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National Day for Truth & Reconciliation - Rosh Hashana Sermon excerpt by Rabbi Dara Lithwick, Ottawa

The story of the Akedah, the Binding of Yitzchak, plays a central role in our tradition. It is found in the classic daily liturgy, plus we read it during its normal Torah portion as well as on Rosh Hashanah.

We have struggled with this story for millennia. Ancient rabbis and contemporary theologians have grappled with it and its possible meanings and messages. Many, including myself, have found this story to be profoundly troubling. Why would God command the sacrifice of a child? How can we reconcile that with a more humane, deep, and compassionate understanding of God?

What does the story of the binding of Isaac have for us in terms of what we should hold onto and what we should let go of as we transition to a new year?

What practices help us and hurt us? What assumptions and ways of being hold us back or enable us to grow?

Spoiler alert: The text itself can challenge us to get beyond normative narratives, to hold together, like a Havdalah candle, conflicting strands, and, hopefully, to grow.


The story of the Akedah, the more that I read it, is not one story at all, but many stories, woven together, conflicting, challenging.

There is one more thing that I would like to point out from the biblical tellings about Avraham and Yitzchak- even within the text itself there are varied narratives.

Let us take Yitzchak- his birth is announced by messengers of God at the beginning of parsha Vayera to great fanfare (though his existence was divulged earlier by God to Abraham), and yet in the classical understanding of the narrative he is almost sacrificed at the end of the parsha.

Also,as we read yesterday before Abraham sends out Hagar and Ishmael, God promises to Avraham that the covenant will continue through Yitzchak and not through Ishmael (Genesis 17:19).

How do we reconcile this statement from God, about continuing the covenant through Yitzchak, with God’s supposed request to Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak?

Maybe we aren’t meant to reconcile these narratives. Maybe the ways of God, of others, are beyond us. Maybe the message is that we are supposed to figure out not a solution, but a way of being, of holding conflicting stories together. Maybe this is the path.

Indeed, in the text that we just read Avraham says “Hineni”, literally “Here I am” (fully present!), twice. The first time is when God calls out to Avraham, to which he replies “Hineni”. What follows is God’s request re: Yitzchak.

The second “hineni” comes later on, when Avraham is about to slay his son. As Avraham is taking the knife, a messenger of God calls out “Avraham, Avraham” to which Avraham replies “Hineni”.

One way to interpret this is to understand that Avraham is fully present in both instances- when asked (as he thought) to perhaps sacrifice his son, and when asked not to. Thus Avraham, through his “Hineni” is demonstrating how to hold multiple narratives, or multiple perspectives, together.

What would it take for us to listen to each others’ stories? Isn’t that the story of the yamim noraim? Isn’t that what teshuvah is all about?

Yesterday, building off of the phrase “shma b’kola”, listen to her voice, we explored, given Queen Elizabeth II’s recent passing, some of her legacy. I spoke of how the Queen modeled values of service and of the capacity to listen, and more.

“Stories are wondrous things”, award-winning author and scholar Thomas King declares in his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures, “and they are dangerous”. As he says at another point in The Truth About Stories- a Native Narrative, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

Indeed, “you have to be careful about the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.” (King, p. 10)

There are so many stories, stories that we tell ourselves, stories that we tell each other. Stories can be enlightening, and stories can be dangerous, especially creation stories, myth stories, and the stories we tell to reinforce our beliefs, whatever they may be.

What is our history? What did we learn in school? What was missing? About us and about others? How do we understand the past better now that we are doing work in the present?

Today, in the spirit of holding multiple narratives and perspectives together, we can look at another part of the greater legacy of colonialism – its impact on Indigenous peoples here in Canada, and by extension, around the world.

The Sages teach that there is nothing happenstance or random in Torah; that even though timelines and narratives and names may be confusing, they are all there for a reason.

And sometimes timing can put things into perspective. Last week we marked the Queen’s funeral; we are here, now, within the days of Awe; and between now and Yom Kippur is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

I don’t see the timing of all of this as happenstance. There is something there, there.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, commemorates the painful and tragic legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. 140 such schools operated between 1831 and 1998. Over that time over 150,000 Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) children were taken from their homes and subjected to systematic erasure of their cultures, languages, and for too many, their lives. It is believed that more than 4000 children died. Among those who survived, many suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of their “teachers.”

The Day honours the memories of the children who died, the survivors of Indian Residential Schools who carry these scars, their communities, and their families. And it puts the onus on all of us, aleinu, to learn the truth, the emet, of this part of our country’s history and actively engage in the work of repair, tikkun, and reconciliation, teshuvah.

The work of full teshuvah , of real reconciliation, extends beyond compensating the harms wrought by Indian Residential Schools to doing the work that we need to do to rebuild our relationships and our country in a way that honours Indigenous peoples here in Canada, on Turtle Island.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes sets out 6 steps of teshuvah, distilling Maimonides’ Laws of Repentance (6 Steps of Teshuvah (repentance) - Rabbi Paul Kipnes). These are:

1. REGRET: No wrongdoing can be transformed until we first recognize the error of our ways. One cannot begin to make teshuva by apologizing for an action if one does not really believe one was wrong.

2. RENOUNCE: To renounce our wrongdoings requires honest personal evaluation. No excuses. No rationalizations. Rather, renunciation means that we reject any sense that we needed to act as we did.

3. CONFESS: Confession acknowledges that saying something aloud to others makes it real. Jewish tradition declares that forgiveness only can be bestowed by the one wronged.

4. RECONCILE: These first three steps address the transgressor’s needs. Step four, reconcile, focuses on the one wronged. If teshuva is to be more than a simple way for the transgressor to feel good again – if it is to become a tool for repairing souls, both the transgressor’s and the victim’s – then it must transcend the realm of the emotion and conversation, and enter the tangible world of action. In this interpretation, reconciliation isn’t the final step- there is a need for repair.

5. MAKE AMENDS: This is the action of repair, of rebuilding, of restoring what has been lost through what was done wrong. While this can be financial in nature, making amends can extend well beyond that – one can give time and can give of one’s self, by volunteering, giving tzedakah, and more.

6. RESOLVE: Teshuva will be shleima, complete, only if we resolve not to repeat the offense, and if we change our actions that result in the offense so as not fall into the same behaviour again. At a societal level, this is a vision of a world transformed, with systemic wrongs dealt with – laws and practices and relationships transformed, fundamental culture shift.

Where are we, as a country, and we, as residents here, and we, as Jews, in this process of teshuvah with Indigenous peoples in Canada?

Looking back over my education over the past 40 years, we have made some progress. Stories are being told that weren’t in the past – stories rich in heritage and brilliance and connection. Different strands of histories are being shared, of destruction and of resilience. Wrongs are slowly being made right – settlements for residential school survivors, settlement in reach for differential health care, increasing value in indigenous studies, indigenous law, traditional knowledge and cultural expressions and more… And there is so much left to do (there is still the Indian Act, issues around accessible clean water on reserves, proper housing, MMIWG, issues in education/ incarceration, land settlements, etc).

For example, a few months ago, when Pope Francis first apologized to the Indigenous delegation to the Vatican as had been hoped for (and then later here in Canada in July), Governor General Mary Simon recognized the import of the apology and also the import of holding the Pope and the Church to account for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools in Canada:

The apology is one step on the road to reconciliation, but it is just that: one step. We must always strive to acknowledge the pain and the truth of our history. It’s about stories—my story, your story, our peoples’ stories. Hearing our truths will guide us on our path towards reconciliation.

This is a hopeful day, but it must be backed by action.[…]

In Inuktitut, we say ajuinnata—a promise to never give up, to persevere. Let us all raise our voices, across Canada, in the spirit of ajuinnata, to build understanding, respect and reconciliation.[1]

Yes. As our tradition teaches, as Maimonides teaches, apologies are one thing; there is a need for action, for repair, to make amends to achieve resolution.

As such, apologies thus far, from governments and from the Church, have received a mixed response, with some school survivors welcoming them as helpful to their healing and others saying far more needs to be done to correct past wrongs and pursue justice. And these strands are just part of bigger stories.

Yes, indeed.

Anishnaabe (Ojibwe) historian and language advocate Dominic Beaudry (Dominic HK Beaudry (@DhkBeau) / Twitter) emphasizes how next week, as part of the process of reconciliation during Truth and Reconciliation Week, it is important to teach truth with dignity- that, and this is geared to Indigenous settings “we can share Residential School pain but we must also cover resilience & Indigenous contribution-we cannot simply re/victimize our students-we must educate them about Indigenous contribution to our modern world.”

We know from our complex history over the past three millenia how important it is to reduce us to any one story.

I heard more of this at camp this summer. During the summers I have the joy of working at a Jewish summer camp, URJ Camp George, as rabbinic faculty. With a colleague we connected with Kim Wheatley, Anishinaabe (Ojibway) source of light and teaching, and band member of Shawanaga First Nation which is located near camp. Kim is a cultural educator and she met with camp leadership and campers from the youngest Nitzotzot to the oldest teen unit called Barak. She shared stories and talked about the land, its plants and herbs and animals and streams. She talked about creation and renewal and explained sacred tools and music and herbs and more. And she talked about how much of the land we stand on is stolen land, part of the cultural genocide experienced by her people. She shared the harm wrought on her people, on families, on children. She said there is a lot of work to be done. There has to be truth, she said, before anything else.

Again - “Stories are wondrous things”, award-winning author and scholar Thomas King declares in his 2003 CBC Massey Lectures, “and they are dangerous”. And “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

Those of us not indigenous to Canada need to hold together the complex and varies and hard narratives that her people have experienced, truths that are beautiful and painful, and that must be recognized. And we must reconcile these stories, Kim’s stories, with the stories we grew up with about our large and cold country we call Canada.

Finally, Kim spoke about another element of the process of reconciliation. Actually, to be more accurate, she took issue with the word reconciliation. She said – there can’t be reconciliation without reparations. There cannot be real, meaningful teshuvah until there is repair, tikkun, to help fix the longstanding impacts that have resulted from colonialism. This can be financial compensation, but can also be returning land that has been taken, and also artifacts of cultural significance, etc. In the frame of Maimonides, there is a need to make amends in order to reach full reconciliation, full restoration.

We are at a special moment. We have started the shift to do the repair that must be done, that we must do.

Abraham’s answer to God in the Torah that we read this morning, a story that is complex, a story of potential sacrifice, of that which is most dear to him, is Hineni.I am here, I am present. Can I hold the multiple threads of our history? Can I learn new histories? Can I make amends? Can I repair?

We are called upon to be present, now, (if not now, when?). To declare Hineni. To take responsibility and be partners in reconciliation. To listen and to act.

Algonquin Anishinaabe Elder Claudette Commanda, from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, and now Chancellor at University of Ottawa, remarked at last year’s ceremony for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, and following the reporting of so many unmarked graves at residential school sites across Canada : Take this beautiful gift we are offering you; learn, listen and we will walk together to turn this country into a beautiful country for all our children.[2]

It is hard, it is painful. And it is necessary.

As our tradition teaches, as Maimonides teaches, the work of teshuvah heals all of us, raises all of us up.

As we journey through the 10 Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, punctuated in the middle by National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, may we be like Abraham. May we respond to Chancellor Commanda’s call, with Kim Wheatley’s call, with the 94 calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Hineni. I am here. May we be present. And may we heed Maimonides’ guidance to do full teshuvah, to turn this country into a beautiful country for all our children.

Thus may we fulfill the prophet Jeremiah’s vision as set out in today’s haftarah, for our Indigenous brethren and for us all: to be returned back to the land, and back to the Source of all, with love.

Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah. Together may we be inscribed, and may we inscribe each other, in the book of life and blessing.

I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.

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