Pesach Message for 2020

This year, Pesach will be unique for the Jewish people everywhere.  The other unique moment it brings to mind is the very first Pesach, the one in Egypt.  Here are some moments to help fulfill the Sages’ proclamation that we should all experience Egypt.

  • The Israelites in Egypt were told to stay in their homes
  • They were surrounded by a deadly ‘wave’
  • They knew that they would emerge stronger than they entered
  • They knew that ultimately they would receive an identity and relationship with God and the Torah that would guide and secure every journey forward

And here we have arrived.  

How is this Pesach different?  How is this night different? We sit apart and yet together.  We have scaled down the preparations so we can scale up the conversations.  Our bodies are frustrated by the confinement while our minds are filled with the debates of Pesach:  justice or mercy; joy or suffering; passive knowledge or prompted questions; the taste of tears or the taste of sweetness;  have I been privileged all along or have I been enslaved and unaware?

The physicality of this Pesach has reduced but the engagement and comfort to openly share everything we feel has opened wide.  

May God keep everyone safe, strong, healthy and redeemed with the coming of Pesach.  When we open our doors and welcome Eliyahu this year, ask him to bring our prayers of strength to the next house he enters.  May we keep connected and look forward to Next Year in Jerusalem sitting together.

Every generation brings its unique moment of history to the growing lessons we teach our children at the Seder.  Let them see that the strength they are showing now is the strength that can serve them always.

Chag Kasher, Sameach veChazak.

Rav brachot,

Rachael

Parshat Tzav: The Greatness of the Grand Sabbath

This week’s Torah reading is parashat Tzav, lots of details on sacrifices.  It is also Shabbat Hagadol, The Grand Sabbath, the Shabbat before Pesach that gains elevation in holiness as it leads us into Pesach and our Seders.

…and all I can think about is Covid 19 and how life has changed.

But I draw my thoughts deliberately to the traditions of Shabbat Hagadol and I find them relevant and helpful.  It’s the Shabbat before Pesach and we first celebrated it in Egypt. Things were very different then but maybe relevantly different.  It was Egypt, the plagues were abounding and Israel was told to stay in their region and ultimately, to stay in their homes. Danger was everywhere outside the front door.  God commands everyone to paint blood on their doorposts as a sign for death to ‘Passover’ that house and yet the image of blood on the door makes it clear that to cross the threshold is to endanger one’s life – to enter the blood zone.

It hits a little too close to home right now.

And then Shabbat Hagadol steps in.  The Hebrew calendar in Egypt happens to be the same as the Hebrew calendar this year.  Shabbat falls on the 10th of Nisan this year and it was the 10th of Nisan in Egypt as well.  It’s starting to get a little too close for comfort, the last thing I need is to layer what’s going on now with the realities of ancient Egypt.

It reminds me of the old Jewish man who is lying in bed fearing the worst.  He calls to his wife, Goldie, and he says: ‘Goldeh, things are looking tough right now but I’m remembering our years together.  I remember when we first were married and suddenly our lives became hard finding a place to live’. Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, I remember when we opened our first grocery store together and we were robbed within a month.’  Goldie nods her head. ‘And Goldeh, don’t think I’ve forgotten that when we opened our second store together it burned to the ground right after the insurance expired.’ Goldie nods her head. ‘And through it all, Goldeh, you were there, every step, every moment.’  Goldie’s eyes fill and she nods. ‘And so, my Goldeh, in this moment of dire reflection I have come to an important conclusion…’ Goldie leans closer, ‘My Goldeh…I now understand…you’re bad luck.’

I’m not sure I need to be thinking about how much worse Israel enslaved in Egypt with blood on our doorposts makes me feel right now.  We rely on our Judaism and Torah to strengthen us in these moments and not deepen our sense of gloom.

There have been a lot of conversations about Pesach this year and Zoom Seders and the upside to a simpler, scaled down, more doable Pesach.  Jewish families who have never met each other are joining together to create Zoom seders and build strong lines of connection. We are the ones who did that but we did it because the Torah always teaches us to reach outward and not hibernate internally.  We stayed in our homes in Egypt in preparation for leaving and growing strong. We weren’t hibernating, we were incubating.

And now Shabbat Hagadol starts to speak to us with relevance.  It was on that Shabbat that Israel was told to make preparations for leaving.  The time spent not allowed to venture out is time spent envisioning the next step.  Ever since that first Pesach in Egypt, Shabbat Hagadol has built some of its own traditions.  There are special Psalms recited but, interesting, there is also an ancient tradition for making ‘synagogue challah’.  People would take some of the chametz ingredients they didn’t want in their homes (and in later years, was extra and therefore they didn’t need to sell it) and they would bake challah to give to the synagogue so every Jew could have a home baked, fresh challah for the Shabbat before we all have to stop enjoying challah.  Everyone baked what they could, so some challot were large and braided and some were little buns. It was all anonymous, no one judged and no one knew who was going into the synagogue to drop a challah off or who was going to pick up a challah. I can’t imagine anything that would make a Shabbat more grand.

But, we also learn that the 10th of Nisan is the day Miriam, Moses’ sister, dies in the desert.  With her death, Israel loses her ‘well’, their source of water in the wilderness, as well as her unique leadership and her guardianship.  

And so the 10th of Nisan is a day where we choose our perspective.

I will think of Miriam and everything she brought to Judaism on this Shabbat, I choose not to dwell on the loss of her.  Perhaps this Shabbat, the Grand Shabbat, is a time to think of taking something from our pantry and setting it for donation in whatever amount and way we feel is secure.

I believe our nation is full of Goldies who stand with us every step of every challenge.  Goldie is the hero of that family – of all our families – may we never be the one who doesn’t see it.

Wishing everyone a meaningful, connected and beautiful Pesach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here are some wonderful global moments that have occurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this week, I understood why.

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

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

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

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

Invitation:

Food for Our Neshamah, Coffee for Me

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

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

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

I look forward to welcoming you on Monday.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young…Calf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this wasn’t merriment, this was mitzvah.

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

SO WHAT’S BEHIND ALL THIS MADNESS!?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat Terumah: Angels and Demons and Shades…Oh My!

This week’s Torah portion is parshat Terumah.  It includes the details of building holy objects for the Tabernacle…the details that make many people’s eyes glaze over.  It lists colour selections and table dimensions and what gets coated in gold and what doesn’t. Because we don’t have a Tabernacle anymore, or a Temple, we don’t build these objects today and so we don’t often listen with a keen ear while this portion is read in synagogue.

But, amongst all these details is the description of the cherubim that will sit on the Ark of the Covenant.  A cherub is a type of angel. It is not a pudgy baby angel with a diaper and a bow and quiver waiting to shower us with ‘love arrows’.  It does not have rosy cheeks and a ‘cherubic smile’. By Jewish mystical accounts, a cherub is a fierce, frightening looking and not-happy-to- be-among-us type of angel.  There are two of them sculpted onto the lid of the Ark. They look down, toward the Ark and their wings are spread over them, almost touching wingtips. Almost touching, because the Divine Voice will speak from the space between – the tiny void framed by their wingtips.

Everything about it begs the question of why are there angels in my holy spaces?  Why do I keep inviting them into my world?

On Friday nights, with family gathered around our tables, we sing Shalom Aleichem.  It’s a beautiful, soulful song that frames our Shabbat meal. The phrase ‘shalom aleichem’ means ‘peace on you (plural)’ and we are welcoming the ministering angels and the angels of peace into our homes.  Verse 1 welcomes them, verse 2 beckons them to come in peace, verse 3 asks them to bless us with peace, verse 4 asks them to leave. We don’t want angels hanging around us for longer than needed.

Many ancient Jewish texts tell us that angels and demons are around us all the time and interact with us constantly.  As long as we think of angels as sweet, benevolent miracle workers, we like that they’re here. On a personal and very mundane note, I have struggled with my hair all of my life.  It is very fine. I always remember my mother putting bobby pins in my hair to keep it out of my eyes, only to have the pins float out the bottom of my hair an hour later. It’s a struggle that continues to this day.  Hair stylists have always told me I have baby fine hair. It sounds lovely but imagine being told you’re still carrying your baby weight with you all your life. A year ago, I walked into a salon and the stylist looked at my hair and told me how wonderful it must be to have angel fine hair.  He is now my regular stylist.

But, unfortunately, there really aren’t sources that tell us angels are saints.  They don’t sit on our shoulders whispering good things into our ears. Angels are messengers who do what God bids them to do – they have no free will and they are not always on our side of things.

According to the Kabbalah, angels were created before humanity was created.  That makes them our older sibling species, since God is the Divine Parent. We are the younger sibling that bothers them.  God will command some of them to protect us (Guardian Angels), just as an older sibling is responsible for its younger ones, not a cherished moment for an older sibling.  God will give us special things (the Torah) that the angels will argue they had first and don’t want to share. We overhear them say something that pleases the Parent and then we usurp it (“Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”).  We bother them.

There are positive and negative angels.  A midrash tells us that angels follow us into our homes on Friday evenings.  If they see a home of peace and readiness for holiness, the positive angels say this should continue and the negative angels must answer ‘amen’.  If they see a home of conflict and chaos, the negative angels say this should continue and the positive angels must answer ‘amen’. I’m not sure I want them in my home.

But, just as we live with our siblings from cradle to grave, we live with our angelic siblings every moment of every day.  The Talmud says there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have its angel tapping the earth above it and coaxing it to grow.  When two friends who have been apart for over a year reunite, they are to recite the blessing that thanks God for resurrecting the dead.  This is because love and fellowship create positive angels. The angel of our friendship will guard the relationship and will be nourished by it.  It takes a year apart to starve that angel, but when friends meet again, the angel is immediately resurrected, triggering the blessing.  

This week’s parshah teaches us how to create holy objects, and ultimately, to create holy space.  But we are always warned that holiness is powerful and extreme holiness is dangerous. The Cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant are keeping Israel at a distance from the power of such holiness.  The fierceness of their appearance is protecting us and they stare at the Ark, directing our focus. By spreading their wings to almost touch, they create the void in which to hear God’s Voice. Like an older sibling, they teach us about the world and how sometimes it is the spaces of silence that carry the greatest of revelations.

Parshat Mishpatim: Something’s Not Kosher in Denmark

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Mishpatim, has some very controversial and challenging laws.  Statements about witches and slaves and seducing virgins seem to fade into the background as compared with the tiny statement about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.

For many people, the parameters of kosher revolve around not eating pork or bacon, not eating any shellfish, and separating milk and meat.  When my kids were little, my father would tell them they were so delicious he could eat them up. One of my kids looked at him and said ‘silly Zaidy, people aren’t kosher.’  It was a sweet moment for me because my dad usually didn’t tease that way (grandparenting is a whole new way of expressing) and I got to see that my kid understood that people are animals who don’t have split hooves or chew cud.  Win/win.

But living in a community that keeps kosher creates a familiarity with something we easily forget is so foreign to others.  A friend of mine once told me about a time that he had non-Jewish colleagues over for dinner for the first time. They planned to cook a meal together.  He explained to them how his kitchen was laid out and that he keeps meat and dairy separate. Every cabinet and drawer was labelled in advance and meat and dairy were colour coordinated so things were pretty easy to navigate.  Dinner went great and while they were cleaning after and he was doing the dishes, he decided to have a moment of what he thought would be levity. He turned to his friends and said ‘Oh no! You put the dairy garbage into the meat garbage!!’  He went back to washing dishes chuckling to himself about how cute and funny he was but when he turned back around his friends were rummaging through the garbage separating the meat from the dairy. When he told me the story I started laughing and he chuckled again, this time at my reaction.  He asked me why separating the garbage was any more ridiculous to them than anything else about his kitchen.

He was right.

In fact, there are two different categories of keeping kosher in the Torah: the rational and the irrational.  An irrational law in Judaism is called a ‘hok’. That is where we find the categories of kosher animals and the list of birds we can and cannot eat.  They are irrational because left to our own devices we would never have figured out not to eat a pig. Once we can eat another living thing, why would we be limited to some and not others?  It does not lie within the realm of logic, it lies within the realm of meaningfulness and so each Jewish approach will give it meaning in different ways.  

Then there are the rational laws, ‘mishpatim’, the laws we would have derived on our own because they are the result of logical thinking.  Laws like not stealing or murdering fall in this domain. The laws in this week’s parshah fall in this domain…and so does separating milk and meat.

We mark this separation because the Torah forbids cooking a kid in its own mother’s milk.  Since we can never be sure which animal belonged to which mother, we separate all meat from milk.  The law has grown into separating our dishes, our utensils and in some communities, separating appliances as well.  But how is it logical?

There is definitely a cruelty to taking a baby animal, slaughtering it and then cooking it in the milk its own mother made.  But the cruelty only exists within us, the animals would never know. The Torah is teaching us the logical understanding of cruel concepts that embed within innocuous actions.  And that’s just the start.

The milk a mother produces is specifically there for her offspring.  Its purpose is to nourish and secure a new life. It has no other purpose and most animals become milk intolerant once their digestive systems mature.  Milk’s function is to promote life and begin the relationships of bonding and trust with another. (See my blog on Parshat Beshalach for other “mother’s milk” imagery in the Torah.)

Eating meat, according to the Torah, is self-indulgent.  Something Judaism tells us is a concession on God’s part introduced into the world after the Flood.  It is understood as more of a lust than a reasoned choice. Immediately after the Flood, the Torah lists the 7 Noahide laws, one of which is to never eat the limb off a living animal.  Humanity may eat meat but must kill the animal first. In other words, eating meat must now necessitate interacting with death.

So while milk exclusively supports life, meat must interact with death.  As Judaism often reminds us to choose life, it is now crucial that we understand the images and symbols we use everyday.

It is logical to not inculcate cruel concepts within us; to recognize that hurting anything must begin with an internal dismissal that it matters.  We would never cook a baby animal in the milk its mother made to nourish it. And growing in holiness, we would understand what we see when we see milk and what we have done when we see meat.  Both are permitted but both must be allowed to speak to us separately.

The complexities layer on top of each other so much, you yearn for the irrational laws that just say ‘do this…don’t ask because it will never make sense anyway’.  But in a parshah that discusses the logic of building a society that tries to give people rights and fairness, how subtle and humbling to see that even the baby kid should be on our minds.  

It’s not about how complicated I can make my kitchen, so much as knowing that avoiding concepts of cruelty and building clarity in my world could bring me to endless layers of meaning.  When symbols work properly, they have no limit to their meanings. I may separate my food but not my dishes or I may separate my dishes but not my sinks, or my sinks but not my dishwasher racks, or… but I could never judge someone who is so struck by the profound message of clarity between life and death that they separate it every way they can.  

The only reason we don’t separate our garbage is because, well, that would be irrational.

Parshat Yitro: Even Moses Had In-Laws

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Yitro, contains the Ten Commandments, which tends to always catch our attention.  But the parshah begins with, and is named after, Moses’ father-in-law: Yitro. It is the part of Torah that shows us the father-in-law/son-in-law relationship…and it’s timeless.

There’s an interesting dynamic that exists between fathers and daughters that I’ve watched in my own family.  I quickly learned to brush up on my Freud and then quickly remembered why I don’t like Freud. I watched with confused interest as my husband and my daughters figured things out with each new stage of maturity.  I most definitely remember that each time a new boy showed up at the house to pick up one of our daughters for a date, my husband would greet them at the door with an apple.

I kid you not, my husband would stand in the hallway by the front door with his hand open and an apple lying on his palm.  He would make eye contact with the boy and would say ‘watch this’ as he closed his hands over the apple and split it in half with his hands.  He then opened his hands to produce two perfect halves of the apple, one in each palm. Through it all, he never broke eye contact. I always thought he was showing off his martial arts training and I thought it was cute.  Apparently the boys watching didn’t think it was so cute. It seems they all read it as a message. Years later I found out from my daughters that all their friends were aware of the ‘apple thing’ and it intimidated the boys who’d witnessed it.  I told my husband that it was making them uncomfortable and he smiled a bit and said, ‘is it really?’, but the next date faced the apple.

Ah, yes, fathers and daughters.

When it comes to our in-laws, relationships suddenly become very complex.  They are parents within our marriage, they’re just not our parents. They embody knowledge of our partner that we will never have – they know who they were and who they became.  But we know who they became and who they are becoming, something their parents no longer witness moment to moment. And yet, the Torah commands us to teach our children, no matter whether or not they are young, old, married, single, parents or even grandparents.  We are to evolve into new relationships as they evolve into new stages because we are always obligated to teach them. When they no longer respond to our lessons, we are the ones who must change how we teach them. We are commanded to teach, they are not commanded to learn.

When Yitro joins Moses in the wilderness, he brings Moses’ wife and sons with him.  Moses has not called for them but Yitro decides it is enough time apart. He does not accuse Moses of anything, he simply reunites him with his wife and sons.  It is hard to discuss personal family matters between father-in-law and son-in-law so action is what is needed. They speak all night about the events of Egypt and God, and since Yitro is the High Priest of Midian, this is akin to talking shop.  

The next day, Yitro watches Moses at work and critiques his process.  After all, Yitro knows what it is to lead a people and he’s watching Moses devote his entirety to leading Israel and has nothing left for his family life.  That’s when we remember fathers and daughters.

Yitro tells Moses to delegate, to build a system of appeals that will free Moses from this crushing burden (…and maybe get home…).  Yitro has no vested interest in making Moses the best leader of the Jewish people, but he does have a vested interest in getting Moses to find room in his life for his family.

The only problem is that the system Yitro suggested was one of privilege – only the important people would end up in front of Moses.  For a foreign leader, that has worked, but for the vision of covenant, that would be a betrayal. So Moses sets up a system of challenges rather than privilege.  The cases that are too challenging for a lower court would bump up to eventually come before Moses. He will solve what others could not, regardless of the importance of the participants.  It is this system that we inherit which is why, much later in our history, King Solomon will adjudicate a case with two prostitutes standing before him each claiming motherhood over a single baby.

Once Moses has taken the idea from Yitro and shaped it into what he needs…he sends Yitro home.  Moses will keep his focus on the people and his family life will suffer. Moses will not raise his sons as leaders and he will eventually live apart from his wife.  If Moses were to find a work/life balance, Israel would suffer. If Moses is always monitored by Yitro, his father-in-law, he would insist on sending Moses home at the end of the day.  Choices must be made and Yitro is sent home.

It’s an extremely delicate balance when a relationship between two men exists only because they are bonded to the same woman.  Not enough credit is given to that relationship. Jewishly, we praise the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who brought us defining concepts that include “whither you go, I will go”.  That relationship speaks so loudly and clearly that we all but ignore that men may not express their interactions the same way.

Yitro will protect his daughter and mentor his son-in-law while bringing his grandsons to their father.  The Jewish people are better off because Yitro spoke with familial authority to Moses. He was the only person in Torah to ever speak as a parent to Moses and it gives us a glimpse into how complex that relationship can be.

To the fathers-in-law and sons-in-law all around us, I tip my hat to you for navigating these nuances as often as you do.  I support you in any hallway you choose to stand with every apple you hold in your palm.

Parshat Beshalach: The Miraculous, Wondrous, Unimaginable, What-cha-ma-call-it

A while ago I saw a funny cartoon (I think today it’s called a meme though I still don’t understand why we can’t just keep calling it a cartoon…) that I thought speaks beautifully of our era.  It generally goes like this: two rabbits sitting on a park bench and the caption reads: ‘Life Before Google’. One rabbit says to the other, ‘I wish I knew more about the history of rabbits’ and the other rabbit says, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.’   Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how everything is at our fingertips and communication is but a few clicks away. When my husband is late getting home, I admit I have said to him: ‘if only there were a handy little device in your pocket that could help you let me know.’

So, I can’t help but wonder if there is any excitement left in the unknown.  Do we feel that things are beyond our reach conceptually? Could we ever be the rabbits on the park bench?

One of the great moments of mystery is when we explain to our kids that they’re going to have a sibling.  I remember understanding never to tell a child that we love them so much, we just couldn’t wait to have another.  It’s like telling your spouse you love them so much you couldn’t wait to be intimate with someone else. It sounds logical but it’s a terrible thing to communicate.

Whichever way we told our kids about a new addition to the family, I am always struck by the things kids filled in because we neglected to address their perspective.  Some of my kids assumed that the new baby would live with my parents. Friends of mine mentioned their kids thought the new baby would come home with its own mother because they didn’t agree it could share theirs.  Other friends mentioned that they dropped their daughter with her grandparents on the way to the hospital to deliver the new baby. After coming home with the baby, the daughter refused to visit the grandparents for a long time, afraid the parents would pick her up with yet another new baby.  When we think we know everything about something we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, we are suddenly struck with understanding how little we really know.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Beshalach, Israel leaves Egypt and starts to complain about not having food.  God sends manna from heaven. The description of manna is that it’s off-white, moist, spoils easily, it’s flavour changes person to person although it always looks the same.  The Sages tell us that the way God sends the manna and feeds Israel is a means of building trust between God and Israel. In essence, the Torah is describing mother’s milk.  

It also fits the context in that Israel, as a people, were just born by walking through the dry canal of the Red Sea and now they want to nurse and bond.  In fact, later in the Torah, Moses will get angry with God and say he no longer wants to ‘nurse’ the people. Remembering that Israel left Egypt with full supplies of everything they need, including cattle, it completes the image of a newborn in a household filled with food but unable to access any of it.  The newborn needs a special food relationship that nourishes and builds trust.

But while the imagery is familiar to us, it is completely unknown to Israel.  The Torah says they wake up in the morning, look outside and see the ground covered with this stuff, at which point they exclaim: ‘what is that stuff?’, in Hebrew: ‘maan hu?’, in transliteration: ‘manna’ and in translation: ‘It’s manna’.  And that is how we get the word ‘manna’ that literally means: the ‘what is that?’ (the word what-cha-ma-call-it comes to mind).

We are so baffled by it, that we perpetuate the name that embodied the wonderment.  And yet, it is the Divine expression of what goes on naturally between the females and babies of every mammal in creation.  We’ve taken it for granted to the extent of not recognizing it when we see it in our parshah.

The Torah shows us that wondrous things occur around us constantly.  With our phones in our pockets, and seemingly unlimited access to everything through our electronics, we can still be the rabbits on the bench.  Abraham Joshua Heschel used to teach that we should opt not to ask God for success or power, but choose instead to ask God for wonder. It sits around us all the time, it’s a matter of perspective.