Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Today, I’m thinking about David. He came to our synagogue occasionally, on Shabbat. He was quiet and a bit odd. Our interactions had a ritualized pattern. First, he would compliment me, saying, “You’re beautiful inside and out.” Next, he would ask for what he wanted. Lunch. A Safeway gift certificate. Or an opportunity to tell his story. After I gave him what he wanted, he would thank me by reciting an original poem.
David was a residential school survivor. A Jewish family had adopted him. The family, he said, was good to him. He still used their last name. As a young adult, he did seasonal outdoor work in the north. But a piece of heavy equipment cut through his abdomen. He healed slowly. Chronic pain haunted him. Sometimes it would weaken him. He’d be hospitalized for days or weeks. He couldn’t work. No family or community was left to support him. So, he never had enough money.
One Shabbat, a backpack went missing. Next week, a wallet. I suspected David. So, I told him directly. He didn’t confess, deny, protest, or explain. But it never happened again. He was always welcome in the sanctuary. We’d bring him lunch and sit with him. Of course, he was hungry. For food, conversation, and the safety of a Jewish family.
Indigenous-Canadian reconciliation is complex. Courts, commissions, churches, corporations, and ordinary citizens are involved. Our welcome to David was a small contribution. Of course, most Canadian Jews don’t have a settler lineage. We came as refugees, fleeing antisemitism, pogroms and death camps. But when we became Canadian, we adopted Canada’s past and future as our own. Thus, with acts of reconciliation, we say: we atone for our ancestors, and create a better future for our children.
We follow the prophet Malachi, who says: Elijah the prophet will turn the hearts of the parents towards the children and the hearts of the children towards the parents – lest I destroy the land (Mal. 3:24).
What did Malachi mean in his own time? No one is sure. Malachi’s name simply means “My messenger.” It’s probably a stage name. His book has no time stamp. Scholars tentatively place him in Jerusalem’s small, struggling post-exilic community in the 5th century BCE. But, we don’t really know who Malachi was. Or why he used the image of Elijah – an angry, divisive prophet – as a peace metaphor. So we’re left with a timeless oracle. And we are fully empowered to spin our own interpretations.
Malachi’s oracles drop us into a timeless dialogue. God says: “Return to me!” People ask: “How should we return?” God says, “You have been robbing me.” People ask, “How have we robbed you?” God says, “You’ve spoken badly of me.” People ask, “What did we say?”
So God explains it all. I told you to support the poor, the widows, the immigrants. Pay your day-laborers fairly and quickly. But you don’t. And that’s how you rob me. You look at people made wealthy by greed. And you call them “successful.” You look up to arrogant, self-absorbed celebrities. And you say you’d like to be “happy” as they are. You praise role models who ignore my teachings. That’s how you speak badly of me. Do you want to return? Do you want my blessing? Feed the hungry. Learn to tell the difference between the righteous and the wicked. Do not aspire to be like the wicked.
Malachi’s people aren’t malicious. God does not accuse them of violence. But they are clueless. They live in a world of structural violence. Invisible privilege. Casual exploitation. A world that is slowly destroying itself. But covers its reality with false history, glitter, and values. Does this sound familiar? This is how many Indigenous people experience Canada. How they experience “us,” who have embraced Canada.
It hurts to be seen so negatively by others. To be a target of angry and bitter words. Like the nasty, accusing words the prophet, Elijah himself often spoke. We’d prefer to be invited, gently, into a guilt-free healing process. After all, we are not malicious. We simply drifted, ignorantly, into worshipping idols. But you can’t always get what you want. Instead, Elijah himself has called us to turn our hearts.
What does God want to see us offer here? What we offered in the “days of old,” Malachi says (3:4). Not back in the fictional “golden age” of humanity. But, as our sages say, in the days of Abel, Noah, Moses, and Solomon. Abel’s people found murder shocking. Noah was not sucked into his society’s values. Around Moses, people felt remorse and repented of sin. Solomon’s wealth was balanced by spiritual wisdom and desire.
This translates so easily into acts of reconciliation. Be shocked by murder. Insist on a full investigation into murdered and missing Indigenous women. Don’t be sucked into your society’s values. Think outside the box of corporate greed and explore energy policies that don’t exploit Indigenous lands. Feel remorse and repent. Accept your feelings of remorse for actions of the ancestors you adopted, and don’t reject the messengers. Balance wealth with spiritual wisdom. Look towards Indigenous elders for spiritual wisdom, and learn from the personal stories that Indigenous people tell.
Intergenerational trauma is real. And it can be healed. That’s a key message of the Passover Seder. Each of us should feel as though we personally were liberated from slavery to freedom. Don’t we want the same for our Indigenous Canadian brothers and sisters?
All My Relations.
Malachi 3:4-3:24 is the traditional Jewish reading for the Shabbat before Passover — known as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath.