Rachael’s Thoughts at the End of Pesach

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Shabbat shalom,

     Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat HaGadol

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

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

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

 I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shemini

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Tzav

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayikra

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Pekudei

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

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayakhel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ki Tisa

Judaism and the arts have always spoken to each other in halting conversations.  The Ten Commandments forbids us graven images. We don’t have a strong history of visual arts.  In fact, we might think that art is discouraged, and perhaps the artist is to be marginalised. But is it all visual art that is forbidden, or is it the creation of an idol?

We definitely have a rich history of singing, dancing and creative storytelling –all the other major art forms.  In fact, some of our most artful quips lie in the legacy of Yiddish curses (‘May our enemies go to hell and only pack sweaters’).  

Even with our hesitancy around visual arts, the Torah this week, in parshat Ki Tisa, discusses the heart of an artist.  We meet the first Jewish artist, Bezalel Ben-Uri, and we immediately notice his name: ‘Bezalel’ means ‘In the shadow of God’, and ‘Ben-Uri’ means ‘Child of My Light’.  The artist is to feel most comfortable in the greys, in the shadows, never seeing the world as black and white.  At the same time, the artist is to see something new, a light, an inspiration.  That is what embeds into the art that is produced, the windows offered for new perspectives.

It continues to say that God inspires the heart of the artist; God is the Divine Muse.  Since God is infused into creation itself, it is the universe that becomes the inspiration.  It is the view of eternity that opens the artist.  

Judaism does not dismiss the artist, on the contrary, we are shown the potential power to inspire and to influence.  We are cautioned not to worship such power or to ignore its influence.  The artists in history have often sacrificed more than we can imagine by being so powerfully inspired.  

In fact, these layers that lie between the artist and God are so complex, we often can’t imagine their implications.  If God answers all prayers, Beethoven is not deaf and the music he gives would not change the world.  

May we always be inspired by these souls.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish. time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Terumah

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God teaches Israel how to create holy space. We’re taught how to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle, a place for rituals. In these instructions are the details of the Menorah, the main light source, but the descriptive language is striking because it is describing a tree.
 
The Menorah is to have “branches,” “calyx,” “petals,” “stems” and “almond blossoms.” The wicks are to sit inside ‘almond blossoms’ and give light forward. In fact, much of the language used to describe the entire Mishkan is the language of nature and relationships. While most of the Mishkan objects are lost to us, the image of the Menorah has sustained into our world and into our homes.
 
But when we think of trees, we do not think of them as giving us light, we think of them as giving us oxygen. We have a physically symbiotic relationship with trees because we exhale carbon dioxide, which they absorb to form oxygen, which they release into the air that we then breathe. We inhale what they exhale, and they inhale what we exhale. We need each other to breathe.
 
Jewishly, when we think of light, we think of knowledge, the understanding of the word ‘enlighten.’ Light is also symbolic of our souls. We light candles in memory of others, and we light two Shabbat candles for the enhancement of our souls that we experience each Shabbat –the ‘twin’ soul we all welcome for the hours of Shabbat. Light, in Judaism, is strongly Kabbalistic, mysterious and symbolic of the infinite.
           
But the Torah has told us to create the Menorah, our source of light, and symbolically think of the trees. Is this not a mixed symbol?
           
Judaism always teaches that our bodies and our souls are equally holy, and we must treat them both with awe. The air we breathe sustains our bodies while the symbols of light, knowledge and spirituality sustain our souls. We must never think of ourselves as divided beings, but as holistic creations with Divine Intent.
           
The Menorah is perfectly described to us as the combination of air and light. Each time we saw it, we would remember our own holiness, and that every breath we take is an opportunity to bring more light to the world.          
    
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat­ – our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.
 
Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, contains the famous phrase: “an eye for an eye”.   It introduces a list of injuries that are to be repaid with the same injury.  In the ancient world, chances are these words were taken literally, but in Jewish texts, we see that the discussion begins, almost immediately, on whether it is the actual eye, or the monetary equivalent.  

We know that, in the end, the Jewish judicial process will introduce the concept of equivalence within the law –an assessment of damages, rather than the actual infliction of damages.  But how did we become so bold as to interpret Torah in this way?

Interestingly, the discussions do not begin with a question of whether a court should be inflicting physical damage on anyone, since even imprisoning someone is taking away physical freedom.  The debate centres on whether we could actually do what the Torah has told us to do.  What if the injury is only partial –could we be sure that the court’s action would likewise only partially injure in the same way?  In other words, the Torah has told us to do something we are incapable of doing.  We view these moments as invitations to engage with our Torah and explore it from the inside.

Generally, we understand that everyone moves from the known to the unknown.  In this case, we know how we function when we are capable, and we know how we function when we are diminished, but we don’t know how that could be projected onto someone else.  We now understand that we are projecting the difference, not the injury.  We can calculate the difference.  

We also know that each generation will have its own set of ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’; Judaism shows us how the words of the Torah will teach this process to each generation, no matter where in time they are placed.  It is how we see the growth and evolution of Torah, and Jewish values, and that this growth was intended from the very beginning.  It is how we understand these laws to be eternal and forever meaningful.

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael