Thursday, September 18, 2003

Here's a letter that I am grateful to have gotten published in today's Vancouver Sun (Sept 17) in response to someone else's letter.

Re: Same-sex marriage poses a constitutional conundrum (Sept 16)

In his letter, Sam Wharton argues that the Canadian constitution's reference to the "supremacy of God" conflicts with legally recognizing marriage between same-sex couples. Unfortuately, he's confusing God with religion -- a common human error. It is historically true that religions have opposed homosexuality. We really can't be confident, though, that we know God's position on the issue. I suggest that all religious traditions -- even the great Biblically-based world religions to whom Mr. Wharton assigns the God of the Canadian constitution -- are human institutions doing their best at discerning and transmitting what they believe about God. As a student of religion, I counsel caution and humility in our sense that we have absolute knowledge of God. As a religious person, I see the divine presence in the love between same-sex couples just as fully as I see it between a woman and a man. And, as a religious person, I see no contradiction between the Constitution's principle of the "supremacy of God" and legally recognizing marriage between couples of the same sex.

Rabbi David Mivasair

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Q: I have discovered that the term "Rosh Hashana" is not in the Torah, neither in the references to the celebration of Tishri 1 in Va'yikra nor in the one in Ba'midbar, other names being used for the Chag in both instances.

Could you enlighten us on the origin of the phrase Hayom ha'rat Olam (other than that it is quoted in the song by Chana Tiferet Siegel!)?

A: You are right that the Torah never refers to "Rosh Hashana". We are commanded to make a holy day on the first day of the seventh month and to blow the shofar, but it's not called Rosh Hashana.

However in the Mishna -- written about 200 CE -- we read that there are four rashei shanim, i.e. four new years for four different purposes. You certainly know one of them -- the 15th of the month of Shvat, called Tu b'Shvat, the rosh ha-shana le-illanot, New Year of the Trees.

In that Mishna, Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shim'on teach that the first of Tishrei is the rosh ha-shana la-shanim, ve-la-shmitin ve-la-yovlot, la-nti'ot ve-la-yrakot -- new year for years, sabbaticals, jubilees, plantings and greens. That's the first reference to the first of Tishrei as the new year for years.

It's interesting that Rosh Hashana is not the first day of the first month but the first day of the seventh month. You'd expect the first day of the year to be the first day of the first month, wouldn't you. Hmmm . . .

Our first month is Nissan, the month of Pesah. As a matter of fact, according to Rashi, the first mitzvah given to all the Jewish people is in Exodus 12:2 when we are still in Egypt in slavery and are commanded "This month shall be the first of months for you . . ."

There is a significance to this apparent enigma in our calendar, Rosh Hashana coming at the beginning of the seventh month instead of the first. Nissan in the spring is the time of birth of our nation so it is our first month. It is the first month of our particular Jewish years. It is based on our particular Jewish national experience.

The first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) is Rosh Hashana, the new year for years, because it is the day on which the world was created. This idea is first recorded in the Talmud Bavli in tractate Rosh Hashana 10b. Rabbi Eliezer teaches be-Tishrei nivra ha-olam -- in Tishrei the world was created. This is expressed as ha-yom harat olam -- today the world was conceived -- in our Rosh Hashana Musaf davvening after each of the three shofar calls. (And this is our reference point for the title of your workshop on Rosh Hashana for our community.)

So, from all this you can see that Rosh Hashana is the particular Jewish way of celebrating the universal New Year.

Anyone reading this would wonder exactly how Rabbi Eliezer knew that the world was created in Tishrei, right? I mean, it's not exactly obvious, is it. And he's not allowed to just make things up and say that they are so. So, the Talmud (on 11a) goes on and discusses how he knew it. He figured that since at Creation God commanded there to be grasses and trees with their own kind of seed, the fruit must have been mature and therefore it must have been the season of Tishrei. Nu? Simple logic.

So that is the origin of Ha-Yom Harat Olam, a particularly fitting title for your Rosh Hashana workshop on Judaism's environmental teachings.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

One of the principles that our Ahavat Olam congregation clearly stands for is making a difference in the world around us.

Our stand on same-sex Jewish religious marriage was the impetus for a very supportive and timely editorial in the Jewish Western Bulletin which reaches thousands of homes in the Lower Mainland and beyond.

I am very grateful to everyone who makes up the Ahavat Olam community and thereby enables this vital work to be done in our Jewish community. We are an important component of the broader community and will, be-ezrat ha-Shem, have an impact on the broader society as well.