Tu BiShvat – blog post by Rabbi Karen Soria

It is difficult to believe that in Israel the ground is thawing and the tree sap is rising. While (so far) this winter has not been as cold or snowy as last, our season is a long way from spring. And yet, every year, we tie ourselves again to the calendar in Israel with Tu BiShvat, the New Year for trees.
Preparing the Seder for the festival, I thought a great deal about similarities and differences with the Pesach Seder. The number four is an easy parallel, with four cups of the fruit of the vine at each, but the four children was the image that intrigued me.
Do you know only four kinds of children? I know many kinds – and each of them incorporates many kinds of traits. I know no children that are only ‘wise, wicked, simple, or silent.’ Every one I know combines those traits, depending on situation and circumstances (plus many others). And so, I put a selection of more than one child’s voice in our Temple Shalom Seder.
Of course, we are all called “b’nai Israel – the Children of Israel” throughout our Scripture, TaNaKh, because we all are, in some ways, always children. Are not we all wise in some things, and so ignorant in others that we are silent? Do we not all have that urge on occasion (some more frequently than others) to be the troublemaker, the one who either asks the impossible questions or the one who likes to ‘stir the pot’ and get a rise out of someone? Aren’t we all ‘simple’ about some things, wanting only a succinct or even cursory answer, or altogether leaving the issue in the “too hard box”? By putting several additional voices in our TuBiShvat Seder, I wanted to emphasize that there are, and we each have, many voices.
Along with the new growth of trees in Israel and the promise of spring, may this time of waiting hopefully for it to arrive in our more wintery climes be a time when we listen to our innermost voice, treasure it, and ready ourselves for it bursting forth with new buds and blossoms!

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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!

The Penn Torah

The Penn Torah Scroll

The Penn Torah – photos copyright 2012 by Erwin Huebner:  Click here for more

Not every young artist dreams of becoming a Torah scribe, but Irma Penn did.  After 40 years, Irma has fulfilled her lifelong ambition to become a Soferet and has created the first Torah scribed by a Canadian woman.  It will be dedicated at a special ceremony to be held at Temple Shalom in Winnipeg on Shavuot, 5772, (May 27th, 2012.)

Irma is a valued member of Temple Shalom.  Irma Penn, studied to be a soferet STaM, learning the practices of writing script for sacred texts in the Mea Shearim district of Jerusalem in Israel.  She has written several Megillot Esther, (the story of Purim,) as well as the Holocaust Scroll in both Hebrew and English which was read for the first time last year at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue.  She is currently working on writing the strips for a set of tefillen.

Irma was selected to participate with five other women, scribes from around the world, in writing the first Torah scroll every created by women, for a congregation in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.  She is an artist, a former archivist with the Jewish Heritage Centre in Winnipeg, a poet, calligrapher, teacher and genealogist.

The Winnipeg Jewish community has a unique opportunity this winter to participate in the completion of a Torah, by the mitzvah of helping Irma to write the letters on the final page of the scrolls which are now being woven together.  It is said that to help write one letter is as if you had written the whole Torah.  You can be part of this amazing project.

You can make donations celebrating members of your family, a simcha, the memory of loved ones, an anniversary, b’mitzvah or other life cycle event. You can make donations on your own or with a group.  Look for more information and our video, on our website: http://www.templeshalomwinnipeg.ca

For further information please email penntorah@gmail.com .

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Click here to Download Information Package for Non-Members