Bilingual Sermon: Re’eh

(sermon delivered virtually to Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom on August 26, 2022)

Thank you Rabbi Grushcow! Todah Rabbah! Merci Beaucoup! Qui aurait pensé, il y a tant d’années, quand nous étudions ensemble à McGill, et quand on organisait des événements ensemble à Hillel, et même ici au temple, que tous ces annees plus tard, nous serions ici ensemble ce soir!

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu Melech haolam shehecheyanu v’kiyemanu, v’higuiyanu lazman hazeh. Quelle benediction d’etre ici avec vous tous!

I am so grateful for Zoom technology for the ability to be joining you all from the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq people, Unama’ki to be exact, which is often referred to as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Many of you may know that I grew up here, not just in Montreal, but at this Temple. I studied in the religious school, went through the b’nai mitzvah program, was confirmed and went through the Temple Teen Teacher Training program.

J’ai eu l’opportunité, non seulement d’etudier, mais de commencer à enseigner à l’école religieuse pour plusieurs annees, et je serai changé pour toujours grace à ce que j’ai appris de mes professeurs ici, et surtout Andrea Fieldman.

As a teen, first I taught Hebrew, then third and fourth grade, and finally, thanks to Rabbi Lerner’s mentorship, I began to lead weekly services for the Shabbat religious school for many years. This was my first congregation, both as a congregant, and then as an aspiring rabbi. I was blessed to return here during rabbinical school, and then again, once I was ordained, in 2010, to help lead services in the South Shore.

Meme avant que j’ai commence mes etudes du rabbinat, j’ai eu l’opportunite de mener des services non seulement ici, et dans l’ecole religieuse, mais pour cette belle communaute- et parfois, meme bilingues. Ce fut, peut-etre le debut de mon rabbinat qui a toujours ete dedie au service des communautes non-traditionels. Bien que vous ne le réalisiez peut-être pas, vous avez tous eu un impact puissant sur moi et sur la direction de toute ma vie. Et ce soir je veux vous dire merci.

Truthfully, this is the way life often happens, I suppose… we impact one another in unexpected ways, and an event that may barely be remembered by one person can be experienced as transformational by another.

My teacher, Rabbi Kushner, talks about the ways in which G!d uses us- people, animals, events- as messengers from On High…This is the meaning of the Hebrew word “malach” which is translated as angel, but also means messenger. The question is whether we can see this and recognize it.

Really- this is the point of all spiritual practice- being able to discern or recognize the messages that the Universe is sending is. Take Moses for example… how did he receive his call? How did he discern the message of the Universe? How did he understand that G!d was calling on him to go face Pharaoh and liberate the Children of Israel from bondage?

Of course, speaking virtually, you may very well be calling out to me the answer… but, pardon the pun, I can’t see you all 😊 so you all pass my pop quiz.

Comment Moïse a-t-il reçu son appel ?

The answer that you likely shouted out is through the burning bush. But our rabbis teach us that the miracle was not actually that a bush was burning in the desert. If you think about deserts… they are hot… vegetation burns all the time… that is not really a big deal, right?

So that was not the miracle. So what was the miracle? Quel était le miracle du buisson ardent ?

Perhaps you might say that the miracle was that the bush was burning but not consumed. Well, the Torah does say that, so you might be onto something there… but the rabbis teach that still THAT was not the miracle… the miracle was that Moses stopped and paid attention, long enough to notice and discern that it was not being consumed. Le miracle c’est que le buisson a brûlé mais n’a pas été consommé.

This was the miracle. Le miracle est de pouvoir voir et reconnaître que ce que nous voyons c’est un miracle.

The miracle was that, instead of passing by something that was everywhere and completely unremarkable in theory- or shall we say, to most people… instead of seeing it, but not SEEING it… instead, he stopped and bore witness to what was happening and what was unique about it and then he stayed long enough to discern meaning, and ultimately, long enough to hear the Call… G!d speaking to him through this moment.

This was the miracle. Being able to see so clearly- not with physical eyes that too often trick us into thinking we see when we don’t but rather with the eyes of the soul.

Our Torah portion for this week (as you just heard beautifully read) is called “Re’eh” which literally means to see. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 11, verse 16, it states: Re’eh… look… regarde…. See… I have put in front of you the blessing and the curse.

La Torah cette semaine nous dit Re’eh regarde. J’ai placé la bénédiction et la malédiction devant vous. Choisissez sagement.

Our rabbis have tried to make sense of this phrase for centuries… how is it possible that G!d gives us both blessings and curses…  Many rabbis see this as a reference to human choice… what we do with what the universe gives us will determine if it is truly a blessing or a curse. Two people can both see the same thing, and yet see it completely differently.

The perspective that we bring to any given situation is what determines what we do with it. I recall, fondly, a story that I first heard in this Temple, many many many years ago, from Rabbi Lerner. He told this wonderful story (doesn’t he always tell the BEST stories! 😊) …. So he told this wonderful story that I will not do justice, but I want to reference it because of its message, and likely, you already have heard it too…

C’est l’histoire d’une personne qui a l’occasion de visiter à la fois le paradis et l’enfer… a person visits both heaven and hell… il va au premier et voit un groupe de personnes, toutes tristes et maigres et en colère, assises devant une table de buffet… qui est remplie de plats délicieux et somptueux… puis il se rend à l’autre endroit, et il voit un groupe similaire- des personnes assises devant la même table de buffet, mais elles sont heureuses, avec des joues roses rondes et beaucoup de sourires…

En réfléchissant sur les deux groupes, il remarque une similarite. Les deux groupes de personnes souffrent d’une affection similaire – ils ont de très longs bras qui ne peuvent pas se plier au coude… Le premier groupe voit ceci comme un probleme – ils sont assis et regardent la nourriture avec envie, mais ils ne peuvent pas plier les bras pour se nourrir. Le deuxième groupe a le même problème… mais au lieu de se concentrer sur le problème, ils ont trouvé une solution: chacun nourrit son prochain.

The story highlights that heaven and hell are the same place- the difference is what we do with what we have… Do we let ourselves become overwhelmed by the problem, or do we focus on finding a solution?

Même problème – mais le résultat est totalement différent. La différence est de savoir si l’on est capable d’examiner un problème et de le reconnaître comme une opportunité qui attend d’être découverte.

This story has always stayed with me and it is central to my theology and to my rabbinate. Indeed, I went back to school after being ordained, to become a therapist, because I wanted to do everything I could to help people begin to see more clearly and recognize that, like our Torah portion tells us, we always have set before us a situation that can either be- blessing or curse- heaven or hell-opportunity or problem. It is up to us to choose wisely.

And choosing wisely is where spiritual practice comes in. No less than going to the gym can strengthen our physical muscles, spiritual practice can train us to recognize the silver lining behind the cloud. We all have choices… not necessarily with what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us.

Une pratique spirituelle régulière aide à renforcer notre capacité à reconnaître le sacré….

For me, this lesson has been a powerful motivation in my current rabbinic opportunity. I am grateful to serve as the rabbi of a small but growing virtual Reform community in Atlantic Canada. We are an unusual congregation, spanning four provinces.

Notre communauté juive réformée du Canada atlantique dessert les Juifs vivant dans tout le Canada atlantique, de la Nouvelle-Écosse au Nouveau-Brunswick, de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard à Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador… people who live in communities too small to sustain any kind of Jewish community.

For the longest time, this has seemed like a barrier to so many… geographic distance. How could they get a minyan let alone a rabbi? But I have always believed that every challenge is really an opportunity in disguise… ou comme dit toujours mon père, when opportunity knocks at the door, ne te plains pas du bruit!

And what was my teacher? Covid. Covid was awful and may it disappear soon and speedily, and yet, there were some silver linings for some of us… Covid nous a obligés à tout repenser. Cela nous a obligés à devenir créatifs. It forced us to learn Zoom and technology and find new ways to stay connected. My congregation in Florida, that I was serving remotely, actually grew its membership during Covid, because suddenly, families were able to observe Shabbat and holidays remotely…

And so, I wondered, in Atlantic Canada, what if the historic problems that kept the Reform movement from growing.. what if they were opportunities? Que se passerait-il si nous essayions quelque chose de nouveau ? Et si nous créions une communauté virtuelle axée sur l’inclusion radicale ? What would happen if we tried something new? What if we created a virtual community that was focused on radical inclusion?

During Covid, like many people, my wife and I were working remotely. Like many people, we recognized this as an opportunity and decided to relocate to beautiful Nova Scotia to wait out the pandemic. Notre décision de déménager en Nouvelle-Écosse pendant la pandémie a ouvert la porte à une toute nouvelle vie remplie de joie inattendue.

Because there was no Reform rabbi or community in Atlantic Canada, the requests quickly began to flow in. So many people who were feeling rejected by the traditional Jewish community in place, or who were living in remote locations where they were the only Jew… they suddenly had the ability to quench their incredible thirst to connect to Reform Judaism- to be part of a progressive community where they could feel welcomed and included.

It all comes down to whether we recognize opportunities… le problème de l’un est l’opportunité de l’autre…trop souvent, nous sommes tellement préoccupés par nos problèmes… les choses que nous craignons, que nous ne pouvons pas voir les opportunités qui se présentent à nous..

As human beings, it is too easy to dwell on our fears and our problems… We worry and our thoughts can even go on a worry loop… which only makes everything worse… it shuts us off from hope.

And this is true for us as individuals, but also a community… as a people.

Take for example, intermarriage. For decades, we have all heard about how intermarriage will destroy the Jewish people. Our fear of disappearing can become overwhelming. Nous, la communauté juive, avons tellement peur que le mariage mixte nous détruise que nous avons commencé à repousser les personnes qui veulent faire partie de notre famille.

 And I submit to you that intermarriage is not actually the curse. The curse is the fear… the curse is the rabbis that are turning them away. Intermarriage is either a blessing or a curse. It is a curse if we see it as so, and then respond by judging and gate keeping and trying to card people who want to join our family. Because one can only get rejected and judged so often before one wants to walk away.

But it can also be a blessing. Il peut y avoir tellement de bien qui en vient! Nous pouvons grandir et devenir plus forts. C’est pourquoi j’ai été si incroyablement ravi d’entendre l’entrevue avec Rabbi Kowalski sur le Canadian Jewish News où elle a parlé de sa position sur le mariage mixte.

Interfaith marriage can help us to grow and develop stronger allies in the fight against antisemitism and to attract new people and new passion to our communities. It is why I am so proud of this congregation, my home congregation, for its brave and courageous tradition of welcome… for how it has stood for the ideals of Reform Judaism and its wide and welcoming tent to all… in a community where this position has always been … shall we say.. less than popular.

As someone who is queer, who has been told by too many that who I am and who I love is not okay, I feel called to sanctify the love of any couple that seeks me out. I believe that G!d is Love, and my job as a rabbi is to help people recognize this… to help people see G!d in Love.

I will tell you that my faith in the continuity of the Jewish people has never been stronger than when talking with interfaith couples who have approached me seeking to be married. So many times, I meet with a couple who has been rejected and rejected and rejected again by rabbi after rabbi after rabbi. I remember one couple who told me that they were “worse than Hitler” for wanting to get married to each other. My heart broke. But what moved me to tears was that, even after all that, this couple kept trying.

Alors que beaucoup de gens pourraient voir l’absence d’une communauté juive réformée organisée au Canada atlantique et désespérer de notre avenir, moi- j’ai tellement d’espoir pour notre avenir… pourquoi? parce que je suis inondé, chaque jour, par tant de personnes qui redécouvrent leur ancetres juifs, ou qui ont fait un voyage qui les a conduits aux principes rationnels et éthiques de notre foi et qui veulent se convertir au judaïsme.

If anyone wants to learn a lesson in Jewish continuity, let them learn it by bearing witness to the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of people contacting me, yearning to connect to Judaism. There is a hunger! Instead of looking at empty pews and worrying… I would invite anyone scared about the future of the Jewish people to come talk to me… come and meet all of these people who are so grateful to get connected with a Jewish community after having felt rejected or abandoned for so long.

There is a phrase that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing again and again, but expecting different results. This, I believe, is the lesson that the Jewish community needs to hear clearly, when it comes to the so-called crisis of intermarriage. It is not going away- it is either a blessing or a curse- depending upon how we respond.

La vie n’est pas ce qui nous arrive mais comment nous réagissons.

Really, it is about our Torah portion- Re’eh… look… look, I have placed before you the blessing and the curse… choose the blessing that you may live and be blessed… Choose what you look at- Instead of focusing upon that which is a problem, and drowning in our fear, the Torah wants us to try something different… to look with eyes that can see that the solution is just on the other side of our fear… We can look with eyes of fear or faith…

Nous pouvons regarder nos problèmes et laisser notre peur nous contrôler et nous déprimer… ou nous pouvons les transformer en opportunités.

Il est facile de laisser la peur nous contrôler… mais c’est le rôle de la foi… de la priere et de la Torah… de nous rappeler que, s si nous arrêtons de laisser la peur nous controller, nous verrons une nouvelle façon d’être et de vivre qui pourrait être transformatif et merveilleux.

In the spirit of creativity and new ways of being, and because we are commanded to laugh and rejoice on Shabbat, I want to leave you all with this brief but hopefully humorous video, which illustrates this lesson from our Torah portion… the incredible and transformative power that comes from being willing to stop wallowing in our problems and our fears, and instead, recognize that our problems can be solved, if only we are willing to think differently.

Je veux aussi le partager parce qu’il nous est commandé de rire et de nous réjouir le Shabbat, et j’espère que cette vidéo nous aidera à accomplir ce commandement…

As we approach the new year, as we enter into the Jewish month of Elul, may the lessons in our Torah portion prepare us in our own spiritual journeys… may we look at the problems facing us, not with fear but with faith… What you see is what you get…

Alors que le mois d’Elul commence et nous nous préparons pour Rosh Hachana, puissions-nous avoir la force et le courage d’arrêter de laisser la peur nous contrôler… puissions-nous regarder nos vies avec des yeux qui, comme Moïse, attendent des miracles et recherchent l’appel qui nous conduira tous à la bénédiction.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, may we have the strength and courage to stop letting fear control us… may we look at our lives with eyes, that like Moses, are waiting for miracles and searching for the call that will lead us all to blessing.