Tetzaveh, blog post by Rabbi Karen Soria

How Do You Remember?

Just a few short weeks ago our Torah portions were the exciting narratives of our religious identity – the show-down between God, represented by Moses, and Pharaoh; our timely and miraculous escape across the ‘Sea of Reeds,’ as God parted the waters for us before bringing them back to drown our Egyptian pursuers; and our covenant with God at Mount Sinai.

And now we’re reading details for building the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the priestly garments and rituals. Easy to get turned off and ignore the ideas that the Torah is teaching now!

But think about it: we have just had incredible, mind-blowing experiences, truly ‘peak experiences’! And we want to remember them always, to give them form and substance. How do we do that?

How do we do that? Look around your home: what are the things that mean the most to you? Perhaps pictures, or souvenirs from travel; perhaps gifts from loved ones or family heirlooms. Each one has a story to tell; each is important because of what we recall when we see it. 

The Tabernacle, with all its details and pageantry, was our ancestors’ effort to remind those who had just escaped from slavery of their experiences, to remember the sense of those peak moments so they would never forget those feelingsand what those events meant

Perhaps we would have chosen a different way to remember. But our ancestors built a place that would remind them of their journey from slavery to freedom, from Pharaoh’s oppression to God’s covenant.  If and when you get bogged down in the details of the Tabernacle over the next number of weeks, put it in perspective: this is our effort at communal memory. This is our attempt to hold onto a feeling, a sense, a sound, a voice – our experiences of becoming the Jewish people.

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Grieving the Attacks in France by Rabbi Karen Soria

Writing of the Jewish take on death and mourning in her book Living a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant explains Pirkei Avot 4:23a from the Talmud: “Do not comfort the bereaved with their dead still before them” to mean [it is] ‘Inappropriate to offer words of condolence to mourners until after the funeral.’ I would clarify that indeed, even before the funeral, comfort and condolence are greatly needed – but of a different quality than after the funeral. When our dead lie literally ‘before our eyes,’ certain things necessarily come first; and our emotions are often in turmoil and we ourselves in shock.

I know that after last week’s events in France – the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo; the targeting, hostage-taking and murder of Jews in two groceries; the aftermath of mosques being fire-bombed; and Boko Harum’s slaughter of thousands in Nigeria – I am still in shock. And my emotions are in a tumult.

Just Thursday evening I was at Government House in Winnipeg, as Rabbi Neal and Carol Rose were honoured with the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Interreligious Understanding. The next night, just before Shabbat services, I was at Central Mosque for an evening of “sharing, caring and healing…standing in solidarity against violence and sharing traditions of mercy and compassion.” Other Jews were there, Christians from numerous denominations, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Moslems, humanists and atheists.

I think of all that has happened – and I turn to Jewish teaching for comfort and perspective.

In the Torah portion for last week, we meet a man who was born under a death sentence – all male babies were to be killed. He too was from a disenfranchised immigrant group, and he was sent out from his birth family and adopted at three months – he grew up essentially fatherless. As a young man, he went out and murdered a man – probably thought he could get away with it – until he was spotted and accused of murder. Then he did what many another has done – he ran; he went on the lam to Midian, where he seems to settle down after first getting in a tiff with the resident shepherds. He marries, goes into his father-in-law’s business of shepherding. And then, one day while he’s out, he sees a bush burning, and he watches it until he is sure that it is not burning up.

I have a firefighter friend who says, “I would have doused that sucker!” But Moses waits, watches, listens. That scene has always struck me, because I am much more impatient. But Moses isn’t: he waits, watches, and listens until he knows that the bush is not being consumed and until he hears a voice.

There are still people listening: for the past several months, an interfaith group has met every Tuesday for 15-20 minutes of silence. The leadership is shared, as one or another introduces the silence with 1-2 minutes of words. Then quiet: waiting, listening, becoming aware.

What do we need to be aware of in the aftermath of the events in France? My colleagues discussed their ideas on line; thoughts included parallels with Pharaoh as personifying hate or anti-Semitism or complacency. Others reminded us of the phrase “And there arose a new king who knew not Joseph” – perhaps Joseph could represent Western civilization or the Jewish people. Rabbi Emma Gottlieb made a parallel with Shifrah and Puah (the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s order to kill the Jewish baby boys), asking ‘who will be France’s courageous midwives?

All earnest thoughts, worthy of exploring. But I return to the need for comfort, even with our dead before our eyes. What exactly though?

And then I read these words, from Hari Kunzru in The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/08/charlie-hedbo-collusion-terror-jihadi-twisted-logic :

Those of us who want to short-circuit the logic of confrontation have our work cut out….Mumblings about “respect” and “avoiding giving offence” seem cowardly and dishonourable. And compromise with the jihadi position is meaningless: the jihadi is absolute because otherwise he is nothing. Without the childish simplicity of binary logic, all his power and glamour leak away, and he becomes just another lost boy….

But refusing to compromise with the jihadi does not mean becoming his mirror. When I’m stupid enough to switch on cable news here in New York, the optics are different but I hear…the same parochialism, the same arrogance, the same atavistic lust for violence, the same pathetic need for good guys and bad guys, to be on the winning team.

If I have anything hopeful or uplifting to contribute, this is it – that anyone who tries to fit the world into binaries is necessarily fragile. The slightest hint of complexity, and their brittle self-identity may shatter. To refuse the jihadi’s logic of escalation without becoming mired in grubby pleading, we have to say – and keep on saying, keep on writing with our pens that are supposedly so much mightier than their swords – that life is not so simple, that our many problems do not have single, total solutions, that utopia is a dead place, without life or change, without air.

Our dead are still before our eyes, but this is comfort and condolence to me: that life is not simple but incredibly complex, that we are stronger when we integrate life’s complexity into our understanding, that we cannot divide the world neatly into ‘good guys and bad guys,’ and that no single solution answers everything.

This is my solace: we do not need utopia, but we do need each other.

Happy New Year and vacation – by Rabbi Karen Soria

Happy New Year and vacation-week movies! Which ones have you seen? I managed to see the third installment in The Hobbit trilogy and have decided it is definitely time to read the entire Lord of the Rings books again.

But the movie I haven’t seen yet is the one on my mind: Into the Woods. I love the stage show, am a bit hesitant about Disney’s handling of the story, and will nevertheless see it. Just not yet.

There is a song in Into the Woods that is particularly poignant at this time of starting a new year; as one character sings about an unexpected experience she has just had, she expresses, very simply and eloquently, some ideas about memory. For the experience, she realizes, was just a ‘moment’ and the entirety of our lives are comprised of just that – moments. And yet, ‘if life were only moments, we’d never know we had one.’

This is the delicate balance that a new year (be it secular, Jewish, fiscal, etc.) calls to mind: that our lives are indeed only moments – that the present moment is a gift (“that’s why it’s called the present”) – but that somehow we make a whole, however broken or whole, out of those moments.

Remember 2014. Cherish the good moments. Relinquish the bad ones. Put them together into your memories so that they will help you find the 2015 you are looking for. We may indeed have to all go ‘into the woods’ of darkness and challenge at times, but we don’t have to go alone, or defenceless.

May we all have a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year!

Shabbat Toldot by Rabbi Karen Soria

My colleague, Rabbi Emma Gottlieb, wrote this poem in the turmoil of this week:

 

We Pray Anyway

When I want to rail at God

prayer is the last place I want to be.

I know I’ll find my way back to God one way or another

but right now I don’t have words of my own

and the words of tradition feel empty

given that men died with those words on their lips this week.

But the Voice of Jewish tradition says I don’t have a choice;

it says there are shiva minyans to go to and Shabbat services to attend.

The Voice of Tradition says that prayer isn’t just about what I have to say or not say;

that prayer isn’t just about me.

The Voice of Tradition says that life goes on

that the community needs to gather;

that prayer is going to take place with or without me.

And I remember that even empty words can be a refuge;

that the rituals can shelter me through familiarity alone.

If I don’t believe in prayer this week, that’s okay,

but somebody else might need to pray

and they need the community around them to do it.

And if I’m a part of the community then I’d better be there.

The Voice of Jewish tradition doesn’t promise that prayer works;

it doesn’t promise that Jews won’t be slaughtered –

not even if they’re righteous,

not even if they’re praying.

The Voice of Jewish tradition doesn’t promise that prayer works;

What it says is:

Pray anyway.

 

Even before Tuesday it was an emotional week; as people talked to me about not being safe in their own homes from yelling, threats, and physical attacks; as I read reports of a mentor and model to many who worked with him or watched his shows – namely, Bill Cosby – having destroyed that trust; and upon arriving in Winnipeg, I read yet another story of broken trust, of a hospital worker having abused a patient, for when people are mentally or physically ill, they – we – are at our most vulnerable.

 

It would not have occurred to me on Monday that the sacred space of a synagogue would be so violated the next day. But it was. I felt thrown back in time, to the Middle Ages, or Rwanda.

 

You who listen to my divrei-Torah and in turn teach me – you know I think in broad overviews and metaphors. You know I always work to see more than one side, or even two sides, in any situation. And I have worked with people who have been traumatized, so I get that when one is acting out of that pain and existential fear, we can do terrible things. And I believe the Jewish people and the Palestinian people both carry a great deal of trauma.

 

But this week I have not been able to be very understanding; I have been remembering a Jewish teaching I heard after the massacre at Ma’a lot in 1974:

 

One who is merciful to the cruel will end by being cruel to the merciful. (Midrash Tanhuma)

 

It is a very profound and difficult teaching. Does it mean to be cruel to the cruel? No.

 

I think it means to recognize and to name an action for what it is.

 

I think it means that it is possible to strive for understanding without using explanations as an excuse.

 

I think it means that we are to respond with integrity and a consistent valuation of the many sides of even complex issues.

 

So when CNN publishes headlines in its rush to report that a mosque has been attacked, instead of a synagogue, a mild apology is not sufficient.

 

When the government of Jordan holds minutes of silence to remember the two killed terrorists, that is cruel.

 

When President Mahmood of Abbas condemns the attack while in the same statement condemned ‘attacks on the Al Aksa mosque and incitement by Israeli ministers,’ that is no condemnation; rather it is vile.

 

When candies and distributed, comics published, and parties held to celebrate the deaths of four rabbis butchered in a synagogue at prayer – that is evil.

 

Even the Wall Street Journal got it this week; an editorial stated that the main obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not the settlements but “the culture of hatred against Jews that is nurtured by Palestinian leaders.”

 

So what do we do?

 

We name these acts for what they are: murder, cowardice, hate, evil.

 

We remember that evil is a human choice, completely different from the ‘bad’ of natural disasters. This evil was done by choice.

And we must choose a different response, a different path.

 

My colleague and fellow military chaplain, Rabbi Ben Romer, writes,

 

Let us all send our deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones and pray for a speedy recovery of body and soul for those wounded. And then we begin the hard work of bringing a more global healing. That of Making Peace, Making Shalom…

Shalom, Salaam, Peace must be made, created, crafted. It doesn’t just happen. True Shalom means wholeness, wellness, completeness, physical and spiritual flourishing. Only our reaching out and continuing the building of peace will be able to accomplish this. It isn’t some fuzzy sweet group-hug idea. Making peace is directly connected to the demand that we pursue righteousness. We must be the malachim – the messengers, the angels of God here in this world to help Shalom bloom.

“Pray for [the] peace of Jerusalem!” (Ps. 122:6) And now, our prayers must become animated through the choices and actions in which we make peace.

 

And we will still sing and pray – because that’s what we do here anyway. That’s what we must do because no one can take that away from us. And we sing to bring comfort and solace to our soul. And we will not let anyone extinguish the Voice of Tradition, our voices, our prayers and hope.

 

“Safe within these walls” we sing. Ken yehi ratzon – so may it be God’s, and our, will.

An old man sits with breathing tube by Rabbi Karen Soria

A picture: an old man sits with breathing tube, confined to a wheelchair, slowly dying of congestive heart failure, accused of child molestation over 50 years ago. Inimai M. Chettair, http://www.brennancenter.org/expert/inimai-m-chettiar at New York University School of Law, comments, “Incarceration is the most extreme punishment. And more punishment doesn’t mean more justice.”

Think about that: “…more punishment doesn’t mean more justice.” Isn’t that how we imagine justice ‘being served,’ namely, through punishment? If he is correct, then what constitutes justice? “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” – “Justice justice you shall pursue” (Dt. 16:20) Scripture orders us. If not through punishment, then how do we achieve justice – or at least pursue it?

Another image:  a Nazi war criminal lives out his last days in Germany, deported from the United States, subsisting on his Social Security pension. This week The Associated Press broke the story that millions of dollars in Social Security benefits have been and are being paid to veterans of the SS Death’s Head battalions, enabling them to survive quite comfortably upon their return to Germany or Austria. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/eb4a5ff7c40e49bcb310b4ca77694795/expelled-nazis-paid-millions-social-security and http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/277279/how-the-ap-busted-nazi-suspects-receiving-social-security-payments/ This was not a bureaucratic mistake, but the Justice Department’s idea to save itself the cost and time of prosecutions. Perhaps more punishment doesn’t necessarily mean more justice, but where is the justice in ‘deportation with a lifetime paycheque?’

As the Canadian Museum of Human Rights prepares to open, as Winnipeg faces the future with a new mayor, and as the city and province continue to work on reconciliation and truth in the wake of generations traumatized by the residential schools, we could consider another translation for ‘tzedek’ – righteousness. What would that look like?

Connecting to her ancestors

Winnipeg woman writes Torah scroll for local congregation

Irma Penn (right) holds bag that will contain the Torah scroll she is working on. With her is Ruth Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Irma Penn (right) holds bag that will contain the Torah scroll she is working on. With her is Ruth Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom.

As she hand-lettered their stories from the Torah, Winnipeg scribe Irma Penn felt the guidance of those who had gone years before.

“You’re actually connected to all this, your ancestors — Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Rebekah,” the Tuxedo resident says of her experience in copying the sacred Jewish text.

Irma Penn writes on Torah scroll as Ruth Livingston places her hand on Penn's hand.

Enlarge Image

Irma Penn writes on Torah scroll as Ruth Livingston places her hand on Penn’s hand. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

“It’s like holding their hands and they’re telling you what to do.”

What Penn was also doing was following the long tradition of copying the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, and breaking a new path at the same time.

Trained in Israel as a soferet, or female scribe, Penn is the first Canadian woman to write a Torah scroll for a Canadian synagogue, and the first member of Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom to write one for the congregation.

Penn previously lettered the book of Esther for Temple Shalom, and completed a commission of the Hebrew and English Holocaust scroll for Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Winnipeg.

She was the only Canadian among the six female scribes participating in the Women’s Torah Project, the first ever Torah scribed by an international group of women. It was completed in 2010.

Penn copied the Book of Deuteronomy for that Torah commissioned by the Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle.

“The Torah is the pinnacle of the scribe’s work,” says Penn, who has memorized the long list of laws and rules that prescribe the copying of Jewish sacred texts, right down to the shape of the Hebrew letters.

“You can’t go any higher.”

That experience fed the desire to write a Torah on her own and so she cautiously broached the idea in December 2009 to Rabbi Karen Soria and Ruth Livingston of Temple Shalom.

“It’s a speechless kind of thing,” Soria recalls of her reaction when Penn offered to write the scroll for the small Reform Jewish congregation that meets in a former Baptist church on Grant Avenue.

“I guess neither of us thought it was possible,” says Livingston, past-president of Temple Shalom, which already owns three other Torah scrolls.

But Penn persisted, and six months after she proposed the idea, she formed the first letters of the Torah on parchment using a turkey quill dipped in black iron gall ink. All materials for the project were imported from Israel.

She lettered the Torah in a font called STaM, reserved for sacred texts, laying out the words in each column in a format followed for centuries. Each letter and word must be exact, with no room for errors, and the only room for creativity is in the spacing between letters and words.

“It was hard on my hands, on my body and my mind. You can’t doze off, you have to work with intention,” she says of the work that occupied her seven hours a day, six days a week for more than a year.

“You have to read each word, say each letter before you write it. You stay focused and you improve your reading.”

Penn’s experience of being immersed in the sacred text spilled over to Rabbi Soria and members of Temple Shalom, who proofread the scribe’s work and later stitched together the 62 sheets of parchment.

“Irma wasn’t simply studying it, she was physically involved,” says Soria, a rabbi for 30 years.

“It’s that link to the past, being mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally involved, living that whole thing.”

“We have a commandment to engage with Torah and this was the ultimate engagement,” adds Livingston.

Penn completed all but the final column of what is now known as the Penn Torah by Nov. 11, 2011. According to tradition, she has only outlined the last column of words, so members and friends of Temple Shalom can participate in the experience of writing the Torah.

“Irma scribes it but you have your hand on hers,” explains Livingston.

“Everybody who does it, it’s a good deed. If you do one letter, it’s as if you are writing the Torah yourself.”

In exchange for a donation to cover the five-figure cost of the scroll, members and friends of Temple Shalom are invited to write a letter at noon, Sunday, Apr. 15 and Sunday, Apr. 22. The congregation will dedicate the scroll Sunday, May 27 at 11 a.m. at Temple Shalom, 1077 Grant Ave.

Scribing another Torah may be a possibility for Penn, a 60-something former archivist, schoolteacher and artist, whose highrise apartment is permanently set up as a studio. For now, she’s pleased that her work on the Penn Torah will live on for decades and perhaps centuries.

“I think this project will make many more people talk about the Torah and be involved with it.”

brenda@suderman.com

Number of letters in the Torah: 304,805

Number of the biblical commandments fulfilled by writing a Torah: 613

Size of scroll: 41 centimetres tall

Length of Torah scroll: 50 metres

Amount of time to complete: 18 months

Number of women in Canada to scribe a Torah: one

For more information, or to see photos and video of the Penn Torah, visit: http://www.templeshalomwinnipeg.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J13

WHAT’S REALLY IN THE FOOD WE EAT?

WHAT”S REALLY IN THE FOOD WE EAT? (Click Here to see the original article published in the Winnipeg Jewish Review)

TEMPLE SHALOM LOOKS AT THE JEWISH IMPERITIVE TO BE CONSCIOUS CONSUMERS: ORGANIC? LOCAL? ECO-KASHRUT ?

by Jonathon Fine, December 12 , 2010

On November 20th, as a Board Member of Temple Shalom Synagogue, I arranged the screening of the Acadmey Award nominated documentary , “Food Inc” following a Havdallah Service.

The film “Food Inc” reveals surprising—and often shocking truths—about what we eat, how it’s produced, and where we might makes changes in the future. The film portrays some of the dangers associated with massive factory produced food and tells much about the true source of our conventional food  The film also shows how we have become disconnected from the producers of our food.

This specific event allowed the participants to explore what Judaism has to say about ethical treatment of animals in food preparation. We also explored the topic of Echo Kashrut. As Jews we are aware of general Kashrut rules but I wanted to delve deeper and look at what people’s thoughts were on how “Kosher” ties in with food security and environmental sustainability.

The event, which I helped organize, targeted young adults between ages 25-45 as they are the future of our Jewish community. Previously, I have helped organize some events for J-PEG, a branch organization of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg that designs programming for  this age range.   This was the first time our synagogue targeted individuals in this age range and we saw many new faces to the synagogue at this event.   People who attended included members of the Organic Food Council of Manitoba as well as organizers of the Jewish Federation’s program Echo Shift. (a call to arms for environmentally friendly approaches in the Jewish Community)  Members of the synagogue as well as non –members from tthe general community ( both Jewish and non-Jewish)  participated in this event.

After the film was screened, all of the participants were involved in a lively discussion. Rabbi Soria gave us a brief overview of the history of kashrut and framed it within a reform Judaism perspective. People were curious what Judaism had to say about eating organic and local foods. Since the film was set in the United States, people wanted to know how it applied to the situation here in Canada.
The discussion involved a candid and open sharing of opinions. Some people pointed out that traditional kosher preparation of foods may not always be good for the animals or the earth. It quickly became apparent that there were a large range of opinions on what Echo-Kashrut meant for each individual. For some, Echo-Kashrut meant values (involving ethics) of the treatment of the animals and those processing the food. For some Echo-Kashrut represented taking care of the earth; for others it meant following some of the traditional dietary laws of not eating certain animals and combinations of foods.
Some people expressed their feelings of helplessness when going up against large corporations to ensure food security. Others thought that little changes could add up and that as conscious consumers we had a lot of power by making our voices heard by purchasing what we thought was the best for the planet.
There are actions that individuals can take to be more conscious consumers.
People can make choices in the selection of what they eat and where they purchased their food.. You can vote with your dollars. Don’t forget to read food labels to see what you are eating. Ask at your supermarket where the food you buy comes from and make requests for local and/or organic foods. You may also consider contacting your MP to make your voice heard.
At the event, we discussed shopping at local markets and making choices to buy food that has not travelled long distances to minimize the impact on the earth and depletion of the nutrient value of the food. For those that expressed concern about the high cost of organic food some suggested purchasing  only some  organic food types that are much less contaminated then  non organic foods (such as certain fruits and vegetables).
At Temple Shalom we are looking at doing regular multifaceted events such as movie screenings, discussions and dinners.  My hope is that we can incorporate themes that include environmental issues that could be applicable to Jewish concerns.   We may also look at partnering with J-Peg, which is part the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, to do a communal Shabbat dinner with this younger segment of our community.  My goal would be to minimize the impact of this dinner on the environment and serve as much local and organic food as is possible. I would also like to involve the younger segment of our community in more synagogue events at Temple Shalom..