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03/12/2020 04:39:05 PM


Chaim Strauchler

Remarks Delivered on Shabbat Zachor Parshat Titzaveh 5780 

Last night, our shul conducted a concluding ceremony for our Bat Mitzvah program. 16 young women presented divrei torah and reflections on the transition from childhood to adulthood. On the Sunday before last, Avital and I participated in another ceremony - the conversion of a young mother and her daughter, through the Toronto Beit Din. It was a very exciting day – a conversion followed by a wedding, which was over 18 months in the making. Last Friday, I called the convert to wish her and her husband a good Shabbas. I said that you both have been celebrating Shabbat for a while – but this Shabbat is going to be special. Your family will now all celebrate Shabbat together, as Jews. On that same morning, I attended my citizenship ceremony. We were 77 new Canadians from 38 countries. After we had sworn and affirmed our commitments to Canada – Judge Simmons asked us to loudly and proudly sing the Canadian national anthem. He said that as we sang “O Canada” for the first time as Canadians – it would be special. Honestly, it was.

David Brooks (who - by the way - was born in Toronto) wrote, “Rituals force a pause. Many wise people self-consciously divide their life into chapters, and they focus on the big question of what this chapter is for. Rituals encourage you to be more intentional about life.”
We do rituals. Many people look askance – at rituals. They’re boring – they’re rote – they’re stuffy. BUT - Rituals are tools that allow us – as individuals, as families and as communities – to live life more intentionally.

Our Torah portion describes the creation of a place where many rituals took place - the mishkan. Those rituals had an internal logic – but they also created an appreciation for life’s purpose.

The Torah says:
וְיָדְע֗וּ כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה֙ אֱלֹ֣קיהֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֧אתִי אֹתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְשָׁכְנִ֣י בְתוֹכָ֑ם אֲנִ֖י ה֙ אֱלֹ֣קיהֶ֔ם ׃
“And they shall know that I the LORD am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I the LORD their God.”

The IBN EZRA explains: They will know … to dwell among them. They will know that God brought them out of Egypt solely for the Sanctuary that they would build for Him.

The mishkan exists – ritual exists – to establish within our lives a realization of God’s presence. Now, some would say – why do I need a fancy building – with dressed up priests – and lots of meat to achieve that awareness. I can experience God with my will alone. I can come in touch with that intentionality without all that ritual. That may be possible – it’s just unlikely. When we speak of the ritual of Jewish life and Orthodox Jewish life – we are improving our odds of living a life of meaning and purpose. Rituals – like prayer and Purim – are not the ends; they are the means. They are not guarantees – but they improve our statistics. To paraphrase my predecessor, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger – “Halacha and ritual are the floor and not the ceiling of religious life.”

Becoming Canadian has pushed me in my own intentionality. In my study of Canadian ritual, I’ve thought about what it really means to be Canadian. What distinguishes this society from any other? To what end do all the “Ehs,” hockey, and loons lead? I’m thinking a lot about the difference between “Peace, order and good government” and “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean to prioritize peace and order over life and liberty? We want all these things – but what do we put at the top. How is life different when you think more of good government than of the pursuit of happiness?

It is in regards to this setting of priorities that I would like to make one last point. This week, we celebrate Purim. There is a Grinch – or a coronavirus – that might steal Purim. How is this Purim different from all other Purims? On all other Purims we talk about the alcohol content of our scotch; on this Purim, we talk about the alcohol content of our hand sanitizer. We hope and pray that coronavirus will not steal Purim. BUT – we as North American Jews face a broader problem. Purim has in many respects long been stolen. It has been stolen by a misplaced emphasis on what Judaism and religion-generally are. We have made religious life too serious.

Purim is about fun and laughter - children and silliness. These things are critical ingredients in how we live life, and how we integrate ritual. Judaism is not only they tried to kill us, it is not only the Holocaust, it is not only Yom Kippur. The intentionality of Judaism is to live a life of complex beauty in God’s presence. In the mishkan that we continue to create through the effort of our hands and our hearts, let us prize Purim. Let us rejoice and let everyone know how fortunate we are to live beautiful Canadian Jewish lives.

Mon, 30 November 2020 14 Kislev 5781