Rosh HaShanah Day 1 Morning Sermon 2017/5778
Rabbi Jordan Cohen ~ Temple Anshe Sholom, Hamilton, ON
In Jewish tradition, there is an ancient and important concept called, Minhag MaMakom – literally, “the custom or the practice of the place”. In the traditional world, they say that Jewish life is defined by halacha (Jewish law) but coloured by minhag (Jewish custom). There are many ways in which minhag expresses itself from place to place: for example, while Jewish prayer may have the same basic form and structure around the globe, the way in which it is recited may vary from community to community. And there are many ways in which minhag affects a community, not only in worship but in the foods served on Shabbat and holidays, traditional dress, cantilation and music, and even the pronunciation of Hebrew. Do you cut your challah or tear it, do you sit or stand for the Shema, do you light the candles 18 minutes or 40 minutes before Shabbat, do you boil or fry your Gefilte Fish…? All specific examples of Minhag haMakom.
The essential notion of Minhag MaMakom is that wherever you live, you are to acknowledge the traditions and practices of that place and adopt them for yourself, particularly in the public sphere. Regardless of the practices you learned in your family or community of origin, when you come to another place, you show respect for those who have always been there and you do it their way. Ultimately, in a fluid and transitory world, the dominant purpose of minhag hamakom is to ensure peace among people and a way to avoid disagreements.
One of the interesting aspects of Minhag haMakom is that it doesn’t just apply in the religious realm, but also to societal realms. And it extends to the practices and traditions of non-Jews as well. Unless a custom directly conflicts with a principle of Jewish law, the social norms of the local community are to be embraced. Some may call that assimilation; others the secret to Jewish survival after living in exile for 2000 years.
To be exiled from one’s land and thrust out to exist in foreign environments is a traumatic experience for any people, and one that necessitates the development of concepts like Minhag haMakom. I guess it should have been no surprise then to discover that the original occupants of this land also have similar traditions.
Amongst the First Nations people of Southern Ontario – the people of the Haudenosaunee (Ho-deh-no-show-nee) Confederacy and the Mississauga, they have a custom that has dates back many centuries that acknowledges and honours the people of the land on which you live. To recognize the land is an expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory you reside on, and a way of honouring the people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial. It is always important to understand the history and customs of a place, and to seek to understand your place within that history. Just as we Jews pray daily for the peace of Jerusalem and the ingathering of the exiles to the Promised Land, an aboriginal Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes the unique and enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories. Land Acknowledgement is an ancient tradition for our Indigenous peoples, but for many non-Indigenous Canadians, officially recognizing the territory or lands we stand on is a fairly new concept. However, for our Indigenous people, it is a small but essential step toward truth and reconciliation, a small step, a Minhag HaMakom, which I am going to suggest we adopt as a community.
Toward the end of each Torah service here in our sanctuary, we always include prayers for the well being of our congregation, our country Canada, and the State of Israel. In keeping with the protocols developed at Hamilton City Hall and McMaster University, before the prayer for Canada, I would like us to include a land acknowledgement statement recognizing the traditional territory of the Indigenous people who inhabited this land on which Temple Anshe Sholom stands, before the arrival of settlers, and in many cases still do call it home.
The statement will sound like this:
Temple Anshe Sholom recognizes and acknowledges that it is located on the traditional territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee (Ho-deh-no-show-nee) nations, and within the lands protected by the “Dish With One Spoon” wampum agreement. May we live with respect on this land, and in peace and friendship with its people.
So that we know who we are acknowledging, the Mississauga are a sub tribe of the Anishinaabe-speaking First Nations people who first lived here in southern Ontario, long before the French explorers arrived in 1534. The name “Mississauga” comes from an Anishinaabe word that means, “Those at the Great River-mouth”. In the waning years of the American Revolution, starting in 1781, the British Crown purchased land from the Mississauga in a series of transactions that encompassed much of present-day southern Ontario. In 2010, the Canadian government awarded the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation nearly $145 million in settlement of a land claim, recognizing the Crown’s gross underpayment in the 18th century. “I think everyone should know whose land they are on,” said Carolyn King, former chief of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. “It’s been covered over, paved over. We don’t see ourselves on the land. Anybody living on the land who can help to recognize that we are still here, I think that’s a significant step.”
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy – Ho-deh-no-show-nee – is an alliance of the Six Nations and the Iroquois Confederacy. Haudenosaunee means “People of the long house”. The exact date of the joining of these nations is unknown but it is said to be since before recorded history. Often described as the oldest, participatory democracy on Earth, this confederation was intended as a way to unite the nations and create a peaceful means of decision-making, with the common goal of living in harmony. For the Haudenosaunee people, like the Jewish people, law, society and creation are equal partners and each plays an important role.
The “Dish With One Spoon” wampum agreement is a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississauga and Haudenosaunee that bound them to share this territory and protect the land. Subsequent Indigenous Nations and peoples, including Europeans and all newcomers, were then included in this treaty in the spirit of peace, friendship and respect. That includes us. The “Dish” represents what is now southern Ontario and we all eat out of the Dish – all of us that share this territory – with only one spoon. That means we have to share the responsibility of ensuring the dish is never empty; which includes taking care of the land and the creatures with whom we share it. Importantly, there are no knives at the table, representing that we must keep the peace.
Hopefully the inclusion of this land acknowledgement statement in our own liturgy will inspire more opportunities to learn about and engage with the traditional inhabitants of this land, and work together for the betterment of our shared community.
We take pride in the 167-year history of Temple Anshe Sholom, our customs, our traditions, our minhagim, and the role we have played as the First Congregation of Canadian Reform Judaism and the Historic Heart of the Hamilton Jewish Community. As Jews, we instinctively understand the importance of the relationship of a people with their land, and the struggle to maintain a connection with that land when its people are in exile. We are blessed to maintain our congregational home here in this beautiful land. Yet with such blessings comes obligation, from Minhag HaMakom and the “Dish With One Spoon” wampum agreement, to acknowledge with gratitude the original residents of this land, and strive during this coming new year for the coexistence of all its inhabitants in dignity and peace.