5777 Yom Kippur Day

Posted October 13th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Yom Kippur Day
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
October 12, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
Gmar hatimah tovah.  May you be sealed for a good year.
A broken shard.  Withering grass.  A passing breeze.  These are the phrases from Untane Tokef used to describe what it means to be human.  The unknown poet who composed this prayer might have done better with phrases like “the fluttering heart,” “the jittery leg,” “the sleepless toss and turn.”
Yes, to be human is to be mortal.  Even more so, it sometimes seems, that to be human is to be anxious.
In fact, the High Holy Days in general and Untane Tokef in particular seem designed to heighten our anxiety.  The central idea for Yom Kippur is that we are judged and inscribed (or not) in the Book of Life.  Just before Untane Tokef describes us humans as fleeting, it lists in question form the fates that might bring about our end.  Who by flood?  Who by plague?  Who shall wander?  Who shall be tormented?
Of course, we are anxious!
Our anxiety could be global, personal or both.  The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and the hatred unleashed in the election south of our border are just two of the societal forces that might be keeping us awake at night.  On the individual level, our anxiety arises perhaps from illness or economic insecurity.   Awaiting test results from the doctor or plotting which bill to pay first with limited funds are perfect recipes for tossing and turning.
What then should we do with our anxiety?
First, let me say, some anxiety is clinical.  For this type of anxiety, the answer is: get treatement.  If you think you might be clinically anxious, get professional mental health treatment.  Just as someone with advanced diabetes should take insulin and regularly consult with her doctor, so too someone with an anxiety disorder should take prescribed medication and regularly meet with his therapist.
But not all anxiety is so acute or prolonged, and our options for coping with it are varied.
Some of our anxiety arises from situations susceptible to change, but far beyond our personal control.  No one of us alone can solve a refugee crisis.  No one of us alone can counteract the hatred fomenting in the U.S or here in Canada.
This is hardly, though, an excuse not to act.  Shimon Peres, zichrono livracha, who passed away just before the Days of Awe began, said that we Jews are “a nation born to be discontented.  Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.”  During his long life, Peres encountered much that exists to make him anxious.  Rather than tremble, he marched, literally and figuratively, to change for the better.  He acted on his convictions, and we too are empowered to act on ours.
Other anxieties cannot be controlled by us, or anyone else.  No one has the power to make the test result come back from the lab in your favor.  When you are sick, we include you in our weekly Prayer for Healing.  But the mishebeirach list is not the same as God’s to-do list.  I wish it were, but it isn’t.  So too, we can’t know where the next natural disaster will hit, and we can’t prevent accidents no one could foresee.
We can and should pray about what makes us anxious.  There is relief in unloading our anxieties even though we can’t make God answer our prayers.  Over certain anxieties, it is all in God’s hands, and we have no lever on the divine.
With these anxieties, all we can do is manage them.  We are anxious because we are vulnerable.  Untane Tokef calls our attention to the ways in which we are vulnerable – natural disasters, political unrest, disease – in order to heighten our anxiety.  The High Holy Days are designed to put us on edge, so that we will do teshuvah in earnestness.  Repentance is hard.  Untane Tokef is meant to make us realize that the stakes are high, so that we will do the hard work of repenting.
The High Holy Days are not, however, the sum total of the Jewish year.  Other emotions are on the calendar too.
God demands that we rejoice and be happy on Sukkot and gives us the tools to meet this demand.  A beautiful etrog, fragrant myrtle, red meat, wine, and pretty clothes are all commanded (yes, really commanded) on Sukkot.  (That’s why Sukkot is my favorite holiday.)  The joy of this holiday soothes the anxiety of the Days of Awe that precede it.
Passover gives us hope, reminding us that the ills of the world can be redeemed.  At seder, we relive the journey from slavery to freedom and learn that no problem, even one on a national scale, is unsolvable.
On Shavuot.  Well, who really attributes great things to Shavuot?  But cheesecake is a good once-a-year way to ease anxiety.
Shabbat is a weekly restorative.  Disconnecting once a week from all electronic sources of global and personal news gives us a break also from new sources of anxiety.  The restrictions on what we can do on Shabbat give us time to do what most of us do not do nearly enough: sleep.  A good night’s sleep works wonders on our perception of anxiety and our ability to cope with it.
Anxiety that is not clinical is not all-consuming.  The cycle of the Jewish year helps us live this reality so that we can manage our anxiety at the High Holy Days and other times.
The most tempting strategy to deal with anxiety is to hope for resolution.  Sometimes, our hopes will be rewarded, or at least appear to be so.  November 8th will be here and gone eventually.  Test results come in and, at least some of the time, the doctor gives the all clear.  Sometimes a new job or a lucky break untangles a financial mess.
More often, this seeming resolution, however, is just that: “seeming.”  No matter where or when in the election cycle, there will always be some portion of the population who hates.  In the long-term our good health is not, and cannot be, guaranteed.  The economy changes in unpredicted ways, and its effects are sometimes personal.
Our anxieties cannot be resolved completely, and for this we are fortunate.  Yes, fortunate.
We are fortunate because Judaism associates being anxious not just with being human but also with being righteous.
In his commentary on the story of Jacob, Rashi brings a midrash in which God says, “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the World to Come?  Why do they seek to settle in tranquility in this world too?!”  To the Sages, only for the wicked is everything settled.  Only for the likes of Esav or the generations leading up to the Flood is everything known.  For the righteous, like Noah or Abraham, there is drama and therefore, there is anxiety.  If you are feeling anxious, it is because God finds you good and takes enough interest in your outcome to have not decided it already.
We are fortunate too because Judaism associates being anxious not just with being human or being righteous but also with being alive.  Untane Tokef puts its questions of fates before us because our fates are still in question.  Those for whom a particular fate is known with absolute surety have already passed away.  If we are alive, then our fate remains uncertain.  We agonize over this uncertainty – fire or plague, peace or torment, riches or poverty – because we have a future.  We are alive, and we are fortunate to have a future about which to be anxious.
With this future, we can act to change what in our lives and our world makes us anxious and is susceptible to change.  We can get involved with the social movements we think will make a positive change.  We can donate to the organizations that are working for the change we want to happen.  Anxiety should not paralyze us.
With this future, we must also make room in our lives for joy, hope and rest.  Soon Yom Kippur will be over.  We have Sukkot on which to rejoice and Shabbat on which to rest.  We have good meals to enjoy with friends and family and new friends to meet.  Anxiety need not be our only emotion.
Gmar tov.  May we be sealed in the Book of Life for this year and may the ending of each of our books remain unknowable.

Yom Kippur Newsletter October 12, 2016

Posted October 7th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Yom Kippur-newsletter-october-12-2016

Shabbat Newsletter October 8, 2016 Parashat Vayelech

Posted October 7th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon

Posted October 6th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Rosh Hashanah Day 1
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
October 3, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
Shanah tovah.  The Torah reading for today begins with the miraculous birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham.  It continues with another celebration, a feast in honor of Isaac’s weaning.
After that, a sour note is hit.  Sarah orders her husband to cast out his other wife, Hagar, and his other son, Ishmael.  Abraham refuses at first, but God orders him to heed Sarah’s voice.  Abraham sends them out into the desert woefully under-provisioned, with only one skin of water.  Abraham’s most reasonable expectation had to have been that Hagar and Ishmael would die.
Tomorrow’s Torah reading continues Abraham’s story.  It too is a difficult one.  Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac.  When an angel stays his hand at the last minute, Abraham returns to Beersheba without Isaac.
At the end of today’s Torah reading, between these stories of losing his sons, Abraham forms a treaty with Avimelech, King of Gerar.  In the course of their negotiations, Avimelech says to Abraham   אֱלֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה “God is with you in all that you do.”
Which raises one important question:  What?!
Abraham just sent his second wife and first son off to what he must have believed would be their deaths.  He did so at the command of his first wife, whom, the Torah suggests, he never speaks to again.  Soon, he will almost kill his second son, and never speak to him again either.
Yet, Avimelech says to him אֱלֹהִים עִמְּךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה, “God is with you in all that you do.”  What could Avimelech possibly be thinking?  How on earth could this be his read of Abraham’s situation?
Well, I can only assume that Avimelech’s impression came from reading Abraham’s Facebook posts.
Which is anachronistic, except that Rashi basically agrees with this interpretation.
Rashi explains that Avimelech had seen Abraham leave Sodom safe and sound even though God destroyed the entire area, had known about Abraham’s victory over King Kedarla’omer and his allies back in Genesis Chapter 14, and had heard that Abraham and Sarah were blessed with a child in their old age.  Apparently, Avimelech didn’t know how badly three of Abraham’s primary relationships were going, and he could not have known how horribly the fourth of his key relationships was about to go.
This sort of selective news that Avimelech had about his acquaintance Abraham is exactly the sort of selective news many of us have about the people with whom we went to high school and the friends we haven’t seen since university.  Regardless of whether we use Facebook, we are much more likely to know that our high school classmate got engaged than that another classmate’s long-time boyfriend just moved out.  We are much more likely to hear the good news that our bridge partner’s granddaughter got into Ivey than the bad news that our poker buddy’s grandson is in rehab again.
People are simply much more likely to broadcast the good things that happen to them and their families and to stay quiet about the setbacks, big or small.  In our culture of competitiveness, our own relatives pass on the accomplishments of our contemporaries as a passive-aggressive goad so that we will work harder and strive a little more.  If your mom even heard about the divorces and bankruptcies of her friends’ children, she has no need to share this info with you.  You’re too busy at work – or you should be, anyway.
Thus, we end up seeing the world through the same lens with which Avimelech viewed Abraham.  From the outside, everything looks good in everyone else’s lives.
At the High Holy Days, this point about Avimelech’s perspective can offer some comfort.  In the season of repentance, one of the sins which we confess in the Al Cheit prayer of Yom Kippur is the sin of envy.  We resent our colleague’s happy marriage or our cousin’s huge house in the right neighborhood, and we want these good fortunes for ourselves.  Yet, in the Al Cheit section of the Amidah, we say, “On account of the sin that we sinned before You of בצרות עין, ‘envy’ forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”  This confession is effective only if we resolve not to do it again.
We could change our nature, but it might be easier to take off our Avimelech glasses and realize that we almost certainly don’t have the full picture of anyone else’s life, not even of our close friends or family members.  The Torah reading for today and Avimelech’s wild misread of Abraham’s situation teach us that our envy is not only a sin, but also perhaps misplaced.
Just as Avimelech could not see the true state of Abraham’s life, so too we cannot see the true state of the lives of those whom we think to envy.  This sin of envy is much less tempting to commit when we realize it might be baseless.  That’s a comfort as we resolve to do better next year.
But the perspective of Avimelech presents a challenge at the High Holy Days too, and this challenge is potentially weightier than its comfort.
The danger is that we will leave our Avimelech glasses on when we look at our own lives.
According to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the Israeli Torah scholar, this challenge is one that even Abraham could not overcome.  Avimelech says to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do,” and Abraham believes him.  Zornberg writes that Abraham “is reassured by Avimelech’s unconsciously gnomic words… – which [Abraham] decodes as an assurance of his essential integrity in all the generous and imaginative acts of his life.  Even what seems most questionable in his biography is ultimately in tune with his noblest intentions.”
Unbelievable.  In the middle of estrangement from both wives and both sons, Abraham accepts the public personae view of himself as reality.  Because Avimelech focuses on Abraham’s “generous and imaginative acts,” so too does Abraham, never mind that he has already almost killed or is about to almost kill three of the four people closest to him.  According to Zornberg, Avimelech sees Abraham as in step with God, and Abraham takes this outsider perspective as a license to ignore his serious failings as a husband and father – his serious failings as a moral human being – and instead Abraham integrates all his questionable acts as in keeping with “his noblest intentions.”
Pay attention that this scene with Avimelech immediately precedes the Akedah, and Abraham’s final estrangement from both Isaac and Sarah.  It immediately follows his banishment of Ishmael and Hagar.  If ever there were a time for serious introspection, this is it.
Yet, Abraham chooses to see himself through the eyes of another, someone who does not have and could not have all the information.  Only Abraham knows exactly what Sarah and God said to him to get him to cast away his son and wife to an expected death.  Only Abraham knows what he was feeling at that time.  He needed to reflect on this very personal and private knowledge.
Instead, Abraham takes the easy way out and thinks only of the big news about his life, the information available to Avimelech and everyone else.  His deliverance from Sodom and G’morah, his victory over King Kedarlaomer, his child of his old age – these are the points of Abraham’s life that matter to everyone else, so they are good enough for him too.  What a coward.
The High Holy Days are supposed to be a time of cheshbon nefesh, a time when we examine our deeds and search our character.  This accounting of the soul can’t be done through a lens, like Avimelech’s, that filters out the brokenness.  We can hardly apply an unflinching eye to our deepest selves if we consider only the good face we present to the world.
The danger of the Avimelech lens is that we will start to believe about ourselves the carefully curated baloney we put on Facebook or that our grandfather tell his friends about us.
For us, as for Abraham, sometimes it is necessary to put only the good stuff out there.  (In fact, it is partly because of this biased information that Avimelech was willing to enter into a treaty with Abraham at all.)  But we are not permitted to confuse ourselves.  Our chance at atonement depends on an accounting of the soul that uses all that we know about ourselves, most especially the information we hide from others.
We are obligated to take a close look at all the sins in the Al Cheit confession (not just the sin of envy) and be truthful about whether it applies to us.  Never mind that no one else knows our pride, or foolishness or whatever other failing we hide so well.  We have all the information.  We just need to brave enough to take off our Avimelech glasses.
Shanah tovah.