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North Shore Temple Emanuel

a Progressive Jewish Congregation

Yizkor Sermon
Rabbi Misha Clebaner
Yom Kippur 5782


G’mar Chatimah Tovah and long life to everyone tuning in from home this afternoon.

In addition to serving as Rabbi here at NSTE, I am also the Director of our Meah Hebrew and Religion School. I make it a habit to check in with our students during the hafsakah break to see how the students are doing in their studies and just generally speaking.

The students are nice enough to pause from their play for a moment and share a little bit with me about how they are doing and what they have been up to in the previous week.

I have made an even greater effort to check in with the students in this time of Covid lockdowns, social distancing, and self-isolation.

During this time every student has tapped into their creative potential and has, each in their own way, turned a challenging time into one of new possibilities and opportunities.

One new and recurring answer that some students have been giving me is that they have started baking and cooking during the pandemic.

I’m sure that this is something many of us can relate to - looking for more ways to stay occupied and have fun within the boundaries of our own home.

One interesting pattern that emerged from the answers that I received from the students is that those that were baking were more or less creating the same baked goods - carrot cakes and chocolate chip cookies were popular choices.

But the students that were cooking, each had their own unique dish that they were experimenting with and there was rarely overlap between their dishes.

One student might have attempted to make a Thai noodle dish while another was making soups.

There is a certain uniformity when it comes to baking. If that uniformity was not necessarily in how many people were making the same baked goods, then for the few that were baking this same cookie or the same cake they were at least using the same recipe.

While it is commonplace for bakers to follow identical ingredient lists, it is rare for a cook to do the exact same thing as the person standing next to them. The tastes and circumstances of each person are far too personal or idiosyncratic.

Rules exist in both of these fields, yet there is more fluidity and flexibility in one than there is in the other.

Neither craft is better than the other craft. It is not more honourable to be precise and exacting than it is to be adaptive and innovative.

Nor is it more praise-worthy to create something new than it is to hold fast to prior traditions.

Both avenues of self-expression, the punctilious and the flexible are valid and good.

These same rigid and flexible options exist within Judaism as well.

Whether it is a long-standing and unchanged tradition or a newly crafted and deeply personal ritual, we interact with these customs throughout the year and throughout our lives. These moments of holy encounter and connection can be found in the sanctuary during a bar or bat mitzvah, or even this afternoon in one’s own home for Yiskor or during a Yahrzeit.

In Judaism, the boundaries between the solidified and the malleable usually break down along the lines of biblical commandments versus those instituted by the later rabbis.

Biblical commands are like the recipes that one follows when they are baking. They are to be observed or disaster will surely follow!

A rabbinic precept, on the other hand, is like a dish that was created by a chef that has mastered every rule in the book but also had a keen understanding of the people in the room and what their tastes are.

The onus of responsibility for knowing when to adapt traditions and when not to was historically balanced between the communal leaders or rabbis and the average everyday Jew.

Whether it was intentional or accidental, both leaders and community members alike, inevitably altered many rituals that they engaged with to make them more meaningful.

As we ushered in the New Year of 5782 with the onset of Rosh Hashanah last week, we also ushered in a year-long ritual known as the sabbatical year or shmita. When we have completed 6 years in a 7-year cycle agricultural and financial practices are interrupted with the hopes of moving society from the practical towards the just and equitable.

In this 7th year, land may no longer be cultivated or harvested and all personal loans must be forgiven.

Although the people know that shmita is coming every 7 years, nevertheless the Jewish people always find themselves in a pickle for how to observe the various customs associated with this time.

The primary question being: why bother giving a loan in the 5th or 6th year, when it will just be erased in the year to come?

Despite the difficulty of this mitzvah, it was nevertheless a biblical mitzvah, a recipe from on high.

But with its standards so high, was it a recipe for disaster as people would turn away from God’s word?

The post-biblical rabbinic thinkers re-read the strict baking recipe of the sabbatical year, and they put their chef and innovator hats on instead.

The poor still need loans, yet the lenders are hesitant to give, so Rabbi Hillel pointed out that only personal loans have to be forgiven. If someone gives their money to a local court and then it is the court that gives the money to the poor, then this is no longer a personal loan and therefore it won’t need to be forgiven.

The rigid demand for helping the poor was saved by Rabbi Hillel’s flexible and creative thinking of how we define a loan between two people.

Just as the sabbatical shmita was redeemed through innovation and adaptation, so too, do we find ourselves with myriad laws, customs, and rituals concerning mourning practices and how we remember and honour the memories of our loved ones.

According to Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Mourning 1:1), the only biblically commanded period of mourning that we are obligated to observe for our closest relatives are the first seven days after burial, known as shiva.

However, sensing a need for further structures to support those in grief, the rabbis adapted and innovated and developed customs to mourn for an additional 3 weeks totaling 30 days in total or shloshim, and then up to a year when mourning one’s parents.

The creation of mourning customs did not stop with shloshim, rituals like saying kaddish for a parent or lighting a candle on their annual yahrzeit developed generations later.

For some of us, the various customs associated with mourning and remembering our loved ones have transitioned from the world of the suggested and improvised to the world of the necessary and non-negotiable.

For others, some of the various mourning rituals can feel a bit overwhelming.

Or perhaps we have the desire to ritualise our commemoration but the old rituals do not speak to us and so we perform a different set of actions to remind us of our loved ones.

At times, when we mourn we find ourselves in a state of uniformity, performing the same rituals and reciting the same blessings as other mourners.

At other times, our needs are idiosyncratic and we need something specific to feel a connection to the friends and family no longer with us.

Whether I would speak to my students that ventured into baking or with the students that experimented by cooking new dishes, each one shared with me their pride in how much they enjoyed the cooking or baking process.

This same sense of pride should be felt by all of us in how we mourn or commemorate our loved ones, regardless of how it is done. Whether it is big and public, or small and personal. Each one is valid and beautiful in its own way.

If the Judaism that we have received does not speak to us, we must channel our inner Rabbi Hillel and create rituals that do sustain us and speak to us.

The lives and stories of our loved ones can be manifested through us in any number of ways. Whichever way helps us to feel connected to them is the sacred and holy way.

Wishing everyone a g’mar chatimah tovah and long life as your recall your loved ones.

Wed, 6 December 2023 23 Kislev 5784