Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Lech Lecha

In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Lech Lecha, we meet our first generation of ancestors: Abraham and Sarah. We always think of them as the beginnings of Judaism, the ones who followed God into a relationship that changes them, changes their descendants, and changes the world. 

What we don’t often emphasize is that the journey to search for something more didn’t begin with Abraham and Sarah, it began with Abraham’s father, Terach. Before reading of the beginning of the Jewish journey, the Torah tells us that a man named Terach took his family, including his son Abraham and daughter-in-law Sarah, and left their home in Chaldean territory. Along the journey, Terach dies, and his family stagnates. They seem paralyzed by the loss of their father and the family journey seems to end just as it has barely begun. 

It is then that God speaks to Abraham and prompts him to ‘lech lecha’, ‘journey onward’. It is a Divine prod to continue with the vision and initiative of his father, Terach –to bring the family to new horizons. The relationship that God, Abraham, and Sarah, will form is not the relationship Terach envisioned but it is the continuation of his impulse to search beyond the usual. 

The Torah is always full of layers of meaning and timeless messages. Terach changed his family culture and envisioned what could be beyond, but his life ended. If not for God reaching out to Abraham and Sarah, Terach’s vision would have ended as well. The Torah is always full of timeless messages, and in this case, we are shown that the journey of a life takes longer than a lifetime. 

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 Noah

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Noah, tells us the story of Noah’s Ark – a story we’re all familiar with.  We know the grandeur of the problem: all of creation has corrupted and turned evil.  We know the grandeur of the solution: God destroys everything with a flood.  But within the narrative lies a subtle detail that speaks volumes to us today. 

The Torah says that the animals and people entered the ark in their designated numbers. They are referred to as pairs when they enter. Yet, when these same people and animals leave the ark, we’re told they leave in their family groupings.  In other words, the people and animals who were isolating together in the ark formed relationships and bonds while they were there.   

As nature raged outside, the ark protected those within — not just with shelter from the storm, but with the understanding that they will survive if they create strong bonds with each other.  When the destruction outside became overwhelming, it is the love and bond they developed for each other that secured difficult moments. 

The corruption that led to the flood included a preference for disconnect and ultimate autonomy from everyone and everything.  The Sages speak of a world where absolute self-interest and self-promotion became the motive and expression of everything.  The Torah contrasts that with the changing reality inside the ark.  While everything entered on its own, they quickly formed trust, family, bond, and the hope of continuity.  

After the High Holidays, I heard from many families who re-experienced the power and joy of sitting together with family members.  In some cases, it had been years since they were able to experience those moments.  The spirituality of Judaism is not just the holiness of God and ritual, it is also the holiness we create when we reach toward each other and build strong unions.   

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 Shabbat Bereishit

This is Shabbat Bereishit, the Shabbat when we start reading the Torah from Genesis, the Shabbat of beginning.

We finished the book of Deuteronomy as we learned of Moses’ death.  The Torah describes Moses’ last instant of life as an exhale.  Moses and God, two best friends, are alone in this human moment as Moses exhales his final breath and God inhales it. 

And then we immediately begin the book of Genesis, the description of God creating the first human beings.  Once the body has been formed, God breathes life into the person –God exhales and the human being inhales that breath.  By connecting the end of Torah to the beginning of Torah, we understand that we exist on the shared breath of God and humanity.  As Moses exhales, God inhales, and as God exhales, we inhale.

Breathing is so natural to us, so involuntary, we don’t think of the holiness of each breath.  The cycle of reading Torah, and connecting the end to the beginning, has many meanings.  It is not just the philosophical statement that there is no end and no start to the layers of Torah, it is also the realization that the end informs the beginning.  It is a statement that everything is truly connected.

In a world governed more and more by social media and online communications, it’s easy to become passive and disconnected from each other.  Genesis reminds us that the vision of creation is a world of relationships and connection, the shared breath, the spiritual empowerment.  We do not read Torah again, we read Torah anew.

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 Shabbat Sukkot

This Shabbat falls towards the end of the holiday of Sukkot, the time God judges the world for rain that will fall.  When the Temple stood, there was a ceremony connected with water called Simchat Beit haShoeiva’, the ‘Joy of the Water-drawing Libations’.  The descriptions of this ceremony are astounding.  There was ongoing music, dancing, singing and Sages juggling burning torches!  The Talmud specifically mentions Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who juggled 8 burning torches at once, and never let them touch each other. 

In fact, the Talmud states that if someone has not seen the celebration of these water libations, they have not experienced joy – in other words, we don’t know from parties.   

Sukkot is a unique holiday because there are holidays within the holiday.  On the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabah, we take our lulav and etrog and walk around the sanctuary in circuits as we recite the Hoshanot.  The day marks the end of the High Holidays, as the decisions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are made, sealed, and now delivered.  It is a ceremony filled with Jewish mysticism — a step back into our ancient past.  If we watch this moment from a birds-eye view, everyone below looks like a current of water flowing round and round.  The medium becomes the message, as we pray for water, it is our bodies that express the prayer. 

For all of us who have ever danced a hora at a simcha (also called the Mayim dance), we have emulated the water libation dancing.  The words to the hora begin: ‘ushoftem mayim bisasson, mimaynei hayishua’, ‘and you will draw water in joy from the waters of salvation’ – a quote referring to Simchat Beit HaShoeiva – the Joy of the Water-drawing Libations. 

Soon we will transition out of our holiest time of the year, as we should.  We need to go back to the mundane, but if we’re lucky, we can carry some of these moments with us in the coming year.   

May we all enter a year of peace, abundance, and health.  May we dance a hora or two with the images of Rabbis juggling burning torches, and may we learn to experience joy that has no limit. 

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

  

Shabbat shalom, Umoadim lesimcha, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ha’azinu

This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, is the song Moses composes and delivers to Israel. He worries about Israel’s welfare, and the nation’s struggle with God. Moses repeatedly warns Israel never to underestimate their inclination to deny God, nor God’s response. 

At the same time, we are at the threshold of the holiday of Sukkot, the time we celebrate following God in the wilderness and learning of Divine Love and Divine Protection. It is the time we built our relationship with God. 

These two messages sit side by side this Shabbat. As Jews, we always struggle with understanding God, and the demands of our Judaism. At the same time, we celebrate that same relationship, those same challenges and demands.  

Moses’ worry is that we won’t keep the values of Torah close to our hearts. He refers to it as ‘this song’. He worries we will not teach our children to sing the song of Torah. Of all our leaders, Moses saw firsthand that if the generational chain is not well established, it can begin to disappear – Moses witnessed this in Egypt as slavery took its toll. 

Interestingly, another name for the holiday of Sukkot is ‘Zman Simchateinu’, the Time of Our Joy’. The name itself speaks directly of the message Moses is expressing. His warnings are dire, and the picture he paints is stark, but he always stresses how Torah must be inherited, taught, sung, and enjoyed. 

Through the prophets, God stated how sweet the memory is of our time together in the wilderness, when we followed God with complete trust – when we expressed ‘chesed’ to God in our youth, when we dwelled in our Sukkot.  

Moses worried we wouldn’t understand how important Torah is in our lives. When we sit in a Sukkah, we assure him we won’t ever forget. 

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

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat Shuvah

​​​​​​​As I write this message, two things are converging in very meaningful ways.  Firstly, Shabbat Shuvah.  The Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we heighten our awareness of the things we’ve done and attempt to ‘Correct and Rebalance’.  Converging with Shabbat Shuvah, in our Canadian world, today is the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. 

Our Jewish world, and our Canadian world, merge into the Torah’s repeated message to always have compassion for those in peril because we know what that means – we were born as a nation from the persecutions of ancient Egypt.  Pain is a human thing, not a Jewish thing. 

Truth and Reconciliation is the perfect term for September 30, the Canadian date of remembrance, as it is for this Shabbat, the Jewish time of seeking repair.  We understand that nothing can be healed unless we start by giving someone their voice back – allowing people to tell us of their experiences, unedited, unfiltered, the words of their hearts. 

Mostly, as Canadians, we are proud of our place in the world.  We are known as the peacekeepers, the culture of politeness and calm.   

But we also know that Canada has had a history of intolerance, and worse, towards people of difference – whether it was immigration (as we all know the infamous government statement of “None is too many”), or it was the people who were present in the land before Canada was Canada.  Canadian history includes closing our hearts when hunted Jews were desperate, as well as closing our eyes when Indigenous Peoples were targeted.   

It is traditional to wear orange today, as it represents the story of one little girl, Phyllis Webstad.  Phyllis proudly wore the orange shirt her grandmother bought her for her first day of residential school.  The shirt was stripped away, and 6-year-old Phyllis quickly understood she was invisible, that her grandmother’s love was unimportant.  Today we remember the children, and the future that was taken from Indigenous Nations. 

We don’t often see the different threads of our identity weave together.  Right now, we listen to the history of Canada, without denying the heartache, as we also listen to our Jewish legacy teaching us to work towards repairing the damage we put into the world. 

When we sit at our Shabbat tables tonight, let’s wear something orange to show we share our strength with the symbol it represents, that every child matters.  We know so well that history matters only when it sets our feet firmly to change what comes next. 

Let’s give thought, therefore, this Shabbat, to the convergence of ‘Truth, Correction, Rebalance and Reconciliation. 

Shabbat shalom, 
Rachael 

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.