Parshat Vayetzei: The Crown of a Good Name

Parshat Vayetzei: The Crown of a Good Name

Recently, my nephew and his wife had a baby, and we are all looking forward to zooming together to find out the new baby’s name.  Judaism is very sensitive about the names we give our children.  In this part of the world, our babies will usually get an ‘inside name’, the Hebrew one, and an ‘outside name’, the English one.  Often, they are not translations of each other or even referring to the same namesake.  Sometimes the Hebrew name speaks of family ancestry and tradition, and the English name speaks of what the culture around us accepts as a name that blends.  But in Judaism, names are essence…and so we agonize.

I am named after two of my great-grandmothers, both from my mother’s side –it was her turn to name.  I know it was my mother’s turn to name the baby (me) because my older sister has names that come from my father’s side.  My grandmother used to call me her ‘imaleh ketana’ (her little mother) and always follow it up by reminding me that I was named after her mother, so that made me her little mother.  It’s beautiful now, it was confusing then.  It prompted me to ask my grandmother about her mother and so it opened the door to learn  more about  my namesake.  But my grandfather never told me about his life growing up, and so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask him about his mother (my middle name).  She remains a mystery within my identity.

We learn from Genesis that every new creation was not completed until it was named. Adam names the animals (beginning humanity’s partnership with God in completing the creation vision).  There’s a great midrash that asks how Adam knew to name the elephant ‘elephant’, he said he called it that because it looked like an elephant (oh to be a fly in the Garden when all this was going on…), and so we learn that our names complete our births.  The names we are given will mold our essence and begin a dialogue with God about our destinies.  That’s why we agonize.

If someone falls on hard times or is challenged with illness, one of the Jewish choices is to add a name that will bring strength and healing with it.  In very extreme cases we could consider a name change, though we’d rather expand the dialogue and add a name than begin from scratch and change the name.  

It is also traditional to name babies in memory of someone from the past.  Usually, the baby would bear the name of an admired family member, or someone we dearly loved, or a Jewish leader we felt was unique.  In part, this is to keep the memory of that person alive in this world since it will now be carried into the future by a new person.  Also, we believe that since souls are eternal, the soul of the departed loved one will bond with the soul of the newborn, giving it insight and strength.  By naming a baby this way, we believe we have created a blessing that will inform the essence of the baby throughout its life.

In fact, rabbis have commented on the fact that the numerological sum of the word ‘name’ in Hebrew (‘shem’) is the same as the numerological sum of the word ‘book’ (sefer). They both equal 340.  In other words, every name is the beginning of a book to be written and edited and expanded on by it’s writer, the person who bears the name (now embodying those who bore that name in the past).  In Kohelet Rabbah, we are told that every person bears three names: the one his parents give him, the one other people call him, and the one he creates for himself.   Our book is created for us when we are born and is named for us when we are named.  It becomes the story of the name we all create for ourselves.

As beautiful as all this sounds, it can also lead us to dark places.  In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Vayetzei, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are building their family.  The children who will head the tribes of Israel are born and named.  Leah bears the first sons and names them Reuven, Shimon and Levi.  She explains that the names mean: Reuven – God saw my pain, Shimon – God heard my affliction, and Levi – maybe now my husband will accompany me.  I can’t imagine an outing with this young family to the park as Leah calls out: ‘God heard my pain’, go get your brother ‘God saw my affliction’, time to go home!

As the family grows, more and more brothers are added, whose names represent the problems of their parents.  It is of no great surprise that these boys will grow up and plot to kill a despised brother, Joseph.  Knowing their names, what else did we think they would do?

But, as the years passed, these boys, now men, wrote different ‘books’ of themselves.  Each one stood before Joseph in Egypt as a distinct individual with a distinct voice.  The tribes that come from them will likewise each develop its own culture and its own identity within Israel.  We will become a people of diversity, rich with a past that strengthens us, and unwritten books to fill.

Mazel tov to Eric, Michelle, Adina and the whole family on the birth of their new baby – I can’t wait to hear her name.

“Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

Parshat Toldot: “Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

This week, in one of my online classes, we had a fascinating discussion about Judaism and multiple truths.  In Judaism, we have many debates about whether there is such a thing as absolute truth, or can various truths co-exist without having to determine which is…truly true?

It’s actually difficult to mount a Jewish argument for absolute truth, since our ancient texts clearly describe revelation at Sinai, our Jewish defining event, as one where 600,000 people gathered and heard 600,000 different things — all of them the result of the same revelation experience.  Text after text tells us that absolutes could only apply to God, the human domain is a space of relativity.

To take it even further, the ‘truth’ of a moment is usually decided by the authority in charge, and not the actual truth that might be proved.   As an educator, I learned of a case where a high school English teacher put a poem on the final exam.  The students were asked to write an essay on the central theme expressed.  One student wrote an essay that was returned with a barely passing grade and the teacher commented that although they had discussed a theme, it was not the central theme.  The student wrote to the author of the poem and included the exam question, their answer, and the teacher’s response.  The author supported the student’s reading of the central theme.  When all this was brought back to the school for evaluation, the school decision backed the teacher and dismissed the author.  The ‘true’ answer was what the teacher had taught in class, not the author’s stated truth about the poem.

Once I learned of that incident, any time my kids would ask me a question about their homework, I would always begin my answer by saying: ‘are you asking me this because you’re wondering about it, or are you asking me because you’re studying for a test?’  I felt it important to teach my kids that truth has a context.

Over the years, my kids have brought multiple truths to my attention as they encounter them on social media.  By multiple truths, my family has included what Neils Bohr (famous Jewish Nobel Prize winning physicist) observed: “Sometimes the opposite of a fundamental truth is another fundamental truth”.  (It helps when scientists echo what ancient Jewish texts have said all along…but I digress.)  Social media has fun challenges about multiple truths.  For instance, the famous ‘is it blue or is it gold’ dress:

Some people genuinely see this as a white dress with gold, while others genuinely see a blue dress.  Apparently, they’re both correct.

Or, for the math lovers among us:

Due to the order of operations, there is legitimately more than one answer to the equation.

But I’m not referring to misunderstandings, like this one:

  • though you can’t help but love the student who does that…

Nor am I referring to a ‘made-up truth’ that is the result of denial, like every toddler who blames their sibling for the spilled juice, even though all siblings are at school at the moment…

Jewish multiple truths refers to the honest perception a person has of what they consider the truth, which is then offered in the open arena of Jewish discussion so others can expand their thinking of what they thought was their truth.  Multiple truth encourages humility within us, since everything I think I believe is now open for listening to someone else’s view — it might also be true.  

In fact, there are so many examples of this in Torah, it’s a challenge to list them.  Several of them occur in this week’s parshah, Toldot.  One of the main instances of multiple truth surrounded Rebecca and Isaac in how they built their family.

Rebecca is pregnant but feels something is wrong — too much activity in her womb.  She seeks an answer from God and is told that what she is feeling is two nations that are struggling within her.  She is also told that the elder will serve the younger.  She trusts this answer completely, to the point that after her children have grown, she will actively deceive her husband so that the younger one (Jacob) gets the covenantal blessing.  Total trust in God, no questions asked.

Isaac, however, has a different experience of the world.  The Torah says that he has bonded to his son Esau because Esau is a hunter (Jacob makes vegetarian soups).  It makes perfect sense that Isaac bonds to the son who hunts, the son who uses a knife to provide food for him.  It’s not a coincidence that Issac, whose father Abraham placed a knife to young Isaac’s throat years before…on God’s orders…now bonds with his son who uses a knife to protect and provide.  What was a threat from his father is now the security from the son.  

It’s also not a coincidence that Isaac barely ever speaks to God and God mostly leaves Isaac alone.  According to Isaac’s world view, the relationship with God could turn on a dime, so best not to open too many doors.

Rebecca and Isaac are married and are the second generation of Matriarch and Patriarch.  One trusts God fully and gives herself over to that truth, while the other backs away and bonds with the non-covenantal son.  Both their truths are correct.

There is a beautiful midrash that discusses how before God created humanity, God threw Truth to the earth where it shattered into infinite shards.  After humanity is created, each person embodies within them one of the shards of truth, and together, when we listen, we reveal more and more, and grow.  We discuss and debate so we can combine shards of truth and learn of a greater picture.

As the Jewish people, we are a diversity of view and opinion which each of us believes is truly what Judaism means to us.  We learned this approach at Sinai, and we celebrate it as foundational.  

As one rabbi put it: Just because I’m right doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Two old men are sitting on a park bench together one afternoon watching the people walking by (stop me if you’ve heard this one).  A group of young girls stroll by chatting.  One old man leans to the other and says ‘I can’t believe how short their skirts are, you can see everything, including their pupiks!’  The second man turns to his friend and says, ‘I agree! What a bracha…I mean a broch!’

For non-Yiddish speakers, the punchline is the second man saying ‘what a blessing…I mean a disaster!’

As much as we believe that a blessing would be a universal thing, the truth is that blessings are usually quite subjective.  They are layered with assumptions and expectations that we then project onto each other almost without thinking.  When I was growing up, if I was at a wedding it would be only polite for women to wish single women ‘Mirtzem bi-you’, (God willing this should happen to you).  The assumption is that every woman would want to be married and that single women should not feel envious of the bride because we have prayed that God should make her a bride soon.  We don’t say that so much anymore, I hope that’s because we have understood that blessings have the power to communicate more than we intended.

Judaism views blessings as double edged swords.  The very general, non-specific ones are great.  We bless each other with happiness and long life.  I have had occasions to sit with family members discussing insurance policies a few times over the years.  Most of those occasions involved insurance agents who were Jewish (once it was a friend of ours who is a Lubavitch Rabbi).  The conversation took much longer than it needed to.  Life insurance discussions would always involve following any example with ‘you should live to 120’; disability insurance policies were explained with every other sentence being ‘you shouldn’t know from this, not you, not your family, not anyone we know’.  After signing the policy with our friend, the Lubavitch Rabbi, he reminded us that he is also a sofer (scribe) and set aside time to check all our mezuzahs.  Once, I sat in such a meeting with a non-Jewish insurance agent —I couldn’t do it.  I kept wanting to say ‘God should keep us all safe and healthy (amen)’.  

Blessings are powerful and empowering moments we offer each other, but we’re not often taught how to do that.  When someone sneezes, we may offer the traditional ‘God bless you’.  Historically, that is not because we are worried the sneeze indicated they were getting sick, but because during the instant of sneezing they were left unaware and that’s when Satan can enter the soul.  We protect them by invoking God’s name.  The Hebrew sneeze response, ‘livriyut’, means ‘to health’, more of a Jewish response —the offer of a blessing.  Even when we say goodbye to each other, most of us forget that the word ‘goodbye’ is a short form for the original phrase ‘God be with ye’, the blessing we offered each other before departing and encountering danger on the roads (God forbid).  In Yiddish, the traditional parting phrase is ‘zei gezunt’, ‘be healthy’ —another blessing offered to each other.

While we all exchange and feel positively about the general blessings we offer each other, the specific ones are when it can get tricky.  Offering the blessing of an upcoming marriage to a single woman assumes she would want that for herself; offering the blessing of children to a woman who has suffered a recent miscarriage is well intentioned but often times painful to the recipient.  There is an art to crafting a blessing, but most of us are not taught the technique.

In this week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah, the upcoming matriarch, Rebecca, has chosen to leave her home, her family, and marry Isaac, sight unseen.  Her family offers her a blessing: “May you become (the mother of) hundreds of thousands and may your seed inherit the gates of their enemies.”  It’s a beautiful blessing, who wouldn’t want hordes of descendants and to inherit gates of enemies?  If I inherit their gates, it means I outlived them.  I didn’t have to battle them, I simply endured longer than they did —I waited them out.  What could be the problem?

The midrash points out that this blessing is a double edged sword.  For me to inherit the gates of my enemies, I must accept the inheritance and claim their cities.  What if they don’t live near me?  What if I don’t want what they had?  What if their things are a constant reminder to me of the suffering experienced at their hands?  What if I want to close that chapter, feel relieved that they’re gone, and never have to think of them again?  Why would I want their past constantly in my present and speaking into my future?  What if I don’t think it’s a blessing?

Then the midrash points out that these sentiments were also expressed to the patriarch, Isaac.  Now what has been offered to Rebecca is her own legacy of blessing to bring to her marriage.  She will not fulfill her future by trying to find ways to enter the blessings of Isaac.  That’s what happened to Sarah, that’s how Abraham ended up with Hagar, fathering Ishmael.  

Between the first generation of ancestry and the second generation, we watch the balance of blessings be introduced between patriarch and matriarch.  The blessing sits in the balance.

It’s not so easy to bless each other.  We must always be careful of nuance, personal preferences and the appropriate opportunities to offer someone our most heartfelt prayer of something beautiful.  We’ll never learn the skill if we don’t take a risk and start offering a blessing to each other.

May we all stay healthy and well, and may God bring wisdom to those seeking cures and vaccines.  Amen.

Enjoying Rachael’s blog? Interested in experiencing a class by her? Our upcoming Shiur Event – Don’t We Have A Book For That? – is a perfect opportunity to get a taste of classes at Rachael’s Centre. Register here.

Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

We’ve all had the experience of driving somewhere and noticing traffic is slowing down for no apparent reason.  Eventually it becomes clear that there’s a traffic accident ahead.  Everyone slows down, traffic crawls but most of the traffic bottleneck is not caused because of the actual accident but because everyone is slowing down to look at the accident.  Exactly what are we all looking for?

It is one thing to slow down because something unusual has happened on the road and you want to be cautious with your driving, things might be obstructing your lane.  Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.  Usually it is that driving has momentarily turned into a spectator sport.  We are watching the accident, taking in the vehicular damage and noticing if there are any injuries.  Helping someone who needs it might be our original intent in slowing down but, if help has already arrived, why are we still slowing down?  We have become spectators.

There is a German word, ‘schadenfreude’, which describes the pleasure someone derives from the suffering of another.  It refers to the passive pleasure, not relating to anyone who causes the suffering of another – ‘schadenfreude’ refers to the spectator.  It is not someone who is curious or questioning what is happening, it is the person who knows there is suffering and wants to observe from the peripherals, feels pleasure for knowing they are better off at this moment.  It is a dark side of the human condition.

I remember being in Israel when I was a student and sitting in a ‘monit’, a public taxi car, travelling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  Along the highway there was an accident where we could see cars stopped on the grass between the inbound and outbound lanes.  There were also people lying on the ground and a few people sitting there.  No one was moving.  Our taxi pulled over to the side of the road as did all the cars driving in both directions but no one got out of their cars.  I was confused about what was happening and I asked the driver if we were getting out to help.  He said, ‘not yet’.  We waited a few more minutes, as did everyone else in all the cars that had stopped.  I asked the person sitting next to me why no one is getting out to help and he said we’re all waiting to make sure it’s real.  It took me a minute to understand that what we were all seeing could actually be a trap — an ambush — to draw in as many civilians as possible before the actual attack occurs.  In other words, use our compassion for each other as a weapon against us.  Another dark side of the human condition.

A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago about his motorcycle trip through the Galilee in Israel.  For anyone who’s travelled those roads, you know they twist and turn through the mountains, sometimes with no shoulder or little space between the narrow road and the deep valley drop at the side.  My friend was riding his motorcycle on one of these roads as several cars were trying to pass him because he wasn’t going fast enough.  The roads are narrow and each car that passed him squeezed him closer to the edge of the pavement, onto the gravel and, eventually, off the road and down the steep incline into the valley below.  He told me all the cars immediately stopped and everyone suddenly ran down into the valley, each identifying to the other whether there was a medic among them, perhaps a doctor.  He said everyone immediately drew on their first aid training (this is Israel) and he was quickly secured, checked, assured he would be ok and help was on the way.  His injuries were minor and he profusely thanked everyone who came to his assistance.  Then it occurred to him that these were the same people who had run him off the road in the first place.  His gratitude turned to anger turned back to gratitude turned back to anger…  The grey side of the human condition.

The Torah parshah this week, Vayera, tells us of the story of Lot, his family and the citizens of Sodom and Gemmorah.  As God is destroying the region, Lot, his wife and his two daughters are being escorted to safety by an angel.  The one thing they have been told not to do is to not look backwards at Sodom.  Just as it looks like all is well for them, Lot’s wife turns to look over her shoulder at the city she has left behind, Sodom.  She is turned to salt.  In all of Torah and all of Jewish text, this is the only time that happens.  It is both powerful and baffling.  Why the strong instruction not to look back?  How is it so severe that it will cost her everything, her very life? 

The problem with looking back on Sodom as it is burning is that everyone in Lot’s family is already safe.  Lot’s wife is turning from the vantage of safety to watch the suffering of others.  She does not plead for them, she does not bargain or cry out, she stands and observes.  She has become the spectator.  The ethics of Sodom would support the passive observation of the suffering of others as a pastime but Judaism does not.  Lot’s wife is turned to salt, the ancient world’s substance for preserving things.  She is forever preserved in her choice of ethics.  By watching others suffer, taking no stance against it, while enjoying her safety, she has preserved the ethics of Sodom.  We should not focus on her as being punished but as sending the message that these dark sides of the human condition should stay in the fires of Sodom.

There are some places in the world today where someone is obligated by law to stop and help someone in distress.  Other places do not legally obligate anyone to stop.  Interestingly, there are places which do not obligate anyone to stop, but if you choose to stop, you are now obligated to help.  Part of this is to prevent the misunderstanding that could occur when someone sees someone else stopping to help.  I would assume the person who has stopped will help and therefore I don’t need to stop.  I would assume the person who has stopped will call 911 and therefore I don’t need to call 911 — resulting in nobody calling 911.  Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a benefit of this law could be that we don’t build a culture of passively watching another’s suffering.  

Unfortunately, traffic accidents are common on our roads.  We will slow down to preserve safety and we should watch to make sure help has arrived.  Once we know that has happened, Judaism then tells us to put our eyes forward and allow people who are vulnerable to have their privacy and their dignity in this moment.  Let Lot’s wife stand and stare.

Have you ever wondered what all these books Rachael refers to are? Been curious about the differences between them and what they’re each used for?

Join us on November 17th for a shiur event – a 45 minute class presented by Rachael – to learn the answers to these questions. Information and registration can be found on our Learning Page.

Parshat Lech Lecha: Trick or Treat…A Tough Choice

Parshat Lech Lecha: Trick or Treat…A Tough Choice

This coming Shabbat is Halloween.  A time of ghosts and goblins and scary stories.  In fact, here is my scary story for this Halloween:


(–couldn’t resist)

Halloween is an interesting time for the Jewish community.  I remember the principal of my Jewish day school coming into each class every year and telling kids they should not go out for Halloween.  I was taught it was a Christian holiday that was celebrated by hateful people who would hide behind masks and start pogroms.  He painted vivid pictures of Jews hiding in basements until Halloween was over and that it would break his heart if any Jewish kids from his school would engage in this horrible holiday (we have definitely mastered the ‘Jewish continuity through guilt’ pedagogy…). 

When I had my own kids, the question of Halloween came up.  As a day of spooky stories and ghosts and goblins, I always revisited my thoughts on Halloween. As much as I have always loved ‘B’ horror movies and all things spooky scary, I just couldn’t get past that whole Christian pogrom thing.  And then, listening to the radio one day, I had an epiphany.  I tuned-in to a talk show discussing why Halloween was such a great holiday.  Several speakers discussed that they are connected to Halloween because it is one of the few holidays that has nothing to do with religion.  To them, Halloween is completely secular, a celebration of the dark side and the mystery around us.  I gasped, how could they not know this is a Christian holiday?  That’s when I realized that I, a Jewish woman, had taken upon myself the religious memory of another faith.  If others don’t remember the hatred Halloween could embody, why was I holding on to it?  Is it not better to have that kind of holiday move toward secularization?  Should I not be helping it along so that it would never again occur to anyone to use Halloween as the ‘mask’ of their hatred?

I decided to let go of my burden of Christian memory and take my little one out on Halloween.  Now I was faced with explaining why it was ok to approach strangers’ doors (something I had taught her she should never do) and ask for candy (something I had most definitely drilled into her she should never accept from a stranger).  I taught her the phrase ‘trick or treat’ and when she asked me what it meant I explained to her that if they don’t give her a treat she can now play a trick on them (but I was trying to teach her not to be mean to others) and I realized the problems of Halloween were larger than the Jewish thing.  

As Jews, we have always been tasked with how to encounter the cultures around us.  If they do not ‘other’ us, should we ‘other’ them?  Is anything that once had some connection to another religion now off limits, no matter what cultural evolutionary changes have occured?  Technically, January 1st is a Christian holiday, it is the day Jesus had his bris (8 days after Christmas) and entered covenant.  Would we now say that since it has its roots in a Christian moment, no Jew should recognize or celebrate New Year’s Day?

Interestingly, there are clues to these questions in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha.  God has told Abraham and Sarah to begin a journey with God. Great promises are made and they accept.  As soon as they arrive in Israel, there’s a famine and they need to leave to search for food.  They go to Egypt.  Afterwards, we are told that Abraham’s clan has grown too large to accommodate both his own wealth and the growing wealth of his adopted son, Lot.  Abraham tells Lot to choose a neighbouring region and settle there.  Lot chooses Sodom because it has plush land and strong economic growth possibilities, but the Torah tells us that the culture of Sodom is evil.  It doesn’t take long before Lot’s life is in jeopardy.  The region erupts into civil war and Lot is targeted and taken hostage.

We choose the cultures we live in.  Lot chose economics over morality and grew wealthy at the expense of always looking over his shoulder.  After saving Lot’s life, Abraham turns to God and asks how he can be sure that the wonderful Divine promises will really come true (to be fair, there was a famine, a civil war and a hostage rescue so far).  God and Abraham enact ‘the covenant between the pieces’, a mystical ritual to ‘sign’ the first draft of covenant.

Abraham did not learn about signing covenants from God.  God had communicated everything as a promise secured by God’s word — Abraham wants God to sign on the dotted line.  That was something Abraham learned from his home culture that he now imports into Judaism.  Abraham was told to leave his past life behind but that did not include leaving positive cultural lessons behind as well.  

Throughout the ages, we have developed a keen filter about Judaism and the cultures we live among.  We decide what gets through the filter, and Judaism has been enriched throughout the millennia by the positive choices we’ve made.  When a culture prioritizes morality over wealth, we are well within the teachings of Abraham and Sarah, and when it prioritizes wealth over all else, we have made Lot’s choice.

In some Jewish communities today, I still hear the ongoing debate about ‘to Halloween or not to Halloween’.  It’s not an easy question.  In the modern world, religious holidays can move toward secularization before they might fade from our culture.  We’re privileged to live at a time when we can recognize what is happening, and actively choose if, and how, it might enter our Jewish homes.

It’s a tough choice…but, at least it’s not a scary one.

Parshat Noah: Zen & the Art of…Wait, Was That My Phone?

Every now and again I look at my kids and marvel at how different they are from me.  They are, of course, their own individual persons, but they come from me, and they carry my DNA in their cells which will pass to their children…so how different could they really be?  But, we all know, my DNA sitting inside their cells does very little to shape them in my image.  Even so, over the years, I have tried doing things with each of them that they have suggested, and since it clearly interests them, I hoped it might interest me as well.  One of these moments was the day I tried hot yoga.

One of my daughters explained to me how much she loved it and I need to go with her so I could love it too.  She remembered that I used to be very involved in yoga exercises but she forgot that I overheat easily and prefer cold climates to hot ones.  The moment we entered the yoga studio I knew I’d made a mistake.  As everyone gathered for the class, the temperature was only slightly tropical so I thought it might be ok until I was told the temperature would be turned up every few minutes.  The instructor introduced herself (her name was Blossom…I kid you not) and she explained to everyone how vital it is to leave the world outside the studio.  This space is about our breathing, said Blossom, it is about relaxation and letting go, so all electronics are to be outside the studio.  She said it with a smile, a glow, an ethereal glint in her eye.  

The class started, but within 10 minutes I had overheated and wondered if Blossom would mind if I poured my water bottle over my head. I could do it quietly, no one would need to know and everyone was already so drenched in sweat I wondered if anyone would even notice the puddle…but then IT happened.  The woman on the mat next to me had her phone on vibrate and…yes…it vibrated with an incoming call.  I barely noticed it, but Blossom immediately appeared out of nowhere and gone were her smile, her glow, her ethereal glint in the eye.  This was Blossom Imperial Guardian of Hot Yoga.  “GET THAT PHONE OUT OF HERE!!” (the capital letters aren’t because she yelled but because the bite in her tone was worse than if she’d yelled).  The woman guilty of the phone violation apologized but Blossom was having none of her apologies – not until the phone was gone and the woman with it.  Once the offending woman was exiled from the hot yoga paradise, Blossom’s smile reappeared as she floated from mat to mat to encourage our relaxation.  I only lasted a few minutes longer, I needed to recover from the heat but mostly I needed to recover from Blossom.

Interestingly, I usually think of my hot yoga experience when we read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Noah.  We know the story so well, Noah built the ark that God told him to build, he put animals and plants in it and God flooded the world destroying everything except what was in the ark.  The grandeur of the narrative easily overtakes the nuances.  

The Torah states that the world had become ‘corrupt’ and that’s why God decided to destroy it.  The Sages question what kind of corruption could have warranted such a Divine response.  One of the answers is that everything had denied its true nature and chose to express other than what was its genuine expression.  According to this midrash, you could plant corn but the earth would decide to grow wheat instead, or an apple tree would decide to grow pears.  Everything in nature denied its authentic true core and tried to be something else – something it saw someone else doing.  The world became a place of imitation and superficial gestures, it had redefined itself.  

Chaos was returning to the world because the uniqueness of each creation was being denied, and the singular, distinctive nature of each voice was missing.  God created a world of authenticity but the world itself had erased that authenticity to produce blended chaos and a facade filled with impersonators.

After the flood, the world changes.  The seven Noahide laws are introduced, and free will gains parameter.  The ground can no longer choose to grow corn when I plant wheat and an apple tree cannot prefer to grow pears.  Likewise, although I have free will, I cannot become something other than my authentic self, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking I can.  

We often know things about ourselves and believe we have accepted who we are, but then we don’t follow through to the next step — the celebration of who we are.  Part of what I should celebrate is how easily I overheat and how detrimental an encounter with Blossom can be to me.  Part of what Blossom should celebrate is how easily she can go from ‘Zen’ to ‘superhero – defender of the tranquility’.  

What we should all celebrate is how magnificent the world is when we feel proud to be authentic.  It seems to be the Divine Plan.

If you would like to learn more about this story in the Torah and Rachael’s commentary on what truly took place, consider joining us this spring for Reserve Me An Aisle Seat Please: A Look At Noah’s Ark.

If you would like to know what happens before the ark, The Garden of Eden: The Best of Times and The Worst of Times begins November 3rd. If mindfulness is more of interest, Mussar: Finding Empowerment and Healing the World begins November 4th.

More information on our Learning Page.

Parshat Bereishit: Happy Anniversary!

I, like most people in the world at this moment, am spending more time at home.  One of the things I’m doing is cleaning out closets and looking in old boxes that have been stored away.  In one of those boxes, I came across a gift I had given my husband on our first anniversary.  It was a mirror for his keychain.  One side had the mirror, but the other side had the gift: the message I wanted to communicate.  It said: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was going to blame you.” 

Over the anniversaries, I have continued to gift my husband little mementos of my ‘truths’.  For a few years he liked white chocolate, but I would buy him dark chocolate and leave it in his pocket with a note that white chocolate is really chocolate that is confused about its self-identity and I could not support such thinking.  He has since developed a taste for dark chocolate.

I also found a small wooden plaque in the box that says: “I love you more today than yesterday –yesterday you really ticked me off!’  I’m a strong believer in clear communication.

Anniversaries are often celebrated as milestones of past events, markers of history.  But, they can also be opportunities of focused growth and insight beyond what we thought we knew from before.  Reading the Torah every week is no different.

This Shabbat, we start reading the Torah again from the beginning with parshat Bereishit.  Genesis, the beginning, Adam, Eve, snake, trees, disobedience and accountability are all introduced to us as we learn of the human condition.  Yet, when we look closely at the text, we start to notice that certain details are missing that we all assumed were there.

We usually understand that God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  Except, Eve wasn’t created when God forbid eating from that tree, only Adam was commanded not to do that.  Maybe, we assume, what’s commanded for one is commanded for all, except Jewish law doesn’t work that way.  Also, the commandment to be fruitful and multiply was given to Adam before Eve was created and Jewish law holds that for that reason men are commanded to have children while women are not.  That’s why the legal Jewish discussion surrounding birth control always asks whether we are discussing it for a man or for a woman, since they do not have equal obligation to that commandment.  In other words, if the commandments before Eve was created are only obligatory on Adam, why do we assume Eve broke a commandment by eating from the Tree of Knowledge?

We not only assume she broke the commandment, we go further and lay ALL the blame on her.  She brought death into the world, since God said that the day Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge he will die.  Over time, this idea gets linked to a woman’s menstruation — she will have a monthly reminder that it is because of her that blood is shed in this world.  There are some communities that slap a young girl across the face when she has her first period.  Let me be clear, there is no justification for this within Judaism, but young girls have been slapped across the face globally, and within various faith and secular communities, for generations.  The shame of spilling blood has been branded onto the cheeks of girls in a horrible custom of blame.  

Interestingly, Adam was told that because he ate the fruit, he would have to toil the earth for food, but there’s no custom to hit a man in the face when he brings in his first harvest.  Somehow, Eve has been held as more accountable than Adam even though she never received that particular ‘thou shalt not’ in the first place.

The constant blame attached to the woman would lead us back into the text to see if, perhaps, Eve was as guilty as history has made her.  The Torah states that when God responded to Adam, Eve and the snake for what each had done, God is very specific with only Adam and the snake.  God tells the snake: “because you have done this thing”, and God tells Adam: “because you ate of the tree”, but when God addresses Eve, there is no mention of what exactly she has done.  There is no ‘because you…’ statement addressed to Eve, she is just told of the changes that will now occur.  It is informational not accusatory.  The Torah has neither obligated the woman, nor punished her, for anything specific that happened in the Garden, but throughout time, millions upon millions of girls are taught to pay Eve’s price and bear her shame. 

In fact, if we’re looking for who to blame for all of it, it seems no one is ready to accept accountability for anything.  When asked what happened, Eve tells God that the snake enticed her.  The snake isn’t asked anything, he’s already proved himself a liar, and you don’t ask a proven liar to testify to anything since you are setting them up to lie again–that’s on you.  When Adam is asked what happened, he tells God that ‘the woman YOU gave me…’ which is an incredibly bold way of saying that, in fact, the whole thing is God’s fault since it was God’s idea to create Eve, who was enticed by the snake, who was also God’s idea.  So, if God’s looking for someone to blame…

We thought we knew that story inside and out.  Adam and Eve eat, are punished, are exiled and we learn about sin, repentance and accountability for our actions from then on.  Except, the Torah never says they sinned, it isn’t blaming Eve for anything, no one is accepting any accountability and the only one humanity blames for anything is God.  Exactly which story did we think we knew?

We live in a world that fills us with ideas, traditions, artwork and ‘truths’ that claim to be from the Bible.  The first chapters of Genesis contain one of the most commonly known narratives in Torah and yet, on close reading, it might not be saying what we thought all along.  Starting to read the Torah from Genesis this Shabbat is the Jewish anniversary of our Torah study year.  It is not an anniversary where we hit ‘repeat’ to read it again, it is the anniversary to read it anew.

If you would like to learn more about this story in the Torah and Rachael’s commentary on what truly took place, consider taking The Garden of Eden: The Best of Times and The Worst fo Times. The next course begins Tuesday November 3rd. More information on our Learning Page.

Please Don’t Pass Me Your Torah

We’ve celebrated Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the midst of Covid 19, which means a Jewish cycle of pilgrimage festivals is now complete.  At this point, it’s fair to conclude that, Jewishly speaking, we can handle what lies ahead since we’ve already managed our Jewish touchstone holidays.  With that said, I can’t help but approach Simchat Torah with some nostalgia of years gone by, dancing with Torah scrolls, singing and dancing for hours as a teenager, and sitting on my father’s shoulders as a child.

I remember getting excited about Simchat Torah in elementary school when we made Israeli flags with blue construction paper cut into strips.  We had sticks and Elmer’s glue globbed onto paper in front of us while beautiful images of Stars of David danced in my head as I imagined my perfect Israeli flag.  I dipped my fingers in the glue, tried to handle strips of construction paper that stuck to itself, my fingers, and my clothes.  My construction paper strips had developed free will, and in the end, Picasso would have been proud of my interpretive flag.   With my blue stained fingers, I could now choose an apple to stick onto the top of my flag, rush home, eat, change into my ‘shul’ clothes and go to shul for chaotic singing, dancing, and getting hoisted onto the shoulders of men as I waved my flag and watched the apple on top of it shoot across the room.  Those were the days!

As I got older, I joined ‘the cause’ with my teenage friends to solicit and lobby for a Torah to be brought to the women’s section so we could celebrate and sing and dance with a Torah in our midst (on reflection, there were less flags and apples stuck on them at this stage).  As a young woman, I remember participating in a celebration where ‘the cause’ had been embraced and advanced —now a Torah scroll was thrust into my arms and I was told to walk a circuit around the shul with it.  I was shocked, I was honoured, I was intrigued and then within 3 minutes I was terrified.  Never in my life had it ever occurred to me that TORAH SCROLLS ARE INCREDIBLY HEAVY!!

I remember learning that the parchment used for a Torah scroll is made from the skin of a goat, cattle or deer, and I was moved by the symbolic weaving of nature into Judaism.  But I had never actually touched or held one.  Perfect example of how flawed knowledge can be without the benefit of experience.

And so, there I am, holding my first Torah scroll, and trying to remind myself I am actually holding the embodiment of the history and values I hold so dear.  I fought back the tiny voice in my head that kept telling me I’m holding a goat.

I began to walk around the shul with the other Torah people when I felt the scroll begin to slide downwards in my arms.  Terror set in as I became more and more convinced I might drop it (oh, God, all those details I learned about what the whole congregation has to do if someone drops a Torah scroll —it’s not pleasant!  No problem, I thought, everyone will be very forgiving of a woman dropping a Torah and the whole congregation repenting for it…no problem, I’ll just worry about a new identity when I get to Europe).  With every step I took, the Torah inched lower.  All I could think was that I am walking around carrying a goat and it wants to roam free.  I managed to hang on as I completed the circuit and (gratefully) passed the Torah to the next person.  At that point it was at my knees.  

I have faced the hard reality that I am not a ‘Torah carrier’, it is not safe in my hands, I should not be trusted to hold it, please don’t pass me your Torah.  But that is just my personal moment of understanding what the history of Simchat Torah has taught us on a national level.

There was an ancient tradition that lit torches and candles be carried on Simchat Torah, and used to escort anyone reading from the Torah during the celebrations.  But, after a few hundred years, rabbis didn’t feel comfortable that it’s a Jewish holiday when we can’t ignite or extinguish fires, and yet people are carrying torches.  Obviously, the answer was to give the lit torches to children who don’t have obligations to the commandments yet…it didn’t take long to see the flaw in that solution, and so torches were no longer used.

What’s even more interesting is how the tradition of putting the apples on the flags developed.  Ancient texts tell us that we used to ‘lob’ apples at each other during Simchat Torah as a way to offer sweet treats that are associated with Torah.  The intention was to gently, oh so gingerly, lob the apples so children could catch them or collect them later.  Apparently, it got out of hand and we started pelting apples at each other.  Dare I say, it became a form of apple dodgeball until some time in the 13th century when it was disallowed by the rabbinic authority of the time.  Apples, if used, must now be secured to other things so no one gets any ideas of ‘holier than thou’ apple fights.

Simchat Torah is the holiday when we physically celebrate with our Torah scrolls and commit ourselves to new insights in our Torah studies.  This year, we cannot gather in our large groups to sing and dance in close proximity or to pass Torah scrolls to each other.  But that reality doesn’t change anything.  The celebration of Torah continues and at these moments I rely on Jewish peoplehood.  I am not a Torah carrier but I know many other Jews are.  Many Jewish families have Torah scrolls of their own which will be used on Simchat Torah and danced with in their homes.  I believe they include me in their intentions of joy and celebration as I intend to include others in my joy and celebration of Torah values.

Throughout Jewish history we have actively changed how we celebrate Simchat Torah when we realized safety was an issue.  We no longer throw apples at each other when we gather and I, personally, will always ‘pass’ if a Torah is again offered for me to carry.  It is the model of a Jewish holiday that shifts in its practice to accommodate the reality of the times.  

Given everything we’ve been through in the last year, I think we can confidently say, ‘we got this one’.

Sometimes It Really Is Me

There are definitely moments in life when we all ask ourselves ‘is it me?’  When suddenly everything seems to go wrong, every word is misunderstood, every gesture is taken in the wrong way –we have to ask ourselves, ‘is it me?’

Personally, I try to notice patterns and trends in my life and when I end up asking myself if it’s me, the answer is usually ‘yes.’  I can easily be well in control of how I present myself or just as easily wear my shirt (or dress) inside out and be unaware.  There are times I have tried on clothes in the store and couldn’t quite figure out how the straps are supposed to work.  When I emerged from the change room, the saleswoman remarked on how creative I was by wearing it that way.  She thought it was great, I felt ridiculous and stood at a crossroads.  Do I say ‘thank you’ or do I ask her how it should be worn?  Is there a set and prescribed way to do everything? Are accidents welcomed or is every accident, in fact, an authentic expression of who we are and how we think?  If so, of course we would get that particular thing wrong.  I once had a fashion expert tell me that I dress the way I do because I live inside my head.  I’m not sure how anyone would not live inside their heads…can’t get my head around that…so, indeed, it’s me.

I think about that question of having things go wrong in our lives, seemingly in waves of recurrence, and the things we try to do ‘correctly’ and then can’t.  The beauty of it is that we’re all in the same boat –it happens to all of us.  In fact, it’s part of the human condition and therefore timeless and so we find it central to the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiates, the book we are to read on the holiday of Sukkot.

One of the names for Sukkot is ‘Chag Ha’Asif’, the Holiday of the Gathering, clearly referring to the harvest that is part of the holiday.  Interestingly, the word Kohelet translates as ‘The Gatherer’, and is the way Solomon refers to himself as the narrator.  It starts with a famous verse everyone has heard (and then sighs): “Vanity of vanity, all is in vain”, the classic Biblical citation for ‘whatever’ or ‘why bother’ or ‘if I’m only going to sleep in my bed again tonight, why should I bother making it in the morning?’  Kohelet continues by concluding over and over “there is nothing new under the sun”…(sigh).

Because we understand “all is in vain” as the concluding statement, the tone of the book becomes very depressing and sad.  If nothing I do matters, if it’s all in vain anyway, why do I bother to invest myself?   But, what if it weren’t the conclusion but the introduction?

The word being repeated in Hebrew, translated as ‘vanity’, is the word ‘hevel’ (“hevel havalim, hakol hevel”).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first time we see this word is in Genesis, it is the name of Eve’s second child: Abel (Hevel).  Abel is killed by his brother Cain, for no good reason and with no formed intent to harm.  It is the first death in the Torah, the first victim, the first broken human being.  What if Kohelet is saying that our starting point in life is to recognize we are all Abel (“hakol hevel”) –we have all been hurt, we have all felt broken and we have all had moments when someone we loved wounded us deeply even though they didn’t intend to.  It is not where we all arrive, it is where we all start.

Sharing instances of human frailty connect us and can produce some of our most powerful steps forward, or we conclude we are weak and therefore a life is lived in vain.  It is not the conclusion that the book is presenting, it is the challenge.

So why would we read it on Sukkot?  Another name for Sukkot (yes, it is the holiday with a whole list of names) is ‘Zman Simchatainu’, ‘the Time of Our Joy’.  Interestingly, the book of Kohelet concludes by saying that if there is nothing new under the sun, what is the point?  The point is to live a life where we find joy from within what already exists.  The change lies within us, not around us.  Now it makes perfect sense that we would read Kohelet during Sukkot.  In the moments when I conclude that, in fact, the problem is me, why can’t I figure out how simple straps on a dress should work?  Why have my children appointed one of them to look me over before any public lecture (check list of what shouldn’t be tucked into what and that clothes are right side in and price tags are gone) –it is who I am, there will be nothing new under the sun.  The things that are in vain are the moments we could waste by not recognizing we all get things wrong.  Sometimes it’s major, sometimes it’s minor, sometimes we hurt ourselves and sometimes we hurt others when we only meant to have a good day.  We are all Abel and then Sukkot reminds us to listen to the end of Kohelet: now find the joy!

The Prayer, the Parrot, and the Rabbi

As we are just days away from Yom Kippur, my mind goes to three places: the prayer, the parrot, and the rabbi.  I am speaking very specifically about one prayer, one parrot and one rabbi.  In general, I am a big fan of prayer.  I believe it works the way the Hebrew verb ‘lehitpalel’ tells us –it is a reflexive verb, so it will be an action that moves from me outward, only to reflect back onto me again.  Prayer works when it shows me something about myself I’m ready to see, because I spoke it outwardly where I could look at it.  Brilliant!  Except for one prayer in particular, usually referred to as “Who by Fire”.  For me, that’s a prayer that triggers my inner fear and helplessness.  

Here are the words:

“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at an extreme and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by natural and widespread catastrophe and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

You can’t help but ask yourself ‘who wants to go to shul ever again?’  It strikes terror into our awareness of human frailty.  

And then my mind goes to the parrot.  The story of that one parrot who won’t stop swearing.  No matter what its owner does, all the parrot wants to do is curse its owner with the most foul and offensive language imaginable.  The parrot was an inherited gift and came to the owner already knowing these curses and simply won’t give them up.  One day, the owner decides he can’t take it anymore, he needs to punish the parrot and maybe fear of the punishment will make the parrot stop.  Since parrots come from hot climates, the owner decides to put the parrot into the freezer for a few minutes and maybe the parrot will get the message.  The owner puts it into the freezer and shuts the door.  He hears the parrot squawking and cursing, and after about a minute, there is silence.  The owner opens the freezer and the parrot immediately apologizes to the owner profusely and vows never to curse again.  The owner says he forgives the parrot but the parrot wants to ask the owner a question.  ‘Of course’, said the owner.  The parrot looks at the owner and asks, ‘what did the chicken do?’

For me, that is ‘who by fire’ — life and destiny can scare me into compliance and obedience but too much of Jewish text tells me to challenge myself to explore a deeper relationship than fear.

And so, I turn to a verse we use often in prayer, and during Yom Kippur: “Hashivenu Adonai ve-nashuva” – “Cause us to return, God, and we will return to You”.  Judaism teaches us that we are involved in a covenant with God, two partners committed to the same relationship.  When I see my partner behaving a certain way I will respond.  When I feel the distance, I turn to my partner and ask that my partner pull me back.  

There is a powerful story of a Chassidic rabbi who would stop teaching his students in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  When asked why, he would say that he is preparing for Yom Kippur day and night and therefore can’t teach.  His students would watch him through his window as he wrote and wrote, filling pages with his writings.  One student courageously asked him how these writings prepare him for Yom Kippur.  The rabbi said that first he makes a list of everything he’s committed himself to in the last year and did not fulfil.  He puts all those pages in one pile.  Then he goes through the Tanakh and makes a list of all the things God committed to do and didn’t do.  He puts those pages in another pile.  The rabbi tells his student that on Yom Kippur he will read both lists over and over.  At the end of the day, before the shofar sounds, the rabbi turns to God and says, ‘You forgive me and I forgive You’.

On Yom Kippur we stand with our Divine Partner and present our best case.  There will be moments when we must acknowledge how frightening life can be and how frail we truly are (who by fire and who by freezer)…and then we get back to being the strong and committed partners we are trusted to be.

May this year bring everyone, everywhere, health, safety, joy, and a future of new opportunities!