Parshat Eikev: I’m Sorry, Did You Say Wear These Boxes?

I’ve been thinking about tefillin this week.  Not just because it’s in this week’s parshah, Eikev, but more because it’s summer.  In Canada, summer is the season for cottages and camping —both have been challenging this year.  So I’ve spent some time remembering summers gone by and I keep coming back to one memory when one of my sons was invited to go camping with a school friend and his family.  The friend isn’t Jewish which raised some logistical questions for us.  My husband and I decided years ago that we wanted to teach our children how Judaism enhances their lives, not restricts it.  We decided we needed to raise them with increasing awareness of how to navigate a world that doesn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat or Jewish holidays.  We wanted them to learn where Jewish law is flexible, how it can be adhered to, while still developing relationships and having experiences in the world at large.  All was going well until the camping trip invitation.

I called the friend’s mother to ask about the food arrangements (perhaps the family is vegetarian?). She told me they camp by a lake and catch fish to eat.  She asked if that was ok and I mentioned that we’re Jewish, my son keeps kosher but he would know which fish he could eat so all should be fine. She didn’t know what kosher was, she’d heard the word, but so long as my son knew what to do, she was comfortable. Great opportunity for family education on ‘Jewish living in the wild’.  My family sat down and we went over the kosher fish identifiers (scales and fins) and refreshed on the difference (kosher wise) between hot and cold food, cooked or fresh, packaged or binned and some of the ins and outs we had taught the kids before. Everything was good to go.  We started packing for the trip and my son reached for his tefillin, which he put on every morning.  That’s when it hit me.  

I asked if his friend knows he puts tefillin on.  He said his friend wouldn’t know what tefillin is, so probably no.  He thought for a moment and then asked if it would be ok to walk away from the campsite to put his tefillin on so he wouldn’t look odd to his hosts.  I told him it would probably be ok, but if they asked why he was leaving the campsite he shouldn’t lie about it.  Then I pictured him in the woods putting tefillin on and I told him not to stand in front of a singular tree and pray, find a place with a few trees grouped together but remember to face east (some of the nuanced sensitivities Jewish law has about praying to a tree, didn’t have time to explain it all to him, too busy focussing on the food thing).  Also, don’t go too far from people because campsites always have bears nearby —any bear tracks nix the whole deal!  He asked what to say if they ask what he’s doing and he can’t lie.  I came up with a blank.  He could say he’s going to pray…in the woods…away from everyone…not too close to a tree…with a book and a velvet bag…no worries…not weird at all.

All this time I thought keeping kosher would always be the challenge and suddenly the food was easy, it was the tefillin.  We get so used to it, we forget how strange it can look to others.  I enjoy watching adolescents practice putting tefillin on.  Most often the arm straps are too tight and the skin bulges.  One wonderful moment involved a boy somehow ‘tefillining’ his arm to his head and searching for his father to untie him.  Beautiful moments of passage.

You can’t help but ask why the Torah would command us to do this, as it does in this week’s parshah.  We are to place ‘these words’ on our arms and between our eyes.  From that statement onward, we develop laws and practices of how and when and what.  According to Jewish law, every component of the tefillin has to be a product of nature, mostly animals.  Tefillin is symbolic of our partnership with God and so we turn to nature to see God’s Hand in it all.  But the boxes themselves, as well as some of the stitching, must be perfect squares.  Perfect squares don’t exist in nature —that’s entirely us.  And so the union of nature and perfect squares embodies the partnership between us and God woven together.

The configuration of tying the tefillin on the arm, and its placement on the head, spells out one of the names of God.  We are literally writing God’s Name on our bodies as we put on the tefillin.  The placement on the arm symbolizes restraining our physical might to never harm the partnership.  The placement ‘between the eyes’ puts the tefillin where the soft spot of our heads was when we were born.  The front fontanel, the soft part of the skull, only hardens in the first year of life.  It symbolizes the flexibility of our minds, our thoughts, our perspectives.  The tefillin knot at the back of the head lies on the smaller fontanel at the back of the skull that hardens between the ages of 2 and 3.  In other words,  I place the symbolic commitment of my partnership with God on the parts of my skull that remained flexible even after birth.

At one point, while putting on the tefillin, it is customary to quote the prophet Hosea: “I betroth you to me forever.  I betroth you to me in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and mercy.  I betroth you to me in faithfulness —and you shall know God.”  It’s the statement of intent and commitment that we would all want to hear from our intimate partners and, in turn, be able to pledge to them.

In today’s world, some people choose to tattoo the names of their lovers onto parts of their body.  Jewish law prohibits permanent tattoos, but the desire to ‘wear’ the identity of a loved one, to clothe ourselves with them, seems very primal.  The Torah has told us there is a ritual where we can ‘write’ the name of God on us, commit ourselves to the partnership, restrain our ability to harm it and always remember to be flexible within the partnership —it’s called tefillin.

 The strange looking, hard to explain, cherished right of Jewish passage that embodies the expressions of love, partnership and commitment we would all crave.  My son’s camping trip with his friend went really well.  The tefillin question never came up, they were too busy asking why the fish had to have scales AND fins.

Parshat Va’etchanan: If I Could Walk In Your Shoes I’d Have Bigger Feet

One of my daughters told me about a book club she recently organized.  She didn’t mean to organize it, it just ended up that way.  It wasn’t even her idea, it was the result of a friend telling her that isolation was getting to her and she couldn’t take any more virtual relationships —she needed “real.”  And so the idea of an actual book club, where people sit together (socially distanced) in one place (outside) and share thoughts on a book (since they are socially distanced, they will be sharing these thoughts with 4 neighbours who are also in their yards) was born.  

The idea was great, but within a few days, her friend told her she was having difficulty finding friends to bring.  All of her friends were busy reorganizing their lives, working from home, streaming media on their devices, too overwhelmed to commit to an actual meeting together once a month, or to pledge to finish reading the book.  My daughter (continuing to feel compassion for her friend who wants the “real” experience) found a friend who agreed to find more people. (She told me the second person she found is the sister of the first person since it was indeed a challenge to get someone to agree to an actual “real” obligation these days).  Soon, friends were finding friends and a book club was formed.  Everything went fine and just as they were getting ready to meet for the first time, one month away, the friend tells my daughter she’s not sure she can be there because she had to go to the United States for an important event and when she gets home she will have to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  My daughter reminded her that the book club has been organized for her.  The friend assured my daughter she could be there…virtually.  “Just plug in your laptop in the backyard and zoom me in,” said the friend.  

As my daughter was telling me this story I started laughing, at which point she told me that she’s not sure how she got into this position but she is now leading a book club (she didn’t want) with a friend, a ‘sister’ and multiples of people (she’d never met) hosting them in her backyard with a computer plugged in for all the neighbours to share in this “real” experience she suggested while trying to help a friend.  I couldn’t stop laughing, the only thought in my head was that this book club should come with only one rule: we never talk about book club (for anyone who’s seen the movie Fight Club, that rule will make sense —for anyone else —it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something to watch because you’re not currently in a book club.  If you’re in a book club, it’s also a good book).

Compassion and empathy for others can get all of us into a labyrinth of strategic planning and twists and turns that often lead us to places we never planned.  In fact, we often use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as if they are synonyms — they are not.  While Judaism acknowledges the nuances of difference with all of these terms, it doesn’t name them all, but it does show, by example, what the differences are.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who helps a colleague rise from his sickbed.  After a discussion on the advantages of suffering (which the sick person concludes isn’t worth the price), the rabbi extends his hand and leads his friend to health.  Soon after, another rabbi falls ill and the now recovered rabbi visits his sick friend.  They also explore the depths of suffering but now the sick rabbi is beginning to pull his friend into the realm of despair along with him.  His friend remembers how he was helped to health and so he asks the bedridden rabbi if there is value to this moment of suffering.  The sick rabbi responds that he doesn’t want this suffering and the friend extends his hand and leads his colleague to health.

Sympathy is when I feel bad for you, empathy is when I realize I have been in your place and I can help you.  The first is an emotion that churns within me, the second is my insight that leads me to act.  When we sympathize with each other, we can be pulled into the dark moments of those we are trying to help; when we empathize with each other, we can find ways out of the darkness together because one of us remembers the road out.

In this week’s parshah, Va’etchanan, Moses is pleading with God to be allowed to enter the land of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear his anguish and even more difficult to read that God has told Moses to stop asking for it —essentially telling Moses that this particular prayer will not be answered and it’s hurtful so the request must stop.  Sympathy for Moses will lead us further into our personal theological questions of our relationship with God.  It should lead us there.  But Moses goes on to teach empathy.

Moses immediately instructs Israel that they must always be kind to strangers because we must always remember we were strangers in Egypt (sympathy) and that God led us out of that predicament to freedom (empathy).  If I only feel compassion towards someone who is suffering, I have misunderstood the point of the full statement Moses made.  I have been the stranger, I have been the slave, I have been the victim who stands alone, so I can now recognize this predicament when I see it in someone else.  Because I have a model of how to be redeemed from that horror, I can extend my hand and lead the stranger out.  I am commanded to be empathetic toward someone and not to only feel sympathy for them.  Every time we are told we were strangers in Egypt, we are immediately told that God brought us out.  It is a full model of moving from sympathy to empathy.  It is the way things will change.

My daughter now leads a book club of strangers in her backyard.  I imagine them sitting together and sharing new perspectives, without the audio lag of an online portal.  It started with a friend reaching out to another friend and a way to share some new perspectives sitting with real people amidst a global pandemic.  The answer seemed simple: let’s read some books together.  

We’ve all had our moments lately where we are ‘done’ with Covid and not sure what to do.  We all sympathize with each other and think of the now popular government slogan to remember “we are all in this together”, which only reinforces that we are all sharing the predicament.  I think we’re ready to empathize with each other and find the insights to move from sharing the predicament to enjoying the next step.  I can’t help but think of a rabbi, two thousand years ago, who extended his hand to a colleague and said ‘I’ve been where you are, I can show you the way out.’

Parshat Devarim: How Do I Ask How?

I’ve been thinking about the world that used to be and the person I was within it.  In fact, I’ve lived through a number of ‘worlds that used to be’. When I was growing up, there were distinct lines of casual and formal.  Casual was what happened at home and formal was anything outside.  At home, we could wear ‘play clothes’ and not worry about getting them dirty; school had a uniform; outings had party clothes.  If we went out for dinner as a family, I would have to wear a dress.  If I was invited to a birthday party, I would likely have to wear my party dress and if the party was my own birthday party then I got to wear the dress with the crinoline.  My party shoes were shiny and I could only wear ‘play clothes’ to…play.

There was most certainly the larger world outside filled with strangers, and the smaller circle of my world filled only with family and a few friends.  Any adult was called ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ or Miss (Ms was introduced only later in my youth and was only for radical feminists who burned their bras – interesting fact, no one ever had that famous public bra burning event because apparently they couldn’t get a permit to ignite a public open fire – they cut their bras with scissors…it was a ‘bra scissor cutting’ event, which I guess doesn’t have the same impact as ‘burning’ and so we just decided to revise history (a lot of that going on these days)…but I digress…except I have had my moments, as an adult, trying to ignore the pain my bra is causing me and eyeing the scissors with longing – the radical feminist within us all!)

Back to my memories of worlds gone by.  The few times I took an airplane trip as a child, the dress with the crinoline came out with the shiny shoes.  My sister and I were often dressed the same for anything formal –she’s older, so I loved it and she very much did not, apparently in this ‘world gone by’ children were not meant to have autonomous identities, they were meant to show the world their parents knew how to dress them the same.  Oh yes, there was also no hint of any security measures needed for anything at any time.  Once when I was really little I remember we went to Israel and had to get a cholera vaccine to come home.  In hindsight, this is a memory remnant of an Israel with cholera, another world gone by.  We got the cholera vaccine and all I remember is the stewardess (not flight attendant) who kept banging into my vaccinated little girl arm every time she walked by.  I remember not sleeping on the plane because I had to track where she was at any given moment.  I was too little to understand cholera or vaccines but not too little to understand there are people in the world who carelessly hurt others so I tracked her with my eyes.

And then I think of the next world change I saw.  9/11 changed everything and now Covid 19 has changed things again.  Maybe there’s something about the ‘1’s and the ‘9’s, I’m sure Jewish kabbalists have endless layers of meaning to explore there – the 18s are great but the 19s…not so much.

And now I have shared with you the ‘stuff’ in my head that has all flashed in my mind within the last minute or two.  It’s what happens to all of us and it is the name of the new book in the Torah we are starting to read this Shabbat: Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is titled Devarim, “Stuff”.  It is a book filled with the stuff in Moses’ head as he knows time is running out and he will die within weeks.

Moses starts speaking and within a few verses we hear him use an unusual word: ‘Eichah’, which literally means ‘how’, but it is always associated with the book of Lamentations, which in Hebrew is titled ‘Eichah’.  It is a book that describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the horror of our lowest historical moment.  The prophet, Jeremiah, writes the book Eichah as a lamentation where we look around and ask ‘how did that happen to the world’, but when Moses uses this same word, he is using it differently.  Moses remembers that he turned to God and asked ‘how am I supposed to bear these people?!’, a very different ‘eichah’.

So we enter our text through two different versions of ‘eichah’ –one used by Jeremiah and one used by Moses.  This Shabbat is the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day on which we mourn Jewish suffering and the loss of our Temples –the day we read the book of Eichah.  How interesting that we hear Moses utter this same unusual word in the parshah this week.  When we line up the two ‘eichah’s we notice the two perspectives of the question we should always ask.  The first question is from the book of Lamentations as it asks ‘How did Jerusalem lay so abandoned?’  In other words, how did the world around me get so unrecognizable, so steeped in trouble, so isolated?  

The second question comes from Moses asking God how he can bear these people.  It becomes my second ‘how’ question.  How can I bear the other person?  Do I hear their nuances and respond with an act of human kindness, or are they burdens that weigh me down?  Moses’ question to God is a genuine question from a man raised as royalty who must now bear the weight of a people incapable of anything.  How can I bear you?

But if we only focus on ‘eichah’ regardless of whether it’s Moses or Jeremiah saying it, we are left to lament a world gone by and the challenge we present for each other.  The key lies in the word immediately following ‘eichah’.  In the book of Lamentations, the prophet bemoans the city of Jerusalem and the verb that follows is in the past tense, “how Jerusalem had sat desolate and alone”.  In this week’s parshah, when Moses asks God about the people, he uses the word ‘eichah’ and the word right after it appears in the future tense, “how will I carry them?”.  When we ask ourselves the ‘how’ questions, we easily set up a pull into lamenting a world gone by, a world filled with ‘Mr’s and ‘Mrs’s and shiny shoes and crinolines.  But if I ask myself the question Moses asks, how can I help carry you forward, how can I bear you along with myself as we move into the future, ‘eichah’ becomes the question of opportunity.

And so we start reading the book of Devarim, the stuff in Moses’ head, the insights, the anger, the regret and the digressions.  And with it all, it never ceases to amaze me how he never fails to teach us something, no matter which world we’re in.

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Parshat Matot-Masei: The Biblical Run For Your Life

Kids are incredibly creative creatures.  I don’t mean how they can play ‘make believe’ endlessly or sing ‘this is the song that never ends…’ for hours, changing only their voices and volume.  They are brilliant creative strategic thinkers.  It is nothing short of brilliance how a child can stay within the rules adults set forth yet still manage to do what they want.

We’ve all experienced the moment when a parent tells their fighting kids that they’re not allowed to touch each other.  The next hour is spent with a child’s finger sitting millimeters from the cheek of a sibling repeating ‘I’m not touching you’ over and over. I try to think of the thinking that goes on in the child’s mind while strategizing the moment.

“Goal: annoy my brother

Personal risk: breaking the rule and getting mum mad at me

Answer: don’t touch him…almost touch him…tell him I’m almost touching him…make sure he sees me almost touching him

Quick evaluation: kept the rules, still annoyed my brother…WIN!”

We’ve all seen it –I dare say we’ve all done it.

The rules are usually there for good reasons though sometimes we’re not sure what the reasons might be.  In fact, sometimes knowing the reasons tempts us to disregard the rule if we think it doesn’t apply (given the reason).  For example, you’re driving on a deserted country road in the middle of the day.  Sun is shining, visibility is wonderful and there’s not another car in sight in any direction.  Suddenly, you approach a red light on this deserted country road.  A red light that means you stop and wait but the reason for stopping and waiting doesn’t seem to speak to this given moment.  If there’s no car in sight, that means there is no police in sight so you won’t get caught.  Do you stop?  If the point of the red light is to keep you safe, and there isn’t a safety issue at the moment, is there still a point to stopping at the red light?

That’s the modern question we pose to the biblical rule of shelter cities.  In this week’s Torah readings, Matot-Masei, Israel is instructed to set up shelter cities.  These cities are run by the Levites and are places of refuge for anyone who has accidentally taken a life.  Once someone is found guilty of manslaughter, they are to flee to a shelter city where they will live out their lives in safety.  Who are they running from?  The Blood Avenger, the male relative of the dead person who must now avenge the blood of the dead.  If the Blood Avenger catches the guilty person before reaching the shelter city, the Blood Avenger can kill that person and is not guilty of anything.  Blood for blood.  Somehow, it doesn’t sound quite Jewish.

The Jewish part of all this is that the Blood Avenger only gets one ‘kick at the can’.  If he can’t kill the person between the verdict and the shelter city then the window of opportunity closes.  In the ancient world that would seem very unfair…to the Blood Avenger.  When blood lust burns, it stays burning until more blood is spilled — what do you mean I only get one try??

And then time goes on, societies change and the Sages decide that even one try for a Blood Avenger is too many.  They cannot change what the Torah says and it clearly says the guilty person can flee to a shelter city and the Blood Avenger can kill him along the way.  The Sages become brilliantly creative.  They place the court within the shelter city.

Any guilty verdict now results in the person already sheltered within a shelter city and there is no longer an opportunity for the Blood Avenger to kill anyone.  In fact, no reason for the Blood Avenger to even come to the trial and likely wouldn’t be allowed in since shelter cities are monitored very closely to make sure Blood Avengers don’t get in.  We quickly get to the point of not identifying anyone as a Blood Avenger and the burning of a blood lust quiets down.

By not changing the rule, we continue to understand that for those who feel fire within them, accidents take time to accept and time to reconcile.  It is our nature to look for closure through blame, but accidents, by their very nature, leave no one to blame.  Without the rule, we miss a primal understanding of what drives us, but with the rule and no creativity, we might continue to allow ourselves to seek vengeance and justify it by saying God said we could.

The creativity we test as children, and the creativity modelled to us by the Sages, allow us to learn about ourselves and still preserve the frameworks we need.

And, yes, we stop at the deserted red light.

Parshat Pinchas: Both a Bang and a Whisper

There was once a Jewish bubbie who was standing with her little grandson by a beautiful seashore.  As they stood admiring the water, a huge wave came out of nowhere and carried her grandson into the ocean.  The woman turned her face to heaven and called out to God.  She screamed of the injustice of the moment and the cruelty of Divine Decree.  She cried, she begged, she bargained and she demanded that her grandson be returned to her.  Within minutes the wave returned, but this time it deposited her little grandson on the beach to stand beside her again.  The Jewish bubbie looked at her grandson speechless for a full moment, then turned her face to heaven again and called out to God: “He was wearing a hat.”

It is the embodiment of chutzpah and we love it!

The blessings God gives us are never enough.  We are grateful for what we have and then we always return to ask for more.  It is not us being selfish, it is us being biblical.

In the Torah portion this week, parshat Pinchas, we meet the 5 daughters of Zelaphchad who come to Moses with a petition for fairness.  It is not another Israelite who has treated them unfairly, it is God.  The daughters present a case that their father has died leaving no sons and now there is to be no land inheritance in Israel since the laws of the Torah only grant inheritance rights to a male.  It is an astounding moment of courage since they are challenging within a legal system that has not yet proved itself open to a challenge of any kind.

The courage they find sits on the relationship described to us between Jacob and God.  When Jacob flees his brother Esau to go live with his uncle, he dreams of God who reiterates covenant to Jacob.  According to God, Jacob is to make God his God and in return God will give him the land of Israel, many children to fill the land and God will not leave Jacob while he is on his journey.  It’s beautiful, it’s spiritual…but it’s not enough.

Jacob responds in the morning with a vow.  He states that if God will watch over him on the journey and give him food and clothes and then return him safely to his father’s home, then God has a deal!

It is biblical chutzpah.  It pushes on covenant so we (the party of the first part) advocate for what we know we need from God (the party of the second part) who is in a position to grant it.  Partnerships mean both parties give and both parties receive.  It won’t work if I’m not clear on what I expect or what I am able to give.  Jacob taught us to push on God and the daughters of Zelaphchad model to us that anyone has the right to demand what is right.  They are women, not recognized by inheritance law, standing with no power and no rights but it doesn’t matter since we are focused on these women – their show of power.

So, isn’t it interesting that within the same portion is a woman named Serah that no one pays any attention to?  She is the daughter of Asher, the granddaughter of Jacob and she is listed in the census recorded in this parshah.  She is the only woman in the list and she is counted because she’s still alive.  Shockingly, she is also listed among those who entered Egypt with Jacob as well as those who came out of Egypt with Moses.  She will now be around to enter Israel with Joshua…who is this woman?

The Torah gives us no details, but the midrash fills us with images.  She is the one who gently broke the news to Jacob that Joseph was still alive so Jacob would not succumb to emotional shock.  She is the one who confirmed Moses was the leader when the elders weren’t sure and it is she who found Joseph’s bones so Israel could leave Egypt.  Later, she settles an argument in the rabbinic academies about how the Red Sea split since she alone witnessed it.

She is the embodiment of Jewish history from the time we became a nation until… forever, since according to the Sages, she is one of the few people to never die.  She is subtle and nuanced within any text that alludes to her but she is the constant, the foundation and the endless future.

The daughters of Zelaphchad are the power of the moment but not all Jewish expressions must contain such power.

A student of mine, a Jewish bubbie, told me that she was at the Kotel in Jerusalem with her grandson who was around 4 at the time.  They stood together and her grandson asked for a book to hold.  Of course, he couldn’t read yet but everyone was holding a book so she happily handed him her Siddur.  He held it, and then started mumbling something.  This Jewish bubbie leaned down slowly to hear her grandson’s prayer and here’s what she heard him singing:

“Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.”

Not all powerful Jewish moments are modelled on the daughters of Zelaphchad, some of them are the humble whisperings of Serah, who shows us the power of our history, our spirituality and our continuity.

Parshat Chukat/Balak: My Brother from Another Mother

This week’s Torah reading is a double parshah: Chukat and Balak.  Balak is the outstanding narrative of a foreign prophet, a talking donkey and the opening prayer of our Siddur.  Chukat is about paradox and irrational realities…and the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  As fantastic as is that talking donkey, I can’t get my mind off losing Miriam and Aaron.

Maybe it’s all the Covid numbers that get reported everyday or maybe it’s summer and the sun is shining but things feel different. I’m not exactly sure why but I keep thinking about Miriam and Aaron.  Not the strong figures of leadership the Torah presents, rather the nuanced moments and the midrashic portraits.

Miriam, Aaron and Moses are the powerhouse of leadership in Judaism.  They’re three siblings with totally different realities.  In today’s world, siblings are most often defined as sharing the same parents.  But in the ancient (and up until very recent) world, siblings were children sharing a household.  I was once going through some old family photos with my mother.  I saw a picture of a group of children standing together posing with snowballs.  I asked my mother what the picture was about, she said that her father posed her and her siblings with the snow because it was rare to have snow in Safed.  But I realized she said ‘siblings’ and there were most definitely too many kids in that photo.  

I recognized one little girl as a cousin.  I asked my mom about her.  

Here’s her answer: ‘Yes, she’s a cousin, but I think of her as a sister because she spent so many years with us growing up. Her parents were caught behind borders in the war so she ended up staying with us for years.’

So what was to be a family visit with a cousin turned into years of siblinghood.  I asked her who the other little girl was, and my mother said, ‘That’s my Yemenite sister.’  My response was to stare and blink. My mother asked if I wanted to see her wedding picture and flipped to a picture of a young woman in traditional Yeminite clothing.  I finally managed to ask how she acquired a Yeminite sister.  She told me they’re not actually blood sisters, but this young woman came to live with them, stayed for most of her childhood until she married.  They always called themselves sisters.

Lest we think this is a Sephardic family dynamic, I remember the same thing happening with some of the stories my father told me about the shtetl he came from.  We were visiting distant cousins and my father was explaining how we were all related.  I lost track of it after the third time I heard him say ‘They’re not really brothers, they just grew up together because there were too many kids in their house.’  I asked him if it was common for people to give their kids to relatives and he said yes, a shtetl was like a large family.

So whether Ashkenaz, Sephardic, or blends of different communities, Jewish families are always defined by the unities we create and the households we open to each other.  But even when raised in the same household, the word ‘sibling’ is descriptive of the relationship, not the personhood.  The same household will always produce unique individuals, each with their individual strengths and chosen connections.

None of this is new, it’s how we were meant to see Miriam, Aaron and Moses.  Miriam – the oldest, the guardian – is always described to us as uniquely different from Aaron – the middle child, the peacemaker – and both distinctly different from Moses – the baby, the prince.  

Miriam is the oldest of her siblings and right from the start she protects her younger brothers.  She is the one who guards Moses while he is floating in a basket on the Nile and she is the one who is responsible for uniting Moses with his birth family so he could bond with them.  These moments describe a little girl stepping forward to speak to a princess of Egypt to save her baby brother.  We never recognize her courage — we should.

Speaking of the babies in Egypt, there is an unusual midrash that describes how the Israelite women secretly delivered their babies in the fields and hid them so the Egyptians wouldn’t kill the babies. According to this midrash, when these infants cried from hunger, wanting to nurse, the rocks around them would bring forth milk so the babies could eat, calm themselves, stop crying and stay safe.  Rocks in a field can appear like breasts, and the midrash describes this beautiful collaboration between the females and the earth to secure life in an empire that glorified death.  Why are we so concerned with this midrash?  Because the image of the rock as giving the waters of life continues with Miriam.

The Sages tell us that there is a giant rock that is rolled alongside the holy objects in the desert.  When Israel would make camp, each tribal leader would use their staff to draw a line in the sand from the rock to where their tribe was camped.  Once 12 lines were drawn, the rock would fill the lines with water and all of Israel drank fresh water in the desert.  The rock was referred to as ‘Miriam’s Well’.  As soon as Miriam dies, we are told Israel complains to Moses that they will die for lack of water — the well has dried up.

God tells Moses to gather the people at the rock and speak to it so it will bring water (again).  The image is that Moses should console the rock, comfort it, since its waters have dried up, perhaps it has cried itself dry over losing Miriam.  Instead, Moses gathers everyone at the rock and succumbs to the pressures of the people and does the unthinkable, he hits it!  

God’s reaction is extreme since God’s view is universal.  God tells Moses he will never enter the land of Israel because of hitting the rock.  It is not any rock, it is Miriam’s Well, it is the embodiment of the rocks of Egypt that saved all those babies and partnered with all those desperate mothers – it is the symbol of life when only death defined each moment.  Hitting the rock is an affirmation of Egypt and an assault on Miriam’s legacy.  As a result of Moses’ hitting the rock, it brings water, so the problem has been solved, but unfortunately, the moment was lost and the wrong message was delivered.  God tells Moses that his leadership now has an expiry date attached. 

Not long after all this, God tells Moses to go with Aaron and Aaron’s son onto a mountain where Aaron will die.  After placing all of the priestly garments on Aaron’s son, Aaron quietly passes away and the nation cries for him.  You can’t help but notice no one cried when Miriam died, they just complained that now they don’t have water.  Why no tears for Miriam?

It seems that the progression of their deaths and the peoples’ reaction contains the lessons of their leadership.  Miriam provided the safety and the water.  It was brought to the people and they did not have to find their own solutions.  All the images are of babies and nursing and guardianship.  No one can cry for her because they haven’t learned that they can provide water for themselves.  In other words, if all the water came because of Miriam, then how can they manufacture tears?  By the time Aaron dies, they have somehow learned that the answers lie within themselves and they should not expect them to come from anyone else — now they can make tears, supply water, sustain themselves and be ready to enter the land.

What caused the shift?  Aaron’s son is the only difference.

Of the three siblings responsible for getting us out of Egypt, only Aaron will pass his role to his child.  He is the symbol of continuity and growth.  The Torah tells us that Moses is told to put Aaron’s clothes on Aaron’s son and we watch continuity establish itself.  When we see continuity, we see empowerment and with empowerment comes independence – with independence comes Israel’s ability to make tears.

The midrash explains this beautifully when it comments on God telling Moses to take Aaron and his son up the mountain.  The Sages say “take him with words of comfort and consolation” (the words that should have been spoken to the rock).  The Sages continue by saying that Moses comforts Aaron by saying; ‘how complete you must feel, seeing your crown removed from your head and placed on the head of your son – something I will not be privileged to see.’  

Miriam teaches us guardianship, Moses teaches us law and Aaron teaches us continuity.  They will die in the order they were born – Miriam first, Aaron second, Moses last.  It completes the picture of these three and I can’t help but think of the people my parents viewed as siblings because they lived together and enriched their lives.  I’m reminded of how many times people have said to me that they view a close friend as a sister or a brother, unaware that they are describing ancient realities.  Miriam, Aaron and Moses, three siblings who each deserve their moment and recognition of how they each enrich us every time we read of them.

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Parshat Korach: A Priest, a Rabbi & an Imam walk into a classroom…

Years ago, I was on faculty at a major Canadian university, mostly in the Faculty of Education.  As my specialty is in Religious Studies, my degrees in the field of education made for a good fit with the Faculty of Education as Religious Studies Coordinator.  Essentially, I was advising and teaching student candidates on the verge of graduating and starting careers in teaching all aspects of religious studies.  I had the privilege of running seminars that always included students preparing to teach in various religious venues.  Some candidates were Jewish, many were Catholic, several were clergy, Muslim men and women enrolled, as well as a Zoroastrian principal–always a beautiful mix of age and faith expressions.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.  

There were times when some of the candidates presented a challenge for me in ways they could not possibly have known.  Since there were often clergy in the class, I could be sitting with students who were much older than I.  I found it difficult to demand work and penalize for lateness on assignments with someone who was clearly my elder.  I admit, at times eye contact was difficult when I was visually locked onto the priest’s collar or the nun’s wimple and veil.  In fact, there was a myriad of covered hair, covered heads, beards, modest outfits and all styles in between–a truly inspiring snapshot of multicultural faith communities.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.

We struggled with how anyone could teach religion at all, let alone in a structured school setting.  Teaching prayer is one thing, but how do you assign a grade?  Does the student get an ‘A’ in prayer if God answers (and God must answer so the teacher can hear, otherwise the student might have made up God’s answer…)–you can see how this could get complex quite quickly.  But there were brilliant moments of collaboration as well.  In group assignments, candidates would form groups of their own religions (I noticed they chose their groups that way), only to realize they didn’t have the resources they needed for the assignment.  I remember one wonderful moment when the room was buzzing with group activity at a low hum only to have one nun call out: ‘Could we get some Jewish help over here, we’re not sure how a yarmulke works!’

And then there was the missed moment.

One year, an older student approached me before class and asked if she could make an announcement to the class before we start.  I agreed and asked if she wanted to let me know what it was about and she said she’d rather surprise me.  This woman was a mature, somewhat shy, studious person and always respectful of everyone in the room.  I wasn’t the least nervous about taking this risk.  As everyone found their seats, she stood in front of the class and started crying as she shared with the class that she’s gay.  She said it was the first time in her life she’d ever said that out loud to anyone.  Oh, right…did I mention this woman was part of the Amish community?

Several students went to hug her and celebrate her moment.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  My confusion wasn’t about her sexual orientation, it was more about her choice of this class and this moment to come out.   I understood my role at the university as leading these student candidates to their graduation and leading them to their new career opportunities.  Nowhere in my job description as a professor did it include leading a student in the most intimate moments of her life.  I am a very private person and I try to strictly respect other people’s privacy which at times causes problems–this was one of those times.

She said she chose this moment because of the sharing everyone did about their faith and how she felt no one judged anyone.  She looked at me and smiled.  I approached her and hugged her, I wiped her tears but I did not celebrate with her.  I couldn’t push past my boundaries.  This was a seminar on teaching religion, a place to learn how to lead people into thoughtful and life-changing concepts, but I couldn’t lead her in this moment.  It was too private a revelation and I hit my wall of respecting privacy.  My wall was too big.

It’s all I can think about as I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Korach.  Moses is confronted with a challenge to his leadership.  His cousin, Korach, is gaining a following by saying that God is in the midst of the people and Korach is from the same family as Moses, so who does Moses think he is? The one attribute the Torah has told us time and again about Moses is that he is humble.  He can’t answer Korach, he ends up falling on his face in submission.

Korach is gaining popularity because at that moment it’s easy to believe Moses failed in his mission.  He led the people to the land of Israel but will not bring them in.  They are all destined to die in the desert, so maybe Moses just didn’t get the job done and it’s time to try different leadership.  What is forgotten is that getting everyone into Israel was never part of Moses’ job description–it was an expectation with no foundation.

At the burning bush, God commanded Moses to help get Israel out of Egypt and to Sinai.  He did that.  He was also told that all of Egypt should understand that God is a universal and unique Being.  The midrash says Moses did that as well.  Bringing the nation into the land was not on the list.

While at first glance it’s easy to be upset with Korach (after all he was trying to lead a rebellion against Moses), we should also consider that people have just been told they are going to die in the desert. Frankly, it would make sense that they believe Korach and that Moses has failed them as a leader. We shouldn’t be surprised that Korach acted the way he did, we should be surprised with Moses’ inability to face him. Moses, the man who stood up for a beaten slave, befriended God, survived Sinai and brought laws most of the world still lives by–this man couldn’t face a pushy cousin?

Moses’ humility kept him from saying anything and so God, Moses’ best friend, stepped in and took control.  Judaism is uncomfortable with extremes and extreme humility is no exception.  It becomes a limitation to Moses’ leadership.  This entire incident with Korach is a one time learning opportunity for Moses. It is a warning that should only happen once. Hopefully Moses can push past his limitations–push past his extreme humility–for future moments.

What do we takeaway? Not that we align with either Moses or Korach–we are not choosing sides since it’s obvious that Moses is the trusted leader. Korach’s mistake was that he remedied his dissatisfaction by pulling others toward destruction and doom–he is not the leader we seek. We continue to look towards Moses. We see that even leaders can be blind to their own boundaries and get in the way of connecting with those in their group. Moses’ limitation results in our growth. In this story, Moses is actually teaching us important lessons about leadership. Just as he was forced by God to learn from his experience, we are lucky to likewise learn from it. As a professor, I was blind to my own limitations, and this parsha helps me realize that I was missing unique, opportune moments with my students. 

My student kept in touch with me for a few years after.  She returned to her town but chose to live and teach in a school outside of her community.  She thanked me for the safe space and the good memory she holds of sharing her personal truth.  I feel good that she remembers it that way but I can’t ever think of it without remembering that I allowed my moment of confusion to overshadow her moment of authenticity.

We only see Moses’ limitation–his extreme humility–because it is mirrored by Korach’s extreme arrogance. LIkewise, I recognize being held back by my own boundaries because of my student’s bravery to break hers.  

I wonder how many other Moses/Korach moments pass us by.

Parshat Sh’lach: Could I Trouble You to Pass the Privilege, Please?

I found myself sitting between two worlds many times the last few weeks.  I’ve been watching the news, mostly the developments of racial conflict and tension in the U.S.  I’ve read blog posts from pastoral leaders in the Black community and many of them appeal to the Jewish community for support.  That’s when I started encountering the phrase ‘passing’ in what I now understand is a ‘new world’ usage.

When I was growing up, there was a clear definition to that phrase when it was termed ‘white-passing’ – it specifically accused a light skinned Black person of trying to pass themselves off as white.  To me, it was so offensive a phrase, I couldn’t stand hearing it and I would absolutely never use it!  Then I read a blog post accusing any Jewish person who did not speak out against Black racial discrimination as ‘white- passing’ (I even cringe as I keep writing that phrase).  My problem was I didn’t understand what the blogger was talking about.  I was offended because I could only understand that phrase as accusing me of intending to hide my true identity and pass as Christian.  I mentioned this to my kids and what followed was an eye opening, generationally shocking moment of trying to understand what the phrase means today.

It talks about the privilege a person has in society based on how they look, rather than the intention of the minority person entering that society.  Someone is ‘passing’ when they look the part, and based only on that, they now have privilege.  The example that finally lit the light bulb over my head was when my daughter told me that she has a friend who is bisexual and this young woman happens to be in a relationship with a man.  The friend terms her relationship as ‘straight-passing’ (…nope, still not comfortable with it…) – in other words, people seeing her and her partner together would not know that the woman involved is bisexual because her partner is a man.  It looks mainstream and therefore she has privilege in society that, had her true orientation been known, she would not have and would, in fact, face discrimination.  I asked if other people would refer to her as ‘passing’ and my kids were shocked and said ‘Of course not!! That would be offensive!’

And so I was caught between two worlds.

These complex ideas of who I am and where I belong are found in something as complex as race and as mundane as the difference between a fiance and a husband.  Years ago, I went out for dinner with a close friend and her husband.  We were in our early twenties and they were just married the week before.  Her husband went to the washroom just as we were to be seated at our table.  After a lengthy, awkward pause, my friend told the server that her friend would be joining us in a minute.  I asked her which friend is joining us and she named her husband.  I took a minute to process, looked at her intensely and asked when she put him in the ‘friend zone’, they’d only been married a week!  She said she can’t say the word ‘husband’ yet.  Caught between two worlds.

We’ve all had these moments.  When did we decide what our children should call us?  Mother, mama, mum, mummy, or dad, papa, father, pops…each one speaks of its own world and we need to choose.  It never stops, now the choice of Bubbie, grandma, grandmom, Savta, or Zaydie, (and on and on).  For the longest time I couldn’t make the decision what my kids should call my father and neither could he.  I went with ‘Grampa Sava Zaydie’, a mouthful of meaning.  We tried to have it all and it worked until the kids were almost teens.  Then they chose to call him Zaydie.  We can’t live uncommitted to a clear identity – they chose their name for him. 

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Sh’lach, shows us an entire people caught between two worlds.  The Jewish people have crossed the wilderness and are standing at the border of the land of Israel.  Moses sends spies to reconnoiter the land and they bring back scary images of giants and fortresses.  The people turn to Moses and plead with him to let them go back to Egypt.  They speak of Egypt with memories of things that never happened and privilege that never included them.  Fear of the world to come has created a utopia of the world they had.  Neither of those worlds are real.  They are caught.

God responds and tells them they will never leave the wilderness – no Israel, no Egypt – neither is real for them.  With no clarity of their past, and no realistic view of their future, they cannot move from where they are.  God is not punishing them with death since they will all live out their natural lives…in the only reality they chose, the one with no grounding and no promise of opportunity.

And all of this brings me back to my moments watching what is unfolding in the world around racial discrimination.  To some degree I hear a Jewish response that is caught between two worlds.  Should we ignore the past moments of our own discrimination that went unanswered by the world?  Should we weigh the politics of Israel and the political stands of some of the organized groups we would otherwise stand strongly with?  How much are we hurt that many of the rallying cries for justice are direct quotes from Jewish texts but that goes unnoticed as we are criticized?  Is this a moment of peoplehood, a moment of personal engagement, a moment of institutional leadership, a moment of political voices?

It is a Jewish moment.  Everything else will cloud the picture.  As we struggle with the confusion of these larger questions, we place ourselves in the wilderness, looking back at an Egypt we thought we knew and afraid of a future we can’t see.  Racial discrimination, in all its barbarism, has always been there, we didn’t see it on video and so we created the false Egypt of thinking maybe it wasn’t that bad.  As we stand in the comfort of our wilderness, we run the risk of saying nothing, waiting for someone else to lead.  Now we are doing exactly what the Sages warned us of when the Talmud said ‘silence is agreement’.

For the individual Jewish person, this is not politics, this is not a moment to reflect on Jewish suffering that went ignored.  This is the clarity of a Jewish moment where we understand that if we choose to stay between two worlds, we will choose a future of stagnation and waste, with nothing but a missed opportunity.

It is a Jewish moment where we are commanded to respond.  Over the last few weeks, we watched people shot, strangled and murdered.  The Torah has always told us that we must respond when we see these things.  Now is a time for our Jewish response.  We need not wait for the whole people to agree, we need to choose our own personal response and then find each other as each person chooses theirs.

In one of our ancient texts, the Sages give a beautiful list of how God can find each individual person.  At the end of the list it says that God can find us when we utter a ‘yes’ that means ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ that means ‘no’.  We are not easily found when we choose a world with no definition or when we choose to stand between two worlds.  We are found in a clear thought, that results in a clear communication, that we then commit ourselves to.

Parshat Beha’alotcha: Have You Heard About…?

I’ve had quite a bit of time these last few months to reflect on so many things.  Isolation will do that for us – lots of time, lots of reflections.  

I remember so many conversations, some make me smile, some make me cringe, some I realize were left open ended and need to be revisited.  But, one conversation always makes me laugh and I’d like to share it.  

I was sitting in my car with one of my sons and I was thinking of whether or not criminals who committed crimes in their youth should be paroled in their old age.  It’s a tough topic for me, since I am definitely someone who believes in accountability, but at the same time, I believe that people can grow and change.  Can our entire future lives be set in stone based on a single act from our past?

It’s easy when we think of mundane youthful transgressions – certainly we don’t want people locked in by a minor mistake, but what about the major things?  Should someone like Charles Manson ever have seriously been considered for parole?  And now we have arrived at the conversation I had with my son.

    Rachael: Do you think Manson deserved parole or to die in prison?

    Son:  Why was he in prison?

    Rachael: Because he killed a lot of people.

    Son:  I don’t think he actually killed anyone.

    Rachael: Ok, he didn’t actually kill anyone.  But that’s a loophole.

    Son: What are you talking about?   

Rachael: He didn’t actually kill anyone himself.  He ordered other people to kill them.  So, I still think he’s responsible.

    Son: He didn’t order anyone to kill anyone.

    Rachael: Of course he did!  Sharon Tate, and that  poor LaBianca couple – he had a whole cult thing going on there in the desert!

    Son: They’re fans mum…I wouldn’t call that a cult.

    Rachael: What are you talking about?  Of course it’s a cult!

    Son: His music was a little strange, I’ll admit, but I don’t know that I’d call his fans a cult.

    Rachael: I don’t know that I’d call him a musician!  I think HE thought he was, but I don’t think anyone else thought he was.  That whole thing with The Beatles is maybe the music connection, but I really wouldn’t go so far as calling him a musician.

    Son: What connection to the Beatles?

    Rachael: Helter Skelter – his whole defense during his murder trial.

(Silence)

    Son: Who are you talking about?

    Rachael: Charlie Manson.  Who are you talking about?

    Son: Marilyn.

    Rachael:  Marilyn Monroe?  

    Son: Of course not!  Marilyn Manson!!

I think about the layers of misunderstandings that fed this exchange.  My generation, his generation, the differences in our gender, the differences in our cultural contexts – and yet I raised him in my home and we should have been on the same page.  And with all that embedded into the conversation, I also wondered afterwards if we were not actually talking about it but rather gossiping about the respective Mansons involved.  If I tell someone how I feel about a named person and what they did, is that always gossip, and if so, how serious is it?

I agree with all Jewish scholars and sages who have told us that keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat or any of the holidays, is not the hard part of the commandments.  Keeping guard of how we speak is the hard part.  In fact, the Talmud tells us that the tongue is situated behind two unforgiving guards: the lips and the teeth (even a momentary recall of accidentally biting our tongues and the pain and tears in our eyes confirms their image).   Judaism says our thoughts may be unfettered but our speech must not.

In this week’s parshah,  Beha’alotcha, Miriam is punished for gossiping about her brother, Moses.  She initiates a conversation with Aaron about their little brother, Moses.  God hears it and gives her leprosy.  It’s a death sentence, since leprosy had no cure.  Moses prays for her (the heartfelt plea: “Please, God, please, heal her”) and she is cured after one week.  In other words, Miriam, who stood guard over Moses while he was floating in a basket on the Nile, the little girl who united Moses with his mother so she could nurse him, the woman who created a community of women within Israel and taught them to sing and dance their prayers – this woman is cut no slack for a casual sibling conversation!  It’s not Shabbat that’s hard, it’s choosing how we speak of each other.

The example of Miriam, Aaron and Moses at that moment always strikes me.  They are siblings.  We always talk to our brothers and sisters about our brothers and sisters.  We talk to them about our parents.  They are our sounding boards, our first partners for venting, they teach us about life differently than our parents will – they stand next to us from cradle to grave.  Yet, we think they are so much a part of us that we can speak of them without a second thought.  Miriam did something we all do without thinking twice.  

So, why the harsh reaction?

I think it comes down to leadership.  Judaism believes that all people are equal and no one is a saint.  We will all make mistakes and we will all fail, but any leader is first and foremost an example.  We do not expect that leaders never make mistakes, we expect that they never whitewash them.  Leaders are accountable for their choices at all times and while Miriam shows us a leader who is held accountable for her words, Moses shows us a leader who advocates for mercy and forgiveness, even though she hurt him.  It is not Miriam alone who is the focus of this moment, it is her brother, whom she critiqued, that stands next to her before God.  

MIriam guarded Moses from Pharaoh’s death decree and Moses now guards Miriam from God’s.

We all gossip, we all try not to and then we all do it again.  We speak of those closest to us to those who are…closest to us.  We are both Miriam and Moses, two siblings who needed each other, had human moments together and then showed us how to forgive and continue the journey together.  It’s not the adage about picking ourselves up again after we make a mistake, this is more about remembering that relationships are always about ourselves involved with others and not just how we get back up.  It’s about hurting someone and then finding  a way to re-enter the relationship.  The momentary offense sits within a greater commitment and so Moses and Miriam will emerge standing together.

It’s not just about recognizing the moment we gossiped without also asking ourselves about facing the person afterward

Parshat Nasso: “Is That a Gun In Your Pocket or Are You Just Glad to See Me?”

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Nasso and it got me thinking about jealous misunderstandings.  When I was studying in Israel (many years ago), I used to go out with my friends and we developed a game called ‘Flirtatious or European?’  We were usually a small group of young women sitting in a coffee shop or a bar and men would approach our table to talk to us.  Most of the men were not from North America and we quickly saw there were cultural misunderstandings running rampant.  Where we would hear certain questions as flirtatious, we would find out they were not intended that way, the man was simply from France.  Or, perhaps, a gesture of the hand, or an eyebrow raised in our direction, a crooked smile or an invitation to take a walk…flirtatious or European?  It only got more complicated if the men were Israeli, because then we had absolutely no idea how to reference what they were saying.  Casual dates would end with a man saying ‘I love you’ and only after several times were we told that there is no casual phrase in Hebrew for ‘I like you’ and so the context should inform what he means.  In my circle of friends, if a man said ‘I love you’ too soon he was never spoken to again because no one should use the ‘L’ word after two dates – clearly the mischosen translation of the word from Hebrew to English led to suspicion and mistrust of the man.

Suspicions, mistrust, misunderstandings or deliberate hunting down of ‘others’ is part of our world reality from the ancient to the modern.  I studied in Boston for many years and my proximity to Salem, Massachusetts, resulted in many trips to that beautiful city with much witch hunt history.  From Monty Python’s depiction of the witch hunts (“she’s a witch, burn her!” yelled at a woman with a carrot tied to her nose) to many Hollywood versions of this moment in history, witch hunts were official ‘trials by ordeal’.  In other words, they were there to resolve suspicions, not to punish the person.  When a court could convene with evidence (or, at least, things they accepted as evidence), it would result in a verdict and usually an execution.  But, what do you do when someone is only suspected of being a witch and it can’t be proved?  That’s when you resort to a ‘trial by ordeal’.  Let’s try drowning her – if she survives, then she’s a witch because only a witch could survive a drowning – now let’s burn her.  If she’s not a witch, she drowns (since humans actually die when they don’t have air to breath) and…well…at least we saved her immortal soul, so, too bad for her but the greater picture takes precedence.

‘Trials by ordeal’ are ancient and speak of how to get closure when you have no way to prove anything.  ‘Trials by ordeal’ were supposed to end when the rule of law took precedence.  If I can’t prove something then I can’t punish for it.  But, what happens when I can’t prove it, but I still need to live with the person?  In other words, when the suspicion of a crime committed now clouds everything about the future relationship.  How do we resolve suspicions?

This week’s parshah discusses the law of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress.  A husband is jealous of his wife’s behaviour with other men and suspects she has betrayed him (‘jealous’ is the word the Torah uses and it uses it an unusually large amount of times in this section).  The husband brings his wife to the High Priest who enacts a Jewish ‘trial by ordeal’.  She brings an offering, the High Priest dishevels her hair, mixes various things into water (creating ‘bitter waters’), makes the statement of accepting the ‘trial by ordeal’ and all its consequences to which she answers ‘amen’.  She then drinks the water.  If she is guilty, her body will bloat (actually, a bit confusing about exactly in what way but it sounds terrible whichever way we read it) and if she is innocent, she will be fertile.

Here’s what’s so unusual about this ‘trial by ordeal’:  the issue is not her guilt or innocence, it is her husband’s jealousy.  We already know we cannot prove her guilt or disprove it and therefore there is no way for this couple to move forward in their marriage.  If he wants to divorce her, he has the power to do so without any proof of any wrongdoing, so clearly there is a desire to continue the marriage, but not when one person is overcome with unresolved jealousy.  How do we close matters that need closure but can’t get there?

The Torah has repeated the word ‘jealousy’ several times but not the word ‘adultery’.  The offering she brings is said to be an offering for both her and her husband and it is called the ‘Jealousy Offering’, the challenge the husband is having.  The issue between the couple is not her actions, so much as it is the unresolved jealousy that is blocking them.  Was she flirtatious or European?

But the ‘trial by ordeal’ of the Salem witch hunts were not the same thing.  The witch hunts were there to target people and kill them in the name of some powerful authority and its desire to maintain power and status quo.  They were attempts to legitimate murder, not bring closure for moving forward.  The Sotah ceremony was a way to move past a hurtful and difficult moment toward some kind of closure and future.  But, let’s not forget, the Sotah ceremony is still a ‘trial by ordeal’ and it is the woman who is bearing the public shame of the accusation and drinking the bitter waters (not to forget everyone looking at her to see if she bloats!).  But the ceremony will resolve what could not be resolved in other ways.  Even the worst case scenario is addressed, since if she were indeed an adulterous and pregnant by another man, and she survives the bitter waters, the pregnancy would be accepted as the fertility she was promised by enduring this ordeal and now the child has a family and a future. 

Sometimes the difficulty of the ordeal is the way to move forward and secure a better future.  As a Canadian, I have watched with a broken heart what George Floyd was made to endure in the last moments of his life.  As a mother, I heard him call for his mother and everything in me wanted to answer him.  I’ve watched the anger, the violence, the protesting and the looting, but I’ve also watched the powerful moments of people in uniforms kneeling with protesters and other images where protesters and police were crying and praying together.  

Ordeals can be moments of growth or they can lead to moments of injury and chaos.  I pray that the heartbreak of what we all witnessed brings us to a place of resolution and a lasting change.  May this ordeal strengthen the world to take a necessary step forward.