On the Bima: Sermons, Divrei Torah, and Liturgical Composition

Kindness Counts – Chesed Chafatzti, V’lo Zevach (It’s Love I Require, Not Sacrifice)

Shabbat Shalom! Shana Tova! Thank you, Rabbi Helfman and thank you, Rabbi Splansky for the warm and gracious invitation to address the congregation this morning on Shabbat Shuva.

I think many of us were surprised on Erev Rosh Hashana to learn of the death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. As a dual-US-Canadian citizen, I admired both Justice Ginsburg and current Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella who both not only fulfilled the biblical mitzvah of “tzedek tzedek tirdof” – justice justice pursue, but both also realize that to be fully human, is to strive for the humanity and dignity of other human beings.

This past Wednesday, we heard this about Justice Ginsburg from Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt with her words of tribute in the brief memorial service as RBG lay in repose at the US Supreme Court: “To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity..and despite this to be able to see beyond the world you are in, to imagine that something can be different, that is the job of a prophet and it is the rare prophet who not only imagines a new world, but also makes that new world a reality.” It was extremely moving. An Similarly, Justice Abella has been described by her peers as a jurist who respects the rule of law and yet who understands that the purpose of the rule of law is to facilitate human flourishing.”

Rabbi Splansky wrote about RBG yesterday in her Rabbinic Reflection for Life@HBT. But there are three small words that Rabbi Holtzblatt used to desrcribe Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that have also been written about Rosalie Abella, and this is what I want to focus on this morning. Rabbi Holtzblatt said of RBG “She was kind. She was loving. She was deeply caring.” Kind…loving…caring. We can use one Hebrew word to sum up these traits: CHESED. Each was a person filled with Chesed. It is this Jewish value of chesed that imbued their work of pursuing justice, pursuing justice.

During these days of awe, these Yamim Nora’im this notion of “chesed” permeates our liturgy, our biblical texts and the very spirit and nature of these holy days.

We’ll examine a few examples this morning:

Beginning with Selichot, prior to RH, we refer to God as “Avinu Malkeinu” – Our Sovereign, Our Parent.” We know that God is judging our actions, our behaviour and weighing our deeds. That is the “malkeinu.” Yet, we hope that God will show us chesed – great love, and compassion, and rachamim, mercy. And temper that judgment with abounding love. If God is a loving parent, we also have that ability to turn back – lashuv – to God in chesed, in love, as God has the ability to bestow that chesed upon us. To bestow that chesed upon others in return.

How can we manifest chesed in the world we are living in, to others, the way we hope that the Holy One will show chesedto us?

My friends, we are living in an era where people have forgotten how to be kind, where the art of civil discourse has been lost, where social media is filled with vitriol and venom and where hatred and enmity seem to prevail.

This has been a difficult summer, a difficult six months. Tempers are running short due to the pandemic. People are weary, anxious, and worried. The rhetoric of the election campaigns in the United States can seem unbelievably painful. In the US, politics is hyper-partisan, and it’s difficult to have a civil conversation about politics or even covid – b/c covid has been politicized.

We are witnessing racism and xenophobia and antisemitism on the rise.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught by example how our world is much richer when we each don’t have the same opinion. It is not necessary for everyone to believe the same thing. But we need to do so respectfully. Her dissenting opinions were eloquent, articulate, passionate. One of her dearest friends on the court was Justice Antonin Scalia – with whom she often disagreed. They modelled how to respectfully agree to disagree.

In fact, Jewish tradition values and celebrates diversity of opinion.

We learn in the Talmud about two very learned schools of Jewish teaching, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. The House of Shammai would insist that Jewish practice abide by very stringent, strict guidelines. The House of Hillel’s teachings were more lenient. Once, students from both schools got into a heated argument over whose teachings truly reflected God’s will, over whose teachings were most authentically Jewish. In the midst of the discussion, a heavenly voice cried out: “Stop! Both teachings are the words of the living God! All the words were given to us by one God created them, blessed be God, has spoken them. … ” (Tosefta, Tractate Sota 7:12).

“Our capacity to disagree is holy. We are strong enough as a people to have a rigorous debate. Healthy public discourse is a sign of strength, not weakness.

‘‘The Talmud is never scandalized by disagreement; rather, the rabbis see it as a chance to understand the legal issues more deeply[1] to find a way to achieve harmony and consensus despite the differing opinions.

As theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer once said: “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.”

Let’s examine some other examples. We also see the notion of chesed reflected in our biblical texts during this sacred time:

This morning on Shabbat Shuva, we read from Hosea chapter 14. However, in Hosea, chapter 6, the prophet reminds the Israelites: Chesed chafatzti, v’lo zevach: ‘it is love I desire, and not sacrifice” . And as we look ahead to the Haftarah portion for Yom Kippur morning from Isaiah,. Isaiah repeats that message using different language: fasting is useless unless you show love, compassion and kindness to your fellow human being, by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the captive.

Rather, our fasting and self-denial will only have value if it means we are trying to figure out how to bring more “chesed” more kindness into our lives and the lives of those around us – like RBG did, like Rosalie Abella does. Our deep introspection into our souls will only have meaning if it’s turned into loving action.

In fact, Chesed – “lovingkindness” – is mentioned in the Torah over 190 times. The frequency of its appearance gives it primacy as one of the most important Jewish ethical values. Modern scholar Aviva Zornberg teaches that chesed is not simply “lovingkindness,” rather it goes beyond that to embrace the values of courage and imagination. If my views diverge from yours, how can I go out of my way to find a path to live in peace and harmony with you? To live in friendship and solidarity? To treat you with the dignity and respect that you deserve? It also means trying to understand what gives others pain.

In this amazing community – an example of the pain of the other..Great acts of chesed – when Holy Blossom inititated the cirlces of peace around the mosques after the Quebec city mosque shooting a few years ago. That act of chesed began a program of interfaith dialogue that has continued to this day…helping the Muslim and Jewish communities to learn more and understand more and more about each other – the challenges and the joys.

This is an example of what our tradition calls “courageous and compassionate” action when we see or hear injustice or cruelty. Peace and understanding are secured by our ears, listening sensitively and sincerely to the people around you. To speak out is making the word chesed come alive in its full sense of its meaning: showing lovingkindness to others with courage and imagination, helping to make our world become a more loving and just place for all who dwell here.

Chesed Counts. Kindness and love count. In our words and actions. Large and small. You may have heard of my dear friend Kim Smiley (she’s opening a shop on the corner of Eglinton and Old Park). She decided to do something personal to bring chesed to a larger, global population. She had over a decade of leadership experience in the nonprofit sector, where she focused on enriching the lives of those in need. She decided to use her artistic and entrepreneurial expertise to assist the vulnerable. So she started a jewelry company with a social mission. Kim believes in beauty for the public good. She created employment opportunities for marginalized populations, harnessing the power of fashion to empower women in need with training, work experience and a Living Wage. Next she created “The Empathy Effect”. It began as a humble social experiment and snowballed into a Social Movement. The overarching goal of The Empathy Effect

“It’s a platform to share stories of extraordinary people in the world… Sometimes we get a little cynical… we can become immune to other people’s suffering. The project reawakened people to something already within us.I want to show empathy on a global scale, not just through a local lens.” she said. Both of these projects were born of Kim’s deep understanding of the role of chesed in our lives as Jews.

There are so many people engaged in works of chesed – kindness and love, on a regular basis. And I know that Holy Blossom and many of you do this on both a large and small scale, in your homes, in the GTA community and in the larger global scale. Some do it quietly, without fanfare; others, as part of a group.

Together we can make our world a kinder, more compassionate place. A place where chesed prevails.

I began with Rabbi Holtzblatt’s words of tribute about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and I will end with a direct quote from Rosalie Abella when she was describing her time on the bench as a family court judge: “This was the hardest job I ever had, and where I learned how to listen. Every job I’ve had since started with my understanding of the world through the eyes of these people, who expected fairness, courage, an open mind — someone who listened and someone who was decisive.” Who listened through the lens of tzedek, justice and chesed..compassion for the humanity of every person’s humanity.

It is my hope, my dream that no matter what we face during the New Year ahead, that we can all face the vicissitudes of life with strength, resilience, courage and hope – with chesed in our hearts andaI close w/ a prayer from the Reform Movement’s siddur Mishkan T’filah:

May we gain wisdom in our lives,

Overflowing like a river with understanding

Loved, each of us – with great chesed – for the peace we bring to others.

May our deeds exceed our speech

And may we never lift our hand

But to conquer fear and doubts and despair.

Rise up like the sun, O god, over all humanity

Cause light to go forth over all the lands between the seas

And light up the universe w/ joy, of wholeness, of freedom and of peace.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah!



[1] Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, Shir Tikvah Congregation, Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 2015