a classic French dish. I’m sure that there are many dishes in a restaurant that might smell or taste just as good as hers. But hers, I know, was made with love and care for me and my family.

When I walked into my grandparents’ home every week for Shabbat and smelled the sweet scents of the chicken cooking, I knew that I would be surrounded by the loving embrace of our family’s Shabbat celebration.

And it is that love, encoded in a scent, that has become fixed in my memory, drawing me closer to her memory.

The idea of sacrifices might seem ancient, backwards, irrelevant or even inhumane when compared to how we pray today. But the korbanot – these acts of drawing nearer – have built into them a very human idea.

The ריח ניחוח serve to remind God, and us, of basic human desires that we all share: we want to live and thrive, we want to be loved, and we want to do this in sacred relationship with each other.

Perhaps this is the lesson of these smelly sacrifices – to send out love and compassion, and to receive those “scented” offerings with a long nose.