Monthly archives "August 2017"

Why Hurt, Little Tooth?

This story was first told by Rabbi Corinne Copnick at a storytelling conference in Toronto, Ontario and later published on

Why Hurt, Little Tooth?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

I’m going to tell you a story – a true story about my father who was a Montreal dentist. I first told this story at a storytelling session, where one creative artist after another got up and told a story. We made them up. To relax. For fun. Because, after two days of workshopping, it was a time for sharing. And now I want to share my story with you.

At the storytelling session, just before my turn, a young student was telling a story about chickens, and the story preceding her story concerned the financially hard times we were experiencing in Canada in the early nineties.

But only half of my mind listened to the students’ tales. I was spinning my own reverie, the other part of my mind taking me back to the the 1930s, to the “real” depression years. I was thinking about hard times, about chickens…about my father. He had so recently passed away.

The chickens I was remembering were the ones my father got in return for fillings in the jobless thirties. Then people asked, “Are you working?” instead of “Hello, how are you?” If you were working, you were obviously all right.

In that very real depression in 1936, the year I was born, my father was accepting not only chickens, but their offspring, eggs. He would receive a wide assortment of other small items (usually grown in people’s back yards) bartered in return for dental work. His impoverished clients could not otherwise pay. My father had been providing food for his own little family in this way since 1933, the year he graduated in dentistry from McGill University.

He had actually been accepted into medicine, quite an achievement at a time when McGill accepted few Jews, especially a poor boy like my father – who sat with his hands covering the elbow holes of his jacket.

My father, the son of a junk peddler, was the only one of eight children to make it to university. This he did by dint of several scholarships and also by holding three jobs at the same time. He peeled potatoes at the amusement park (late night shift), worked as a longshoreman on the docks (summer), and served as a guide on a Montreal tour bus (weekends).

But he couldn’t accept his hard-won entry into medicine. In those days, a Canadian medical graduate had to do a two-year, unpaid hospital internship after graduation. This my father could never afford.

Instead he went into dentistry, which didn’t require the roadblock internship. Although he was very proud of his surgical skills, what I remember most about my father was his compassion. Quite simply, he cared about his patients. He was the kind of dentist who brought morning tea and toast to a disabled patient he was worried about. Once I saw him give back money to a woman who paid him in handkerchief-wrapped quarters and dimes.

“You’ll pay me when you have a little more money,” he said softly. And when his patients didn’t have any, they could bring him some bread or home-baked cake or garden peas – or a chicken.

We ate a lot of chicken. In those old-fashioned, caring, depression days, my father’s office was in our home. In 1939 just before he voluntarily joined the army and went to war, I was just a little girl, but I remember playing with toys in my father’s waiting room. I remember watching the stream of dental patients come with food and go out with fillings.

I remember the incredulous screams of joy that came from his office late one afternoon. My mother came running, and, for a long while after that, I heard sounds that, even to my little girl’s ears that didn’t know yet about miracles, signaled that something momentous was taking place here, in my father’s office.

As I peeked in the doorway, I could see that an elderly woman who had come with a chicken was sitting in the dental chair. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, and they were also making joyful pathways down the face of the sister who stood, clutching her hand, beside her.

My father also stood, transfixed, his voice husky with emotion as he asked the elderly woman questions pertinent to this moment none of them would ever forget.

“You can see?” he asked in a hushed tone.

“I can see, I can see,” the woman smiled through her tears. “Oh, dear God, I can see!”

Her sister had brought her to my father’s dental office because she had been suffering from an agonizing toothache. To go to a dentist cost money she couldn’t afford, and she had waited and waited until she couldn’t bear the pain any more. How could one little tooth hurt so  much?

Finally, she came to my father. A kind man who would accept whatever she could spare, people said, and so she came with her little offering of food. She walked in, guided by her sister, because the elderly lady was blind. She had been unable to see anything, not anything at all, for several years.

As my father tried to alleviate this terrible ache with his dental arts, as he extracted the rotted, blackened tooth that poverty had kept in the old lady’s mouth, she began to shriek her joyful disbelief. The tooth had been pressing on an optic nerve. For all of the several years the woman had been unable to see.

In my father’s dental chair, as the tooth was removed, as the pressure on the nerve was taken away, she began to see. Oh, not all at once! At first she could only see shadowy glimpses, floating by in black and white. But in the days before color and clarity once again began to fill her world, she could see images – beautiful, long-lost images. She could see the shape of things to come. She could see that the world was a wondrous place where miracles can happen. And that there were people like my father in it.

It was not long after this incident that my father began to feed his family (now there was my sister) with a monthly check from the army. And in the newsletter printed by the Canadian army in Canada, and also in England where my father was stationed during World War II, a poem written by him appeared.

The poem was called, “Why hurt, little tooth?” It didn’t mention the elderly lady. It didn’t mention the miracle. I was only a little girl, but even I knew that the little tooth didn’t hurt any more.


SHOFTIM (Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9)

  • August 25, 2017 at 5:44 pm

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Amazing how an age-old Torah portion can apply so well to our contemporary world! Shoftim (which means “magistrates”) is a “Law and Order” portion in the best sense: the first thing the biblical Israelites are obliged to do in setting up their new society is to appoint magistrates and officials for all their tribes. At the same time, these officials are mandated to govern with justice. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you (16:20)

But first the officials have to organize themselves. If the people want to appoint a king because all the neighboring people have kings, they are free – but not obligated — to do so. While this king will serve as what we moderns call the “Executive Branch”, his power will not be absolute. Not by a longshot. Government will have three “crowns”: the Executive Branch, the Judiciary, and the Prophets (the religious branch, a congress of social and moral critics). Does this sound familiar? Yes, following the biblical pattern, the U.S. government is three-branched as well. Each branch serves as a check upon the other in order to have a balanced system.

Furthermore, the character of the king, the head of this government in biblical times, is defined at length. He must not be concerned with acquiring material possessions for himself (no traveling to Egypt to get the best horses!) nor acquire many wives “lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess” (17::17). This king will not indulge in licentious behavior. Instead, he must keep a copy of the Torah beside him and study it daily in order to further develop and guide his moral and ethical sensibilities. With an awareness of the limits of his power under God, the king of Israel must be humble in nature.

This portrait of a Chief Executive may be idealistic (with his taste for many wives and possessions, King Solomon didn’t manage to fulfill these requirements – and he taxed the people too heavily), but It’s certainly a recipe for good government.

The people, too, are advised to comport themselves appropriately and not “imitate the abhorrent practices” of the surrounding nations. (18:9).

Furthermore, the judiciary must temper justice with compassion and with fairness towards both rich and poor. Status in society will not affect the outcome. This was a big statement for the Torah to make. Even though “justice for all” is a precept of American society as well, unfortunately status and riches still affect both treatment by law enforcement and verdicts rendered today: Can someone charged with an offence afford a good lawyer, or is that person relegated to the legal services of an overburdened public defender? Does race, color, and ingrained prejudice affect the verdict (and perhaps the severity of the charge)? If so, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

As for the priests, the third branch, they are freed from worrying about material possessions (which the populace will look after). Neither can they own land; rather, “the Lord is their portion (18:2). The people, too, are advised to comport themselves appropriately and not “imitate the abhorrent practices” of the surrounding nations. (18:9).

Hopefully, there will be peace – that is always the goal — but there is a sober assessment of how to comport oneself in the event of war. “Why do the prescriptions concerning warfare follow the rules of justice in the preceding chapter?” asks the medieval scholar, Rashi. “To teach that Israel will succeed in war only if it practices justice.” *

What I find so touching in this parasha are the words that the priests must say to the soldiers before every battle, an address still practiced in Israel today. Soldiers are not simply pawns in a chess game for the purposes of the State; they are human beings entitled to a taste of life before being sent, perhaps to face death, to protect their country. In Shoftim, first the priests are to counsel the troops not to fear because God will be with them, and then they are to address their very human concerns:

“Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her (20:5-9)” **

Then the biblical priests turn to another concern: fear in the ranks, which is treated with compassion: “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his” (20:8). Only after these issues are addressed, do the military commanders encourage their troops to defend their new land.

Even after all this preparatory talk, there is an essential point to be made. Before engaging in battle, the commanders are obliged to offer the alternative of peace to their adversaries. They may launch an attack only if peaceful relations have been refused.

With the prospect of several thousand additional U.S. troops – our sons and daughters — soon to be called up to serve in Afghanistan, these biblical precepts are important to understand and remember. Situations change, wars and their devastating consequences come and go in history, but human nature is constant.

*Quoted by Rabbi Gunther Plaut in “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition (New York: Union for Reform Judaism) 1314.

**With these concerns in mind, in the modern Israeli army, soldiers who have not yet had children, are encouraged to consign their frozen semen to a sperm bank.

Looking for Positives…

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

If there is anything positive to emerge from the current, gut-wrenching television coverage of Nazi flags and slogans, swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes, torch parades with uncovered faces, and violence in the streets of America, perhaps it is this: that our millennial generation will begin to understand how manipulated hatred — grounded in fear, racism, and bigotry — can spread like a cancer through an unsuspecting population. Maybe they will understand why there must be a State of Israel.

Fortunately, there are gentler ways to teach about the Holocaust and its ramifications, as “Schindler’s List “and many other fine films have demonstrated – so that hopefully it will never happen again. Learning about the history of that time from the lips of those who experienced it is irreplaceable, of course, but there are fewer survivors now every year.

One such survivor – in that he escaped Germany on the cusp of the Holocaust – was the esteemed, late Rabbi Gunther Plaut. More than four decades after World War II, I met him in Toronto, Canada, where he had been the longtime rabbi, soon to become Rabbi Emeritus, of the highly regarded Holy Blossom Temple.* During the 15 years I lived in that city, I was a member there. I consider myself blessed to have attended Rabbi Plaut’s Torah Study classes each week..

It was the late 1980s, and I was deeply honored when he asked me to direct a reading of his one-act play about the Holocaust. Although he had written it long ago, he had kept it to himself for many years. Now he wanted to open his experience as a young man in Nazi Germany to his congregation.

The play was called “The Train.” It portrayed the painful, dislocated feelings of a new Doctor of Laws graduate from the University of Berlin in 1934, forced to leave his native Germany after the restrictive Nuremberg Laws (first introduced on September 15, 1935 but not enforced until after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) prevented him from practicing law. Even worse, Jews were stripped of their citizenship.**

The young lawyer represented in the play was, of course, our esteemed rabbi, Gunther Plaut. The conflicted feelings expressed were his own as he left family, friends, his now denied means of making a living, and the country he once loved for America. Luckier than most, he had gained sponsorship to rabbinic studies in the U.S. There he would study Jewish law.

As the war came to a close in 1945, Rabbi Gunther Plaut would be among the army chaplains who participated in liberating the concentration camps, the death camps, in Europe. It was an experience he would never forget. And he would go on to become a great rabbi, one of the pioneers of the Reform movement in Canada and regarded internationally as a highly erudite author. His landmark book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, is still widely used today.

When we mounted Rabbi Plaut’s play, he was truly thrilled to be cast as the Narrator (he had thrown out a few hints that he’d like to do it!), whose commentary was a hallmark of the play. Thespian members of the congregation filled the other roles, and one of the congregational members was a talented harpist who played in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. When the soft cadences of her harp accompanied his narrations, shivers went up and down my spine. The play was extremely moving for the audience. For Rabbi Plaut, I think it was cathartic to have the feelings of his younger self, buried for so many years, enacted on the stage – and shared with the receptive, loving members of his congregation. The audience – the auditorium was packed — watched the performance with tears in their eyes and gave it a standing ovation when it ended.

When he retired, the Law Society of Ontario awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, a thoughtful and sensitive replacement for the degree he was forbidden to use as a young man in Nazi Germany.***

The Holy Blossoms refer to the tender young shoots, the students who study Torah.

** Prior to the passing of the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, The Law for Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which passed on April 7, 1933, excluded non-Aryans from the legal profession and civil service. The Nuremberg Laws two years later codified the racial theories and ideology of the Nazi party. The first two laws passed in 1935 were the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Jews (defined racially rather than religiously) were stripped of their citizenship, and the new laws had a devastating economic impact on the Jewish community as well.

*** The following is a narration from the dramatized The March of Times radio series about the Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938:

NARRATOR: “Tonight, hour after hour, by short-wave wireless through the ether and along the cables undersea, the news piles up from the capitals of Europe…world-shaking, momentous news that sends Britain’s grave Prime Minister flying to Adolph Hitler and President Roosevelt hurrying back to Washington…the grim, portentous news that Sudeten Germans are in armed revolt, and behind every dispatch the mounting fear that the field-gray German regiments, mobilized and ready, may march into Czechoslovakia. All this week, day after day, and every hour of each day, the news poured in…and tomorrow and all next week, news will come from London, from Paris, from Prague, from Berlin. And as the headlines record each flying fact and rumor, United States citizens watch and wait and try to understand” (“The March of Time: Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938,” Generic Radio Workshop Script Library (

A Fable For Our Times

“How do you know that your blood is redder than his, perhaps his blood is redder than yours?”

(Rava in Sanhedrin 74a, Talmud)

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

I didn’t know yet that the Talmud teaches each and every life has value. I learned it by example when I was eleven years old from an animal, from my pet cat, Buttons. She was a beautiful Persian cat with piercing green eyes and fur so glossy and black it seemed to have purple highlights. Naturally she attracted the attention of some of the neighborhood Toms, and soon we noticed that Buttons seemed heavier around her middle.

Then one evening as I was taking a bath, I heard sounds behind the tile bathroom walls, faint sounds. Mice? No, they seemed to be mewing sounds…behind the wall. Wrapping my towel around me, I rushed to the cupboard just outside our bathroom. Sure enough, the cover to the opening of the wide pipe that ran behind the bathroom wall had been chewed off. I put my ear to the pipe and listened. Yes, those sounds were alive, and, oh, the heated air was warm in there.

With eleven-year-old valor, I reached my hand in as far as I could and touched…wet fur. That is how I lifted out, first one, then two little kittens. But I could still hear a faint mewing. Stretching my arm to the limit, I reached in once more and lifted out a third kitten. Jubilant, I carried them all downstairs to our warm kitchen and settled them comfortably in a basket lined with soft towels. My little sister instantly named them Spic, Span, and Rainbow. Spic was white, Span was black, and Rainbow was multi-colored.

I thought Buttons would be so pleased to see her kittens safe and sound in the basket. But she was not pleased. No, she was frantic as she touched each of them on the nose and paused. And then again, she counted noses. Then she rushed up the stairs to the bathroom closet and squeezed into the warm pipe. She soon emerged with one kitten (Blondie, we called her because she was a strawberry-blonde), and then with another (Tawny, the color of café au lait). She carried them down one by one to the kitchen basket, and when all five of them were settled, she counted their noses with her own nose. ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR-FIVE. And then again to make sure. That’s how she took her own census. I didn’t know that cats could count, but they do if it concerns their own children. Finally, she settled contentedly into the basket with her furry kittens – like the biblical Joseph’s coat, a magnificent blend of many colors.

That’s how I learned from one of God’s small creatures – a black cat with diverse children, each of whom she loved — that every life counts. As the Torah teaches, and poets have always known, each star, each grain of sand, each human life matters. Everywhere.

And for the precious gift of our lives, we owe it to God and to ourselves to make every minute, every hour count. To use it well for ourselves in the time that we have – something we especially appreciate as we grow older — and to use it well for the rest of the lives that have been created, for humanity and for all of God’s creatures.

RE’EH! D’var Torah

RE’EH!(Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17; Haftarah Reading: Isaiah 54:11-55:5)

D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

From what they see on the riverbank, they can also glimpse what the future might hold.

The central theme of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, which is Hebrew for “See,” is God’s gift to us: choice. In today’s political climate, freedom of choice is something we must be vigilant to safeguard. It was equally true in the Torah. This is the choice Moses presents in this parashah as he quotes God saying, “See, I have placed before you blessing and curse. Re’eh, anochi noten lifneichem hayom bracha oo klalah.”* These are the opening lines of the portion. The implication is for the Israelites to choose between alternative futures.

In the parasha itself, the word, “Re’eh,” is written in the imperative. But it means more than a literal command to “See! Look!” in the everyday, practical sense. It also implies that – as the Israelites stand on the heights of Moab, looking out over the Jordan River they will soon cross to take possession of the land of Canaan – they should believe the evidence of their own eyes.

They should also perceive much more than that. From what they see on the riverbank, they can also draw insight, understanding, a glimpse of what the future might hold. Re’eh is about deciding how you’re going to live and taking action to make that way of life possible. It is similar to another injunction later in Deuteronomy 30:15: “Re’eh, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

So what do the Israelites see? Visualize twin mountain peaks, Mount Gerizim in the south and Mount Ebal in the north, both in the same Ephraim mountain range. In those early biblical days, there was, of course, no television, no social media, no “You Tube’ to present a panoramic view to a large multitude; so instead the Torah presents the textual image of these very real mountains as symbols. Mount Gerizim is located near the biblical Shechem (Nablus in modern times), and it is lush, covered with greenery and fruits, a green zone one might say. The other peak, Mount Ebal, is bleak, steep, and arid. Nothing grows there. The Israelites are instructed to pronounce blessings on green Mount Gerizim and the reverse on bleak Mount Ebal. Traditionally Mount Ebal represents strict justice, severity. How’s that for symbolism? If you were an Israelite overlooking the Jordan River, which route would you choose?

However, the choice is not so easy. Sure, everyone would like to live in the green zone. But making the choice to live there involves choosing a way of life – permanently, for all your generations. The land across the river Jordan is to be sacred, a holy land, and the people who choose to live there, to opt for green Mount Gerizim, must choose to be a holy people, a nation of priests, in fact. That’s the catch. God is to be their only God, and they will have to live by special moral and ethical rules. We have already heard about most of these rules in Leviticus, but of course, Deuteronomy is a recap, a summary of the previous books of the Torah, a looking back. The rules are reiterated here before the people actually move into the land and make it their own. A good deal of what is mentioned anticipates what will actually happen in future years.

Reality check: The land of Canaan is not empty. It is already occupied by pagans who worship other gods and sacrifice their own children by burning them as offerings to their gods. They have disgusting sexual practices, abominable health habits, they treat animals cruelly. And ever since the Golden Calf incident, God is particularly touchy on this issue of idolatry. There are still Israelites who tuck little idols into the corners of their tents. It remained an issue even in later years.

Get rid of the pagans, God commands in the Torah. The land must be purified. Tear down their altars. Destroy their towns. Execute them. There is only one God of Israel.

To our modern ears, this sounds horrific, barbaric. It is important to remember that historically this did not happen. Whole towns were not destroyed because people who worshipped pagan gods lived there. In this parasha, God is using hyperbole intended to warn the Israelites: Evil practices and the people who practice them are to be routed out. The Israelites are exhorted not to be lured by the heathen practices of the Canaanites, nor to be seduced by false prophets who claim to perform supernatural acts, not even by their own relatives who may worship idols. The death penalty is prescribed by anyone who tries to entice others to idolatry.

And if anyone doubts that Jerusalem – “the site that the Lord will choose” – was intended to be a holy city for a holy people, they should read this Torah portion — as well as the haftarah in Isaiah describing the beauty of a Jerusalem set in precious stones, and assuring that the city will be restored to her former glory, and that peace will prevail. All ritual sacrifices would henceforth take place only in Jerusalem, that is, the centralization of ritual sacrifices that actually took place in the reigns of King Hezekiah and, especially, King Josiah, several centuries later. God is giving the Israelites a choice to transform society, to move forward with purpose.

So, with the Israelites still looking across the Jordan River at the land beyond, God says, “If you choose to follow my rules, you will be my chosen people.’’ To be one of these treasured people means that you will take upon yourselves the responsibility to live morally and make ethical choices. It’s not always easy. You can choose or not choose. The hardest part is making the decision. You can listen to what wise people say. But, in the end, it’s up to you.

* “Consequences “(klalah), a word adopted from neo-Syrian vassal treaties, is likely a better English translation for curse.