Standing Together

Hi everyone

Hope the week was good.  My thoughts this week moved between the Torah portion and the upcoming High Holidays.  Then, I realized how much they speak to each other. This week’s parshah is Nitzavim and it starts with Moses as he declares to Israel: ‘Here you all stand’ – all of Israel standing before God, and I can’t help but think of the High Holidays.

Nitzavim – here we all stand.  We bring with us the truth of who we are, in all our strengths and our weaknesses.

Moses stands facing his imminent death and Israel stands looking at an unknown future – here we all stand.

Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of our Jewish new year, is not always remembered as our Day of Judgment.  However, another name for the holiday is: Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. God makes decisions about humanity that will then be sealed on Yom Kippur.  I find myself caught between the daunting aspects of the holiday and the celebration of sitting with my family.  

We stand together under the umbrella of Rosh Hashanah, with its major Divine decisions that sit above us, while we celebrate with each other down below.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have dipped a piece of apple in honey, only to have the apple slip from my fingers into the honey bowl. It’s not like I could ignore that I just dropped my apple into the communal honey, but digging my fingers into the honey to retrieve my apple will only make it worse. The truth is, I actually don’t like honey.  I love the concept of honey, the sweetness that comes as a result of the collective hive; the purity of it, the solid/liquid hybrid of it; the fact that it will inevitably end up in some little person’s hair… I love it all.  The only thing I don’t like is the taste.

So I celebrate that the holiday revolves around honey, because for me it represents the wonderful, funny, and symbolic things that are less than perfect.

I remember, as a little girl, anticipating hearing the shofar.  My teachers emphasized how important it is and my parents always made sure I came into the sanctuary especially to hear it.  I also remember hearing it and thinking a cow was baying at the moon. I didn’t find it a strange sound, strange would be an understatement.  I found it weird and jarring. The sound of a shofar is an acquired taste. But the more I acquire it, the more I love it.

The midrash tells us that the sound of the shofar is the matriarch, Sarah, crying and sobbing before God.  She believes her son has been killed and so she cries, and then she sobs and then she hyperventilates and then she screams the most gut wrenching and soul wringing scream imaginable and those are the sounds of the shofar.  They are strange, they are soulful and jarring and I love them.

The Rabbis also tell us that the physical sight of the shofar is our remembrance of the patriarch, Abraham.  He brought the vision of a partnership between God and humanity to the world. He contracted his relationship with God to create an eternal inheritance for the Jewish people – and it cost him everything.  He lost his wife, Sarah, and the relationship with his son, Isaac. His communication with God, toward the end of his life, is all but non-existent. What he gave the world is priceless, while the price he paid is unimaginable.  The bent and curved appearance of the shofar is the bent and curved back of Abraham as he bears the price he paid.

I celebrate that the shofar brings me to my ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, in their glory and their humanity.  I celebrate that they continue to lead us, through the shofar. It is magnificently strange and its sound is beautifully imperfect, as are we all.

Whether it is spelunking for my apple in the caverns of the honey bowl, or surrounding myself with everyone who makes the decision to go to shul, Rosh Hashanah will bring me to a moment of celebration.  Yet, with all that, the most powerful spiritual moment will lead me back to this week’s parshah, as I remember Moses’ declaration:

Here we stand.

May we all be inscribed for a year of life, health, peace and sweetness.

To Dream My Impossible Dream

Hi everyone,

Hope everyone had a good week.

I had a week reflecting on fantasies and fairy tales.  I started watching a series about fantasy creatures and the dystopian world they are fighting to survive in.  I believe in fantasies and fairy tales.

To be clear, I don’t believe they’re real, I believe in them.  I believe we create them and then treat them as reality. That makes them very powerful.  I remember the perfect birthday present I ever received as a little girl was a toy spinning wheel.  It had red legs and a brown wheel. I got it as a present at my birthday party where I wore a beautiful dress with a crinoline underneath.  My party shoes were black and shiny with a bow and the dress had white beads on it. And though it is one of my best and favourite memories, I’m not sure if any of it is actually real (though my mother confirmed I once got a spinning wheel and seemed to love it – I think she said I slept with it). 

I love my fantasy moments because they are created by me, shaped by me and I can revisit them at will.  I revisit the first moments I met my newborn children. They were handed to me and birds were singing, the rainbow ended right above us and they smelled so beautifully like my husband and me.  Nothing else about the reality of the moment: the medical stuff, the staff rushing around, the lights, the beeping sounds, nothing about all of that enters my blissful fantasy moment.  

And, unfortunately, I can easily create my worst nightmare.  It will have no limits to the pain, the threat, the unending fear that only I would know how to create for myself, because only I know what will hurt me the most.  No theoretical hell to come could surpass what I could put myself through if I built my own personal one and no heaven afterlife could give me the joy of my fantasy moments.

I believe in fairy tales because I know we make them real.

But, they are the definitions of our personal extremes and deep down we know that both of these extremes could never happen.  We live our lives between our utopia and our dystopia. Jewishly, we know our minds can take us to our extremes and so the Torah and all of our texts always tell us: ‘choose joy’.  

This week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, paints a utopian image of the world if we follow covenant and build the society of values that Judaism outlines.  It is pure bliss, health, prosperity and affluence – we will want for nothing. Conversely, if we stray from covenant and betray the core of who we are, the picture of a cursed world that the parshah describes is bone-chilling.  Moses splits the people in two and while one half describes the horrific curses, the other half must answer ‘amen’ in agreement. Then we do it again with the blessings.  

Yet, the most surprising part of all of this is that both the rewards and punishments are described as implementing in this world.  In other words, if we do good, we are not rewarded with a blessed world to come, a wonderful afterlife. On the contrary, we are blessed with a world here that we would want to live in.  If we destroy everything we stand for, we are not punished with the eternal fires of hell – we are punished by having to live in the hell we created.  

The parshah outlines both a utopia and dystopia and neither one is real.  They are the extremes we have the power to create in our lives with the choices we make.

I used to be afraid of the pictures painted in this week’s parshah.  Would God really deliver the hell that is described? But then I realized we don’t need God to do it, we’ve done pretty good all by ourselves throughout history.  But equally powerful is the reality of the blessings we can create and the world it would bring.

God created the world we live in but we work with God to continue as partners.  We are instrumental in renewing creation every day that we live. We learned that in this week’s parshah, we heard it, we understand it and we answered amen.

Can I Leave My Jewish at Home?

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a good week.  I was reading this week’s parshah, Ki Teitzei, and how it discusses who you are when you venture out of your home, your community and your comfort zones.  In fact, Ki Teitzei means ‘when you venture out’.

It made me think of questions like whether someone is comfortable showing their identity in the world at large.  Would you wear a Magen David on the outside of your shirt? The parshah tells us that we need to carry our identities with us wherever we go.  When an Israelite soldier is attracted to a war captive, he must allow her time and space to mourn her previous identity. Then he can marry her and she gains full rights as his wife.  Her identity has changed and he remains true to his Jewish identity and its code of ethics.

In today’s world, we’re always sensitive to anti-semitism and the line between the public and the private.  The Torah can tell us that we must be firm in who we are, no matter where we are, but that is far easier said than done.  A few years ago, my family and I vacationed in rural Texas at Christmas time. We didn’t know it was rural Texas, we thought it was a suburb of Austin.  It seems that Texas has quite a bit of open land, so what they consider a suburb is what I would consider ‘the bush’.

But, we only realized that when we arrived at the lovely cabin on the lake…in the middle of nowhere.  There were neighbouring cabins we could see here and there. When we walked around the lake we came across a pick-up truck parked with fishing gear, extra clothes and what looked like a rifle or two.  As it was December, we definitely noticed all the Christmas decorations and lights around us. In fact, the trees in the forests by the highways were decorated as well. It had the appearance of Christmas tree forests that were growing already decorated. 

Living in the city, we’re quite comfortable with the Christmas decorations around this time but we didn’t realize that we are also comforted by the diversity that surrounds us.  There was no diversity in this ‘suburb’ in Texas. And so, we had “the” discussion of what happens if we run into a neighbour who might ask about our lack of Christmas doo-dads. Some of our answers ranged from ‘we’re not Christian right now, but thank you so much for asking’ to ‘airlines are so inconsiderate with your luggage these days, am I right?’  We never considered explaining that we’re Jews.

Let me be clear, no one had made us feel unwelcome or was anything but warm and friendly.  People in the shops, market, on the road or by the lake were all open and lovely. No one ever asked us about our religion but they always wished us a merry Christmas and we always thanked them and wished them the same.  

The question of who we are when we leave our homes, pass the mezuzah on our door, and enter the world, is a real and daily question.  How do we navigate multiple identities? When Superman wants to hide his identity, he puts on a suit and glasses and apparently no one is any the wiser.  But when Clark Kent sees crime happening, why does he have to change into his Superman suit? Why can’t Clark Kent save the innocent? Superman’s vulnerability isn’t kryptonite, it’s someone finding out that he leads two lives – God forbid someone finds out that at home he lies around in a cape and tights.

I made a new friend this summer.  This woman is a devout Christian and her church is central in her life.  We shared time together and enjoyed each other’s company and humour. The more she talked about her church, the more I worried about whether it would matter that there was no church in my life.  She asked me if faith was important to me and I toyed with the answer: ‘airlines are so inconsiderate with your luggage these days, am I right?’ Instead, I made eye contact and said that religion is very much a part of my life, I’m a Jew.

She couldn’t have been more thrilled.  She saw faith as one more thing we had in common.

The parshah this week challenges us about our identities.  Who are we when we go to war? Who are we when we encounter vulnerable people?  Are we ever willing to re-identify our children as criminals and who are we when there are no witnesses to our actions?

But long before we get to those extremes, we can sit every morning with our coffee, think about the day ahead and ask ourselves who we are when we shut the door behind us.

Open Wounds

Hi everyone,

Picture it:

A dead body found outside city limits with no witnesses and no one to blame.  It means no government is taking responsibility for the crime and no one is attending to the body.  No CSI team is sent and no police tape will cordon off the crime scene. In a very short time, the animals will claim the area and the victim will be forgotten forever.  A crime with a suffering victim and no closure in sight.

And now you have the picture painted in part of this week’s parshah, Shoftim.

Ok, I’m being a bit Hollywood dramatic, but only a bit.  The problem mentioned in the Torah is, in fact, a dead body between cities and no one owning the problem.  But whenever there is suffering involved, the Torah has made it clear that it cannot go unanswered – it must come to a close.

And so we arrive at discussing closure in our lives.  It’s nice when things tie into neat parcels with beginnings and endings.  Whenever something new occurs in our lives, we say a ‘shehecheyanu’, the blessing that acknowledges our gratitude for arriving at that new moment.  But, we don’t say ‘shehecheyanu’ for new things that don’t have endings. For instance, we don’t say a ‘shehecheyanu’ when we get married or at our first intimacies because we intend those relationships to last unendingly.  The blessing is for those moments that have closure: like the beginning of a holiday that will end in a week.

And though we know some things end, that doesn’t mean we’ll find closure.  Closure involves picking up the loose thread and tying it to something.  

But it’s not that simple, because if the loose thread involved our getting hurt, then we might revert to that primal element within ourselves that wants the person who hurt us to be hurt back. 

I saw this play out years ago when I was waiting for a flight at the airport.  I watched two kids playing at the gate. They were clearly brother and sister, around 6 or 7 years old.  The longer we waited, the less they got along (shocker). After about an hour, their now aggressive playing ended with the little boy crying and running to his mother.  Through his tears he told his mother that his sister hit him. “So now I have to hit her back, right? And I have to hit her HARDER, right?”

His words were brilliant.  Of course, she should feel what he felt, so he should hit her back.  But isn’t there a price to be paid for initiating the violence, and shouldn’t there be a deterrent built in to prevent future preemptive hitting – so he should hit her harder.  

His point was driven home to his mother when she told him she would talk to his sister about it immediately.  His response: “TALK to her??? Aren’t you going to YELL at her?!?!”

And there it is: the moment we confuse closure with justice.

And now it’s helpful to go back to that dead body in the Torah.  There will be no justice because there are no witnesses and no possible way to solve the crime.  But having no justice does not mean we cannot have closure. The Torah instructs the two closest cities to measure their distance to the body and the closest one assumes jurisdiction.  Then there is a ceremony performed to symbolically punish the guilty party and bury the dead. It is symbolic justice but effective closure.

But not everything can tie up so meaningfully.  Most of our moments are complex relationships with other people involved.  We feel the loose thread of conversations we didn’t have or injustices that were left unaddressed.  How can we find closure when the other person doesn’t know how wrong they were? If they only realized we were right, then we could finally close the matter.  And, again, we confuse closure with our fantasy of justice and so we go round and round.

How to break the cycle?

I think about the Torah’s statement of symbolic closure.  Once we realize we are not the ultimate Judge and therefore justice alludes us, we can begin to entertain symbolic closures.  There’s a great Yiddish saying that translates as: ‘not everything I think needs to be said; not everything I say needs to be written; not everything I write needs to be sent’.  There are stages of expression and I can choose one for closure.  

So, maybe we go somewhere private and say what needs saying, or maybe we write a letter and destroy it when we’re done.  Closure means we acknowledged our ‘jurisdiction’ and finish the loose thread.  

So…picture it:

A dead body found outside city limits with no witnesses and no one to blame but no longer a hanging thread and now it’s a model for the unfinished moments we all carry.