Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Nitzavim

This week, we read the Torah portion of Nitzavim – Moses’ words to Israel as he knows his hours are few.  This week, we enter Shabbat, preparing for Rosh Hashanah, as we pray for what only God can give us: time.  

Moses immediately tells Israel that we are all standing together right now.  Whether we are leaders, followers, women, men, elderly, or infants, we meet in this moment, at the threshold of covenant with God.  We all stand equally.  But, Moses is not standing equally with anyone because he knows the day he will die, and he knows his prayers won’t be answered.  He stands alone inside our greatest human fears.  Yet, as always, he has so much to teach us.

Moses reminds us that at the core of everything Jewish will be God, Torah, and each other.  We will house our spiritual expressions in the teachings of Torah, and we will argue with each other about what it means.  Then Moses specifically warns us not to think Torah is a treasure buried somewhere out in the world.  It is not a search for external truth.  Moses tells us the Torah is close to us, it is in our hearts, and when in doubt, we should always look inward.

Soon, we will stand together on Rosh Hashanah, as we enter the holiest time of our year, and we will ask God for time.  We offer God our honest, internal reflections from the past year, as we experience what Moses tried to tell us.  We have a voice in our destinies, a tremendous gift, and as we gather to pray on Rosh Hashanah, we will make our voices heard.  Sometimes prayer is a whisper and sometimes prayer is thunder.  

Jews everywhere will whisper our fears to God, as we raise our voices to create the thunder of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’.  In the end, across millennia of years, we indeed stand where Moses said we would: Nitzavim hayom, “Today we stand together.”

I’d like to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, and a sweet, healthy, and happy year to come.

May we use our time of Shabbat rest to gather our resources for the holiness of Rosh Hashanah.

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Selichot

The Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah is time reserved for special prayers called Selichot.  We wait until it is late at night, at the time of ‘Ashmoret HaBoker’ – when night is ending, and the transition to dawn is beginning.  The prayers we say are apologies and admissions, as we implore God to understand our limitations.  We choose the timing carefully.

Throughout the High Holidays, we repeatedly appeal to God as our Divine Parent -we want the unconditional love and forgiveness that only a parent can give.  We choose Ashmoret HaBoker for these prayers because it is the time we are usually asleep.  In fact, our neighbours, cities, and all around us are probably asleep.  In those moments, several things are happening.  The Zohar tells us that in the calm of the night, when the transition to day is beginning, God turns toward attributes of Divine Mercy before the new day has dawned.  We appeal to God when Divine Mercy is heightened.  The second reason has to do with our relationship with God, our Parent.

As new parents, we can remember bringing our children home and keeping our eyes on them.  At first, they don’t do much, they’re not yet awake to the world, so we watch them sleep.  We form the habit of watching them sleep, and watching them breathe.  It comforts us, we are soothed by it, we bond with them as they lie asleep, not knowing this is happening.  The purity and sincerity of this non-verbal connection is unique.

As we are all made in the image of God, what is true for the image must be true for the Source.  While we are asleep, our souls and God find each other and deepen their bond.  There is no better moment for us to reach out to God, the Parent, and ask for forgiveness than in those moments when night, the time we usually sleep, is transitioning to day.

Selichot is a special time of prayer we can say either together or individually.  It is a time, in the still of the night, to reach outward and upward, to feel the child and the Parent.  Selichot is when we can immerse ourselves into the subtle nuances before Rosh Hashanah that can sometimes get lost in the grandeur of the Highest of our Holy Days.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

 Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ki Teitzei

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Teitzei, starts with the phrase ‘If you go to war’, and then outlines moments and instances of choices.  Much of what is discussed are approaches we’ve already heard elsewhere in the Torah, which begs the question of why they appear here.

The question of behaviour and values is key to a Jewish understanding of how we interact with the world.  Our usual encounters become routines, and we know the standard of behaviours will serve us well.  We strive for ‘menschkeit’, a word we all know but can’t really define. We try to cultivate that within ourselves as well as look for it in others. But now the Torah has asked us a tougher question: who are we when we leave our comfort zones and face challenges.  Can we still be a mensch when turmoil surrounds us?

Jewish values are not things we develop in a moment of challenge, they are things we develop over our lifetimes that then serve us in each moment.  The Torah is not describing the conflict of warfare since it begins by discussing the war captives Israel has taken in victory, not the war itself.  The Torah describes the challenge of victory – the way empowerment can turn into entitlement.  When we look at a defeated enemy, do we still maintain our values and behave as we should?  

On a more mundane level, when we win an argument, how do we engage with the other person in the very next moment?  Whether it is a personal relationship or a professional exchange, our Jewish values must follow us into restaurants and office spaces.  The challenge is not our Jewish homes, it is ‘ki teitzei’ – when we venture out.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shoftim

In this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, Moses discusses impartial justice. For example, don’t play favourites in judicial proceedings, and don’t take bribes. In one of the warnings, the Torah says: ‘don’t recognize faces’, an interesting phrase with a latitude of meaning.

Within the context of a court proceeding, not recognizing faces is clearly saying not to favour someone you know. In other words, look only at the issue and not the person standing there. But, as we are in the month of Elul, a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the layered meaning of this phrase becomes relevant. In Elul, we are to assess our past actions, then ask and offer forgiveness to those we have wronged or who have wronged us. The problem is that when we are hurt by someone, we don’t only think of this time, we think of all times in our past when we felt wronged by that person. It’s difficult to think of our pain without thinking of a history of pain.

Given that we accumulate these hurt feelings, it’s now hard to forgive someone without being cynical and thinking it will happen again because of who they are. Now our forgiveness includes our judgments.

The Torah challenges us to approach these moments without ‘recognizing faces’. The focus shifts to the hurt and the attempt to validate and acknowledge what was done through a sincere apology. We are all creatures of habit, and we will continue to hurt others as a natural course of being human. The question is not whether we will do it again –of course we will. The question is whether other people are building biographies of pain around us that activate when they see us. The greater task is to forgive without recognizing faces.

Apologies and forgiveness stand together in a moment in time. The Talmud tells us that true forgiveness means I have let it go, I will not mention it again nor think of it. True forgiveness is a slate wiped clean ready to be written on again. It’s a level few of us achieve, but every year we are invited to do it a bit better than we did before.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Re’eh

This week’s parshah starts with the word Re’eh, ‘behold’, and concludes with the commandment Yira’eh, “you are to be seen” –to see and to be seen.  We start with Moses outlining blessings and curses. The world has suddenly become a world of black and white: obey the commandments and we get the blessings, disobey and the curses will arrive.  It’s a chilling moment. 

But the entirety of Torah shows us a world that sits between the realities of black and white.  Free will is constantly bringing us to the grey areas, and Judaism works best when avoiding extremes.  This moment of Torah, Moses’ positioning of stark blessings and curses, is a human moment.  As he feels his life is ending, Moses heads to communicating easy choices of paradise or abomination.  The portrait he outlines never existed and never will. 

But Moses’ message sits within the larger structure that tells us you must ‘see’ and ultimately you must ‘be seen’.  In today’s world, many of us sit as observers and if we engage, we know there is the lure of being anonymous on the internet.  The problem is that remaining anonymous means no one can be held accountable for what they’ve said or done.  In the language of Torah, we are happy to see but we are afraid to be seen. 

Judaism acknowledges that we all have moments of fear, we will think we prefer a world of black and white, and the safety of remaining anonymous, but we are wrong. Once all this is outlined to us, the Torah then commands us to “be seen” – to know that each one of us is needed to engage with and to heal the world.  Ultimately, we are accountable for each time we choose to express, and we are accountable for each time we choose to be invisible. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

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Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Eikev

As we continue to hear Moses’ thoughts in parshat Eikev, our Torah reading this week, Moses says something that confuses us.  Moses tells Israel not to forget the past 40 years and the hardships we endured since this was God wanting to know what was in our hearts.  The confusing part is that God is omniscient, all-knowing, wouldn’t God already know what’s in our hearts, and then we could be spared all the hardship and suffering? 

It raises the tension between God knowing everything yet granting us free will.  They seem to be opposing truths that cannot coexist.  While there is no clear resolution, generally our Sages understood that God chooses not to know what we will choose, granting us the space to exercise our free will.   

The greatest gift God bestowed on us is the gift of choosing.  It is an ultimate statement of trust because I could choose to keep myself from God, to exclude God from my life, to deny.  The gift of free will is the act of trust that I will find my own unique way to God and genuinely desire that partnership. 

But why through hardship? When there are simchas in our lives, we open all the doors, as we open our hearts, to celebrate together.  When there are challenges in our lives, we narrow the scope, guard our hearts and trust only those we have chosen as our inner circle.  Moses has told Israel that God desires a presence in our inner circle.   

The strength of free will is immeasurable.  It is how we choose to shape the world around us, to form our families, to create a life journey, and to include God.  Moses has reminded us that our relationships with God are tremendously empowering, often fragile, but ultimately of our own choosing. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vaetchanan

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, has many verses we recognize from within our Siddur.  One of the things we immediately notice is the statement of Shema Yisrael, a core statement of Jewish unity and declaration of monotheism.

​Interestingly, the statement is most often translated as: Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.  But the word shema’, in Biblical Hebrew, doesn’t mean ‘hear’ as much as it means ‘understand’.  We are not telling each other to listen up, we are telling each other to try and understand this all important statement.

​Once we reframe the meaning in our minds, we start to notice how many times the word shema appears in this parshah -suddenly it’s everywhere.  Moses tells Israel that God is not ‘listening’ to his need to enter the land; Moses repeatedly tells Israel they must ‘listen’ to the commandments; Moses declares to Israel they must ‘listen’ to each other.

​​In other words, we often tell people they’re not listening to us when we actually mean they’re not understanding us.  Rather than putting the focus on the other person and their listening skills, perhaps the focus should be self-directed by asking if we are expressing ourselves in order to be understood.  If not, we should change our communication, not assume the other person has to change how they listen.

Moses has named the relationships in our lives that are key for understanding each other: God, the society we are building together, and our personal community.  Even as Moses faces his final days, he continues to lead and inspire.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Devarim

This week, we begin reading the last book of the Torah, the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy in English).  Devarim recants things we’ve already read, but now it’s told from Moses’ point of view.  We’ve been waiting since the book of Exodus to hear what Moses thinks about his life, and we finally get a glimpse.  He is not a happy man. 

He starts his memory from the time they left Sinai, when he noticed God had fulfilled a covenantal promise by making Israel into a great nation.  ‘So great,’ says Moses, ‘that I told you then I wouldn’t be able to carry all of you with all your problems.’  From that point onward, we hear Moses own responsibility for some things, and blame Israel for others.  It’s a very sobering version.   

We hear the honesty of Moses’ voice as he struggles with what he knows are his final days.  When he finishes his address to Israel, he knows he will die, and so there is nothing to be gained or lost, there is only the opportunity to be heard.   

But that is everything. 

When Moses first meets God, at the burning bush, Moses says he is not a man of words, he will not be listened to or believed.  This self-perception of inadequacy haunts him throughout his leadership.  Aaron is there to support him, as is Miriam, because he always feels he is not good enough to be heard or believed. 

While we are feeling the heaviness of Moses’ fate, the pain of not entering the land of Israel, we should not lose sight of this tremendous gift he is granted in these last days.  Moses is speaking from his heart, and he is listened to, and he is believed.  In fact, several millennia later, we are still reading his book, listening to him, and believing every word. 

We could not imagine our Torah without this last book, the words of Moses, deemed as holy as every other book of Torah. Every year, we read it, we hear him, we understand his human moments, and we give our greatest leader what he deserves –our appreciation and ongoing respect.  The book of Devarim may not give us new information, but it gives us the unfiltered voice of Moses, and his deserved last word on the matter. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Matot/Masei

This week, we read a double portion from the Torah, the chapters of Matot/Masei.  Included in these chapters is a request from two tribes to live outside of Israel.  It raises the ongoing question of whether Jews must live in Israel or can we choose to live elsewhere.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad argue that their livelihoods are better suited to the land they saw before entering Israel.  Just as the daughters of Zelophehad previously argued to change the laws of inheritance so they could acquire land in Israel, these tribes now argue to change the law, so they do not have to acquire land in Israel.  Right from the start, Israel presents a challenge to us where some of us will do anything to be there while others would not.

In the end, Moses strikes a deal with the tribes. They may live outside of Israel if they help acquire the land and ensure that the rest of the nation can live there safely.  Once that is accomplished, they may return to their homes outside of Israel.  Everyone agrees, and it seems to work well until we are told, a generation later, that there are now challenges of common identity when it comes to everyone’s children.

These ancient questions never resolve.  The relationships we all have with Israel are always complex.  They include understandings of identity, politics, ethics, religion, family, and peoplehood.  Everything we’re taught not to discuss at work or at parties.  The strength of the portion in the Torah is the honesty with which everything is raised, discussed and agreed, while showing us that resolutions will be momentary –each generation will face its own Israel challenge.

The last few years we’ve all had our plates full of health concerns, financial changes, and new societal norms.  We’re still in the midst of understanding much of what the world looks like now.  Through it all, Israel, and our relationship with it, may have faded into the background of our lives.  This week the Torah reminds us that even if we do not live there, the commitment, the oneness of nation, and the responsibility to its welfare must never fade.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Pinchas

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we see opposite arguments sitting side by side.  We meet five outstanding sisters who bring an argument of fairness to Moses.  They state that since their father died without leaving a son, the laws of inheritance do not apply, and their family name and legacy will be lost.  Their argument is based on the underlying assumption that a covenant with God sits on an ethical foundation of fairness.  Moses presents their case to God, and God agrees with the women, changing the inheritance laws in Israel forever.  It seems their argument of covenantal fairness prevails.

But then, immediately, we hear of Moses’ death sentence.  God tells Moses to climb to the top of the mountain and see the land of Israel but know that he will never enter it.  Moses responds with a plea to appoint a leader for the people so there is continuity –it is unfair to leave them without a leader, even for a moment.  Coming immediately after the sisters and their successful argument for fairness, we are shocked to hear of what will befall Moses.

The two opposite texts highlight an ongoing tension we all have in our Jewish lives: my needs as an individual and the needs of a community.  There are times when our spiritual needs seek privacy and isolation –indulgence in our own thoughts.  Yet, we are commanded to build community and join a minyan.  Some people have shared with me that sometimes it is the distraction of being around others that actually blocks their spiritual moment.  Judaism keeps us balancing on the line between the individual and the community, we are not to serve only one, we are to harmonize them both.

In fact, we are given tools to engage outwardly at times, and to disconnect and journey inward when we choose.  Some people cover their eyes with their Tallit at certain moments, others may cover their face with their Siddur – we all cover our eyes during Shema.

The five sisters argue for personal fairness, and they are successful.  Moses argues for fairness for the people, and he is successful.  It is we who cannot switch our thoughts to consider that what the people need may present as unfair to what the individual needs. Clearly, the new generation of Israelites need Joshua as a leader, Moses could lead a generation of slaves, not a generation of freeborn.  

Whether it is something as grand as leadership and legacy, or something as personal as how many times we go to shul, the question of balancing the personal and the communal is always a delicate balance of fairness and fulfillment.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael