Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Emor

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Emor, contains laws that govern a Kohen. We read that, with few exceptions, a Kohen cannot be in the same place with the body of someone who has died.  It means never attending the funeral of a friend.

The modern questions around this one detail would only amplify the problem.  If a Kohen cannot enter a cemetery, would that include being on a plane flying over a cemetery?  Is there a height at which we say the presence of the cemetery below is nullified?  What about being on a plane with the body of someone being transported to Israel?  Can a Kohen ever enter a hospital that has a morgue in the basement?  The more we think about it, the more expansive the problem.  Can a Kohen walk in New York city where the Twin Towers once stood – not an official cemetery but the ashes of many are buried in the ground there.

It is easy to see that even singular comments in the Torah can sometimes clash with the mundane lives we lead.  Throughout Jewish history, we have engaged in the process of finding ways to live with Jewish law and Torah.  Not because it’s convenient, but because the Torah itself commands us ‘vichai bahem’, ‘and you shall live by them’.  We are to find ways to bring them into our lives meaningfully. In fact, millennia of Jewish thought and texts are the product of our creative ways to not feel imprisoned by our commandments, but to thrive by living within their structures.

Kohanim cannot be present in the same place as the body of a deceased person.  We define ‘place’ as the common roof, not the individual rooms of a house.  We simultaneously recognize both our need to mourn, and that we live within Torah and Divine revelation.  Today, a Jewish funeral home will build a room with a separate roof so any Kohen can attend and honour someone who has passed away.  

As is our way, we always search for the place where Divine concepts and our human expressions stand together on common ground.

 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 Kedoshim

This week’s parshah, Kedoshim, contains ‘The Holiness Code’, which includes the famous verse “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”.  The Holiness Code gets its name from the first verse, which tells us that we are to be holy because God is holy.  Accepting that God is the source, and we are the image, the Holiness Code tells us to fulfil what is already lying within us.  In other words, the ability to infuse holiness into every relationship we have and every encounter with the world is already embedded within us.

When we encounter biblical texts describing how we should live, we expect to hear lists of what we can and cannot do.  We never expect to hear anything of how we should expect others to behave toward us.  In other words, we orient ourselves towards obligations rather than towards expectations.

Interestingly, in secular cultures, we are taught to think of expectations. Everybody has legal and moral rights in the world, and we expect them to be honoured.  As Canadians, we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and our American neighbours have The Bill of Rights.  These outline what I can expect to receive from my society.  Jewishly, there is nothing in Torah that teaches me to expect that the world gives me anything.  In fact, I am taught the opposite.

The commandments teach me of obligations and responsibilities, not rights.  I have responsibilities to God, to the world, and to humanity (which includes myself).  I do not expect that the world will give me anything, I expect that I must put into the world to help it reshape and grow.  

I am not a passive recipient of things, I am an active dynamic of change.

In today’s world, we often hear of social discrepancies based on conceptions of privilege.  Once I understand that I carry responsibilities and obligations toward everything, it is difficult to inculcate a sense of privilege.  I am the one who owes the world, the world does not owe me.  With this perspective, I can enter The Holiness Code and understand how finding what was always inside me, and bringing it to the world, can truly affect healing, repair and change –the Jewish path to holiness.

 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 Yom Hashoah and Parshat Acharei Mot

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Yesterday was Yom HaShoah, the day we remember the victims of the Shoah.  In Judaism, memories are not static things, they are tools we use for improving the world.  

The challenge is that we are human, and therefore creatures of habit.  

There is a concept in history that generals always fight the previous war.  Strategies of the last war are imported into the next war, regardless of whether the realities of the world have changed in the interim.  Habits of warfare keep the world locked in conflict, as we import our previous conflicts into our new ones.  It ensures that warfare is based on ‘might makes right’, and not on motives of morality.  

When we remember the Shoah, we do not focus on the warfare, we focus on moral questions that remain global challenges.  The Talmud answers the question of moral responsibility with a clear message:

‘All who can protest against a wrongdoing of a family member, and does not protest, is accountable together with their family.  All who can protest against a wrongdoing that the people of their city are doing, and does not protest, is accountable together with the people of the city.  All who can protest against a wrongdoing done in the whole world, and does not protest, is accountable together with all the people of the world.’

This week’s parsha is called ‘Acharei Mot’, ‘After the Death’.  The name challenges us to think of the time after a trauma has occurred.  Do we only form a memory of mourning?  Do we continue to fight old traumas over and over?  Do we seek a path forward?

The world today is in a vulnerable place, but we are reminded that old habits don’t always serve us well.  We do whatever we can, each in their own way, to raise a voice of protest for those whose voices are being silenced.

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 at the End of Pesach

We are entering the final days of Passover and they are distinctly different from the first days.  

At the beginning of the holiday, we celebrate our freedom and redemption from Egypt, but as the week progresses we also progress through the Egypt narrative to find ourselves at the Red Sea for these last few days.  While the first days of Passover celebrate our exodus from Egypt, these last days celebrate our birth as a nation, having walked through a parted Red Sea.  But we are told to limit our praises of God in these last few days.  We are told to say only half of the Hallel prayer because God does not want us to praise that our redemption came at a heavy cost of human lives.  While the sea parted for us, it drowned the Egyptian army that was chasing us.

The midrash tells us that when Israel emerged safely on dry land, the angels started singing a song of praise to God, but God stops them and says: ‘My children are drowning in the sea, and you sing me praises?!’  We learn to never rejoice at the suffering of any human being, whether friend or foe.  

Bruriah, a sage Jewish woman who lived in the 2nd century, taught her husband, Rabbi Meir, that a victory over evil is to have it transform into good.  The animal within us wants to vanquish the enemy, the soul within us craves for a transformation.  The last days of Passover remind us to leave the holiday guided by our souls – we say only half a Hallel because so many people could not change and could only be stopped by death.

The world today is still a challenging place with aggressors and innocent victims caught in warfare.  Passover leaves us with the sensitivity to pray that evil transforms itself within each person, if it cannot transform itself within the leadership.

      Moadim l’simcha – wishing everyone a wonderful end of Passover.

  Shabbat shalom,

     Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat HaGadol

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol – the Grand Shabbat.  It is always the Shabbat before Pesach, and there is much debate in our texts on how it got its name.  An interesting comment suggests that as we prepare to leave Egypt, we are given our first commandment as Jews.  We are told to separate the lamb to be sacrificed at Pesach.  We are still in Egypt, still slaves, yet being commanded to start to think as free people –to make choices.  The first choice we must make is one of identity.  Do we choose covenant and freedom, or do we choose Egypt and slavery?

This same view tells us that the moment of Jewish choosing happens when we are Bnei Mitzvah, when each of us reaches Jewish adulthood.  That is the moment we are responsible for the commandments, and for adding our voice to the choir of Jewish thinkers throughout time.  On that day we become an adult, or, in Hebrew, Gadol.  That is how this Shabbat gets its name.  We step over the threshold into the understanding of freedom and choices.  We accept that while we are commanded to obey the Torah,  it will always boil down to our free will –we choose to express ourselves through this identity.

Starting with Shabbat HaGadol, and growing in excitement as the Seders approach, we remember that our Jewish choices are there to enhance us, to enrich us, and to elevate us.    Lofty ideals, igniting concepts –one might even say stepping into the Grand Shabbat.  How better to prepare for our celebration of freedom!

 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 Shemini

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Shemini, begins by telling us about “the eighth day” of consecrating the Kohanim.  Amidst the routine of offering sacrifices, a horrific tragedy occurs within Aaron’s family on this day.  The problem is, there is no ‘eighth day’.

Genesis clearly outlines a seven-day cycle.  Everything that was created fits within the structure of seven days.  We learn to feel secure in the number seven —the number that represents completeness, stability, and consistency.  

So what do we do with the ‘eighth day’?

The other time the Torah focuses us onto the eighth day is the commandment of Brit Milah.  God commands that a parent circumcise their baby boy on the eighth day of his life.  It’s a ritual that is both challenging and mysterious.  Each person present at a Brit ceremony cringes and celebrates at the same time.  We experience conflicting emotions that overlap within seconds of each other.  

In this week’s parshah, Shemini, which means ‘The Eighth’, we read of Aaron losing two of his sons in a shocking and inexplicable way.  Inappropriate ritual leads to their deaths.  We do not understand what happened, as we rarely understand it when death comes from nowhere and changes things forever.  

We cannot unlock the mystery of the eighth day.  It is where we find the hidden, underlying fabric of God manifesting in the universe.  When we find ourselves in the eighth day, where the unknowns of life can take over, we appreciate the seventh day, Shabbat, even more.

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 Tzav

As we continue to read of biblical sacrifices, we sit today and ask how these commandments can be relevant in our current lives.  Parshat Tzav, this week’s Torah reading, outlines the sacrifices and all their details.  Eventually, Jewish history will bring the sacrificial system to a halt with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  From then on, Judaism forbids the bringing of any sacrifices.

Yet, we continue to read of them, and we continue to mention them in our prayers.  If we are forbidden to bring sacrifices, why do we keep their details so alive?

In fact, Jewish tradition emphasizes sacrifices even more by stating that children should begin their study of Torah with the book of Leviticus, the laws of sacrifices.  One of our oldest texts explains that children begin with studying sacrifices because the goal of the sacrifices was to bring us back to a place of purity, and our children always exist in a state of purity, so “let the pure connect with the pure” and strengthen us.  

The Hebrew word for sacrifice in the Torah is the word korban.  It means ‘drawing near’.  In the ancient world we are taught to draw near to God through physical sacrifices.  Later, the Sages teach us that we can also draw near to God through studying Torah and speaking of the details of sacrifice.  The Midrash tells us that when our children learn of their Judaism, and their priceless legacy of Torah, they draw all of us closer to God.

Physical sacrifices no longer speak to our Jewish reality, but we keep them present in our religious view and our prayers.  We understand that the goal is to create a personal closeness with God and to use the power of that relationship to change the world.  

There are infinite ways to get there –watching our children learn of their ancient unbroken Jewish chain is one of those ways.

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 Vayikra

This week, we start the third book of the Torah, ‘Vayikra’ (Leviticus).  God calls (‘vayikra’) to Moses.  But this first word of the book has a scribal anomaly: the last letter, an aleph, is written smaller than the other letters.  

Interestingly, the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles, starts with an aleph for the word Adam, but the aleph at the beginning of that word is larger than the other letters.  Two alephs, one smaller and one larger.

We notice that Adam, the first human being, and Moses, our greatest Jewish leader, appear to be presenting us with opposite views.  The Midrash tells us that the aleph is smaller when God calls Moses because Moses is very modest and wants people to think that God happens to speak to him, not that God seeks him out.  If we remove the aleph in ‘vayikra’ it would mean ‘it just happened to be’.  Moses accepts his role as leader but is personally very modest and does not want the attention.

On the other hand, Adam, who represents all of humanity, has an enlarged aleph in his name to show a stronger, less humble, more confident presentation.  When it comes to humanity, there may be a greater calling.

We need both to complete a portrait of Jewish response.  In our personal lives, we are taught to be modest.  Jewishly, modesty doesn’t mean we think less of ourselves, it means we think of ourselves less often.  But when it comes to looking beyond ourselves, looking at others, entering the picture of peoplehood and humanity, we are to remember Adam and the larger aleph.  We are to find our confident, stronger voices and unite them to promote peace and protect the innocent.

The two books, Vayikra and Chronicles, remind us of both the power we have to restrain ourselves and the power we have to speak loudly and change the world.

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 Pekudei

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, tells us that Moses put the Ten Commandments into the Ark of the Covenant. Both sets of tablets – the ones he broke, and the ones he delivered to Israel. The Ark of the Covenant held both the broken pieces and the whole tablets.
 
When something is broken, it cannot function as intended, and we are taught to throw it away. But when something is broken, it does not mean it is useless. Certain things can still function, sometimes to remind us of important lessons or to motivate us to find repairs. Broken things can be cautionary tales.
 
In Judaism, a core value is our commitment to Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world. We believe the world is a place filled with cracks and breakage by the very nature of how life functions. We do not walk away. On the contrary, we commit ourselves to find new and creative ways to implement a change, a healing, a repair.
 
Our eyes were meant to move from the shards of broken tablets to the whole ones and back again, always aware that the potential of each to become the other is quite real.
 
This week we’ve been watching one country try to break another. It is happening across an ocean, seemingly distant from us, but we might struggle with layered family histories in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s easy to get confused about what we feel. In these moments we listen to our Jewish values reminding us to respond with support, with donations and with our voices.
 
We remember that the Ark of the Covenant held both the broken and the complete. While we remember the harsh reality of the shattered one, our eyes would always move to the other, inspiring us to find ways of repairing so it becomes whole again.
 
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 Vayakhel

It’s been a difficult week listening to the news.  Russia has invaded Ukraine, and we’re watching warfare escalate in a matter of hours.  Our hearts are always with the innocent victims of any war.  This war is an assault on our democratic beliefs, but we also have another layer that speaks to us.

Our Sages have taught us that to promote the ways of peace, we are to help those in need, whether they are Jewish or not. 

There is a Jewish community in Ukraine, and most of them are survivors of the Shoah.  A few of the rabbis in Odessa have shared that they are trying to comfort 80-year-old congregants who are reliving the memories of the war they remember from their youth.  The memories that are uniquely theirs.

There is a Jewish layer that we will only hear internally – the awakening fears.

It is in these moments that we feel the connection of Jewish peoplehood.  The media can give us the maps, the strategies, and the responses, but the rabbis will tell us of the conversations, the weakening hearts.

     As the stakes are so high internationally, we listen carefully, in the hope that the violence stops.  We must also quickly learn of the Jewish infrastructures that exist to help our fellow Jews.  We can strengthen those avenues of support, find ways to help them reach out.

Ukraine is not a neighbour of Canada, but Jewish communities are always connected, and we always listen for a voice reaching out.  

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Vayakhel, begins with the words “and Moses gathered the people together”.  Once we stand together at Sinai, we stand together everywhere.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael