5774: A Year in Review

A Jewish Perspective

5774: A Year in Review
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About the Author

Stephen Wise

Rabbi Wise has focused much of his rabbinate in striving passionately to connect Jews of all ages to their Judaism. Whether its through prayer services, learning or social action, each presents a gateway to stronger Jewish identity. Rabbi Wise has worked recently developing programming for young adults in their 20-30's, starting ongoing successful groups in NYC and Florida, reigniting their connections to Judaism. Rabbi Wise is the spiritual leader for Oakville's Jewish community, and his congregation is Shaarei Beth-El on Morrison Road.

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When I read the paper each morning, and I see a story about Jews, I look very carefully. Is it good for the Jews? If so I cheer a little bit inside. If its bad for the Jews, I cringe. It was definitely cringe-worthy when I read about the tapes of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling speaking to his girlfriend. His racist stereotypes of blacks were laid out in the open when in one of his typical rants he told his girlfriend, “I don’t want those people, don’t bring black people to the game, just don’t come”.

The backlash was immediate, as players held ceremonial boycotting anything related to the Clippers. The team itself took off their jerseys and dumped them on the floor before their next game. Current and former players, both white and black such as Steve Nash, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson all decried his remarks and talked about it being a stain on the game. How do you punish a guy like this? He was not breaking any laws? He owns a basketball team. One would think he can do and say whatever he wants.

This summer has been full of stories of the darker side of athletics watching all-star NFL players accused or indicted of beating family members – such as Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. But those were prosecutable offenses, what if someone simply has racist attitudes? Can you punish that?

Donald Sterling the past owner of the LA Clippers

Donald Sterling the past owner of the LA Clippers

Adam Silver thought so. As commissioner of the NBA he immediately brought in all the other owners to discuss the consequences of NBA leaders having such attitudes. In an almost unprecedented move, he declared that the NBA does not want a person like Donald Sterling owning a team and began the process of forcing the sale to a new owner. Sterling fought it for a while but eventually was forced to sell the team.

Now, why would I mention this episode on the High holydays, because Donald Sterling is Jewish. When I first heard that I said to myself, “Why did he have to be Jewish”? I wasn’t making racist comments. But when one major Jewish figure like Sterling says something like that, I cringe and think, now the whole world’s
going to feel that every Jew is a racist. “Look at that, a rich white Jew, owns a team full of black players but doesn’t like black people”.

Why is it that we Jews are so connected this way?

But guess who’s also Jewish. Adam Silver. The guy running the NBA, the one who wouldn’t put up with one more nasty comment. The man who quickly and decisively acted in the best interests of the league and sports in general to declare this does not belong in the game. Yes Silver, he’s in our tribe, he stands up for justice and the Jewish way. All of us made a sigh of relief with his actions. The question is, why. Why is it that we Jews are so connected this way? How come when someone in prominence does something terrible we are all responsible and when someone does something wonderful we all cheer.

I’m sure you all swell with pride when you read that some Jew you never heard of just won a Nobel prize. It wasn’t just Arieh Warshel who won that Nobel prize in chemistry in 2014, I won that prize. You won that prize. She won, we all won, Judaism won.

When a Rabbi participated in the ALS ice bucket challenge, I was proud to be Jewish, and then I did it, and passed the challenge along to others including our own SBE board who took the challenge as well. What a great way to promote an important cause, especially for our community. At this point we know the campaign has peaked. But a brilliant synagogue on Long Island thought of a way to keep it going – Jewish style. There is a Mitzvah ice bucket challenge, do a mitzvah or dump water on your head, that is a great Jewish idea – I felt great to be a Jew.

When Bernie Madoff scammed thousands with his Ponzi scheme, I felt the guilt. I felt like it was me was walking beside him into jail. Everyone knew Madoff was Jewish. Why did it have to be a Jew, during the worst recession in years, to commit such an awful crime, confirming for the haters that it’s those money hungry Jews who control the world’s finances.

And when Ethel Steinberg, a Jewish woman I’ve never heard of, gets hit by a car at the corner of Bathurst and Steeles, I feel the pain. Do you know we have a Jewish website called Jewishpassings.com that sends out an email of Jews that died. You get a short bio and the funeral home information. Only our community has a daily shiva email for every Jewish death.

A man in France gets beaten up for wearing a kippah, and I feel like I was slapped in the face. A man in a deserted hilltop village in Ethiopia has Jewish roots, and we send in the Israeli army to pick him up and bring him to Israel. When that Air France plane was hijacked and the terrorists took the prisoners to a remote airport in Entebbe as hostages, of course it was like our own family members were there. We were with Yoni Netanyahu and the rest of the commandoes who snuck in and rescued each one of the hostages unharmed and killed all the terrorists. How could we not kvell when they made the movie and we watched powerful Jews fighting the bad guys.

When a Jew wins a medal at the Olympics look at how we react. I was actually crying when an Israeli won a medal years ago and they played hatikvah. We cheer for any Jew who plays any professional sport, no matter the team, because he is on our team. Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, Shawn Green and Ryan Braun. Braun by the way, when caught using steroids – bad for the Jews – repented by calling season tickets holders and personally apologizing last year around the high holydays – good for the Jews! There is a website dedicated to following any Jew in sports, even if they get one at bat, score one basket, take one shift. And we are right there with them.

Why? Why do we respond so personally and emotionally to every Jewish hero and villain?

One answer is because all Jews are connected. Kol aravim zeh b’zeh. Because we are a small group. How many Jews are there in the whole work, 12 million? It’s a tiny percentage. They say the world is connected through 6 degrees of separation, with our community its 3 degrees. Have you ever gone travelling and felt the strong pull to find the nearest synagogue and find out if there are any Jews nearby. Do you feel the need to open up the guest book and see who else has been there and end up finding you recognize at least one person.

We have, as Rabbi Kushner writes, invisible lines of connection between every Jew. We care deeply about the Jewish people, connected together around the world. When I prepare someone to enter our covenant as a Jew by choice I remind them when they step into the waters of the mikvah, then the waters here touch the shores of every land where Jews live. We are interconnected beyond whether we actually know a Jew personally, we know them because we are similar. No matter our skin colour or country of origin or the way we say our blessings, we are all Jews.

The Story of Paradise

“Paradise” not because it was more beautiful or wealthier than any other kingdom; but because it was a place where if one person needed help, there was always someone to lend a hand.

A story is told of a kingdom called “Paradise.” “Paradise” not because it was more beautiful or wealthier than any other kingdom; but because it was a place where if one person needed help, there was always someone to lend a hand. All of this was due to a wise king who knew that his subjects would treat one another the way he treated them. And so, he was always available, willing to lend a compassionate ear and to give generously from his royal resources.

Eventually the king grew old and his son the Prince assumed the throne in his stead.One day royal ministers appeared in the new court.

“You majesty, there is a terrible famine in the western regions of your kingdom. People are beginning to starve. We must do something.”

The Prince looked at the ministers and then at the plentiful bowls of food around the throne room. ‘There is a famine,” he asked?

“Yes,” they replied.

“And yet,” said the Prince, “I seem to have plenty of food.”

He thought for a moment and then responded, “It’s not my problem.”

The stunned ministers had no idea what to say and simply left the Prince’s presence.This pattern repeated itself time after time: The royal ministers would present a problem facing the people.The prince, looking upon his own wealth and resources would reply, “It’s not my problem.” Of course, the Prince’s attitude began to affect the citizens of the kingdom and “Paradise” soon turned into something else. Where once they had readily come to the aid of a neighbor or stranger, now they simply shook their head, ‘You’re having a problem?” they would say. “Well it’s not my problem.”

An old Fisherman, distressed by this turn of events, had an idea to restore the kingdom of old. He invited the Prince and his court for a boat ride, to enjoy a day out on the beautiful lake that was cherished by all the citizens of the kingdom. The Prince was delighted by the invitation and readily accepted.

As the day began to wane, the wind picked up and waves rocked the boat. A court official came to the Fisherman and asked that they return to shore.

“Of course,” the Fisherman replied. ‘I just have one more thing I need to do.”

With that he opened his tool box, took out a drill, walked to the center of the boat and began drilling a hole into the bottom of the boat.

“What are you doing?” the surprised official asked. “If you drill a hole the boat will fill with water and we will all drown.”

“It’s my boat,” the Fisherman replied, “and if I want to drill a hole then I will.”

Quickly the officer went to find his royal highness. The Prince was not about to let the Fisherman’s silliness ruin his wonderful day.

Becoming agitated the Prince now commanded, “Fisherman, I command you to stop Drilling, what gives you the right to do this?”

“It’s my boat,” the Fisherman said again, “and if I want to drill a hole then I will.”

Flooded Boat“Please,” the Prince now begged. “I don’t want to drown.”

Finally the Fisherman stopped drilling and looked up, “You don’t want to drown? Well, it’s not my problem.”

“What do you mean it’s not your problem?” cried the Prince.

“Everyone can see that my problem is your problem. We all can see that this is all of our problem. After all we are all in the same boat.”

“We’re all in the same boat?” the fisherman asked, looking with knowing eyes at the Prince.

Then like a man who had just figured out a great riddle the prince repeated. “We’re all on the same boat.”

Nodding his head in agreement the Fisherman responded, “Now we can go home.”

We Jews are all in the same boat, we are connected to one another and responsible for one another. That was the lesson Noah learned, a Jew who knew a lot about boats. He saw the entire world destroyed because of the way people treated each other. He realized when he came out of the ark after the flood that God wanted us to be responsible for one another, to treat each other kindly and generously.

As we must continue to do so, especially as we look back at our past and see how we have been treated. Our history books show a people that has been persecuted and attacked time after time. The highlights of our timeline do not show success stories. See here children, it was way back in 586 when they Babylonians destroyed our temple. We rebuilt it. But see here in 70 CE it was destroyed again this time by the Romans. Its ok we went to other lands and survived, until, that is, Spain expelled us in 1492. Then they expelled us from the rest of southern and Western Europe, so we set up in the East. So that we could be persecuted during the pogroms and then came the Holocaust.

We read these stories and study our history, not to depress ourselves but to show that we somehow made it. We are a fragile people, we suffered great losses. But we Jews have a way of surviving. Whether it was Roman times when we recreated Judaism from a Temple and sacrifice based religion to one built on prayer and study. Or whether we moved from land to land finding a safe haven. Jews are connected across history and time.

Each Jewish life is somewhat more fragile. We bruise, we have been through such suffering. When an Israeli soldier is kidnapped, it means the world to us. And if we have to exchange 1000 or 10,000 prisoners we will do it. The world looks at us as though we’re insane when we exchange so many for one. But Rabbi Hillel taught us, whosoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. That one life could be the one that wins the next Nobel Prize or comes up with some amazing invention or gets married and brings more Jewish children into the world. Life means so much. Jewish tradition makes use of the regular study of our sacred texts, blessings and prayers to make all moments of life sacred and special.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis writes in this Book, “God was not in the fire”, Judaism takes seriously the claim that spirituality can be found in every human interaction at any moment. When we realize that relationships between human beings can help us connect to the divine, human life acquires a more profoundly spiritual dimension. We not supposed to wait for the next life, we Jews don’t believe that when we die come back as a tree or a horse. We don’t have 70 virgins waiting for us. We don’t get another minute with our grandchildren. We have to act now. We don’t get another smoked meat sandwich. We don’t get to watch one more hockey game. That’s why when you get to Canada’s Wonderland and you see the game that costs 10 bucks to win the huge prize, you go for it. I call that achieving you childhood dream.

We have to make each moment count.

We have to make each moment count, each Jewish action is important. We can bring pride to our community. We know that our actions are magnified.. When a Jew makes a great comedy movie the whole world says Jews are funny. When a Jew scams a million dollars and goes to jail, the whole world says Jews love money. Israel kills a terrorist or returns fire from the enemy, the world puts in on the front page. Syria gasses thousands, Iraq marches a village to a quarry and murders them, no one cares.

We know it’s a double standard, but we have to deal with it. We are under the microscope, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves we must do better. We must be a light to the nations. It’s what God expects of us. That is why we are the chosen people. Not because are better than anyone else. It’s because we have the potential to do good in the world and God wants us to. God demands it of us.

On Yom Kippur we abstain from food, drink and sex. We are not going to worry about what we wear and how we look. We don’t do this to punish ourselves for our sins. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, we do it to symbolize dramatically the human ability, which no other animal has, to control our instincts and our behavior. We have morals, the basic human code that tells us after a certain action we feel bad and after another action we feel good. That morality is what God saw in us humans, the ability to control instinct, and that has made all the difference. We are the chosen people, in that we understand that we are supposed to set the example, whether that is fair or not. We must try and strive for what is good and right.

So when we see a Jew act like a mensch and bring goodness in the world, we can and should feel proud. Adam Silver stood up for the NBA and made us proud. Ryan Braun did teshuvah on Yom Kippur by calling ticket holders. Yoni Netanyahu flew into Entebbe to rescue strangers because they were Jewish. Anat Hoffman stands up for women’s rights in Israel. Irwin Cotler stands up for human rights in Canada. Let’s not forget the Jews
who cause us shame and embarrassment, but let us not focus on them either. We are responsible for one another, we are connected, we are in the same boat, so let’s be the Jew who will set the example, who others will look towards, so we can be that light to the nations and embody all that God wants of us.


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