Parshat Beshalach: The Obstructed View Might Be the Way To Go

Parshat Beshalach: The Obstructed View Might Be the Way To Go

There are moments in life when we stand in front of our children to protect them, and there are times when we physically stand behind them to stop them from retreating.  When they are little, our kids usually hover around our feet whenever they’re in unknown places.  They might grab onto one of our legs, and not let go as we try to walk, or they might plant themselves behind us and refuse to move.  Their positioning around us is a way for them to let us know they are afraid or insecure — they’re not usually subtle.

When we do the same thing as parents, we try to keep it subtle, we want our kids to learn to stand strongly and independently.  As an adolescent, one of my daughters would often get tongue tied when speaking to anyone of authority.  I’m sure many adolescents feel the same way, and usually it’s not a problem, but this became a challenge whenever we would travel anywhere that involved an airport or a border.  Security personnel (and border officers) are trained to notice if someone is uncomfortable around them.  It is not so much what the person is saying in answer to the questions, it is more how they are saying it.  That’s when an adolescent who is getting nervous with questions would send up red flags.  

When that daughter finished high school, she decided to spend a year studying in Israel.  Plans were made, suitcases were packed, long goodbyes with friends…and then the security at the airport.  Everything seemed fine until the El Al security officer asked my daughter why she was going to Israel.  She said she’s going to continue her education, she’s going to university.  He asked her what year she had finished.  She paused, silently counted up all her years in school, and told him she finished 12 years.  At this point I could see the problem building.  The security agent didn’t quite understand, and so he asked her ‘twelve years of what’, at which point she took a small step backward, lowered her voice and said ‘my education.’  Her step backward prompted him to step forward, her lowered voice prompted him to lean toward her –I knew this was not heading anywhere good.  As he leaned in, he asked her if she could clarify where she had spent twelve years, and why she was going to Israel.  She took another step backward and stammered.

The only thing I could do at that moment was to move to stand behind her so she couldn’t take any more steps backward — she tried, she bumped into me and had nowhere to go.  I whispered to her that she’s starting her first year of university and she repeated exactly that to the security agent.  Things resolved quickly and it became clear that it wasn’t what she was saying that was the problem, it was that she was stepping backwards and showing discomfort in talking to him at all.  The red flag of nervous retreat.

It took a few years for her to figure out how to handle her encounters with authority asking personal questions.  None of us like those questions, they are intentionally intrusive and meant to catch us off guard — it works.  When coming home from Israel at the end of the year, the Canadian Customs agent asked her how long was her trip home, did she make any stops?  She paused for a moment and said her trip was 36 hours, and no, there had been no stops.  The agent looked up from the computer, stared for a moment at her and asked for clarification.  Her sister was travelling with her, and explained that the 36 hours included the time on the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and the time on the bus to the airport as well as the wait time for the plane, in other words, her entire trip home.  The 36 hour answer was accurate and honest, and it triggered red flags because it did not reflect the mindset of the Customs agent.

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Beshalach, is filled with many of these same moments.  Israel has left Egypt, and immediately the Torah tells us that there is a direct route that God could choose to get them to Sinai but God chooses the longer route.  The worry is that they will see the Philistines, a warring people, and Israel will retreat to Egypt.  God, the parent, is anticipating that Israel will take steps backward and decides they have the time, Israel should not be rushed into a world it isn’t ready for.  God leads them elsewhere.  

Soon after, we are told that during the day, God travels in a dense cloud in front of Israel, and that during the night, God manifests in fire.  Both of these forms are always leading Israel in the wilderness.  At first glance, it makes perfect sense:  the cloud will shield the sun during the day so Israel can travel in its shade, and the fire will provide heat at night when the desert can get quite cold.  It is to protect Israel.

But given the earlier comment about rerouting so Israel doesn’t retreat, there is another reason for the cloud and the fire: they’re opaque.  At any given moment, an Israelite could look forward and see a wall of cloud or a wall of fire, but they could never see past them.  The future is too frightening, too unknown, too unknowable.  God has placed Israel behind the Divine ‘back’, not only to protect them, but to actually block their view.

Israel has just left Egypt, they can only look at the world as slaves, they have not found their footing or understood their independence.  Blocking their view of the future allows them to grow without the encumbrance of thinking they should already know who they should become.

It’s a beautiful parenting moment — when do we stand in front of our kids, when do we stand behind them, and when do we proudly stand to the side once we know they’ve found their footing.

This same daughter who had challenges answering probing questions at airports has since grown into a confident woman.  The family jokes and laughs about those moments from the past…but whenever we travel as a family, she’s not allowed to speak to any of the agents.

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Parshat Bo: Thanks But I’d Rather Be Second

Parshat Bo: Thanks But I’d Rather Be Second

Over the years, I have explained to parents and grandparents what happens when the first baby a woman has is a boy.  Everyone is familiar with the ‘bris’, the celebration Jewish people do that surrounds circumcising the baby boy.  It’s usually done early in the morning.  We can thank Abraham, the Patriarch, for that timing because he was the first Jew to be circumcised, and he always preferred doing God’s bidding early in the morning —that’s why the Sages told us that the Shacharit service (morning prayer service) is to symbolize Abraham.  So, like Abraham, we get up at the crack of dawn and rush to the ‘bris’.  The ceremony itself is not very long (thank goodness because everyone there is uncomfortable thinking about it).  After the ‘bris’ there is a breakfast served.  That’s because we are commanded to surround rituals with a meal, to emphasize that while we are engaged in spiritual expressions with God, we must never forget to ensure everyone has the basics of food – some form of bagels…and lox, of course..  Jewish spirituality must balance with the realities of this world.  

Ceremonies for naming baby girls are still open for development.  We have some very beautiful traditions in both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi world that can help parents create meaningful ritual for their daughters.  Whatever the ceremony looks like, it will be followed by a meal, and no surprise, probably bagels and lox at that one too.  I’ve often heard the baby girl’s naming ceremony referred to as the ‘bris-ket’).

When my husband was planning the ‘bris’ for one of our sons, it happened that the only mohel in town was sick.  He told us to call 1-800-BABY-BOY, which we did, and a mohel flew in from New York and performed the bris.  Globally, Jews take that eighth day bris commandment very seriously.

But, if the baby boy is the mother’s first born, the thirty day birthday will trigger another Jewish commanded event: ‘Pidyon haBen’ —‘Redemption of the Child’.  It is a lesser known ritual, but it is equally commanded in the Torah.  We buy our child out of a lifetime of service to God.

‘Pidyon haBen’ is the result of the final plague in Egypt —death of the first born.  In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we finish reading about the plagues, God’s explanation of that final plague, and its ramifications moving forward.  We usually understand that last plague as God passing through Egypt and taking the lives of all the Egyptian first born.  Except, the Torah didn’t exactly say that.  The Torah states that God will pass through Egypt and take the lives of every eldest child born in Egypt.  Worded that way, it now includes all the Jewish first born as well.  The fact that the Israelite first born shelter in homes that have blood painted on the doorposts means they are protected, it does not mean they are exempted. 

Even these days, the ‘Fast of the First Born’ that occurs right before Passover commemorates the unique positioning of these people within the Passover experience.  

Because Jewish eldest children were not exempted, they now owe every breath they take to God.  They are to live out their lives in the service of God, who owns their futures.  The Torah says we can redeem them out of this predicament.  The ceremony is called ‘Pidyon haBen’, the ‘Redemption of the Child’.

But, wouldn’t we want our child to live in the service of God?  Isn’t that an entrance to holiness?  Shouldn’t we be honoured?

We’re honoured with the concept but we’d rather our children choose their own destinies.  Starting in the ancient world, the Sages look for ways to minimize who would be obligated for a ‘Pidyon’.  It must be the child that is the mother’s ‘first opening of her womb’, so a previous miscarriage or abortion would now nullify the obligation of any subsequent birth.  The Sages rule that it must be the womb opening on its own, therefore any C-section delivery would nullify the need for a Pidyon.  If either parent is the child of a Cohen or a Levi, they don’t have a Pidyon.  That’s because Cohens and Levites were the ones serving God (when we had a Temple), —they’re the ones we redeem our children from.  But the Sages are making these laws when there is no Temple.  They are clearly trying to minimize the scope of the law when it involves limiting our childrens’ life choices.

Judaism always teaches us to temper our spiritual expressions with an understanding of the real world.  Life is always a challenge, how much more so if one is forced into a life of spiritual service when they do not prefer it.  Holiness is to be sought and found each in our own way, but we do not seek a life of only holiness or a life that sits exclusively in this world, we are commanded to seek them both.

It seems like finding our balance between our spiritual and material worlds shouldn’t be too difficult.  We generally shape our lives to be productive for our work week, spiritual retreat for Shabbat and run all our errands on Sundays.  With particular adjustments, each of us could generally find some form of balance that would work for us, and we would revisit it as needed for minor tweaks.  But these days are not our norm as we encounter the global pandemic that still challenges lives and livelihoods.  Many of us find ourselves becoming stagnant in our current reality.  It is easy to neglect our spiritual expressions as we notice every day resembles every other day.  Someone mentioned to me that every day has now become ‘Blursday’.  But the opposite reality is equally true.  We can easily sit quietly with our thoughts and our spiritual moments while we wait for the world outside our doors to change.  We can retreat from our physical involvement in the world and plan our re-entry when the vaccine is complete and the world goes back to what it was.  We forget that time and experience can only move us forward –we forget that the real world will never go backward to what was, so we favour our spiritual reclusivity. 

The Torah reminds us that even when God tells us to devote someone’s entire life to spirituality, we argue for a balance in our lives —how much more is that balance crucial for our present moment.

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Parshat VaErah: But I’m Still Crying

Parshat VaErah: But I’m Still Crying

When my kids were little, each of them would show being upset in unique ways.  As toddlers, it was always interesting to watch them find their ‘upset’ voices.  One of my daughters would throw tantrums in front of the freezer, crying for an ice cream bar, one of my sons would go to his room and punch his pillows while another would retreat into a game and withdraw completely… each child explored their own authentic ‘something’s wrong’ expression.  

My husband and I welcomed all of this. We watched each child explore how to be upset, and how to communicate being upset.  Interestingly, one of our sons was conflicted about how to do this–how to be upset, and how to show being upset, that is.  You see, he wasn’t sure whether it was enough to simply be upset if his parents didn’t notice that he was upset.  In other words, was being upset a release in and of itself, or was it necessary to have us notice he was upset, and relate to his moment?  Put more broadly, can I be the victim if you don’t know I’m the victim?

Whenever something happened to my son, at all of three years old, he would come to my husband and me to tell us he’s crying –just in case we didn’t notice.  After checking what had happened, and concluding everything was fine, we’d tell him that we’re sorry he’s upset, but really nothing wrong had happened, everything was fine, and he should go back and play.  He would leave our room quietly, and just when everything seemed to be fine, he would reappear in our room and announce, ‘I’m still crying’, and leave the room again.  Every few minutes he reappeared in our room to tell us he was ‘still crying’.  It didn’t matter how many times we tried explaining that everything was fine and that there was no reason to be upset, because he would still appear and reappear to let us know he was ‘still crying’. 

To be clear, these weren’t moments of intense crying or uncontrollable tantrums, it was more gentle weeping.  Each time we would follow him, we would find him at the bottom of the stairs, kneeling on one step with his head cradled in his arms on the step above quietly crying.  Scooping him into the arms of a parent and softly reassuring him that we see he’s upset, and everything’s ok, would always bring him back to smiles and laughter.  It occurred to us, much later, that we misunderstood his messaging.  When he would come and complain about something that happened, he didn’t want us to correct the problem, he wanted us to notice him through the problem.  He didn’t want justice, he wanted our eyes on him, our comforting arms, our sheltering assurances — his three year old self needed to know we thought he mattered, because something made him feel vulnerable.

As parents, we want to fix the world for our children.  We want every injustice to be corrected, and anyone who hurt our child to be held accountable.  As a parent, the problem is not that someone wronged my child, the problem is that my child got hurt. From my point of view, the hurt itself is the problem and it should be met with justice.  But we know the world doesn’t work that way, and that we do a disservice to our children if we insinuate they should search for absolute justice or accountability in their lives.  We learn this from this week’s Torah parshah.

This week’s parshah, VaErah, is filled with grandeur and impactful moments as we watch the plagues of Egypt start. Each plague fills our imagination, invites our interpretations and explanations of God, history, theology, justice, freedom — all the huge philosophical concepts packed into each plague.  But, before it all begins, Moses is trying to get God to notice something, and God is not paying attention to it.

When God first tells Moses to go and tell Pharaoh to send Israel out of Egypt, Moses tells God he’s worried about speaking to Pharaoh because “I am of uncircumcised lips”.  This phrase is usually translated as “I am a man of impeded speech”… but Moses didn’t say he has a speech impediment, he expressed a concern about his lips that, well, we don’t quite understand. 

Technically, the word Moses is using in Hebrew is the word for a covering, so he seems to be expressing something about not communicating with transparency (I am interpreting this because we don’t actually know what he means).  The midrash accounts for this by describing a scenario back when Moses was a baby, where Pharaoh’s sorcerers told him that Moses could be the one to rebel against Pharaoh and free the slaves (never underestimate the power of ancient sorcerers).  And so, they devised a test to know whether Moses was to lead a rebellion or not.  Two bowls were placed in front of baby Moses, one containing jewels (representing the crown of Egypt) and one containing burning coals (representing the workers of Egypt).  If Moses reaches for the jewels, then he intends to usurp the crown, and should be executed.  If he reaches for the coals, then he intends to support the slave labour structure of Egypt, and can live.  The test is set up, and Moses, being a baby, reaches for the shiny jewels.  Moses’ guardian angel sees this and pushes Moses’ hand to the coals, which he grabs and puts in his mouth (as babies will do with anything).  According to this midrash, Moses’ mouth is burned and scarred by the coal, which saved his life, but results in a lifelong stutter.  This midrash is why many people think Moses had a stutter, however, the Torah text never tells us of a stutter, it only tells us that Moses said he has ‘uncircumcised lips’.

Interestingly, this is the only thing Moses says to God about speaking to Pharaoh, and God ignores it, maintaining that Moses should go to Pharaoh all the same.  God outlines the people, and the structure, and repeats the mission, but Moses repeats only one thing back: “Behold, I have uncircumcised lips”.  The one thing Moses tried to communicate earlier that God didn’t address.  Moses has told God he feels most vulnerable when asked to speak, and yet God keeps telling him to go speak to Pharaoh.  In the greater scheme of the clash of the gods that is about to begin in Egypt, Moses has asked God to see him, and God looked past him to the greater picture.

The second time Moses mentions his uncircumcised lips, God tells him he is sending Aaron to be his spokesperson, if needed.  But why not just fix the problem?  If Moses stutters, God should take away the stutter, if Moses feels he isn’t a good communicator, God should make him the greatest speaker that ever lived.  After all, this is God — fix the problem!

Instead, God lets Moses know he’s been heard, and God will support him to get past his moment of vulnerability.  Moses feels he can’t do it, so God accepts that he feels that way, and shows him he has God’s support — but God is not there to fix all our perceived shortcomings.  

In the end, Moses communicates brilliantly to both Pharaoh and Israel.  Never will he be asked to repeat anything or will anyone say they couldn’t understand what he was saying.  He thought he couldn’t do it, but there was actually nothing to fix, everything was fine.

There are moments in our lives when the grandeur of what is happening sweeps us away.  There are plagues and illnesses that make us take our eyes off the individuals, the quiet voices, the vulnerable person who might not have the courage to tell us ‘I’m still crying’.  Pharaoh and God will sort everything out between them, it is Moses’ voice that reminds us to always listen to anyone who feels vulnerable, justified or not, and always provide the support they need.

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Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

I, like so many others, am at home during Ontario’s provincial lockdown.  My home now consists of five people (some of our kids are back in the house from university).  Five people in one home, all adults, all family, all with shared history and family experiences.  This lockdown should be a breeze, I mean, how different could we all be?

Generally speaking, most things run smoothly, but that is after we went through designating spaces in the house.  The tv room can’t be the hobby room, because some of the hobbies are loud (one of us has a loom) and some hobbies involve relentless pounding noises (one of us has decided to learn how to tan leather), while others are trying to focus on playing chess.  We finally agreed that the news updates should only happen on the tv in the kitchen, because the big tv is in the family room which has been designated as Switzerland — neutral territory so no news allowed.  Making that decision was not easy, since it sparked a spirited debate on whether Switzerland was truly neutral, and is anything in the world truly neutral, either by politics or by nature.  Some of us volunteered to cook, while others volunteered to clean (we decided to head to the self-defined chore system), which worked…until the people cooking communicated they didn’t mean every time and every meal.  Likewise, we had not defined whether the cleaning group could enter someone’s private house space in order to clean, or is everyone responsible for their own personal space.  

The other day, my daughter walked into the room and asked if anyone had given any thought to dinner.  The cleaners and the cookers all looked at each other, and the room went silent.  We are trying to be so respectful of everyone we have actually stalemated ourselves in certain moments.

It took years of ongoing discussion to modify our family model as we’ve grown and changed, but the usual model isn’t working anymore because anything we enjoyed doing outside has now struggled to find its place inside.  We did not account for needing a political model that would address our home reality.  When the children were growing up, our house was a dictatorship — my husband and I were the decision makers.  Temper tantrums were waited out and never gained the upper hand (we both agreed we don’t negotiate with terrorists).  The kids were taught that their opinions would always be heard, but life experience would empower their view, so the more life experience, the more weight to the opinion.  But our little oligarchy lost much of its force each time another child attained ‘adulthood’, as well it should.  And now, we are five adults together in the house searching for a political model.

Together we have discussed the differences between republics and democracies (decided neither will truly work for us).  Then we watched the political struggles in the United States, and our discussions gained many layers.

As a Canadian, I am mindful that we have a parliamentary system and a multicultural view.  Although we are close neighbours to the United States, we are distinctly different.  I watched a mob attack the Capital building in Washington, and could only imagine how my American neighbour might feel.  I could only imagine the shock and the heartbreak.

But after watching all the news reports and the videos, I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot, with different eyes.

The book of Shemot (Exodus) begins with a list of names of Jacob’s descendants who came to Egypt.  After the names of his sons, it tells us that seventy people had all come from Jacob, and had all descended to Egypt.  Over the years, I have looked at the commentaries and opinions on why we need that information, since it seems more appropriate to the book of Genesis –all the people listed are long dead.  Then I thought of my current household.

We are all one family but we are all distinct in every way.  The number ‘seventy’ in Judaism represents all peoples and all nations.  It reflects the totality of diversity contained under the common umbrella of humanity.  Jacob, the single patriarch, had produced a clan of total diversity, and then they all entered Egypt, a tyrannical empire.  It is of no great surprise that they are noticed and viewed as a threat.  It is not the people that are threatening, it is the model.

While the text is detailing the names of everyone (the book itself is called Shemot, which means “Names”), pharaoh will always remain without a name.  In fact, we are told the old pharaoh died and a new pharaoh arose, and we still don’t have a name for either one of them.  The Torah will always refer to the king as “pharaoh”, because this model of leadership does not value the distinct individual, and so no name is attached.  History will continue to perpetuate our understanding of that model through the development of the title.  The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt was Ptolemy XV Caesar (nicknamed Caesarian) who reigned with his mother, Cleopatra.  It is from his name, Caesar (named after Julius Caesar) that the title persists into the word Tsar (Czar) and Kaiser.  They are all words that track back to ‘Caesar’, which tracks to pharaoh.  

Interestingly, the Torah never gives Moses a title, we are always on a first name basis with him, but we never know pharaoh’s first name, only his title — two distinct models of leadership.  As the leadership model is forming with Moses, the model of the people is also forming.  All of Israel must learn how to retain their distinct voices while sharing a common vision of the future.  The Israelite slaves who leave Egypt will struggle with this their entire lives as they expect Moses to behave like a pharaoh and tell them what to do.  They never quite understand that without distinct and different opinions, we do not learn discourse or dialogue, and we cannot learn resolutions.  They always speak to Moses as a mob, and when we speak as a mob we return to Egypt.

There is a wonderful story from the village of Chelm, that Jewish place where the logic could be sideways but the insights are always there.  One night, a great fire is raging in the village.  The rabbi gathers everyone together for a blessing.  He addresses the village and says he will now lead them in a blessing of gratitude.  Everyone asks how he could possibly think of gratitude at this moment.  The rabbi responds that without the illumination from the fire, they could not see where the buckets are to put it out.

No one wants the fire, but when it happens, do we want to focus our eyes on the damage of the fire and blind ourselves by its glow? Perhaps the preferred choice would be to search for what it has shown us that we didn’t realize we should always have valued.

As I get ready for Shabbat, I listen to the sound of the loom, the silence of the chess game and the tv turned to the news in my kitchen.  The balance of a working political model is always delicate, and should never be underestimated.

Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

Everyone I talk to lately is communicating, in one way or another, that we’re all tired of living with COVID.  The cracks are starting to show.  I heard recently of a young pregnant woman who was at the hospital for her monthly appointment.  She was alone in the elevator when it stopped and a stranger got in.  The stranger looked at the pregnant woman and said, ‘what a terrible time to have a baby’.  She caught herself and followed it with ‘of course, babies are blessings.’  In normal circumstances I would question whether this stranger, with such poor judgment, has a driver’s license, and would I want to be on the road with them…but it’s COVID and the cracks are starting to show.

So, as the winter progresses, and the days get shorter, we need to remind ourselves that the Jewish world is a resilient one.  We roll with the punches.  Chanukah just ended, and the dreidels reminded us that when teaching Hebrew was prohibited, we put letters on toys, pretended to gamble, and taught our children the Hebrew alphabet.  It may not be historically true, but our Jewish world is not defined by a historical moment, it is about meaning and growth.  When we couldn’t gather in shuls, or have holidays together, we figured out how to zoom, and we taught the skill to anyone in our family who didn’t know how to use the technology.  We then zoomed so much that we coined the new Yiddish word, ‘oysh-ge-zoomed’, to tell someone we’ve had too much.  That’s how we roll.

But, these are the times when nuance defines everything.  We figured out the major stuff, now we need to remember that the handful of words spoken in a tired moment have the same impact as it always had.  The Sages told us to be mindful of our words, and that message couldn’t be more relevant than now.

The Sages also told us that the wise person is one who learns from everyone.  With that in mind, this week’s Torah portion, parshat Miketz, describes Joseph and his rise in Egypt.  We’re all familiar with the trials and tribulations of Joseph landing in a prison in Egypt, and how he uses his dream interpretation skills to end up standing before Pharaoh.  There is much we could learn from Joseph.  

It starts in his childhood, he teaches us that if you torment your siblings, they can get together and make your life miserable.  In Potiphar’s house, Joseph shows us that the ancient world also had times of sexual harassment, so best not to be alone behind closed doors with people who hold all the authority.  In prison, Joseph learned that the power never sits with the dreamer, it sits with the dream interpreter, and so he shifts his skills.  Before he is brought to Pharaoh, the text says he is hurried out of ‘the pit’, referencing the prison, but it is the same word as the pit his brothers threw him into.  His identity of victim stayed with him until he could see it was a choice and he could leave it behind.  Once ‘raised from the pit’, Joseph is washed and given new clothes.  Never underestimate the impact of washing our bodies, cleansing our minds and souls, and putting on new clothes.  It sounds mundane but it is transformative.  Yet, Joseph’s greatest life lesson for us occurs in his conversation with Pharaoh.

Joseph stands before Pharaoh and interprets Pharaoh’s dreams beautifully.  But then he proceeds to do something we would all want to teach our kids to do.  He applies for the job he wants, not the job that’s available.  Joseph could well have continued to be the royal dream interpreter, but he outlines a greater vision to Pharaoh.  Joseph creates the job, outlines the requirements and then applies for it.  

Pharaoh accepts everything Joseph has proposed and moves beyond it.  Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name, Egyptian clothes and an Egyptian wife.  All the fatherly duties that are absent in Joseph’s life.  Pharaoh has created more than an allyship with Joseph, he is creating a familial bond.  The Pharaohs of Egypt were brilliant strategists.

Years later, Jacob, Joseph’s father, will eventually reunite with Joseph.  Through the entire emotional text of their reunification, and their subsequent years together, we anxiously await the moment when Joseph tells his father what all the brothers did to him.  Surely, Jacob must have wondered how Joseph got to Egypt, but he never asks.  The moment never arrives, Joseph never tells Jacob of the betrayal at the hands of his brothers.  Moments of truth can be devastating and damaging beyond repair.  Judaism compromises the moment of truth in favour of peace in the family, in favour of peace in general.

So we navigate our lives today, and we know that we will get COVID under control and come out the other end of this.  Many people will be looking for jobs that have been lost, and many families will have shaped new and powerful values that will continue to stabilize them.  But right now, we know that these are challenging times, and the cracks are starting to show.

Remembering to learn from every person, we should keep Joseph in our thoughts and his understanding of using words to create opportunities and bonds while shying away from the words that convey unnecessary hard truths.

Whether in an elevator, or walking on the street, greeting a stranger with wishes of health and strength is perhaps the truer Jewish moment of how we roll.

Rachael is taking a vacation until January 3rd. She looks forward to sharing her next blog with you on Friday, January 8th, 2021. In the meantime, we invite you to join Rachael for a lecture presented by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple on Sunday January 3rd – Mussar & Tikkun Olam: Is There a Commandment to Build Bridges. All of the information can be found here.

Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle

Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle

Happy Chanukah everyone!  The days are getting shorter, darkness is extending its hours, so what a blessing that we are filling our homes with increased light by adding a candle everyday.  

There’s a beautiful midrash that says Adam became depressed the first time he noticed the darkness increasing in the winter.  God assured him that such is the way of the world, and in the future his descendants would find ways to bring light to the darkness.  Adam was comforted with the knowledge of future possibilities.

I remember lighting Chanukah candles as a child and loving everything about them.  I would sing songs in rounds with my sister, while my brothers played the ‘how close can I put my finger to the fire’ game.  We would light the candles in birth order —oldest got the first candle, second candle was second oldest, etc.  I’m third in line so the third day of Chanukah was my special day.  Christmas was always around the same time, and I remember watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and learning all the Christmas songs from TV.  I grew up enjoying Chanukah, and singing Christmas songs with my favourite cartoon characters.  I knew the difference between Chanukah and Christmas, and I knew Christmas was not part of my home, but I still appreciated seeing the neighbour’s beautiful lights, and singing along with the TV.  When I was a student in Israel, I loved Chanukah but felt disoriented by not seeing Christmas lights.  I didn’t realize how much they had become part of my world.  One year in Israel, I drove the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem because that road had Christmas lights.  I remember the feeling very well—I wasn’t feeling Christian at all, I was feeling Canadian.   A few days later I realized how much I missed snow.

Chanukah is always layered for Jews outside of Israel.  We have many other cultural realities that ground us even when we don’t realize it’s happening.  It’s easy to understand how one of the themes of Chanukah, in its original historical context, was for Judaism to question how much of Hellenism should we accept as an influence.  How much of the outside world should we let in?

Once we begin to peel the layers of Chanukah, the levels of meaning start speaking out.  There is a powerful connective moment between Chanukah and this week’s Torah reading that occurs in a tent, in ancient Israel, as we watch twins being born.

This week’s portion, Parshat Vayeishev, tells of Joseph’s sale into slavery and his odyssey in Egypt.  But sitting in the middle of the narrative is the story of Judah and Tamar.  Joseph’s brother, Judah, has locked his daughter-in-law, Tamar, into a quasi-marriage bind.  She was married to his son, who died, and she was subsequently married to his brother, who also died.  She must now marry the youngest brother in order to produce an heir.  These laws are the Levirate laws of marriage within the Torah.  However, Judah, her father-in-law, will not have her marry his last son, and now she can never marry anyone else.  Without question, this is an injustice that Judah is creating and perpetuating.  Tamar is caught in an endless bind and faces a future of loneliness from which she has no way out.  So, she plans and executes one of the most daring and innovative moments in all of Torah.

In order to produce the heir that will release her from this injustice, Tamar tricks Judah (her father-in-law) into cohabiting with her (she disguised herself as a prostitute and sat at the crossroads) — she conceives twins.  Amazing narrative so far, but the birth of the twins is what will grab our attention.

During the birth, the Torah states that one twin extended his hand outside the womb, and the midwife tied a red strand around his hand in order to know who was born first.  But that twin pulls his hand back into the womb, and now the second twin was fully born…first?  Who is the eldest?

The first twin stated intent and excitement to enter the world first, but changed his mind.  The second twin completed his birth first, but does that make him the eldest if the first twin already reached out of the womb?  If the first born is the one to engage in the service to God (ancient world rules), which twin would that be?  In today’s terms, who are they doing a ‘Pidyon haben’ for?  In the ancient world, who is the heir?  Most importantly, who is the next leader?!

Leadership in Judaism has gone through many changing models.  The ancient world dictated that the eldest should be the next leader, but although Abraham’s eldest was Ishmael, leadership went to Isaac, Abraham’s second born.  Isaac had twin boys, the eldest was Esau, but leadership went to Jacob, the younger brother.  Jacob then has many sons, the eldest of which is Reuben, but Jacob wants Joseph to be the leader, and the brothers revolt.  The outside culture is defining how leadership should transfer, but covenant is pushing against that, ultimately to break the influence.

Judah, the fourth eldest, will ultimately lead the brothers, and subsequently, the tribe of Judah will lead Israel.  The word ‘Judaism’ is a tribute to Judah as leader by merit, not birth order.

We continue to reject the foreign model as we look at Chanukah and the leaders of that moment.  Matityahu is the father who gathers his five sons together in the revolt against the Seleucid Empire and the influence of Hellenism.  When Matityahu is killed, it is Judah, his son, who takes over leadership.  Judah the Maccabee is not the eldest, he is third in line.  He has been designated leader based on his merit and his actions, not his birth order.

Tradition tells us that the confusing birth in Tamar’s tent speaks to our need to dismiss birth order as leadership.  We don’t physically know who was born first, since we’re not sure if a hand reaching into the world connotes emergence from the womb.  The second twin, the one who pushed past his brother, and his brother’s red string, is named Peretz (it means the one who burst out).  Peretz is an ancestor of Boaz, who will marry Ruth, who will give us David, who will give us the Messiah.  Tradition draws the roots of the Messiah back to Tamar, a woman who refused to ignore an injustice in the world, and took matters into her own hands.

Along with everything else Chanukah gives us, we should always remember that Judah the Maccabee earned his leadership, and led his followers to fight an evil empire.  Judah was not the oldest, he would not have lit the first candle of Chanukah, but he shows us, again, that every person shapes their place, and each one of us has the opportunity to burn brightly.

Rachael’s Centre is excited to invite you to Eight Illuminating Chanukah Insights – A sponsored shiur event – on Tuesday December 15th at 7:30pm ET. RSVP here.

Parshat Vayishlach: Because Angels Don’t Fight Fair

Parshat Vayishlach: Because Angels Don’t Fight Fair

As a music student in Israel I would often be seconded to different communities to teach music to school children. One school in particular placed me in a town where my father’s cousin lived, someone I came to know well and would often stay with during my placement. My cousin was a wonderful man with a family of grown daughters, and he would proudly mention (often) that he had married them all off and got them out of the house. He told me not to worry, he would find someone for me too.  

Whenever I was there, he would mention the new person he found for me.  The first time he said I don’t need to worry about looking good, since this prospective groom doesn’t really see very well. If I want him to see me at all, I should always stand at a 35 degree angle from his nose.  A few minutes later he’d add that it’s ok if I don’t like to dance, since this prospective groom has one leg significantly shorter than the other, and did he mention that the prospective groom has a hump on one side which blocks all peripheral vision so I would have to drive?  Yes, he’d say, the prospective groom is very tall, but the hunch in his back brings him to slightly shorter than me, so we’re well matched.  The longer I visited, the more physically complex the prospective groom became.  

Needless to say, there was no such person, no such prospective groom.  As the months went by, I enjoyed the humour of it and greatly increased my Hebrew vocabulary for malfunctioning body parts.  He’d always ask me if I had any scars he should tell the groom about and I’d always say no.

But I do have scars.  Many from childhood mishaps of exploring the world – a nail in my knee, a cat scratch on my wrist, a glass breaking while I was washing it –all the usual mishaps that leave the lessons learned on our bodies.  I don’t introduce myself to anyone by pointing out my scars, they’re personal.

So, how is it that the Torah portion this week tells us to commemorate a scar?

In this week’s parshah, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel.  It is the night before he is hoping to reconcile with his estranged twin brother, Esau.  Jacob is alone with his thoughts and worries of the day to come.  The last time he saw his brother was when he tricked Isaac, their father, into giving him the covenantal blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau.  As a result, Esau vowed to kill Jacob and the family broke apart.  The night before they face each other again, decades later, Jacob is alone with a strange man, and they wrestle.

We find out the man he is wrestling is an angel, and Jacob grabs him in order to force a blessing.  The blessing he receives is a name change, from Jacob to ‘Israel’, and the blessing involved is the explanation that Jacob (and those who bear the new name ‘Israel’) will struggle with people, and with God, but they will sustain and prevail.  It’s a beautiful blessing, and certainly one that enters the national consciousness of being Jewish.  But the Torah goes on to note that the angel grabbed Jacob’s sciatic nerve, causing Jacob to let him go and injuring Jacob in the process. From then on Jacob will walk with a limp–angels don’t always fight fair.

Despite Jacob’s name change to ‘Israel’ the Torah will continue to call him Jacob.  He will waiver between these two names so, in fact, the name change is truly an augment rather than an actual change.  At times he is ‘Jacob’ and other times he is ‘Israel’.  There is no permanence to his name.  In fact, at times the Jewish nation that bears his name is called ‘Beit Yaakov’ (House of Jacob) and other times we are called ‘Israel’.  However, something permanent results from this angel encounter, but it’s not the use of the name ‘Israel’.  The singular thing that the Torah tells us to always definitively do from then on is to never eat any meat that has the sciatic nerve in it, the hindquarters, because that’s where Jacob was injured.

Filet mignon and T-bone steaks are not sold in kosher butcheries because they have not removed the sciatic nerve, not because the meat itself is not kosher.  The Torah has commanded us to always remember the wound, always honour the scar.  That particular scar resulted from an angel hitting Jacob’s weak point.

Yet, most importantly, we are told only once that Jacob limps, it is of no significance moving forward.  He remains powerful, effective, in control, and he thrives.  The scar becomes personal, and informs rather than impedes.

Jewish resilience has always understood that covenant never promises we won’t be hurt, it promises we’ll endure.  The province of Quebec recently decided that although Covid is spiking with unprecedented numbers there, it is permissible for families to gather over several days to celebrate Christmas.  When asked about Jewish families gathering for Hannukah, the Quebec government said no, only Christmas gatherings are allowed.  Similarly, I know someone who spent over a year sitting on a university’s Council for Equity & Inclusion trying to convince them that although many Jews may be white, they are still a minority group to be considered in decisions of equity.  They weren’t successful.

The Torah wisely told us that we come out of struggles with scars that don’t fade because they always continue to inform.  They are the marks of endurance–the blessing of Israel.  If we mistakenly believe that the back of a kosher animal is not kosher, we have missed the point that the entire animal is kosher yet we refrain from eating the sciatic nerve because we honour the scar.  Scars do not only mark an injury, they are in and of themselves the stronger skin that forms through the healing. 

Whether your scars are visible, or not, they still exist–we all carry them. We can either see them as a permanent mark of an injury, or honour them as the reminders of endurance that they are.

Interested in more stories about Angels? Wondering if they have rules they live by? Join Rachael for a 4-week shiur course – Am I Ever Without My Angel? Getting to Know Our Celestial Siblings begins Wednesday, January 20th from 7:30-8:30pm ET. Click here for more info!

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.

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