Monthly archives "October 2017"

Au Revoir

Soon after the proud accomplishment of Expo’67 came a period of extreme separatist sentiment in Quebec, which continued into the mid-1980s. Like many primarily English-language Montrealers, I contemplated a move to Toronto in order to ensure remaining in ROC (the rest of Canada).  This poem was written at that time, but it could represent uprooting yourself from any land you love. I remember how, so many years later, my grandmother, who fled from persecution to Canada at the age of 17 – with a labor socialist husband and a babe in arms – would still sing songs about the beauties of Russia. The land of your birth never leaves you.

Au Revoir

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Lands where my fathers cried

brought me to birth

on rich, free man’s soil

where each one has worth.

Quebec, how I love you,

rivers flow through my mind;

Quebec, how I’ll miss you,

shall I leave you behind?

Your green forests encircle,

binding me close,

Lest I grow to feel alien

in my very own house.

Quebec, how I love you,

you sing in my soul.

©️Corinne Copnick, Montreal, 1984; Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12: 1- 17:27)

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12: 1- 17:27)

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Why are you going? Where are you going? What will you do when you get there?

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation,

And I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those that bless you

And curse him that curses you;

And all the families of the earth

Shall bless themselves by you” (Genesis 12: 1-4). [1]

Where was the place that God was exhorting Abraham (still called Abram because the covenant between God and Abram had not yet been invoked) to leave? It was located in the city of Ur in the Sumer region of Southern of Mesopotamia (later Babylon and today the site of modern Iraq). [2] The city of Ur where Abram lived was no rural backwater. It was a busy city situated on several trade routes, a hotbed of commerce. The people worshipped idols (one of the three capital crimes in later Jewish law), and Abram’s father manufactured the representations of these idols that they purchased for their altars and homes. Abram eventually destroyed them in anger as he answered the inner call of an abstract God – whose guiding, invisible presence he was the first to discern.

According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Abraham was commanded to leave behind the sources of both tradition-directedness (‘your father’s house’) and other-directedness (‘your land, your birthplace’). He was about to become the father of an inner directed people. His entire life was governed by an inner voice, the voice of God.” [3]

Abram was seventy-five years old (it’s never too late!) when together with his wife, his family, including his nephew, Lot, and the wealth that he had accumulated over the years, he set for the land that God had promised – the land of Canaan. To be sure, there were interruptions in the journey. Because of a terrible famine, they had first to sojourn in Egypt for a while. They proceeded to Bethel in the Negev, where Abram first invoked the Lord by name. Lot pitched his tent near Sodom (people conducted their lives in wicked ways, and where God eventually destroyed Sodom and Gemorrah for sexual immorality), but Abram remained in the land of Canaan, “settling in the terebinths of Memre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to the Lord”( Genesis 13:18).

The Hebrew verb in “Lech Lecha” is doubled, which connotes extra urgency, not simply “Go forth!” as it is often translated, but more like and emphatic “get out of here” in modern terms. “Get out of Iraq!” There is a better place that your faith in the Creator will lead you, a place where you can live by your values,  a place where you can develop and transmit your spiritual possibilities.

How many of us have felt that interior urging at various junctures of our lives? How many of us have had the courage to leave everything we have established behind and actually get up and go? Sometimes we cannot stomach the moral injustice in the land where we live. Sometimes we have no choice; conditions are so intolerable that we have to leave while we can. Sometimes, as survivors of disasters can testify, you have to leave what was behind, and rebuild with purpose what can be – even if it will never reach its fullness for them but they are laying the groundwork for the next generation. And sometimes we simply have wider vistas – or we experience the divine call.

America was built by people with that kind of courage, by people with faith that, with God’s help – and often with only a few dollars or less in their pockets — they could make it. Because they believed in a religious faith that was persecuted elsewhere, or because they had ideals they could not compromise.

Sometimes we can stand up, individually and together, and rectify injustices being perpetrated, even legislated into being, in the land that we live in and love. Sometimes we can stand firm in unison – and then we don’t have to leave.

In his column for the Reform movement, Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce points out that millennia after Abraham’s biblical journey, the rabbis have been concerned with the tension between the physical and spiritual – that is, the ideal – worlds, and how we can reconcile them [4]. It takes courage as well as inspiration and yes, faith, to attempt it, and it can be a lifelong endeavor.

And when one day we die, like Abraham we begin a journey that is both physical and spiritual. As we are in the process of departing from our physical selves in the lands where we live – as we humans inevitably do – we also have to take heart that we have lived a life of courage and vision to the best of our abilities, circumstances, and resources, and that we are now journeying to a new land that God will show us, the inner landscape of the soul. Who knows what opportunities we will find there to aid the human spirit?

[1] The JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh translation.

[2] A  significant port on the Persian Gulf, the biblical Ur was first established in 3800 BCE.



©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017.

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A Different Kind of Noah: Opening the Letters of the Soul

A Different Kind of Noah: Opening the Letters of the Soul [1]

A D’var Torah by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The Dream: The island was a land mass, eight miles long and six miles wide, located in the Niagara River near Buffalo. [1] The idea, with the blessing of the State of New York, was to create a temporary homeland for the persecuted Jews of the world under American protection. It was to be called Ararat (symbolizing Noah’s Ark, which some believe to be stranded atop Mount Ararat)….It was 1820.

Our dreams are pointers to our future. In that sense, we should believe in them. At the age pf 72, I had a dream – a dream about becoming a rabbi. It seemed an impossible accomplishment at my age – especially since I had still to learn the Hebrew language — yet seven years of dedicated study later, I was ordained as a rabbi in Los Angeles.

According to the Sages in the Talmud, “it is an open question as to whether dreams have a validity” (Stone Bible, quoting Berachot 55a). But in the same section (Berachot 55a), Rav Hisda tells us that a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. Dreams are the unopened letters of the soul. If we have the courage to open them, they point to the paths we need to follow – our soul paths – if only we can find the moral strength to do it. However, dreams, the Talmud cautions, are 1/60th of prophecy. That still gives us 59/60ths to fulfill. It takes a lot of hard work!

A Spiritual Home

Did you ever hear of Mordecai Immanuel Noah (a different Noah from the biblical one)? Few people today have. Although he was not so recognized, he was actually the very first Zionist. He pre-dated Theodore Herzl – usually credited with being with being the Father of Zionism – by a century.  Mordecai Noah was not afraid to follow his dreams, not even a dream that seemed impossible at the time, but was based on an ancient promise – the promise of Va’era when God appears and says to the ancient Hebrews: “I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God….I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord” (Exodus 6:6-9). And, believing in the promise, Mordecai Immanuel Noah opened the letter of his dream.

A Preliminary Refuge

Mordecai Noah believed sincerely that the Jews needed to leave the lands of their persecution, the lands where they lived in ghettos, and worse, with continual terror and death a ruler’s whim away. They needed to pursue the goal – the never-forgotten dream – of living once again in their spiritual home, Eretz Israel, as Jews. Yet because, at that time, there were no political barriers to that dream, Mordecai Noah envisioned a preliminary Promised Land, a temporary refuge until the time was right to settle in Israel. And that first place of refuge was to be an island with a small native population off the East Coast – near Buffalo, N.Y. — of the United States.

Who was Mordecai Noah?

So who was this Mordecai Noah? And where was that preliminary Zion? First of all, he was an American, born in 1765 in Philadelphia, and the son of Spanish-Portuguese Marrano (secret Jews) immigrants to Georgia in the New World. He was smart, seemingly well-off, well mannered, well-liked, well-connected, and with such a vibrant personality that he rose – a Jew in the latter part of the 18th century – to be appointed American Consul to Turkey.

While redeeming American hostages with great panache from Barbary Coast pirates –with such over-enthusiastic vigor, in fact, that he was eventually recalled to the U.S. – he saw many cruelties that disturbed him. Especially, during his time in that region, he was deeply saddened by the deplorable conditions in which the Jews of that area lived. He had been brought up as a free American. He had never seen anything like it. And, using his diplomatic know-how and political connections – among them his relationship with Andrew Jackson’s daughter, whom he married, planting him firmly among the Jacksonians – he decided to do something about it.

James Madison Granted Charter

It took Mordecai Noah until 1820. He was fifty-five. By then, this very able, extremely theatrical, master politician had mustered enough support to persuade the then Governor of New York State, James Madison, to grant him a charter to purchase large tracts of Grand Island (a former Canadian possession then ceded to New York State.

This island was a land mass, eight miles long and six miles wide, located in the Niagara River near Buffalo. [1] The idea, with the blessing of the State of New York, was to create a temporary homeland for the persecuted Jews of the world under American protection. It was to be called Ararat (symbolizing Noah’s Ark, which some believe to be stranded atop Mount Ararat) – and given Noah’s last name and his considerable ego, he promoted the comparison. He was saving the Jews from persecution.

Economic Prospects: The Erie Canal

It wasn’t all philanthropy. Since the Erie Canal was about to be opened, the location and development of Grand Island offered great economic prospects, both for the Jews who would settle there and develop it, and for the State of New York.

In this enterprise, Mordecai Noah had both the enthusiastic financial backing of devout Christians and the supportive participation of Grand Island’s Seneca Indian population, a peaceful tribe. (Mordecai Noah believed that the American Indians were lost tribes of Israel, and the native population liked that idea. Grand Island was also intended to be a refuge for them against discrimination, and he would bring them prosperity.

But No Jews…

At the time, the Indians were all for it. In fact, the only people who did not support this enterprise were the rabbis of the Jewish communities of the world, who refused completely to send any representatives to the dedication ceremony.

The Indians were there at the ceremony, which took place on the mainland, dressed in full ceremonial attire. All the politicians were there, prepared to endorse the endeavor, as well as the enthusiastic Christians who had lent the money to buy the land. Mordecai Noah was there, prepared to preside over Grand Island as a judge, just like in biblical days, to get things started.

With his theatrical panache, he was dressed in ceremonial robes (rented from a costumer). The boats were all there ready to transport the invited guests to the island, despite the unexpectedly stormy weather. The only people who weren’t there were the Jews, whose rabbis had been invited from all over Europe.

The island was too small to accommodate all the Jews of the world, the rabbis. And who wanted to live in an undeveloped wilderness? And, most important, the Messiah hadn’t come yet. So despite the fact that Grand Island offered a beautiful refuge with a temperate climate, it wasn’t Eretz Israel. And despite the fact that Mordecai Noah explained that the refuge was planned to be temporary in nature – until one day they could move safely to the Holy Land, nevertheless, for the rabbis, it was Israel or bust. They had no idea that a Holocaust would decimate the European Jewish communities in the twentieth century.  If it wasn’t Israel, the rabbis declared, not a single Jew except for Mordecai Noah was coming to the dedication. Nevertheless, the dedication ceremony did take place, and the cornerstone still rests today in Grand Island’s museum.

Mordecai Noah was born just after the close of the first American Revolution. He died in 1851, a few years before the Civil War – the War Between the States – began. When he died, he was still a dedicated Zionist. But he had come to the realization in the thirty years after the Grand Island venture failed in its intent, that, for the Jews of the world, Zion had to be in Israel [3].

As for me, born in the middle of the 1930s depression and writing this is 2017, Israel is the land of my spiritual heritage as a Jew, the opened letter of the Jewish soul so long repressed, one-sixtieth of prophecy in a time frame beyond our human comprehension. It is our hope, perhaps the hope of all mankind. There is a lot of work to do.

[1] When I first heard of Mordecai Noah’s story, I was so intrigued that I considered making his efforts – and Grand Island – the topic of my rabbinic thesis. However, when I explored this theme further, I discovered that a Ph.D. student at Cornell University had already written a doctoral dissertation about Mordecai Noah, Cornell holds many of the authentic documents relating to Grand Island, some of which are available online. So instead I wrote about finding hope in the stories of the Talmud. Its academic title is “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud.”

[2] By comparison, the island of Montreal is 31 miles long and 9.9 miles wide at its widest point.

[3] There have been many suggestions of alternate refuges for the Jews over the years, usually in places of extreme climate – Uganda, the Arctic, Canada, even Arizona before air-condition. Some people believe that America is the “Goldene Medina” (i.e., the Promised Land), so why do we need Israel? Other people think that the Promised Land is a metaphor, an ideal to hold in our hearts, that it doesn’t need a location – but unfortunately, history has taught us that it is impossible to flee to a metaphor when you have no place else to go.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017.

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Establishing Moral Order in the World

Establishing Moral Order in the World

The Seven Laws of Noah – for Everyone


According to traditional Judaism, God gave Noah and his family seven commandments to observe when he saved them from the flood. These commandments, referred to as the Noahic or Noahide commandments, are inferred from Genesis, chapter 9, and are, in translation, as follows:

  1. To establish courts of justice.
  2. Not to commit blasphemy.
  3. Not to commit idolatry.
  4. Not to commit incest and adultery.
  5. Not to commit bloodshed.
  6. Not to commit robbery.
  7. Not to eat flesh from a living animal.

These Noahide commandments are fairly simple and straightforward and were expected to be observed by all humanity. They are recognized by most of the world as sound moral principles.

The Ten Commandments – the Covenant

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

Upholding these Commandments (literally The Ten Utterances, which can be found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) are integral to being Jewish. They represent the Covenant between God and the Jewish people for all time.  As can be seen by the commandments colored blue, there are significant differences between the earlier Noahide code and the more developed Jewish moral code inherent in these commandments.

The Boy: A Miracle Embraced

The Boy: A Miracle Embraced [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The miracle was that it took place at all. The miracle was that the Bar Mitzvah happened. That a thirteen-year-old boy who could not speak and could not hear was leading a congregation with glowing hands that spelled out the words of God from an open Torah.

The boy was born of a Jewish mother. His father was gentile and black. His mother did not want him; his father had disappeared. He was unadoptable. Probably it would have been difficult to place him, even if he had not been deaf and mute.

After a series of foster homes, he found a friend – a teacher at the school for the deaf and mute who became very fond of him. The teacher was to become his adoptive father. He was not married; he was not Jewish.

The teacher believed that the boy was entitled to his Jewish birthright. He had a right to learn about and be proud of his heritage. The miracle began. The new father contacted the rabbi of a Reform Temple, and instruction was arranged for the boy. He was to have a Bar Mitzvah, the sacred act which confers new Jewish manhood. He would pray with his hands before the Ark of the Covenant.

In order to accomplish what is an ordeal for any thirteen-year-old, let alone one who can neither speak nor hear, his adoptive father would study along with him. As finally the boy recited with his hands before the congregation, the father would speak the words. And because the language of the Torah is both poetic and archaic, special instruction in liturgical sign language would be needed.

The day finally arrived.

The congregation had responded three hundred strong to the rabbi’s request for them to come as Bar Mitzvah guests. They were to be the boy’s family. He had been outfitted in new clothes. His light skin, framed by a halo of black curly hair, glowed milkily. The ritual candles shone brightly. The light of the open Ark was reflected in the breastplates of the Torah. The adoptive father – round-faced, bearded, and jolly – translated the language of the boy’s hands into sound, into Hebrew.

For those sitting and watching as the boy’s hands moved, it seemed as if there were words, as if we could almost hear the sound of his hands without his father’s vocal translation. It was as if the boy’s hands had set in motion a sound of joy so high that the vibration could be heard. It was as if, rocking back and forth to the newfound rhythm of truth in the Torah, the hands danced and then burst into exultant song: “Once I heard nothing, now I have the sound of God in my head. Once I had no one of my own. I was so lonely. Now I’ll never be alone again.”

I have been to so many Bar Mitzvahs; but on this night the character of what took place strengthened my belief in the enduring vitality of sacred rituals. They are our umbilical cord to  an appreciation o the wonder of creation.

On this night that I will never forget, I believe that I witnessed a miracle. Here, standing before God, was a creature so challenged in life, yet brought to this beautiful moment through the loving kindness of an adoptive single man. It happened. The gentile father gave birth to the Jewish son.

The father did not speak his thoughts before the congregation, but they were, I thought, clearly written on his face. “We finished what God started, my son. I wanted you to believe so that, even when I am gone, you will have someone to trust. You were born with every strike against you, but tonight you have taken your rightful place in this world. For me, you are a miracle.”

On that night the miracle was also that the witnesses to this birth, paying homage in sacred ritual, were themselves brought to life. In a kind of self-purification through the pain and joy of a young man-to-be, their own human spirit was ignited and reborn.

[1] ©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1994, Los Angeles, 2017. This story first appeared as part of “Altar Pieces,” a videotaped narration of Rabbi Copnick’s stories and poems that was screened nationally many times on Canada’s Vision TV over a period of five years. “The Boy” is a fictionalized account inspired by a true Bar Mitzvah ritual at which the author was present.