Happy Sukkot/Chag Sukkot Sameach!
As you may know, in Judaism, there is a traditional belief that on Rosh HaShanah, we beg god to be inscribed in the Book of Life and that on Yom Kippur, these fates are “sealed”. However, you may not know that many Jewish sages extend the deadline of this sealing until the end of Hoshana Rabba – the 7th Day of Sukkot, today!
While I struggle philosophically with the notion of a Book of Life, I have always been immensely proud of the value that Judaism places on life – a quality of our community that is not to be taken for granted in today’s world. Judaism truly gives significant importance to life. And not just affluent life or prosperous life, but life in and of itself.
In Deuteronomy 30:19, god tells the people of Israel, “I set before you life and death, therefore choose life”, and choose life we did. We created a system of Jewish law that values pekuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, over virtually any other religious or legal consideration. We toast l’chaim, to life. We wear the word chai, life, around our necks. When celebrating simchas, we give gifts and donations in increments of $18 (the numerical interpretation of the word chai). We sometimes even name our sons and daughters Chaya or Chayim, literally naming them life.
But here’s the thing about Judaism’s appreciation of life: it does not end at cherishing the life of individuals. In Judaism, we ascribe great value to the life of our community. That’s why for hundreds of years, the rallying cry of the Jewish people has not glorified our strength, our intelligence, or our superiority. Not at all. Instead, our motto is three words: Am Yisrael Chai. The Nation of Israel lives. These same three words can be heard over and over again in recordings of various points in Jewish history: from the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945, to the rallies of the Let My People Go Movement in the 70’s, to Shabbat celebrations at Camp Kadimah today.
Therefore, I ask each of you reading this today – does the Jewish community of Atlantic Canada have life?
While our skeptics from bigger Jewish communities might not think so, I believe unequivocally that our community is not only surviving but it’s thriving.
There are big signs of Jewish life everywhere: We have highly engaging and well-utilized programs for every demographic of our youth like PJ Library, JOLT, Hillel, Birthright, and Camp Kadimah. We have an impactful and well-coordinated system of Holocaust Education that sees more than 8 Yom HaShoah ceremonies happen in every city from Fredericton to St. John’s. We have an Israeli schlicha who has brought dozens of Israel-related programs to Atlantic Canada. We have a robust scholarship system in place to help individuals in our community experience Israel, Jewish summer camp, Jewish studies, post-secondary education, and more. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. One need not look further than any recent edition of Shalom Magazine or our 2018 Annual Report to see the obvious signs of Jewish life in Atlantic Canada.
However, there are also more subtle signs of Jewish life in Halifax. When Jews in need approach us for help, we are able to provide them with emergency funding. When someone passes away in Atlantic Canada, we publicize the news in the hopes that others will reach out in support. When a family is going through a hard time, we coordinate assistance programs. To me, the impact that we are able to have in these ways is just as, if not more, important than our bigger programmatic initiatives – even if we can’t always talk about it.
According to the Talmud, there are three ways in which we can alter our fate and be sealed into the book of life between the start of Rosh HaShanah and the end of Hoshana Rabba (today): 1. Teshuva (repentance); 2. Tefillah(prayer); and 3. Tzedakah (charity).
When I first read this, I had to stop and ask: Why is charity on this list? How can money undo our wrong-doings?
Fittingly, our sages say that the reason Tzedakah (charity) has the ability to convince god to inscribe our names in the book of life is that Tzedakah is the root of life. Of course, in a very realistic sense, tzedakah can literally save a human life. But more than that, when it comes to community life, tzedakah does not just sustain life, it creates it.
That is why, this year, in 2018 (20-chai, if you will), we have decided to give our UJA campaign the theme l’chaim, and we are asking each and every one of you to donate and thereby invest in the life of our community. And in honour of this special 2018 l’chaim initiative, a very generous anonymous donor has agreed to match any new gifts or increases to the UJA Campaign dollar-for-dollar up to a total of $18,000. That means that if you’ve never given to the UJA campaign before, the value of your gift will be doubled. And if you do give regularly to the campaign, any amount that you choose to increase your gift by will be doubled as well.
I’ll end with one of my favourite Jewish quotes about life from our learned sages Tevye the milkman & Lazar Wolf : “Life has a way of confusing us, Blessing and bruising us”. So please, this year, give generously, give l’chaim, to life!