Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Nitzavim

This week, we read the Torah portion of Nitzavim – Moses’ words to Israel as he knows his hours are few.  This week, we enter Shabbat, preparing for Rosh Hashanah, as we pray for what only God can give us: time.  

Moses immediately tells Israel that we are all standing together right now.  Whether we are leaders, followers, women, men, elderly, or infants, we meet in this moment, at the threshold of covenant with God.  We all stand equally.  But, Moses is not standing equally with anyone because he knows the day he will die, and he knows his prayers won’t be answered.  He stands alone inside our greatest human fears.  Yet, as always, he has so much to teach us.

Moses reminds us that at the core of everything Jewish will be God, Torah, and each other.  We will house our spiritual expressions in the teachings of Torah, and we will argue with each other about what it means.  Then Moses specifically warns us not to think Torah is a treasure buried somewhere out in the world.  It is not a search for external truth.  Moses tells us the Torah is close to us, it is in our hearts, and when in doubt, we should always look inward.

Soon, we will stand together on Rosh Hashanah, as we enter the holiest time of our year, and we will ask God for time.  We offer God our honest, internal reflections from the past year, as we experience what Moses tried to tell us.  We have a voice in our destinies, a tremendous gift, and as we gather to pray on Rosh Hashanah, we will make our voices heard.  Sometimes prayer is a whisper and sometimes prayer is thunder.  

Jews everywhere will whisper our fears to God, as we raise our voices to create the thunder of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’.  In the end, across millennia of years, we indeed stand where Moses said we would: Nitzavim hayom, “Today we stand together.”

I’d like to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, and a sweet, healthy, and happy year to come.

May we use our time of Shabbat rest to gather our resources for the holiness of Rosh Hashanah.

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Selichot

The Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah is time reserved for special prayers called Selichot.  We wait until it is late at night, at the time of ‘Ashmoret HaBoker’ – when night is ending, and the transition to dawn is beginning.  The prayers we say are apologies and admissions, as we implore God to understand our limitations.  We choose the timing carefully.

Throughout the High Holidays, we repeatedly appeal to God as our Divine Parent -we want the unconditional love and forgiveness that only a parent can give.  We choose Ashmoret HaBoker for these prayers because it is the time we are usually asleep.  In fact, our neighbours, cities, and all around us are probably asleep.  In those moments, several things are happening.  The Zohar tells us that in the calm of the night, when the transition to day is beginning, God turns toward attributes of Divine Mercy before the new day has dawned.  We appeal to God when Divine Mercy is heightened.  The second reason has to do with our relationship with God, our Parent.

As new parents, we can remember bringing our children home and keeping our eyes on them.  At first, they don’t do much, they’re not yet awake to the world, so we watch them sleep.  We form the habit of watching them sleep, and watching them breathe.  It comforts us, we are soothed by it, we bond with them as they lie asleep, not knowing this is happening.  The purity and sincerity of this non-verbal connection is unique.

As we are all made in the image of God, what is true for the image must be true for the Source.  While we are asleep, our souls and God find each other and deepen their bond.  There is no better moment for us to reach out to God, the Parent, and ask for forgiveness than in those moments when night, the time we usually sleep, is transitioning to day.

Selichot is a special time of prayer we can say either together or individually.  It is a time, in the still of the night, to reach outward and upward, to feel the child and the Parent.  Selichot is when we can immerse ourselves into the subtle nuances before Rosh Hashanah that can sometimes get lost in the grandeur of the Highest of our Holy Days.

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 Ki Teitzei

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Teitzei, starts with the phrase ‘If you go to war’, and then outlines moments and instances of choices.  Much of what is discussed are approaches we’ve already heard elsewhere in the Torah, which begs the question of why they appear here.

The question of behaviour and values is key to a Jewish understanding of how we interact with the world.  Our usual encounters become routines, and we know the standard of behaviours will serve us well.  We strive for ‘menschkeit’, a word we all know but can’t really define. We try to cultivate that within ourselves as well as look for it in others. But now the Torah has asked us a tougher question: who are we when we leave our comfort zones and face challenges.  Can we still be a mensch when turmoil surrounds us?

Jewish values are not things we develop in a moment of challenge, they are things we develop over our lifetimes that then serve us in each moment.  The Torah is not describing the conflict of warfare since it begins by discussing the war captives Israel has taken in victory, not the war itself.  The Torah describes the challenge of victory – the way empowerment can turn into entitlement.  When we look at a defeated enemy, do we still maintain our values and behave as we should?  

On a more mundane level, when we win an argument, how do we engage with the other person in the very next moment?  Whether it is a personal relationship or a professional exchange, our Jewish values must follow us into restaurants and office spaces.  The challenge is not our Jewish homes, it is ‘ki teitzei’ – when we venture out.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Monday Mussar: An Introduction

Welcome to my Mussar Monday blog.  I am excited to explore Mussar together as it is a fantastic skill to learn in today’s busy and stressful world.

What is Mussar, you ask.

Excellent question.  Of course, because it sources from the ancient writings of Judaism, it is safe to assume there are many layers to the answer.

Layer 1: The word ‘mussar’ means ‘to give to another’

Layer 2: It centres on a methodology of ethics

Layer 3: It is an approach to the world that intends to heal and repair damage

Layer 4: It is a universal that applies to all of humanity

Layer 5: It is a skill set with practical outcomes so it must go beyond theory

Layer 6: The skill set involves introducing the mind to the soul and developing a dialogue

Layer 7: It results in noticeable changes with only positive outcomes

As this is the first blog, I’m going to have to get a bit technical, cover some of the basics and then we move forward from there.

Mussar sources all the way back to the Torah and appears in all Jewish texts.  The Mussar Masters flourished in Eastern Europe in the 19th century but the School of Mussar was all but lost during the Shoah.  We are so fortunate to be able to rebuild something that answers so many of the challenges of today’s world.

Here are the foundational concepts:

We are all created in the image of God and therefore we all share the same ingredients.  What makes each of us unique are the measures of those ingredients. The word for measure in Hebrew is ‘middah’ (plural is ‘middot’).  Usually ‘middah’ is translated as ‘characteristic’ but that is not correct. It is the measure of the particular characteristic that I focus on.  My ‘middot’ are my measures of patience, compassion, anger etc.  

So, the very first step to everything is to ‘snapshot’ who I am at this moment.  Since I am in the image of God, I will use the text description of God as my framework.  In the Torah, God identifies 13 Divine attributes so I will try and identify 13 of my characteristics.  Then I will decide the measure of each: small, medium, large. I now have a list of my middot that I will work on.

That’s enough technical stuff for now.  I’ll include more technical details each week so stay tuned.

Now to the practical side.

I like to use common examples of things.  We’ve all been taught that if we’re seated on a bus and an older person gets on, we should offer our seat to them.  What happens if we offer it and they decline? Do we sit back down?

Ethics would say we sit back down because we offered and they said no.  Mussar would say something inside of us felt it was wrong to sit while they are standing.  Whether they accept the seat or not is irrelevant, it is still wrong to sit while they are standing.  So, according to Mussar, you do not sit back down. Two ethical systems with two different outcomes.

This brings us to the strongest foundation of Mussar, in fact, the strongest gift humanity has at all: free will, my choices.  I have infinite choices everyday but I never own someone else’s free will. Whether another person chooses to sit in the seat I offered is not something I can decide.

All too often we intrude into someone else’s free will because we think we know better.  In case you missed that attribute, it’s ego, something we all have huge measures of. Don’t get me wrong, ego is vital for us, in fact every attribute is vital.  That’s why it’s not the attributes, it’s the measurements of them.

Here’s the sad reality: most of the time we all function in automatic mode and don’t actually make choices.  We have programmed responses to social settings and interactions so we don’t think about things. Of course the world can’t change, we’re not actually changing it.

So, here’s the homework for this week (Mussar will always have homework suggestions, remember it’s a practical skill).  Starting down this complex road is about small changes that reverberate so let’s start by becoming aware of our automatic modes and making small choices.

This week, whenever someone says ‘thank you’ to you, change your automatic response of ‘you’re welcome’ to ‘you’re MOST welcome’ – you don’t have to emphasize the word ‘most’, I just did that so you’d notice it.

Watch how it changes your awareness of the moment and watch the reactions you get.  The moment you notice these changes is the moment you’ve stepped through the door into the world of Mussar – it’s not for the faint of heart but you’ll find it life changing.