The Lemon, The Bush, The Hut…and The Neighbours

Hi everyone,

Another Yom Kippur has come and gone and now we have barely 2 minutes to catch our breath before Sukkot is here.

Someone asked me once why Jews walk around with a lemon and a bush for a week in the Fall.  Here are the possible answers:

  • Because the Torah told us to
  • Most of us aren’t really sure
  • We do?
  • Wait until I tell you about the huts we build

And then the answers would also include:

  • it’s not a lemon, it’s a citron, the source of citrus fruits
  • It’s not a bush, it’s the branches of different trees bound together
  • We hold them together to symbolize all Jews
  • We hold them together to symbolize male and female
  • It is a celebration of unity and inclusion
  • We expand our dialogue with God by including the wondrous objects in creation

But building the Sukkah, that’s a whole other symbol.

I remember as a little girl, I would lie in my bed late at night and listen to our neighbour hammering in his yard long after dark.  He worked during the day, so he could only build his sukkah at night. I thought it was strange and a bit scary. Now, I think it’s one of the most beautiful expressions of meaningful choices.

The Torah tells us that we followed God in the wilderness, living in temporary dwellings, expressing ultimate trust.  The prophets refer to it as if we were newlyweds finding our foundation. God refers to it as a sweet and cherished Divine memory.  And so we build our huts, our Sukkot, year after year. It is a place that reminds us of a time when God and Israel struggled to learn of each other, but loved each other with the freshness of new love.

It’s such a beautiful concept…if you live in Israel where it’s warm.  Here, in Canada, Sukkot has always felt cold, wet and uncomfortable. It’s how I imagine it must have felt in the shtetls of Eastern Europe for centuries.  In the Torah it was an expression of our security with God in the wilderness, but in the shtetl it made Jews vulnerable to the elements and to hostile neighbours – and yet we continued to build our Sukkot.

The beauty of Judaism is that meaning not only renews, it layers.  I can listen to someone building a Sukkah and think of ancient Israel and God forging a relationship that will change everything forever.  I can also look at the Sukkah and realize how flimsy a shelter it provides. And in today’s world, I sit in a Sukkah and have a fleeting glimpse of what a homeless person in Canada must endure night after night.

All these meanings speak at once, they are all relevant.  And, of course, Sukkot is a harvest festival which coincides with Thanksgiving in Canada this year.

My brother and his family once lived on a street with mostly observant Jews.  It was a lovely cul de sac with a sense of community on the street. One year, an older Asian couple, recent immigrants, moved onto the street around Rosh Hashanah.  By Sukkot, every neighbour was inviting the new couple to be guests in their Sukkah and so this elder Asian couple spent 8 days eating in a Sukkah at every meal. The following year, the Asian couple built their own Sukkah.  It appears they thought it was a Canadian tradition to mark Thanksgiving. Someone explained to them that it was a Jewish ritual. They decided that the expression of community and caring for the stranger was so strong, that year after year they have built their own Sukkah and invite guests to meals for 8 days.

Sometimes these things work out so right.

Chag same’ach, have a wonderful Sukkot!

To Yom Kippur…and Back

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah.  With that said, the High Holidays have begun and we are approaching Yom Kippur.

A non-Jewish friend of mine asked me recently why these holidays are called ‘High’.  I immediately flashed to the Hebrew name for these holidays: ‘Yamim Hanoraim’, the Terrible Days of Dread…I decided I couldn’t tell him that…

But it definitely got me thinking about how difficult it can be to actually celebrate these holidays, when they’re filled with prayers that include: ‘who by fire’ – followed by a long list of horrible fates.  Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and deprivation of the body, something Judaism tells us not to do too often. In fact, many people won’t wear leather because it’s so soft and comfortable and we want to deprive ourselves (more on that later, it’s actually not that simple).

So, I’ve decided that we need to recapture the celebration of these holidays, and maybe one of the best ways is to visit some of the lesser known stories of great Rabbis and Sages who struggled with some of these same questions.

One of my favourite stories is of the Chassidic Rebbes who spent so much time preparing for these holidays, that they isolated themselves from their students.  Of course, this would only make their students more curious about what they were doing and a few crafty ones would follow their Rebbes to see what they were doing.

In one story, the student discovers that the Rebbe is not teaching his students because he is dressing as a peasant and going to the cottage of a single old woman in the forest.  The Rebbe would speak to this non-Jewish woman in her native tongue (meaning not Yiddish) and would do chores around her cottage. The work included chopping wood and preparing meals as well as serving her the food.  She had no idea who he was and he never accepted payment. The student hid in the woods and saw his Rebbe do this day after day. After a week or so, the other students asked if anyone knew where the Rebbe was and what he was doing to prepare for the High Holidays.  One student said that the Rebbe is so holy, he must be going to heaven and back. The student who knew the truth of where the Rebbe was going finally broke his silence and spoke. He said that he has followed the Rebbe and he can confirm that the Rebbe is not going to heaven – he is ascending even higher.

In another story, a great Rabbi would shut himself away from his students for weeks before the High Holidays and study, frantically writing for days and days.  He’d stop in order to pray on Rosh Hashanah and then begin the same routine again until Yom Kippur. Every year the same thing happened. Finally, one trusted student asked him to please explain what was going on.  The Rabbi said that up to Rosh Hashanah, he is studying Torah and writing down the promises and agreements God has made with humanity and with particular people. On Rosh Hashanah, he would include his list in his prayers and read it over and over again to God.  After Rosh Hashanah he did the same thing, reflecting on his own personal promises and agreements from the last year and he would write them down. On Yom Kippur, he would read his list in his prayers over and over again to God. Toward the end of Yom Kippur, the Rabbi would hold both lists close to his heart and say: ‘this year we have both left things unfulfilled with much work to do.  I ask You for Your forgiveness and I give you mine.’

A few years ago, I came across the writings of a Rabbi in a displaced persons camp in Europe right after the Shoah.  It was Erev Yom Kippur and the Rabbi later writes that he looked at the crowd of people assembled to hear Kol Nidre. He writes of his moment of disbelief that so many Jews gathered for Yom Kippur, having just survived the horrors of the Nazi regime.  He looked at the crowd, and through tears, he pronounced they have nothing to beg forgiveness for, they are not to fast on this Yom Kippur, they have atoned enough.

And as we prepare ourselves to go to shul for the holiday, I’d like to share the thoughts of a Sage recorded in the Talmud.  In discussing their personal prayers, one Sage shared that he considers his clothing to be part of his personal prayer. Deciding what to wear to prayer, according to him, is a decision of self-expression, as are the words of his prayer and therefore it must be a deliberate choice of clothing.

Often times we angst over what to wear to shul based on very mundane and superficial reasons.  If I wore that dress last year, can I wear it again this year? (Interesting how we think people care or would even remember what we wore last year…isn’t ego a funny thing?)

And while we’re talking about what to wear, I’d like to revisit the prohibition on leather that many people observe.  One of the ideas about prayer that we learn, is that it is not appropriate to pray for things we ourselves are not willing to give.  In other words, praying to God for compassion would be ironic, if we ourselves do not act compassionately toward others. By extension, if on Yom Kippur we are praying to God for life, remembering that our clothing is part of our prayer, how ironic if we are clothed in the skin of an animal whose life we took only so we could be more comfortable.

While Yom Kippur can certainly be looked at as the Day of Dread, the decisions of fate and destiny that scare us, there is the other side to the holiday.  The stories of spirituality and compassion that connect one person to another; the nuances of accountability that connect us to God; the moment we elevate our wardrobe to an expression of the holy.

I love exploring all of that to the heights these concepts open.  I also think I need to prepare my husband for the hours to come, standing in front of my closet, while I ask over and over: “what to wear, what to wear?”

Standing Together

Hi everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we stand.

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

To Dream My Impossible Dream

Hi everyone,

Hope everyone had a good week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can I Leave My Jewish at Home?

Hi everyone,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Wounds

Hi everyone,

Picture it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to break the cycle?

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

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

So…picture it:

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

The Beautiful Places I Don’t Want To Go

Hi all,

Hope everyone had a great week.  This coming weekend is the start of the Hebrew month Elul, which means the High Holidays are around the corner – and as daunting as it is confronting our mortality at the High Holidays, a close second is encountering all the family politics, shul decisions and meal prep…what was God thinking?!

But Elul is the month before the High Holidays and it’s a wonderful month of transition.  The word itself is often seen as an acronym for the verse: “Ani ledodi vedodi li”. That’s the verse many brides say under the chuppah when giving a ring to their groom.  I said it years ago under the chuppah, I think, though, to be honest, that hour is a bit of a blur in my memory. I remember circling my husband right after getting under the chuppah.  I remember thinking I’m weaving our souls together to create a new spiritual entity and I would be with him for the rest of my life and was I crazy and did we really think this through enough and honestly how solid were the plans we made and maybe we should talk about this some more and I’m not sure that’s the music that should be playing right now.  As I was walking around him, deep in my moment, I realized I had no idea how many circles I had actually completed. I passed in front of him, locked eyes with him through the veil and he quietly said: ‘that was 5’. 

So, I said that verse under the chuppah as my declaration to him.  The verse from Song of Songs, ‘Ani ledodi vedodi li’ is often translated as: ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’.  That’s actually the wrong translation and anyone who knows me knows I am a stickler for translations. The phrase in English implies ownership, I belong to my beloved and my beloved belongs to me.  It raises a two-fold problem: not only do I not want to belong to anyone else, but I certainly don’t want to own anybody – too much responsibility. I don’t even consider that I own my children and I actually made them from scratch.

Here’s how the verse actually translates: “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.”  It’s a verse said by the woman about her lover.  It is a declaration of support and loyalty – it is not a declaration of ownership.

In fact, elsewhere she says: “My beloved is for me and I am for him, he shepherds among the lilies,” yes, lilies, not roses (I say this because it’s always translated as roses).  In biblical Hebrew that word means ‘lilies’, it’s only later in Hebrew that it means ‘roses’.  

Why do I care, you ask?  Because lilies are poisonous, so she’s not saying her beloved is so deep and romantic (roses), she’s saying he leads her into beautiful, dangerous places.  Though, interestingly, she never goes there to look for him. She knows that’s where he is but she doesn’t feel the need to follow him there.

How does all of this relate to Elul, the month whose name stands for ‘ani ledodi vedodi li’?   It is not only the month I explore my relationships, it’s also the month I reflect on my personal relationship with God.  In this analogy, God is my Beloved. And yes, as the High Holidays approach I realize that God can lead me into beautiful and dangerous places.  When the thought of the mortality of those I love dawns on me, I can sometimes dwell on it and it will grow inside me, it can paralyze me, the fear can be overwhelming and it becomes poison to me.

So I choose not to follow my Beloved there.  I create my High Holiday filters so I can enjoy the holidays without being overwhelmed.

The Sages have taught us many times that Torah truths can often be heard in the words  of children and I was lucky enough to see this profound truth unfold at the park the other day.  A 4-year-old girl was at the park with her twenty-something aunt (I know these people). The aunt was enticing the little girl to go on the big slide.  The girl said she doesn’t want to. The aunt told her several times that there’s nothing to be afraid of and that at the top of the slide she could see the whole park and lots of things she can’t see from the ground.  The aunt said she would even go with her so it wouldn’t be scary. The girl kept saying ‘no thank you’ to each offer. Finally, the little 4-year-old looked directly at her aunt and said: “I know that I can do it, I just don’t want to.”

So happy Elul everybody.  Enjoy time to consider who are the beloveds in our lives, who has our backs and whom do we protect.  At the same time, consider the unique nature of everyone’s journey and maybe the beautiful places they enter that we prefer not to explore.

Mussar Monday

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to my Mussar blog.  Remember that Mussar is about real life moments and expanding our free will so I will always share a Mussar moment of mine and end with suggestions for you.

Before we jump in, here’s a dictionary for today’s post:

Middah/Middot = Hebrew for: Measure / Measures (not a character trait / characteristics, I’ll explain as we go)

Tikkun Olam = Hebrew for: repairing the world

Mussar =  The Hebrew word referring to learning about our middot to expand our free will in order to heal the world

Mundane = regular or everyday, seemingly insignificant

Holy = the level above the mundane

Automatic Mode = when our Middot readjust themselves without us knowing or choosing

Quick theory review: If we imagine for a minute that all our personality traits are held in cups.  Some cups currently hold more than others and when we encounter things in life, the cups pour their contents around without us knowing. Mussar is the study of how much is in each cup and how we use our free will to actively rebalance what’s inside them.  We try to become the masters of our measures, the sommeliers of our own cups (as it were).  

So, here’s my Mussar moment: I went for a manicure a few days ago.  It took my nails 20 minutes to dry. Twenty minutes of not using my hands, not touching anything, not going on my phone.  Twenty minutes to patiently wait, literally, for paint to dry. It was agony.

I had never realized before that twenty minutes can sometimes feel like a lifetime – Einstein is dancing a hora somewhere as I write those words.

I never realized that my measure of patience could reduce to almost nothing in an instant.  The description of one’s patience is measured by the middah of patience. People who are perceived as  ‘patient people’ have more patience in their cup so it takes longer for their patience to run out. My patience cup seemed to empty  after a few minutes of waiting for my nails to dry. I thought I had more in there, I was surprised by how quickly it emptied, how fast the ticking of the clock on the wall became really really loud.

In Mussar language, my middah of patience set itself without me consciously choosing the measurement, which is called functioning in ‘automatic mode’.  My free will stays dormant, my patience middah reacts to the world, and basically I’m along for the ride.

The obvious problem with this is that the world will never change if we’re all functioning in automatic.  The only thing that can possibly repair the world is to use my free will and make active choices.

So, back to my nails…the twenty minutes that simply wouldn’t end.  If I weren’t in automatic mode, I might have realized that I had been gifted twenty unexpected minutes.  I could have met someone new, struck a personal moment with someone who works there who might welcome a conversation.  I saw none of it, I was frustrated so I couldn’t see I still had choices.

It is a mundane moment, but Mussar is defined by entering the mundane and finding more choices.  The world heals a tiny bit when we see that mundane frustrations can be opportunities of choice. I know I won’t see it every time, but maybe now I will see it one more time than I did before.

Here’s my Mussar suggestion for you: ask yourself when your patience middah readjusts itself without you choosing. Find a moment of challenge in your everyday where you might see a new choice, a new opportunity.

Comment below with your Mussar moment.  Mussar is about engaging with each other – but let’s also remember our measure of ‘respect.’

Food Glorious Food

Hope everyone had a great week.

This week’s parshah is Eikev and, as always, there’s a lot of things in there.  But there’s one verse about how we should handle food and God, so I started thinking about food and I started thinking about being the food-giver.

When I had my first baby, I decided I would nurse her, I mean how hard could it be?  It was always ready to go and I had images of a long line of women before me – I was ready to be nature woman!  I was also a student and nursing was free.

Then my daughter had her first meal and the red streaks of pain that flashed across my eyes was indescribable. I let out a loud yelp and literally saw stars.   Back in my day, women admitted that labour was painful but we told each other it was a ‘good’ pain. I’ve had five children and by my fifth labour I asked the nurse if I could have an epidural ‘to go’ for when I got home.  I’ve concluded there’s no such thing as good pain. Whether a woman births through natural or surgical means, it will be scary and it will hurt. But in spite of being told about the good pain of labour, no one, and I mean no one, told me nursing would hurt so much.

Ironically, the only thing that solves the pain of nursing is (wait for it) to nurse some more.  Add to the mix that while you’re dealing with all of this pain, the baby is hungry and not understanding any of the explanations you are tearfully putting forth, so you just have a screaming infant in your arms.

You are the food-giver and the receiver is screaming, demanding and anything but understanding or grateful.  At the end of the day, after baby has been fed, you hope for that final statement of thank you that will come in the form of a burp.  

For 40 years in the desert, we were the infant, God was the food-giver and we complained and cried and kvetched about food constantly.  The number 40 is not random in the Torah. It is used with Noah and the ark, it is used with Moses on Mount Sinai and it is used with Israel in the desert.  It is also the total number of weeks of gestation. It takes 40 weeks to birth something new. The new world in Noah’s time, the new law from Sinai and the new nation that will enter Israel.

So we hungered in the desert and we demanded and screamed that God nurse us – hardly the portrait of a spiritual and holy interaction.  But the focus isn’t on what we do when we’re hungry, it’s what we do when we’re full.

When I’m hungry, I’ll probably agree to almost anything you want me to do.  My mother taught me that if I wanted the food on the table I would help set the table.  If she asked me to make salad, I would. I would get a bottle of pop from the basement and I would call everyone to the table – without shouting ‘Dinner’s ready’ – she made me do it again if I shouted.  I would have combed out her beehive hairdo then and there – anything to get dinner on the table. 

But once I ate, my inclination would be to run from the table with no more than a ‘howdy do’ to anyone.  If I got to the den first then I could choose what TV show to watch, since family viewing was a ‘first come first choose’ proposition.  My parents taught us that we had to ask to be excused from the table to stop the mad bolt to the TV. In other words, once my stomach was full I was no longer the sweet, giving and obedient little elf.

So it’s clearly not what we do when we’re hungry, it’s what we do when we’re full.  This week’s parshah says: ‘you will eat, you will be satisfied and then you will bless God.’  That’s why we say Birkhat Hamazon after we eat. We experience what it means to have the food warm us from the inside and we thank the Food-Giver.  We aren’t babies anymore, it’s not coming to us and we’re not doing it so that we’ll get the food. We learn not to bolt from the table but that food either builds relationships or keeps us behaving as animals demanding and taking – it’s our choice.

I ended up nursing all my children and it was a strain and adjustment each time.  Each relationship that developed taught me about my baby – one of my kids couldn’t wait and would try and nurse through my shirt while another one thought biting was funny.  Whether it’s nursing or feeding from a bottle or a can or any of the many ways to provide food, the animal in us will view food as the end goal but the Torah reminds us that food is the medium and the relationship is the end goal.

Learning To Listen

Hope everyone had a great week.  

My brother recently celebrated a birthday which got me thinking about my siblings.  I remember a moment with my brother from our childhood. I was sitting in our kitchen with my father when my brother shouted down from his room: “Hey Rach, grab me some water!”

I was very touched that my older brother would ask me to do something for him, since our relationship to this point mostly consisted of jabbing each other with our elbows at dinner because I’m a righty and he’s a lefty.  The jabbing was obviously deliberate.

So, in my innocence, I thought he was reaching out to me as someone he could rely on for water…silly me.

For anyone who doesn’t remember kitchen sinks from the 1970s, next to every faucet was a spray nozzle that would shoot a strong spray of water directly forward when the handle was squeezed.  Unbeknownst to me, my brother had wrapped an elastic band around the handle so it was depressed and ready to shoot water at whomever turned on the faucet. My brother had moments of evil genius!

But God had a different plan for him.  After he shouted to me asking for water, I immediately said ‘of course’, feeling all grown up and worthy of taking my rightful place as someone he could rely on.  But then my father told me it’s ok, he would pour the water. I watched as my father turned on the faucet. I watched as a shower of water shot out and drenched him completely and I watched it go on and on for what seemed an eternity until my father figured out what was happening and shut the water off.  

That wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard my father yell, but it was the first time I’d heard him yell a curse word over and over…it was the ‘s’ word.

My brother ran into the kitchen, saw our drenched father and went a sickly colour of grey.  Then he kept yelling at me: “I thought YOU were getting me water!!!” I just sat at the table listening to all the yelling and trying to figure out what I had done, since I actually hadn’t done anything.  

My brother and I grew very close over the years and this is one of the memories that we cherish. 

Why do I remember this incident now?  Because this week’s parshah, Vaetchanan, has the verses that contain the prayer ‘Shema’.  It is our proclamation of monotheism and it translates as: “Hear, Israel, my Master, our God, my Master is One.”  We recite it in prayer and we recite it when we go to sleep. We learn to say it out loud and tradition says to cover our eyes when we say it so our ears will hone in.

But it is not a prayer that we direct to God, it is a prayer that we direct to each other.  In fact, we clearly state ‘hear ISRAEL’, and we cover our eyes so we will, in fact, hear ourselves and each other.  It is a moment of unity and commonality that we express to each other and it stands in opposition to any of our divisive moments.  We argue over everything, as siblings do, we compete over attention and justifications, as siblings do, and we tease each other and play pranks, as siblings do, but at the end of the day we unite and affirm our loyalties and our allegiances.

When my kids were little and I would put them to bed, I often stood outside their rooms to hear if they were falling asleep.  Many times I heard them whispering to each other and I would catch the words ‘mama’ or ‘papa’. They were clearly sharing their confusion, angst and frustration about their parents, or perhaps plotting pranks of their own.

Whenever they would get me with a good one, I would wonder if that had been planned in one of their late night secret meetings.  I loved that they shared this with each other because who could better understand it all than a sibling?

Moses has outlived his siblings at this point in the Torah.  He did not have sibling moments and he did not have strong family connections.  The parshah begins with the word ‘vaetchanan’, which means ‘and I pleaded.’ Moses is referring to how he begged that God allow him to enter Israel but God refused.  In fact, God told him not to speak of it anymore, never to ask again. Moses has been told he should no longer pray to God on this matter. Our hearts should break at that moment for the complete ear-shattering silence that God is demanding.  Especially because Moses is the one teaching us to say ‘Shema’: ‘Listen’.

So when we say the Shema, perhaps at that moment we are honouring Moses by acknowledging how well he taught us to hear each other.  Perhaps God told Moses to stop pleading because maybe the moment was difficult for both Moses and God. Maybe to protect Israel and answer its needs, Moses and God endured the difficulty.  If so, our personal moment of Shema is more loaded than we ever knew.

Moses stands alone as the sole survivor of his family.  His parents are long gone and his siblings have all died.  Nature prepares us for the loss of parents but a sibling is a lateral companion, they are meant to stand with us from cradle to grave.

Back in the book of Genesis, when the Torah begins, we meet the first siblings: Cain and Abel.  It ends horribly as Cain kills Abel over the perceived love of God, the Parent. When God questions Cain about it,  Cain asks God a fundamental human question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’ and his question is left unanswered in the Torah.  

Ultimately, in this week’s parshah, in the last book of Torah, we learn to say Shema to each other.  We learn to listen to each other, for that brief moment, and to finally understand that God is the Parent, we are all siblings and we can finally answer Cain’s question by saying ‘yes.’