It is in these days of “awe” that we ponder being good so we can be written into the “Book of Life”. As early as Hebrew kindergarten, our teachers drew mammoth books that sprawled across the green chalk boards and pointed to the pages wherein our names might be inscribed. Of course, there were rules that permitted us entry: prayer , good deeds, atonement, confession. And so the high holidays are the few days of attendance at synagogue where there is almost a full contingent of worshippers hoping that their presence will besiege G- d to grant them if not long life, at least another year on this earth. I think the dark and ominous Hebrew school image pervades the minds of many. However, for others as we discussed yesterday at my sister-in- law’s after shul lunch, there is a sense of community fostered in places of worship, especially at the thought of momentous events: an opportunity by choice to congregate with those related by religion or choice of religion.
I’ve said it before : that Elyse Goldstein, the rabbi, who recasts a church on Bloor Street into a place of Jewish worship is able to flawlessly create that community, to welcome all who would like to come , gather, pray, attend and enable them to feel they are part of something bigger than just themselves. Having departed a more organized Conservative synagogue years ago, we have followed her throughout the city, when basketball hoops were adorned with flowers and purple convention centres made room for the overflowing mass of attendees.
Surprisingly on the first day of the High Holidays, the Dvar Torah which is a commentary on the Torah reading was for the first time in my years of attendance -disappointing. Usually the speaker will reflect on an idea, even a personal experience and move from the self outward towards a scholarly or universal comment, spurred on by the portion of the day from the Torah. This time, the speaker focused on and about himself, forgetting his responsibility to the community to broaden , to enlighten, to move outward. I’m quite sure he felt others would see his story as emblematic , even iconic. Instead it was thin, self- serving. Instead of fast attention to new insights, people fidgeted, looked away, were disappointed. At least, we were even annoyed, as he had used the wise and painful words of a former speaker in years past to introduce his talk. So instead of a probing search that introduced a connection to inspire, we were given something that was not in the same class, even ballpark, as previous heartfelt messages.
But also, fortunately, yesterday on the poorly attended second day( people must feel one day will suffice to secure their life in earth), the second Dvar Torah presenter played on the meaning of Heneni, meaning Here I am, the words used by Abraham when G- d bids him take his son to slaughter. (In a provocative way, Jonathan Safran Foyer has used the expression in his novel, playing off this exclamation that suddenly initiated a cessation of all activities ,causing Abraham to stand rock still ,listen and become accountable for his actions.). As well,at Goldstein’s place of worship, a rabbinical student provided a riveting story, worthy of Ira Glass’s NPR entitled, “ I walked into San Quentin jail.” Lenzner( spelling apologizes) addressed “ the torah within” as he recounted the “ Torah stories” shared by people he met en route to the jail, their special sparks, and godlike qualities. Removed from the vagaries and daily concerns, we were reminded of youth as the torch- bearers into issues of social justice, thoughtfulness and reflection.
Yet, in this era of cell phones, people are primarily concerned with themselves and have to be told to turn off the damn things. As I ruminate on the contrasting speeches, I think of Transparent whose ground breaking work in television showcases trans people and I experienced dislike for the characters in the show. I never responded to the Seinfeld people either, judging them selfish, self- centred types whose own reoccupations with themselves most often overtook the interests or concerns of others. Yet in their defence, usually they were a funny outrageous lot. Yet Transparent’s people continually wound , hurt and disregard the feelings of others. The topic ,of course, is serious stuff so as a spectator to their unravelling lives, I have empathized, considered and felt myself open to their inactions. But I have noted Maura insisting on a Kaddish at the end of an inspiring community havdalah that turns the end of the Sabbath into a dirge- even as the rabbi tries unsuccessfully to stop him. In this case, I don’t disagree on his insistence of wanting to honour the dead, but woefully, it is the time and place , forcing her own desires on everyone else, asserting them over any one else’s, ignoring the rabbi’s voice, deaf to the pleas entreating, “Please stop!” We see this time and again in Transparent where individual needs impact painfully on others, no one apparently self- reflective enough to put another first.
Here I am not being critical of this community as Seinfeld’s and people we meet every day share in this me- first attitude. Sadly, it is these aspects of human behaviour that rear their unkindly heads.
I was taught somewhere that Hillel, the sage was asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Non- plussed, he replied: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” I like the wisdom and the simplicity of the statement. But I suppose that means to think before acting, contemplate, be mindful, reflect.
For my parents on these high holidays, they sought the community of one another. They did not attend synagogue, even as both sets of grandparents had been the founders of two established synagogues in Toronto when immigrants arrived. My father felt betrayed by G-d by his polio so he found his own way of praying as he still considered himself a Jew. He and my mother would spend the two days in Agawa Canyon or some other beautiful place in Northern Ontario, appreciating the fall weather, riding a train into the landscape, participating in their own way in the coming of the new year. They did not work on that day, as Sandy Koufax refused to play the World Series game. They chose to be part, yet apart from the larger Jewish community. And I have no problem with that.
My father demonstrated that to be a good Jew meant to be a good person and he lived that mantra in his speech, interactions, behaviour and decorum. The essence, I believe, of Rosh Hashanah and the days of awe leading up to Yom Kippur, with the ritual cleansing by fast. For him, his life was humble, exemplar. Without fancy dress, elaborate words, over bearing presence and certainly no public declaration of “ his goodness”, he did what he did. So too, do numerous people who do not use the pulpit for self- aggrandizement. And worse yet, many do not even realize they do. As the first speaker at the pulpit for the Dvar Torah did.
Yet at City Shul, it is also community and the weird connection that is sustained by everyone reading the same words , whether in San Diego, Berlin or Jerusalem, at the same time, coming together for the same purpose: to greet another year with thoughts of the past year and how we might atone, go forth, improve ourselves by our actions.
In truth, humanity is expressed by simple gestures. Last week I received a note from a fellow who had worked with my father in 1950, a note that opened a river of emotions and allowed me insight into my father that I had forgotten. Instead of parents and protectors, my hardworking good parents were warm, bubbling , reserved but friendly people: a perspective we tend to overlook or forget as the years go by, solidifying them into stereotypes and moments that have come to be frozen in our heads. Harry( Harold) gave my sister and me a precious gift, a renewed way to remember them. His kind gesture meant the world to us. It is in this way, that kindness, remembrance, renewed thoughts and feelings can occur in the new year: to trigger by reflection a way to move ahead.
As it is written,
Our origin is dust,
and dust is our end,
Each of us is a shattered urn,
a grass that must wither.
a flower that will fade,
a shadow moving on,
a cloud passing by,
a particle of dust floating in the wind,
a dream soon forgotten.