Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others. (Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism)
One of the late French-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida’s most famous short works is his On Cosmopolitanism, in which he discusses the problem of refugees. Cosmopolitanism is a word first coined in ancient Greece by wandering, homeless philosophers and popularized by the Stoics. It refers to the idea that the whole world (cosmos) is my city, or community (polis). It is the idea of an international or, better, transnational humanity and citizenship. Cosmopolitanism became popular again during the European enlightenment and slowly had a growing influence on international law and modern ethical sensibilities, including the sense that countries have a duty of hospitality, of offering refuge even to peoples of other nationalities.
This same ethical idea occurs in Derrida’s own Jewish tradition, where “love the stranger” is a commandment uttered many more times than “love your neighbour” and where Isaiah the prophet urged Israeli kings to give shelter to refugees of war.
In On Cosmopolitanism, which was based on a speech Derrida gave to the International Parliament of Writers on the subject of refugees, Derrida discusses the nature of hospitality and the contradiction at its heart. Hospitality involves welcoming guests into your home, in sharing resources and shelter, yet, to do so, it must remain “a home.” Should all boundaries of the home dissolve in unconditional welcome then the possibility of hospitality itself will also be obliterated. Derrida’s insight mitigates against a naive or utopian call for the obliteration of borders or the indiscriminate welcome of refugees.
In this thought of Derrida we see a tragic conflict at the heart of modern Zionism. Do we want a hospitable Zionism? Is the house the Jews built in Israel for Jews alone? Yet if the doors are flung wide, what will happen to “our Jewish home”?
There is much anxiety to protect our “home,” of that we can be sure. An extensive security wall, checkpoints, and airport border guards who are masters of interrogation. When we press Israel to become more hospitable – to African asylum seekers, to displaced Palestinians – we hear a chorus of voices arise: if we let them in, if we include them, the demographics will dissolve our home!
And we so badly want a home. Wandering for 2,000 years, we were homeless, exiled, a tolerated or cursed minority. Finally, we returned to our ancient home and, amid controversy with others who had come to live there and also claim it as home, built walls to protect it. We now again had a home, and we have chanted this word to ourselves over and over again, “home, home,” for the last 70 years.
Yet what good is a home that does not extend hospitality? Sure, we airlifted Ethiopians, we opened our arms to Russians, and so on and so forth. Yet they were us, our family. True hospitality, though, as it says in our own foundational text, is given to the stranger. The other.
Unconditional welcome is not the only way to destroy a home. What good is a home that offers no hospitality? Is a home that offers no hospitality even a home at all?
Israel is in the process of deporting the 60,000 African refugees who arrived before the building of a barrier wall with the Sinai to prevent more entering. As Russel Neiss wrote in the Forward, “For years, in actions held to be illegal multiple times by Israel’s Supreme Court, the Israeli government has arrested and placed these refugees in a detention centre in the Negev and forcefully deported them to other African nations in exchange for money or favourable terms for weapons contracts and military training.”
Twenty thousand refugees, most from Sudan and Eritrea, have already been deported or left of their own accord, and the government has ordered the rest to leave, with a small financial gift and plane tickets paid, or be jailed.
According to Derrida, hospitality is both a duty and a defining feature of a real home. The feeling that an inhospitable Israel is not really a home, I fear, is growing and will continue to grow among Israelis and Jews. Maintaining the feeling that Israel is a Jewish home only will require an unremitting focus on perceived and real threats to Jews in Israel and abroad. It will reinforce the unhealthy sense of home as a shelter from others, rather than fostering the healthy sense of home, one that is open to sheltering others.
The result may be that we have a very well guarded home. But, for those of us who perceive the lack of hospitality on offer, it begins to feel like no home at all. The opposite of Derrida’s formula – “in order for there to be hospitality, there must be a home” (a formula that is surely true and needs due respect) – is “in order for their to be a home, there must be hospitality.”
Jews, being a transnational people for so many years, became, in two senses, a “cosmopolitan people.” One was that fact of transnationality; the other stemmed from the involvement of Jews in socialist political movements, which problematized nationalism, as well as our involvement in activism aimed at the liberalization of immigration laws. It was all of this, seemingly, which coalesced to give birth to the use of “cosmopolitan” as an antisemitic code word for “Jew.”
I don’t think “cosmopolitan” is an insult, but rather a very high compliment. When an antisemite calls Jews “cosmopolitan,” I hear it as a calling, not a calling out. Israel will not truly be our Jewish home until it embodies the highest cosmopolitanism of the Jewish spirit, which can be read in the Torah’s call – millennia ago – to love the stranger and refugee.
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
When we read Exodus, some people imagine what Egypt was like as an ancient civilization. If you’re a synagogue regular, you’re hearing the story unfold each week as the Torah is read. If you’re more likely at a Pesach seder at a relative’s dinner table, you’ve heard the same narrative. We imagine Joseph’s dreams and his esteemed position advising Pharaoh. There are the complicated family dynamics, the rise of a new ruler, the enslavement of the Jewish people, Moses’ ascension as a leader, and the plagues. We’re captivated in part because it’s compelling. There’s lots of tension, and that makes for good drama.
There are laws listed and proper ways to behave. There are also irrational and upsetting actions and behaviour that are completely out of bounds. Sure, one can approach a ruler and ask for something – or there’s darkness, frogs, lice and death. There’s a rational, law-abiding approach, and the emotional, gut-wrenching knee-jerk response. These are both fundamentally human reactions. When the plagues happened, I imagine that it must have felt like the end of the Egyptians’ world. The labour vacuum caused by the loss of slaves might have led to a collapse of functional Egyptian society.
I juxtaposed this familiar story with others that have crossed my mind. Over winter break, my kids (like most) and I were housebound for quite awhile. Due to a virus or two and the extreme cold, we weren’t going out. Mostly, the time passed without incident, but keeping siblings busy and out of trouble is no joke. When we weren’t one step ahead with the next round of button hockey or “Swedish scooting” (indoor games we made up as we went along), we’d turn our backs and a kid would be assaulting his brother.
As I pulled one kid off another, I imagined what the European settlers on the Prairies endured when they spent an entire winter in a one-room sod house with their children. I wondered how many kids killed one another. Many families also died of disease, starvation, or froze to death.
Meanwhile, my U.S. family sent my kids a homemade video of a gathering with friends. Everyone on the video joked about the dog’s squeaky toy, which resembled the current U.S. president. I struggled with this. In terms of behaving in a civilized way, it seemed too close to the bone of the matter. If we’re meant to respect the position but we can’t conscience the current president, how do we communicate this notion to our kids?
What’s our duty as upstanding people and as Jews? As a child growing up near Washington, D.C., I went to school with all sorts, including the children of politicians, diplomats, lawyers and civil servants. Back then, I remember how everyone worked hard to be civil to one another. Strom Thurmond, Jr.’s mother was a great volunteer in our classroom. Marilyn Quayle was a dependable carpool mom for my brother’s soccer team. Our political leanings were the polar opposite of Thurmond’s Dixiecrats or Dan Quayle’s, but, as elementary school parents, our respective parents could agree to disagree. Our parents modeled civility to one another, and that meant we too (mostly) treated one another with respect.
We teeter back and forth on a seesaw when it comes to behaving in an upstanding way. These days, anybody in D.C. would tell you that old-fashioned civility and common-sense manners are long gone. The current world political scene feels more like that period of plagues. Nobody knows what will strike us next.
Even so, we have choices when it comes to how we behave towards others. We can aim to be rational, thoughtful people who think through our actions and try to behave responsibly, as Hillel suggested. When someone who wanted to learn about Judaism asked Hillel to sum it up while standing on one foot, Hillel responded, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the whole Torah. The rest is its interpretation. Go study.” (Talmud: Tractate Shabbat 31A)
We may also behave impetuously, with emotional, irrational responses that seem more like sporadic and scary plagues. Jewish tradition would suggest we aim for Hillel’s behavioural model, though one can legitimate the name-calling and lack of civility, too. There are plenty of examples of non-rational biblical outbursts from which to choose.
It’s too easy to throw stones at each other based on our religious observance or our political views about Israel, Canada or world affairs. It’s much harder to behave with civility and agree to disagree. As I pull my twins apart and demand compromise, or suggest (again) to use please, thank you and you’re welcome, I spend a lot of time thinking about civilization and civilized behaviour.
When I student-taught high school in a rough D.C. neighbourhood, people often yelled on the street. Some yelled hello and smiled. Others sometimes yelled antisemitic, misogynist threats. A Grade 9 student nicknamed “Punkin” took to walking me to the train station. When the threats started, she’d pull herself up tall and holler right across the road, “Was you drug up in a barn?! Act civilized!”
Indeed, we weren’t brought up in barns. Punkin was from a good home, and the threats stopped when she broke the tension that way and called grown men out on their bad behaviour. I’m working hard to provide the same civilized model for my kids. We can treat each other better than that. We can agree to disagree without doing hateful things. I learned a lot from Punkin – and Rav Hillel, too.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and is a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News. She is the author of the book From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Students in Kitah Aleph at the White Rock / South Surrey Jewish Community Centre with their Bereishit (Genesis) craft that they completed after studying the parashah at the centre’s religious school. (photo from WRSS JCC)
Ever had one of those days? Or weeks? When things just fall to pieces around you? Sometimes it’s just stuff – a plumbing disaster or a flat tire. Sometimes it’s an interaction with another person that is so miserable that it ruins your day. For me, at least, those emotions of anger, hate, shame and embarrassment can completely knock me down into a bad place. It’s only natural, but it takes a lot of inner work to get myself on the right track.
I think of this as an inner struggle, which I am sure many of us have. It’s so hard not to take out your negative feelings on someone else. That’s why I think the Torah portion for last week, Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9), is interesting. It’s not an easy text to study. There’s a lot in it, which is quickly summarized by the reformjudaism.org Torah study website as follows:
“Balak, the king of Moab, persuades the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that he can defeat them and drive them out of the region. However, Balaam blesses the Children of Israel instead and prophesies that Israel’s enemies will be defeated. (22:2-24:25)
“G-d punishes the Israelites with a plague for consorting with the Moabite women and their god. The plague is stayed after Pinchas kills an Israelite man and his Midianite woman. (25:1-9)”
This summary contains some detail, but skips the part where G-d stops Balaam in his tracks and keeps him from cursing Israel. It involves a talking donkey. (This is definitely a portion that you should re-read if you have forgotten it.) The donkey refuses to budge because an angel, sent by G-d, blocks its way. Balaam, a prophet, ends up blessing the Israelites, instead of cursing them, because he can speak only what the angel says he will put in his mouth. G-d tells Balaam what to say.
Is Balaam really a changed man when his curses become blessings? Is someone so filled with hate and curses able to turn things around for good? Or is this amazing blessing that he offers only happening because the Almighty intervenes?
I have a hard time believing in a personal form of the Divinity that pops down and fills our mouths with blessings. Some people do have that kind of faith, and believe that the right thing will arrive, heaven-sent, to save the day. For me, this portion is perhaps about something else.
Balak and Balaam are filled with hate and prejudice when they see the Israelites, who are in some sense, refugees. They are the “other” – strangers who are passing through, and many people find reasons to fear or hate the “other” in their midst.
Yet, just like those days when we have inner struggles, we need to have our better selves win out over feelings of negativity. Sometimes we can rise above our fear, anger or other feelings. When we do, sometimes we can observe the beauty of someone or something that is different and special. We can learn from that new experience.
I’m always knocked out by the beauty of Balaam’s blessing. Whenever I sing “Ma Tovu” – “How beautiful are your tents, Oh Jacob, Your dwelling places, Israel” – which comes directly from this Torah portion, I feel the awe and wonder in the words. Rashi points out that the tents were placed so that their door flaps faced outwards. Even though in the encampment everyone was close together, they were able to maintain a sort of tidy privacy, and a space for separate families by placing their entrances away from one another.
I’ve felt overwhelmed by the hate speech, terrorism, starvation and war that are happening around us. Yet, sometimes, we see a little hope in the media reports. There are amazing people of all faiths who rise up to help. There are even people who capture a terrorist or criminal but conquer their own yetzer hara, or evil inclination, manage to find their best selves and keep that person from harm until the police arrive.
Why does this portion begin with a curse that turns to a blessing, and end with a plague and punishment? I have a hard time with this sort of literal punishment, but it seems like a powerful metaphor. Perhaps it is a way of reminding us that even when we are tempted, and struggle with curses and acts of violence, we must find our best selves and behave morally. We must offer blessings to others. We have to open ourselves up to the “other.” We can learn from and admire their ingenuity. We also need to stick to our beliefs, and guard against being led astray. We can avoid that part inside ourselves that seeks to do harm, and try to help others control that urge to harm, too.
In a practical, positive sense, most Canadian Jews are lucky, our communities are diverse, full of newcomers and people who have been here generations – we are from all over the world. We can open ourselves up to enjoying a diversity of Jewish customs, practices and ideas that enrich our institutions and celebrations. Further, we can enjoy the diversity of the wider community, which is also intensely rich.
We can be different than those who seek tit-for-tat vengeance. Tempted to fight back during a negative exchange, or to cut someone off in a fit of road-rage? Step back.
Think about that talking donkey. Imagine if your car did that to you! Smile. Be the better person. You have that yetzer hatov, the good inclination, right there. Let it out. Be a blessing.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Imagine, for a minute, that you’re throwing an open house for a children’s sports team. You’ve invited a lot of people. You don’t know them all. Yet, you’re the host. It’s a beautiful, sunny, warm day. You’ve set up your yard for a party. The lemonade and cookies are out, the welcome banner is flapping in the breeze.
As people drift up your sidewalk, you see they’re nervous or ill at ease. “Welcome!” you say, and your family smiles at them. “Come on in. Join us.” You offer them food and drink. Then, you ask guests gentle, kind questions. “How long has your kid been playing soccer with our team?” or “Where does your kid go to school?” “Have you met our dog?” and so on.
Before long, you’ve learned new things about these strangers. You’ve made a few connections. As other people join the party, you lead a parent, Gabriel, over to talk to Morley, who shares Gabriel’s interests in dog training or hockey. You help all these people to relate to one another. Then, they can begin friendships. Soon, they will be hosting the next encounter – for their new friends and acquaintances.
Many people are rusty at this kind of face-to-face socializing. In the social media age, we “friend” people online long before we meet in person. We’re more likely to chat online than we are to approach strangers in person. It’s a cultural shift that can make people feel more awkward and self-conscious when they actually get together in person.
If you’ve never moved from one community to another, you’ve got family and friends built in – people who likely knew you in kindergarten or as a teenager with acne. These are longtime friends. You don’t have to do any work to know them. Why bother meeting new people?
Because we’re obligated as Jews to be hospitable. It’s our obligation to make new connections with others! (Both Jews and non-Jews.)
I recently heard a great story about a Passover seder. A young Jewish woman from Indiana was studying and working in London, and alone for the holiday. She followed the Twitter feed of London-based CNN reporter James Masters. He tweeted and asked if anyone needed a seder to attend. Samantha Gross, an intern with the Evening Standard, responded. She thought he was offering to find her a spot somewhere at a community event. Instead, he and his wife picked her up and brought her home to a Pesach table with grandparents and the kind of family love and embrace that really moved her. (To tears, although she claimed it was the horseradish!)
A Winnipeg congregation, Shaarey Zedek, is sponsoring a special speaker next week named Dr. Ron Wolfson. I could claim that I’d read everything he’s written (not true). I could boast that my mom has taken classes with him (true) and that he’s spoken at my parents’ Virginia congregation (true). I could mention that he’s collaborated with Rabbi Larry Hoffman (true) who came to speak at Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom recently (true), and whose daughter went to summer camp with me long ago (true). However, none of that background or Jewish geography matters.
What matters is that Dr. Wolfson is coming to Canada to speak – and it’s well worth reading his books or finding a way to hear him in person. Why?
What he teaches is a profoundly Jewish message. It’s about building relationships and connections that might be new, and take work. For many Jews, going to shul is like going home – most of the people there are your family and friends, you’ve known them forever. It takes no work to relate to them. However, our society is transient. There are a lot of newcomers at every congregation. We need to do both the right thing and the Jewish thing, and practise “audacious hospitality.”
What’s that? Well, in Genesis 18:1-18, there’s a story that is uniquely ours. Abraham and Sarah are in their tent when three strangers walk by. Abraham rushes out to them, welcomes them in and, with Sarah, he helps them wash and offers them food and hospitality. Abraham knows what it is to be a traveler and to be hot, tired and hungry. He knows that he should reach out, it’s the right thing to do.
The strangers (angels) bring messages to them. One is that even though they’re old, Sarah will have a child and Abraham will become the patriarch to a great and populous nation.
The message is clear. It’s incumbent upon us to be like Abraham and Sarah, and like Masters’ family, too. We need to welcome others, build real relationships with them, and offer them our (Jewish) hospitality. This may make all the difference. Will we be Abraham’s “great … nation” or lose Judaism to assimilation?
Ten years ago, I was invited to participate in an interfaith “green” religious service. The interim Anglican priest who ran the service bumped into me at the farmers market a few days later. I thanked her for the opportunity, and invited her to my Shabbat table. That was her very first dinner invitation in Bowling Green, Ky., and the start of many more happy hours at my table and hers. We are still good friends. She told me that it figured a Jewish person would be first to “invite her in,” as Abraham and Sarah did.
This pastor (and friend) both reminded me and taught me more about my obligation to be hospitable as a Jew. Abraham knew how to do this. It’s high time we did, too.
Joanne Seiff, a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News, is the author of a new book, From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016. This collection of essays is now available for digital download, or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her on joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
On Feb. 12, at Shaughnessy Heights United Church, there was a dialogue featuring Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan, director of Inter-Religious Studies at Vancouver School of Theology, and Rev. Ray Aldred, director of VST’s Indigenous Studies Program. Held under the rubric of Shaughnessy Heights’ Reconciliation Matters initiative, The Teachings of the Land: Our Oldest Relative explored the spiritual relationships between people and land.
Aldred, who is from Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta, said his understanding of the land has been formed by his Cree upbringing and his life study of indigenous wisdom. Asked about the title of the talk, he said, “For us, the land is part of the family.”
Kaplan spoke of the Jewish people’s connection to the land of their birth, Israel. A self-described “born urbanite,” she also spoke of her personal spiritual connections to the land – hiking in nature or learning from her husband how to grow food – and what she called the “eco-theology” of the Bible.
“The first chapter of Genesis takes us through the creation of an ecology, where everything is interconnected and blessed by the Divine,” she explained. “The first human is called ‘Adam’ in Hebrew, which is not just a random pleasing sound, but comes from adamah, red clay dirt, and means ‘the red clay dirt person,’ the ‘earthling.’ The Hebrew Bible is an indigenous text, which tells us ‘how to walk well on the land,’” she said, using a phrase of Aldred’s. “The Book of Leviticus, for instance, teaches us to consciously let the land rest – the commandment of Shmitah, where the land has rest from farming every seven years. The Hebrew Bible teaches that the ecosystem belongs to God, not to us. It is not ours to come in and displace peoples and animals and to take what we want.”
When Kaplan attended a course of Aldred’s in 2016, she said she realized she was a “rank beginner” in eco-spirituality. “Hunter-gatherers were specialists in sustainability,” she said. “They were not primitive; they are the next level.”
Kaplan also discussed the view of some that First Nations were one of the lost tribes of Israel, a view Aldred had also jokingly referred to earlier. Although lacking historical evidence to support it, commented Kaplan, “it works as a metaphor for a similar history of displacement.”
Aldred made another biblical allusion when speaking about how early Europeans were greeted by some Ojibwe as “Anishinaabe” (which literally means “people”) but they refused the title. “Reminds me of another story about some other people who didn’t want to be what they were created to be, but wanted to be God,” Aldred commented with a grin, referring to the story of Adam and Eve.
Aldred spoke a lot about the need for humility and the renunciation of certainty in order to find a relationship both to land and to other people. “Your perspective is always limited, it is always just ‘your perspective.’ You need other people, other creatures, to learn from. The Creator is giving us an opportunity to learn humility. If we miss that chance,” Aldred warned, alluding again to a biblical text (Leviticus 18:28), “the land will spit you out.”
Asked about practices of connecting to the land, Kaplan suggested learning about the local ecosystem, spending time exploring it and getting to know the unique creatures who inhabit it. She also spoke about connecting to members of one’s own tribe in order to cultivate a sense of home, and about getting to know the indigenous peoples of the area.
Aldred discussed the importance of really listening to the land so we can make better decisions as a community. Noting that Mary was Jesus’ mother, he asked who Adam’s mother was. “The earth was his mother, and the earth cared for him and cares for us.”
Aldred also said that indigenous people reverse Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which places basic needs like food and lodging on the bottom and spirituality and community at the top, as being less necessary. “Get your spirituality right,” said Aldred, “and everything else will be right. Take care of your relationship to the land, and take care of your neighbours.”
Asked about the ownership and economic use of land, Aldred said, “We belong to the land, it doesn’t belong to us.” He noted that treaties, in the indigenous understanding, were less about the division of land than about how it should be shared. “Of course, we should enjoy and make use of the gifts of the land,” he said, “but, in our decisions, we should think seven generations ahead – that’s 225 years into the future. That might take a little more time, but it’s worth it to our grandchildren.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Vancouver Hebrew Academy head of school Rabbi Don Pacht, right, presents Joseph and Rosalie Segal with a Stanley Cup-inspired Kiddush cup. (photo by Jocelyne Hallé)
Vancouver Hebrew Academy has outgrown its current facility and is looking to build a new school. It’s in the early stages of a capital campaign to raise $18 million, of which almost 15% has been pledged to date. Its annual Summer Garden Party added to those funds – and it also celebrated the school’s impact, the broader community, and Joseph and Rosalie Segal for their “lifetime of commitment to our Jewish future.”
The party was held on July 21 at the home of Lorne and Mélita Segal. The other event ambassadors were their siblings: Norman and Sandra Miller, Dr. Mark and Tracey Schonfeld, and Gary and Nanci Segal. The night was emceed by Howard Blank and catered by Chef Menachem.
The evening’s program noted that VHA’s facility, which it rents from the Vancouver School Board, “doesn’t provide the space and the tools for modern education,” and doesn’t allow for growth. “The main building was built in the 1940s. Three portables have been added. The current 12,000-square-foot space is insufficient and well below the area standards recommended by the Ministry of Education for elementary schools.” VHA’s vision? “A new home for Torah education.”
Starting off the formal portion of the evening, Elizabeth Nider, co-chair of the VHA board of directors, thanked Joe and Rosalie Segal, “not just for being our honorees, but for providing an inspiration and example to our community of what it means to give.” She said this is a value that the teachers and staff of VHA are effectively imparting to students.
By way of example, Nider related the story of what happened three years ago, when her father-in-law, Marvin Nider, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her son, Yosef, who was 6 at the time, asked her and her husband what he could do to help. Over the course of a few weeks, Yosef planned and held a violin concert, raising more than $10,000 for the B.C. Cancer Foundation, “knowing that this money might not help his grandfather, but would maybe help others with cancer in the future.”
The most meaningful part for the family, she said, was that her father-in-law could watch the concert on Facetime from his hospital bed. “To us, giving back means giving and not expecting anything back. It means giving because you know it’s the right thing to do. And I thank Vancouver Hebrew Academy for teaching our children the importance of giving, and I also thank Joe and Rosalie for leading by example.”
In his dvar Torah, Rabbi Don Pacht, VHA head of school, gave a brief lesson on the mitzvah of charity, “the commandment to give and to offer assistance.” One of the most known lessons is that of the half-shekel, he said. “Everyone in the community was invited to participate and the funds raised would be incorporated into the treasury of the Temple and would benefit the entire community equally.”
“Charity is a two-way street,” he added, talking not only about those who give – making special mention of the evening’s honorees – but the receivers. “For those of us who do receive, it creates an obligation, wherever possible, for us to give back. And that is the value we try to impart at the Hebrew Academy for our families, for our students.”
VHA class of 2008 alumna Kira Smordin said, “VHA gave me the values and the skills of a Torah education, a love for my Jewish heritage, the ability to navigate across the broad spectrum of the Jewish world and the tools to engage and thrive in the secular one.”
Smordin spoke of a couple of teachers in particular who inspired and encouraged her to become a teacher herself.
“This past April,” she said, “I finished my second year of a five-year dual degree arts and education program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.”
As part of the curriculum, she has to do an annual teaching practicum and, this year, she chose VHA. “My teaching practicum was the perfect opportunity for me to give back to a school and a community that has given so much to me,” she said, adding that the most important lessons she learned at VHA were about chesed (compassion) and tzedakah (charity), and that the Segals “are those lessons come to life for me…. You demonstrate by example what it means to give back. You set the bar high and challenge all of us to reach for it.”
Judy Boxer-Zack, VHA class of 1996, added her reflections.
She compared a community to an orchestra, in which everyone has a part to play. She then shared why VHA is close to her heart, and a bit about Chimp (Charitable Impact), the organization for which she works.
At VHA, she said, students were taught to treat everyone with respect, dignity and a sense of inclusiveness. “What naturally flowed from this for us was a distinctive sense that we had a responsibility for our local and broader communities. This was one of the many ways that VHA was setting the stage to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders.”
And it specifically inspired Boxer-Zack in her career path. She has worked for a variety of nonprofits, leading up to her job at Chimp, and she was visibly proud to introduce Ariel Lewinski, vice-president of Chimp, who was the next speaker.
Recently, Lewinski and his wife, Rachael, had met with Joe Segal, learning a bit about Segal’s life and business endeavors. “What struck me,” said Lewinski, “is how Mr. Segal was so proud to mention that his children and grandchildren have carried on in this tradition of giving back, and thus creating a family legacy of giving.”
Lewinski noted, “We are all here tonight, in some capacity, because we value the importance of Torah education and recognize that, regardless of how each of us chooses to raise our children, a Torah education and an institution that serves that purpose is at the foundation of any vibrant and diverse Jewish community.”
Lewinski’s wife is a VHA alumna and currently sits on the executive board; his mother-in-law, Ruth Erlichman, was the board’s first president and currently sits on the board of governors; and his son, Yaakov, will be starting school at VHA in September. He said that he and his family are such strong supporters of VHA because not only does it provide a strong Torah education but also an excellent secular education.
Lewinski spoke about Chimp, and its objective of reversing the trend of declining charitable giving in Canada by creating and nurturing “a culture of giving by making charity accessible and an everyday part of life.” Everyone at the garden party was given a $100 gift from Chimp to give to any charity, or charities. During the proceedings that followed, Hodi Kahn challenged attendees to give to VHA, saying that the Kahn Family Foundation would match all donations, up to $10,000. As of Tuesday, with 15 days left in the fundraiser, more than $17,000 of the $20,000 goal had been donated.
Another type of donation was also presented during the evening, with Dr. Peter Legge and his wife, Kay, providing a copy to every family in attendance of his book Lunch with Joe, which features a biography of Joe Segal, shares some of Segal’s philosophies on business and life, and includes the stories of more than 90 people who have had the chance to lunch with Segal at the Four Seasons Vancouver.
Addressing the honorees, Erlichman said she has had many meetings with Joe Segal over the last 18 or so years. “I always came away not only with material support, but practical suggestions to move the needs of our school forward,” she said. “You and Rosalie have been and continue to be incredible mentors – so many of us have benefited from your leadership and generosity of spirit.”
Pacht then presented the Segals with a Stanley Cup-shaped Kiddush cup. Just as the blessing over the wine helps us transition into Shabbat, said the rabbi, “you have also taught us how to take the mundane and to elevate it to the spiritual. The way that your family supports the community is exceptional in every way. It’s inspiring for every one of us here, and countless generations of children and families at the Vancouver Hebrew Academy have felt and will always feel the impact of your family.”
The inscription on the cup recognizes the Segals’ “lifetime of commitment to our Jewish future.”
When Joe Segal spoke, he acknowledged that, while he and his wife had received many accolades during the night, they were not the only ones deserving. “Everybody in this room, I’m sure, has had a special affinity,” he said, “something that was important to them [to support]…. The important thing in life is to do what you can. And the measurement is not how you do it or how big you do it, but doing it the right way.”
Segal described VHA as a “very worthy institution” because it is a “nurturing breeding ground of understanding and of belonging and of responsibility.”
He added – sharing part of a conversation from earlier that day – that Jews comprise such a small percentage of the world’s population. And so, he said, holding back emotion, “This is directed to you, Rabbi Pacht, because what you’re doing is so important – you’re planting the seeds for the evolution and the continuation of the race. Thank you.”
Mitzvah Tools 2.0 aims to make every aspect of bar and bat mitzvah preparation easier for everyone involved. The app schedules meetings, keeps track of progress, enables long-distance learning, organizes essential information like the Torah portions and honors at the ceremony, and makes resources for studying available to the student. The architect of the app is Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Sholom, who is founder and chief executive officer of Mitzvah Tools.
Moskovitz’s interest in digital Torah education tools goes way back. He has been a computer geek since his own bar mitzvah, which took place in the days of the Atari 400. In rabbinical school, he developed software to help him with the Jewish calendar and, while working in a Los Angeles synagogue in 1998, he created a database to track the progress of children studying for their b’nai mitzvah. In 2003, he developed Mitzvah Tools 1.0, a much more limited version of the current platform.
Mitzvah Tools 2.0, which was released in June, was developed with the help of Cantor Mark Britowich, director of sales and operations at Mitzvah Tools, who has more than 20 years of experience in b’nai mitzvah education. Vancouver’s Mark Fromson was the project manager and Australia-based Salim Jordan led an international team of programmers.
Mitzvah Tools was completely updated to help synagogues prepare their b’nai mitzvah students. According to the app’s website, “the original was locked in the rigidity of fixed browser widths and ’90s graphics. We kicked some new life into this trusty tool with a fresh identity and comprehensive design system to define its look and feel.”
The entire b’nai mitzvah educational team can interact using Mitzvah Tools to manage the study process together. Each student’s resources and their assignments can be accessed, and the student can attach recordings and send them to their tutor to review. Tutors and other team members can work from any location, and Mitzvah Tools enables video chats between tutor and student.
The app’s multimedia resource bank includes the chanting of every Torah and Haftorah portion. Recordings of prayers, various Torah commentaries and pages of the Tikkun (a book of the text as it appears in the Torah scroll) can all be stored and shared, as well as any other relevant files. All members of the team can communicate with each other, and students and parents can communicate with their team members, as well, with privacy settings available to restrict who can access different conversations.
Since its release in June, Mitzvah Tools is already in some 30 congregations. For more information, visit mitzvahtools.com.
Matthew Gindinis a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.
Nomi Fenson, left, and Debby Fenson help complete Congregation Beth Israel’s new sefer Torah with sofer Rabbi Moshe Druin. (Adele Lewin Photography)
Hundreds of people participated in a moving mitzvah over two recent weekends at Congregation Beth Israel. The congregation, still kvelling over its architecturally lauded new building, celebrated the arrival of a new Torah scroll, which was completed by members of the congregation with the help of a sofer, a Torah scribe.
It is one of the 613 mitzvot for each individual to scribe a Torah scroll: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the Children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31:19)
The new sefer Torah was scribed in Israel, with the final 100 letters to be completed. A lottery was originally planned by the congregation to allocate the honor of scribing a letter, but a compromise was found to give the opportunity to everyone who wanted to participate.
“We asked if people would mind partnering with other families,” said Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. “And, despite the fact that we had 150 families or individuals who asked to participate, we had enough people who said they were willing to partner that everyone who asked to participate was able to do so.” In the end, about 600 people had a part in the process.
Participants had the opportunity to scribe with the guidance of Rabbi Moshe Druin, one of several “traveling sofrim” associated with a Florida-based enterprise called Sofer On Site, which facilitates events just like the one Beth Israel chose to undertake. Druin also helped complete a Torah scroll for Temple Sholom last year.
Each participant at Beth Israel proceeded through a variety of meaningful activity stations leading up to the scribing. Led by a volunteer guide, participants learned from teachers on a subject from the Torah. They then proceeded to a different area where they could decorate the new Torah binder, write a wish for the wishing tree, listen to storytelling or peruse the book corner. After handwashing, they prepared for the scribing, which they did with Druin. The sofer shared a teaching on the significance of each Hebrew letter and he filled in the letter as participants placed their hands on his hand or on the quill.
“The joy was palpable,” Infeld said of the event, which went all day Friday, Feb. 19, until Shabbat, then continued on Saturday night after Havdalah and again on Sunday. “The feeling of community was extremely strong.… Some people said this was one of the most meaningful experiences of their life and it was fantastic to see families of multiple generations participating in the activity.”
“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Audrey Moss, a congregation member who served as project chair for the Torah scribing and dedication. “The whole idea was that [participants] go through a spiritual journey. You prepare yourself spiritually and mentally before you go into the sanctuary for your one moment with Rabbi Druin…. I think Rabbi Druin really, really made the event.”
After the scribing, the Torah was dedicated on Shabbat the following weekend, when the congregation also celebrated the 10th anniversary of Debby Fenson’s role as ba’alat tefillah, Torah reader.
Fenson carried the Torah into the sanctuary and a music-filled procession welcomed the new scroll.
“We sang and walked the Torah around the entire shul so that everybody could see it and kiss it,” said Fenson, who admits that the dedication and surrounding ceremonies had a powerful effect on her.
“The whole morning was pretty emotional for me,” she said. “A lot of people came up to see me, and the dedication of the Torah was a special event.”
The Torah dedication was a first for both Fenson and Infeld. All of the synagogue’s existing Torah scrolls are more than 100 years old, said Fenson, so this was the first time a sefer Torah had been created specifically for the congregation. When the new synagogue was completed in 2014, the Torahs were carried into the ark, but this was different, Fenson said.
“People were very emotional and I was feeling that as well,” she said. “It was very exciting.”
The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated how the chanukiyah’s candles should be lit. (photo by Gil-Dekel via commons.wikimedia.org)
The following is an excerpt from the Chanukah chapter of Inside Time: A Chassidic Perspective on the Jewish Calendar, published by the Meaningful Life Centre.
“The School of Shammai says: on the first day, one lights eight lights; from here on, one progressively decreases. The School of Hillel says: on the first day, one lights a single light; from here on, one progressively increases.” (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)
Visit, or simply pass by, a Jewish home on any of the eight evenings of Chanukah, and there will be the lights burning in the doorway or window proclaiming the celebration of the Chanukah miracle to the street and to the world at large. They will also be proclaiming which night of Chanukah it is. On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, a different number of flames is kindled, expressing that night’s particular place in the festival. On the first night of Chanukah, there will be one flame illuminating the street; on the second night, two flames, and so on.
Actually, the Talmud records two opinions on how each Chanukah night should identify itself and radiate its unique light into the world. This was one of the halachic issues debated by the two great academies of Torah law, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel. The sages of Hillel held that the Chanukah lights should increase in number each night, in the familiar ascending order. The sages of Shammai, however, were of the opinion that eight flames should be lit on the first night, seven on the second, and so on, in descending number, until the eighth night of Chanukah, when a single flame should be lit.
The Talmud explains that the sages of Shammai saw the Chanukah lights as representing the “upcoming days” of the festival – the number of days still awaiting realization. Thus, the number of lights decreases with each passing night, as another of Chanukah’s days is “expended.” On the first night, we have eight full days of Chanukah ahead of us; on the second night, seven days remain, and so on. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the lights as representing Chanukah’s “outgoing days,” so that the ascending number of flames reflects the accumulation of actualized milestones in our eight-day quest for light.
In practice, we follow the opinion of the Hillel school, and an ascending number of lights chronicle the progress of the festival. This is even alluded to in the very name of the festival: the Hebrew word Chanukah forms an acronym of the sentence “chet neirot vehalachah k’veit Hillel” (“eight lights, and the law follows the School of Hillel”).
Our acceptance of Hillel’s perspective on Chanukah is also expressed by the name traditionally given to the eighth day of Chanukah – the only day of the festival to be distinguished by a name of its own – Zot Chanukah.
The name Zot Chanukah is based on a phrase from that day’s Torah reading, and literally means, “This is Chanukah.” This is in keeping with the Hillelian vision of Chanukah, in which the final day of Chanukah – the day on which all eight days of light have been actualized – marks the climax of the festival. Only on the eighth day can we say, “This is Chanukah. Now we ‘have’ the entire Chanukah.” (From the Shammaian perspective, the first day of Chanukah would be Zot Chanukah.)
What is the basis for these two visions of Chanukah? And why is the view of the School of Hillel so decisively embraced, to the extent that it is implicit in the very name Chanukah, and in the name given to its culminating day?
There are two primary ways in which one might view something: a) in light of its potential, or b) by its actual, manifest state. We might say of a certain person: “He has tremendous potential, but his actual performance is poor.” The same can be said of a business venture, a relationship, an experience, or anything else. Or, we might say: “There’s potential for disaster here, but it can be contained and prevented from actualizing.”
Some of us are potential-oriented, which means that we would admire the person, invest in the venture, stick it out with the relationship and treasure the experience – depending upon its potential. Some of us are more actual-oriented, viewing things in terms of their actual, tactual impact upon our reality.
This is a recurring theme in many of the disputes between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. For example, the sages of Shammai consider the moment of the Exodus to have been the eve of Nissan 15, when the people of Israel were free to leave Egypt, while the sages of Hillel place the moment at midday of the following day, when the Jews actually exited Egypt’s physical borders. In another debate, the sages of Shammai consider a fish susceptible to ritual impurity from the moment the fisherman pulls his catch out of the water, since at this point the fish has been removed from the environment in which it might possibly live; the sages of Hillel disagree, contending that as long as the fish is actually alive (though its potential for continued life has been destroyed), it is immune to contamination, as are all other living plants and animals.
This is also the basis of their differing perspectives on Chanukah. The School of Shammai, which views things in terms of their potential, sees the first day of Chanukah, with its potential for eight days of light, as the point in which all eight days are “there.” After one day has “gone by” and passed from potential into actuality, there are left only seven days in their most meaningful form – the potential form. The sages of Hillel, on the other hand, see the actual state as the more significant. To them, the eighth day of Chanukah, when all eight dimensions of the festival have been actualized, is when the festival is at its fullest and most “real.”
We are creatures of the actual. We cannot live on potential nourishment, or be emotionally satisfied by potential relationships. On the whole, we judge people by their actual conduct, as opposed to their potential to behave a certain way. Reality, to us, is what is, not what might be.
This is largely due to the fact that we are physical beings. It is a most telling idiosyncrasy of our language that “immaterial” means “insignificant”: if we cannot touch it or see it, it’s not real to us. Also, because of our finite and limited nature, we possess potentials that we will never actualize because we haven’t enough energy, resources or willpower to carry them out, or simply because we won’t live long enough to do so. So, the existence of a potential or possibility for something is not enough, for how do we know that it will amount to anything? Indeed, we often judge a thing’s potential by the actual: if this much has been actualized, this “proves” that there is potential worthy of regard.
Envision, however, a being who is neither physical nor finite; a being not limited by space, time or any other framework. In such a being, potential does not lack actualization, as everything is “as good as done.” On the contrary: potential is the purest and most perfect form of every reality – the essence of the thing, as it transcends the limitations and imperfections imposed upon it when it is translated into physical actuality.
For G-d, then, the potential is a higher form of being than the actual. This is why we say that, for G-d, the creation of the world did not constitute an “achievement” or even a “change” in His reality. The potential for creation existed in Him all along, and nothing was “added” by its translation into actuality. It is only we, the created, who gained anything from the actual creation of the world.
So, when the sages of Shammai and Hillel debate the question of which is more significant from the perspective of Torah law, the actual or the potential, they are addressing the more basic question: Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? When Torah law enjoins us to commemorate the Exodus, when it legislates the laws of ritual impurity or when it commands us to kindle the Chanukah lights, does it regard these phenomena from the perspective of its divine author, in whom the potential is the ideal state, or from the perspective of its human constituency, who equate real with actual?
Whose Torah is it, ours or G-d’s? Both Shammai and Hillel would agree that it is both.
The Torah is the wisdom and will of G-d. But, as we proclaim in the blessing recited each morning over the Torah, G-d has given us His Torah, for He has delegated to mortal man the authority to interpret it and apply it. Thus, G-d did not communicate His will to us in the form of a detailed manifesto and a codified list of instructions. Instead, He communicated a relatively short (79,976-word) Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), together with the Oral Torah – a set of guidelines by which the Written Torah is to be interpreted, decoded, extrapolated and applied to the myriad possibilities conjured up by the human experience.
So, while the entire body of legal, homiletic, philosophical and mystical teaching we know as Torah is implicit within the Written Torah, G-d designated the human mind and life as the tools that unlock the many layers of meaning and instruction contained within its every word.
The Torah is thus a partnership of the human and the divine, where a kernel of divine wisdom germinates in the human mind, gaining depth, breadth and definition, and is actualized in the physicality of human life. In this partnership, our human finiteness and subjectivity become instruments of the divine truth, joining with it to create the ultimate expression of divine immanence in our world – the Torah.
Which is the more dominant element of Torah, divine revelation or human cognition? Which defines its essence? What is Torah – G-d’s vision of reality or man’s endeavor to make his world a home for G-d? At times, the Torah indicates the one; at times, the other. We have the rule that “The words of Torah are not susceptible to contamination.” A person who is in a state of ritual impurity (tum’ah) is forbidden to enter the Holy Temple; but there is no prohibition for him to study Torah. Why is he forbidden to enter a holy place but permitted to think and speak holy words? Because the Torah is not only holy (i.e., an object subservient to G-d and receptive to His presence) – it is divine. It is G-d’s word, and the divine cannot be compromised by any impurity.
On the other hand, another law states that, “A teacher of Torah who wishes to forgive an insult to his honor can forgive it.” This is in contrast to a king who, if insulted, has no right to forgive the insult, and has no recourse but to punish the one who insulted him. For a king’s honor is not his personal possession, but something that derives from his role as the sovereign of his people; one who insults the king insults the nation, and this is an insult that not even the king has the authority to forgive. Yet does not one who insults a Torah scholar insult the Torah? How does the scholar have the right to forgive the Torah’s insult? The explanation given is that “the Torah is his.” He who studies Torah acquires it as his own; G-d’s wisdom becomes his wisdom.
Whose Torah is it – ours or G-d’s? Both descriptions are valid; both are part of the Torah’s own self-perception. In certain laws and circumstances, we find the divinity of Torah emphasized; in others, its human proprietorship.
Thus, in a number of laws, the schools of Shammai and Hillel debate which definition of Torah is the predominant one. The sages of Shammai believe that in these particular applications of Torah law, the divinity of the Torah predominates. The Torah’s perspective is synonymous with G-d’s perspective, meaning that the potential of a thing is its primary truth. The sages of Hillel see these laws as belonging to the “human” aspect of Torah, so that the Torah’s vision of reality is the human, actual-based perspective.
The human festival
In the great majority of disputes between the sages of Shammai and Hillel, the final halachic ruling follows the opinion of the School of Hillel. Halachah is the application of Torah to day-to-day life. In this area of Torah, it is the human element which predominates; here, reality is defined in terms of the actual and tactual, rather than the potential.
But nowhere is the supremacy of the Hillelian view more emphasized than in the debate on Chanukah, where the very name of the festival, and the name given to its final day, proclaim that “the law follows the School of Hillel.” For Chanukah is the festival that, more than any other, underscores the human dynamic in Torah.
As noted above, the Torah consists of two parts: a) the divinely dictated words of the Written Torah; b) the Oral Torah, also communicated by G-d, but delegated to man. In the Oral Torah, G-d provides the guidelines and principles, while human beings follow these guidelines and apply these principles to derive and express the divine will.
The Oral Torah has two basic functions: to interpret the Written Torah and to legislate the necessary laws, ordinances and customs required to preserve the Torah and Jewish life through the generations.
Most of the festivals are explicitly ordained in the Written Torah. This is not to say that there is no “human element” involved in the biblically ordained festivals: the Oral Torah is still required to clarify each festival’s laws and observances. For example, the Written Torah commands us to dwell in a sukkah and take the “four kinds” on Sukkot, but the Oral Torah is needed to interpret the oblique biblical allusions that tell us how a sukkah is to be constructed and which plant species are to be taken. Still, the festivals themselves were instituted by direct divine revelation.
There are two festivals, however, that are rabbinical institutions: Purim and Chanukah. These belong to the second function of the Oral Torah – to institute laws and observances that derive not from a verse in the Written Torah, but which arise out of the historical experience of the people of Israel.
These, too, are Torah, for they were enacted in accordance with the principles revealed at Sinai. Before reading the Megillah on Purim or kindling the Chanukah lights, we say: “Blessed are You, G-d … Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to read the Megillah,” or “… to kindle the Chanukah lamp.” G-d is commanding us to observe these mitzvot, for it is He who granted the leaders of each generation the mandate to institute laws, ordinances and festivals. Yet, in these festivals, it is the human aspect of the Torah which predominates, while the divine aspect is more subdued.
Of the two rabbinical festivals, Chanukah is even more “human” than Purim. Purim was instituted during the era of prophecy, when G-d still communed directly with the greatest individuals of the generation. The story of Purim was written down and incorporated within the Holy Scriptures that are appended to the Written Torah. Thus, while Purim is technically an Oral Torah festival, it is closely related to the Written Torah.
Chanukah, however, occurred several hundred years later, when prophecy had ceased and the canon of the 24 books of the Tanach (Bible) had been closed. It thus belongs wholly to the Oral Torah – to the predominantly human aspect of the partnership. So, Chanukah is the environment in which the Hillelian perspective on Torah – Torah as it relates to our tactual experience of the world in which we live – reigns supreme.