Parashat VaYikrah: A Rose By Any Other Name Might Not Smell the Same

When I was a little girl, my full name, Rachael, was never used.  My family always called me a shortened version of my name, and when I was an adolescent, I decided to spell the shorter version in an interesting and unique way, so my adolescent identity could think I was cool. I ended the spelling with an ‘i’ which (I have to admit) for a (thank God) brief time, I dotted with a heart.  Then I matured and dotted it with a happy face. Then I graduated Junior High and just dotted the ‘i’ with a dot. And now you know a seemingly useless (and humbling) detail about me being cool in middle school.

But, it doesn’t end there.  Throughout my undergraduate years, many of my friends knew people who knew me when I was growing up and so the shortened form of my name followed me.  I found it jarring sometimes, because my ears would hear that short form and prepare me to see a familiar face of family or friends. Instead, more and more, I was seeing people I barely knew using a personal nickname my family used.  In my graduating year, one of my professors asked me why everyone calls me by a child’s name when the name ‘Rachael’ is so beautiful.

From then on, I became involved in who would call me ‘Rachael’ and who would call me by my more personal, more familiar name.

And then I got married.  My husband is Russian and I was introduced into the world of patronymics.  As an English speaker, I was shocked to see that Russian names don’t always have enough vowels between the consonants (I would stare at the written names, but my mouth just wouldn’t even try to pronounce ‘zdvkst’ no matter how long my eyes looked at it).  If you read a Russian novel, you don’t have to pronounce those names, but when it’s your in-laws…well, I think we can all see the problem. But, pronouncing the name is only one layer of the challenge. My husband, and everyone else from Russia, has a patronym: a name derived from his father’s first name with an add-on at the end.  I read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” when I was pretty young and I remember not understanding how many main characters had killed a pawnbroker, because the character’s name kept switching to the patronymic form or to the diminutive endearment form.  

Speaking of which, my husband’s name is only 5 letters long, but his Russian diminutive nickname of endearment is 9 letters long, because it will change and then add ‘ushkah’ at the end.  We have been married for over 30 years and he still insists that’s a diminutive version of his name. I keep saying it’s an endearment, but it can’t be a diminutive if it’s actually longer than the original name.  He keeps insisting I’m wrong… (between you and me, I don’t think ‘diminutive’ means the same thing in Russian).

As time went on, we named our children.  One of our daughters is named ‘Chava’. When she was a baby, her brother’s friends would serenade her by singing ‘Hava Nagilah’.  I didn’t have the heart to tell their sweet faces that her name isn’t ‘Hava’. For a while, other of their kindergarten friends asked why the baby was named after bread (challah).  Years later, her niece began calling her ‘Huga’ and it stuck because it has the word ‘hug’ in it. Now we can call her ‘Huga’ and it’s a sweet moment, but we would all be taken aback if anyone outside the family were to call her that.  We would feel they were taking liberties.

And, the real question is, why am I explaining all of this?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat VaYikrah begins the third book of the Torah.  The Hebrew word ‘vayikrah’ means ‘and he called’. In this case, it is God calling to Moses.  While we are all reading this, anxious to hear why God is calling to Moses, the Midrash is more concerned with why God is calling him ‘Moses’ at all.  Why that name?

The Sages tell us that Moses has 10 names which they then list with prooftexts.  The one his biological mother gave him is ‘Tuvyah’ which means God is good. It’s a lovely name, but no one will ever call him that.  The name ‘Moses’ was given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter, herself nameless in the Torah.

The Midrash that tells us all this also gives Pharaoh’s daughter a name: Batya, which means daughter of God.  The reason God chooses that name for her is because God said to her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son.  You are not My daughter, but I will call you My daughter.” We know that names reflect our essence and so God has said to her that the kindness you have shown to someone so foreign to you is reflected in your essence and now embodied in your name.

And why does God always call Moses with the name she gave him?  The Sages explain that while all Jews are born into a home where they are taught about God and Divine discourse, Pharaoh’s daughter was not.  She had to seek, find and ultimately choose to affirm the things that Torah affirms – to secure life. The Midrash says that God explains: ‘because she chose Me, I choose to use the name she chose’.  To God, he will always be Moses. 

And so, in these challenging global times, as illness has spread, quite literally, blowing in the wind, the names we use are crucial.

World leaders have named this challenge “a time of war”.  We are ‘engaged in a battle’ and we therefore now think of our homes as our bunkers.  We understand why leaders might choose those names and that language. They must quickly find a way to get millions of people to change their behaviours and so the names and the language heads to the extreme.  But, that does not mean we must choose to use those names in our homes or in our conversations. Rather than calling it ‘war’, perhaps we call it ‘security’. 

God rewarded Batya with her name because she sought a way to secure life.  We honour both her and God by still calling the baby she saved ‘Moses’. We learn that life is to be secured regardless of age, gender, nationality or faith.

So, this Shabbat our tables may have less seats around them, as members of our family stay safely in their homes.  We thank everyone who is staying home for securing themselves and securing us, as our minds are somewhat eased because we know they are staying safe. 

To me, Pharaoh’s daughter holds a special place for teaching us such a bold and relevant message.  She has influenced me personally. Her actions and God’s responses open new ways to frame what is happening around us and to enter Shabbat with a feeling of calm and security.

If she were here, I would invite her to call me ‘Rachi’. For her, I would even dot it with a heart.

Parshat Vayakhel – Pekudei: COVID 19 is a Coin with Two Sides

This has been a week of disorientation and suspension of norms.  It is not a week of chaos, but it is a week of disorganization. Sitting together presents possible danger for each other’s health while the comfort of a hug from a loved one invokes an immediate question of safety for one another.  Personal space is now extended to 2 meters distance and since it’s after Purim…we’re all wondering how we do Pesach this year.

So, here are some wonderful Jewish moments that have occurred.  

A news agency has reported that an Israeli opera singer stands in the street outside her father’s building where he is isolated and sings opera to him from the sidewalk.  Her music fills the air and though directed to her father, the neighbourhood is quiet as everyone listens. They are all transformed. I can only imagine what her father is feeling, his pride, his love, his tears.

A mother of 4 young children in Israel goes into her car so she can privately rant and yell at her children’s teachers for non-stop online messages about schoolwork and homework.  She is beautifully honest and hilarious in her exasperation as she accuses the teachers of setting her up to look like an idiot (her words) to her kids because she can’t help them with all their math and science questions.  How dare they?!? She finishes her rant (which she has videotaped to send to the teachers), thanks them because now she feels better and wishes them all a great day! The video is titled ‘If coronavirus doesn’t kill me, distance learning will’.

And here are some wonderful global moments that have occurred.

In Spain, people stood on their balconies and applauded the health care workers.

In Copenhagen, people leaned out their windows to join together and sing “You’ve Got a Friend”.

Two little girls in Queensland, Australia pooled their allowances and bought toilet paper which they then distributed from their wagon to their elderly neighbours.

All stories of the flip side of the Covid 19 coin.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayakhel – Pekudei, interestingly, is named ‘and he gathered’, referring to Moses gathering all the people together.  They have been brought together to build holy space, those with ‘a giving heart’, those who have particular skills to bring to the table and those with a will to participate – come one, come all.

In fact, the Torah describes the outpouring of generosity from everyone to the point where Moses asks people to stop donating since they have gathered what they need.  What they need, not more and not less.

Holy space is created when we find safe ways to gather together and build something new that benefits us all. Holy space is created through the generosity of others, our own generosity and the understanding of the measures involved in giving and taking.

But holy moments are created when we choose to turn the ‘coin’ over and build the nuances that transform the world: the song we share, the gift on the doorstep, the coffee on the porch with a loved one behind a window.

This is not a time to sit in our homes and build a private bunker. This is a time to stay safe in our homes and find new ways to gather and strengthen.  God commanded Moses to gather the people and we have always taken that very seriously.

The parshah continues and describes the robes of the High Priest.  It is layer upon layer upon layer of clothing and metal breastplates and epaulets.  Let’s not forget, these are desert people so layer upon layer upon layer cannot be easy to wear.  The High Priest also has little pomegranates and bells on the hem of his clothing. So, I can always hear my High Priest if he’s walking up behind me and then I can see the gems, the gold, the purple and blue and red garments.  What I won’t see is the man inside.

The Torah has clearly described a station, not a person.  No High Priest should bring his human interpretive side to the job.  I want my High Priests to always obey all the same rules so there is no difference between them.  I always want to see the office he holds, not the person inside.

And this week, I understood why.

During one of the news conferences, a representative of the Ministry of Health was updating on COVID 19 in Canada.  She clearly hadn’t slept much and seemed a bit more frazzled since the last time I watched her press conference. But this time her voice quivered, her eyes teared and she had to stop speaking for a moment.  I no longer saw the Ministry of Health, I saw her. I felt for her and I was rattled. 

The Torah, in its wisdom, reminds us that sometimes we should see only the Office and wait to extend our hearts to the person holding the position.  

All new moments of choice and discipline with only good intentions.

May there be speedy recovery to those who are ill and strength to those who are vulnerable. 

Invitation:

Food for Our Neshamah, Coffee for Me

Beginning Monday, March 23rd, I invite you to start your day with me online, as we share some of the positive stories from around the world. Let’s have coffee together in a new way and exchange these heartfelt and courageous stories from people who are responding to today’s challenges beautifully. 

Every weekday morning at 9 am (EST), join me in a new online community for positive sharing with our coffees. I invite you to come on in using this link: https://zoom.us/j/522368264 or viewing our Facebook page.  Don’t be afraid to have your coffee in a mug with a funny or special message; I’d love to hear the story behind it.

As we navigate the global spread of COVID 19, we can’t predict what the news will bring or what the next challenge might be, but we can start our day together, face to face online, in conversation and community. 

I look forward to welcoming you on Monday.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young…Calf

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Ki Tisa, is filled with the definitions of Jewish art.  We don’t often think Judaism is filled with artistic expressions because we’re not allowed to make graven images…or images of God…or images of things that others worship as God…so, anything.

But we forget that most of Jewish expression is actually artistic.  We don’t read the Torah, we sing it. We sit at our Shabbat tables and sing blessings for wine and bread.  We even get creative with sculptures when we braid challah – 3 strand braids or 4 strand braids or twisted or round – it seems trivial, but we all love a beautiful challah.  

We are created with artistic souls, as proved by our kids.  All children are artistic and only colour inside the lines to please the adult world.  There are no lines constraining their artistic thinking. Several of my kids decided to express their artistic passions in our home, specifically in the wall to wall carpet.  I’m not being sarcastic, I’m being quite literal. One of my daughters noticed the carpet looks different if you brush it up or brush it down. She discovered her preferred artistic medium.  The carpet of an entire floor would be used to show grand portraits of cities or people that resulted from her moving her fingers through the carpet. It was beautiful, I beamed with pride, how creative, how artistic…how tremendously inconvenient!  If anyone walked on the carpet, we risked disturbing her masterpiece and no amount of explaining could move her artistic soul one bit. We all had to walk around the edges of the rooms. Artists can be very headstrong.

One of my sons did a similar thing with pennies lined up on the carpet (he loved the colour contrast) and towers and citadels built with pennies (he preferred the 3D approach to art and I gained incredible insight as to how a Roman army would lay siege to a city).  Usually a jar of pennies was a good idea – rookie mistake. Same problem with the carpet, same problem walking in the rooms. 

I’d had enough when I walked into my youngest daughter’s room one day and noticed she was lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, creating a mosaic on her floor.  Lying next to her on the floor was a pile of her hair. I froze, stared at it for a while and finally asked her if that was her hair. Without looking up, without breaking her concentration to speak, my 6 year old daughter simply said ‘uh huh’.  Why is it not attached to your head, I asked. She told me it kept falling on her face and getting on her work so she cut it off.          

For clarity,  she had long hair that reached her hips.  She didn’t give herself a haircut, she only cut the part that bothered her, so only a chunk was missing.  I reached my ‘living with an artist limit’.  

We bought disposable cameras (…back when the dinosaurs roamed…) and I told them they could take pictures of their art and they could pay to develop the film (it’s better when the artist suffers).  I got my floors back.

We are all artists and our artistic visions have no limits – in our heads.  Judaism does not discuss limiting our creative visions but we most certainly are told to limit our creative products.  In this week’s parshah, we are introduced to directed artistic passion that brings others to inspired expressions of their own, as well as chaotic artistic passion that brings others to destruction.

While instructing Moses on how to create holy space, God introduces Moses to Betzalel, the artist that is inspired with the creative expression to form the articles of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  He has the skill and God will fill his heart with the inspiration. It is a passion project that results in artistic objects whose purpose is to move the observer from the mundane to the holy. It is the path, the journey, the window through which others can travel.  It is transformative.

But later in this parshah, Israel notices Moses is late coming down from Mt. Sinai.  We’re never quite sure how being punctual became the definition of Jewish behaviour, certainly that didn’t continue to inform our Jewish identities, yet, somehow, all of covenant is going to sit on Moses being late.  He’s only perceived as late, he’s not really late because he never said what time he’d be back…but I digress.

The mob turns to Aaron and demands he make them a god.  According to Aaron, he gathered gold, threw it into the fire and (poof) out came a calf.  It is the description an artist would give of how the art forms itself as inevitable, the artist is but the instrument.  

While God is teaching Moses how holy space is created through the inspired heart of an artist, Israel is demanding that Aaron create a profane object through mob pressure and fear.  While God shows that the creativity of an artist can transform any moment into a meaningful one, Aaron creates something that transforms those moments into ones of betrayal and chaos.  Juxtaposed examples of Jewish art and the power to transform.

Artists must express their passion, they are driven, they are inspired, but Jewish art is the result of transformative intent.  Judaism commands us to engage with Torah, its concepts, its ideas, its values. We do not read, memorize, rinse and repeat. Engagement means we creatively explore, interpret and share.  The pinnacle of text study is to create a ‘hiddush’, a newness, another doorway through which to explore a new thought, a new artistic moment. We create conceptual artwork that contains a spark of our being and we passionately debate and defend our artistic interpretations.  Pluralism is hard because we’re trying to get Picasso and Van Gogh in a room together and have each credit the other’s vision as equal to their own.

So, embrace the artist within you, celebrate your childrens’ artwork, fill your fridge with your grandkids’ beautiful drawings as they beam with pride.  When it comes from a giving heart with a transformative intent it opens the door to a new meeting place of meaning. When it feeds fear and panic, when it results from opportunistic intentions, it is the betrayal of a nation, a faith and each other.

Does That Mean I’m Crazy? (A Blog for Purim)

The holiday of Purim is coming up in a few days.  It’s a holiday that baffles us because we don’t quite understand it’s contradictions.  Somehow, it’s a holy day but it seems to celebrate the mundane. Where’s the holy in the holiday?   

By celebrating the mundane, I mean the ways in which we are to observe this holiday don’t involve the usual observances.  First, we’re not prohibited labour, so, like Hannukah, it’s easier to fit into our lives, it fits the mundane. Secondly, we fulfill its observance by listening to someone read us a book, dress in an unusual way, drink a lot and give food to people.  The story of Purim revolves around an enemy of the Jewish people, Haman, who targets the Jews for extermination. We are saved because a Jewish woman, Esther, married a non-Jewish king, Ahashverosh, and made him jealous of Haman so he would kill him. While all of these events play out, the Jewish people, as a whole, are trying to get permission to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple.  Actually, it’s Ahashverosh who could grant them that permission and yet no one asks for it. He repeatedly asks Esther what he can do to make her happy and she never suggests giving her the province Israel is in. It just doesn’t seem to occur to anyone.

And that’s only the beginning of the crazy.  When the king doesn’t know how to handle his first queen, Vashti, he takes marital advice from his…eunuchs.  When Haman doesn’t know how to handle his political dilemma, he turns to his male and female lovers. No one seems to know where to go for good advice.  When Haman wants to exterminate the Jews, the king empowers him with his ‘Ring of Power’…and when Mordecai wants the Jews to save themselves the king empowers him with the same ‘Ring of Power’.  When Haman thinks the king is talking about him, he’s actually talking about Mordecai and when the gallows is built for Mordecai, it’s actually going to be used for Haman.  

You also can’t help but wonder where all the other Jews are.  In Hanukkah, the leading Jewish figures have a group of people with them.  At Pesach, all the Jewish people are redeemed. This holiday seems to revolve around 2 people…where are the rest of the Jews?

And let’s not forget that the hero of the story, Esther, can only do what she did because she married a non-Jewish king.

I remember celebrating Purim as a teenager.  I went to a Jewish high school that was pretty religiously observant – girls and boys were in separate classes and girls weren’t allowed to study Talmud.  We used to play fun games about it, like drawing six pictures of a man with a beard, kippah and glasses. Then we had to try and match the names of our teachers with the ‘correct’ picture (all the pictures were the same).  But when Purim was approaching, you could sense it in the air. The school Purim party involved wild costumes. Several of our teachers would wear their wives’ wigs while a few others wore women’s nightgowns over their suits.  In one case I remember seeing baby doll pyjamas over a black suit with long blond hair down the back until the person turned around and I saw the long black beard in the front.  

And I haven’t even touched on all the drinking…

But this wasn’t merriment, this was mitzvah.

Turning the day into a day of crazy is exactly how the Talmud says we should commemorate it.  Because the story involves confusion of gender identities, our costumes will push on that line.  Because Haman and Mordecai step in and out of each other’s shoes all the time, we are told to drink until we don’t know the difference between them.  And somehow we answer it all by giving treat bags to each other.

SO WHAT’S BEHIND ALL THIS MADNESS!?!

The answer to everything lies in the first line of the Megillah: “It was, in the days of Ahashverosh (Xerxes), that is the Ahashverosh who ruled 127 provinces from India to Cush.”  The line we don’t pay attention to is actually the most important line of the book. It states the theme. Within the 127 provinces is Israel…and it’s never mentioned. This is a book of exile.

For Jews in exile, it is a world of confusion and chaos.  Lines are blurred, definitions are floating and heroes become villains in an instant.  Assimilation is real and Israel fades from the top of our priority list. The Sages say that all those drinking parties happening in the palace, and throughout the realm, are populated by Persians and Jews.  The Jews are indistinguishable from the Persians. The objects from our Temple were brought out as trophies in these parties and we celebrated with the rest of them. Our holiest of objects being treated like the Stanley Cup at a party, and we were in there drinking with the best of them.  There is no community, there is only society and it’s a foreign one.

Purim is a cautionary tale that Mordecai and Esther send to every Jewish generation through time.  They beseech us to read their story so we will never forget that exile means we are sitting on shifting sands.  

The Sages push it into the absurd so we won’t miss their point.  In fact, the name of the holiday, Purim, means Lottery. It’s what Haman did to choose which day to murder all the Jews.  We named the holiday after something the villain did! We named the holiday ‘The Lottery’ – the message screams to us each time we celebrate it – living in exile is a crapshoot.

But they also gave us the answer.  Take the day of crazy and answer it by creating a community of celebration.  Show up at each other’s homes and give out treat bags. Get together for festive meals and discuss the crazy of everything while we feel the strength from each other.  The height of irony would be if someone turned down an invitation to enjoy a Purim meal at someone’s home because they weren’t part of that particular Jewish community.  On this holiday all denominational and philosophical differences should fade into the background as we eat, celebrate and remind ourselves that we rely on each other for stability.

Wouldn’t it be something to celebrate if the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal, LGBTQ, Humanistic and every other group on the Jewish spectrum got together on one day out of the year, suspended all the distinctions and reinforced the nation!  It’s beautiful to think that the zaniness of Purim could be the open door for a day of Jewish community with no boundaries and no judgments.

So, let’s celebrate the day of Lottery, Purim, the mirror we hold to the world we live in.  We often think that the ancient world was a ridiculous place. We marvel at how brutally and nonsensically people behaved then and how modern and advanced we are today.  In that moment remember the messages of Purim and recognize how timeless the message is of how crazy the world can get. If that doesn’t do the job, just turn on CNN.

For more Purim fun, check out our latest YouTube video: Am I Crazy Or It Purim?

Looking for more opportunities to learn from Rachael? We’re currently accepting registrations for our Spring Lunchtime Learning Series – Check out the Centre Happenings page for all the information!