Shabbat before the Women’s March

I shared the following words at the DJC Shabbat morning service on Saturday, January 21st, the day of the Women’s Marches around the world and the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.  I’d like to share them with the wider DJC community.

Shabbat shalom everyone.  It is good to be here.  I need Jewish community today.  After yesterday’s inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. President and world leader, I am needing a space for prayer and for stillness, for moral reinforcement and communal strength and support.  I am in need of the teachings and the brave, challenging call of Torah and of our Sages to move me forward, to move me out of my instinctual impulses to panic or sink into hopelessness and despair.  I am needing the spiritual resilience of our tradition in the ways that it plants itself in moral courage and is ever-reaching our hands and our feet and our hearts toward liberation.

This is a tradition that has not only resiliently existed for a few thousand years, but has continued to be revised, revitalized, and renewed, widening its vision of liberation to include the liberation of women, of LGBTQ folks, of People of Colour, so that when the Torah teaches “Justice!  Justice!  You shall pursue it — Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof” (Deuteronomy 16:20), we understand it as calling us into an unceasing and unstoppable pursuit, an active chasing after justice and compassion.

There may be a diversity of political views in our community on Trump’s leadership.  I want to be mindful of that and not assume that everyone thinks or feels the way that I do.  You don’t have to think the way I do.  About anything.  Inclusion is one of the DJC’s core values, and we are committed to this being a space for everyone.  At the same time, we can be, and need to be, totally clear, unequivocal, about the Jewish values that our Sages and Prophets and the Source of All Life call us to live out — protect the vulnerable.  Welcome the stranger.  Do not stand idly by when others suffer or are in danger.  Champion the rights and dignity of all human beings.  See every human being in their sacred wholeness.  Love your neighbour as yourself.  Take breaks from perpetually producing and consuming so that we can remember and internalize that business and profit, comfort and entertainment, are not ultimately what we are here for, but that other human beings and the sacred earth that nourishes us are never only means to our own ends, but are holy ends in and of themselves.  And actively and consciously, be a light, a teacher, a blessing wherever you go.  The more we study how Judaism frames the specifics of each of these values and charges us to inhabit them, the more equipped we are to live them with moral audacity (to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) and ardent vitality.

And the aim is to do all this together.  As the late Reb Zalman Schacter-Shlomi used to say, “The only way we’re going to get it together, is together.”  I am deeply grateful that we have each other.

I am so grateful to have Shabbat as a calming, grounding port in what feels like the beginnings of a dangerous storm, so that when I move into action, I move from a calm and deeply-rooted centre, wisely and with awareness.  I am grateful to have inherited a prayer book and rituals that help me to regularly practice the specifics of gratitude and focus my attention on all that is good.  Hope has to be planted in all the goodness that is in us and around us, seeing it, being moved by the stunning wonder of it, and then amplifying it.  I’m grateful for words and rituals that wrap me in expansiveness and light, that grow my sensitivity, that tap me into deep wells of joy and hope, and that teach me how to reach my prayers, concern, and responsibility wide.

Today, an estimated 1.3 million people worldwide will gather at Women’s Marches in commitment and united in solidarity to ensure that there are no limits for women, to bring an end to racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, to be stewards of the earth, and to sustain all life.  These are not just political acts — they are moral engagements and religious commitments.  I’ll be going to the March at Queen’s Park right after the service.  Please join me.

Today, with ringing significance, we will chant from Parshat Shmot, the first chapters of Exodus in which we read, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  It was this new king who initiated the body and soul-crushing enslavement of the Israelites.  Of course, anyone who rose to power would have known the Hebrew Joseph, who became second in command over all of Egypt and who saved the region from famine.  The relationship between the Israelites and the Egyptians began with mutuality and welcome, however, according to medieval commentator, RASH’I, the new Pharaoh acted as if he didn’t know Joseph.  He distanced himself from the relationship that would make oppression of the Hebrews possible.  He viewed the Israelites, growing in number and strength, as a threat rather than as allies and partners.  He rewrote history so that he could invent the present that served him.  We are familiar with this process of projecting threat and stirring fear, defining enemies to stir common cause.

Today I am holding close to me the model of the midwives Shifra and Pu’ah, about whom we’ll also be reading in the parsha.  They refused to comply with Pharaoh’s edict to kill the Hebrew baby boys at birth.  These women bravely risked their own lives to protect and sustain life, using their power, their sisterhood, to undermine and thwart what is seemingly more powerful than they are.  The Exodus narrative is filled with miracles, but before Moses appears on the scene, even before God responds to the Israelites’ groaning oppression, these two women trigger a liberation movement that then enables a holy flood of defiance, the surging strength of greater values and the transformation a broken people.

The question of what it will look like for me to follow in their footsteps will accompany me through our service, as I walk along University Avenue today and move me in the months to come.

And finally, today we are also celebrating with our wonderful member Sheri Cohen, who will be receiving a Hebrew name.  Sheri is a survivor of abuse.  She has been on a long journey of growth, healing, and conscious, mindful Jewish learning and practice.  It has been a profound honour to meet with Sheri over the past several years, in meditation, prayer, and Jewish study together.  It is a contagious, inspiring joy to be with her as she reaches this powerful moment of claiming for herself what was denied her.  She has chosen the name Ahavah — Love — transforming a history of violence into a chosen, empowered path of loving for herself, for others, and in her relationship with the Divine.

Of course all these threads are connected.  Throughout our service this morning, let’s enliven our prayers, our singing, our silences, our loving, our being together with this sacred purpose.  Let’s begin on page 150 with the mitzvah, the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.  Love, not love in the romantic sense, or even love as a feeling, but loving as an orientation and commitment.  Loving as an obligation to see your own desires for a good life, for safety, for a decent living, for connection with other people as shaping us to desire those same things for other people.  “For the sake of the union of the blessed Holy One with the Shekhinah, I stand here, ready in body and mind, to take upon myself the mitzvah “Ve’ahavta le’re’acha kamocha — You shall love your fellow human being as yourself” and by this merit, I open my mouth.

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