Parshat Korach: A Priest, a Rabbi & an Imam walk into a classroom…

Years ago, I was on faculty at a major Canadian university, mostly in the Faculty of Education.  As my specialty is in Religious Studies, my degrees in the field of education made for a good fit with the Faculty of Education as Religious Studies Coordinator.  Essentially, I was advising and teaching student candidates on the verge of graduating and starting careers in teaching all aspects of religious studies.  I had the privilege of running seminars that always included students preparing to teach in various religious venues.  Some candidates were Jewish, many were Catholic, several were clergy, Muslim men and women enrolled, as well as a Zoroastrian principal–always a beautiful mix of age and faith expressions.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.  

There were times when some of the candidates presented a challenge for me in ways they could not possibly have known.  Since there were often clergy in the class, I could be sitting with students who were much older than I.  I found it difficult to demand work and penalize for lateness on assignments with someone who was clearly my elder.  I admit, at times eye contact was difficult when I was visually locked onto the priest’s collar or the nun’s wimple and veil.  In fact, there was a myriad of covered hair, covered heads, beards, modest outfits and all styles in between–a truly inspiring snapshot of multicultural faith communities.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.

We struggled with how anyone could teach religion at all, let alone in a structured school setting.  Teaching prayer is one thing, but how do you assign a grade?  Does the student get an ‘A’ in prayer if God answers (and God must answer so the teacher can hear, otherwise the student might have made up God’s answer…)–you can see how this could get complex quite quickly.  But there were brilliant moments of collaboration as well.  In group assignments, candidates would form groups of their own religions (I noticed they chose their groups that way), only to realize they didn’t have the resources they needed for the assignment.  I remember one wonderful moment when the room was buzzing with group activity at a low hum only to have one nun call out: ‘Could we get some Jewish help over here, we’re not sure how a yarmulke works!’

And then there was the missed moment.

One year, an older student approached me before class and asked if she could make an announcement to the class before we start.  I agreed and asked if she wanted to let me know what it was about and she said she’d rather surprise me.  This woman was a mature, somewhat shy, studious person and always respectful of everyone in the room.  I wasn’t the least nervous about taking this risk.  As everyone found their seats, she stood in front of the class and started crying as she shared with the class that she’s gay.  She said it was the first time in her life she’d ever said that out loud to anyone.  Oh, right…did I mention this woman was part of the Amish community?

Several students went to hug her and celebrate her moment.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  My confusion wasn’t about her sexual orientation, it was more about her choice of this class and this moment to come out.   I understood my role at the university as leading these student candidates to their graduation and leading them to their new career opportunities.  Nowhere in my job description as a professor did it include leading a student in the most intimate moments of her life.  I am a very private person and I try to strictly respect other people’s privacy which at times causes problems–this was one of those times.

She said she chose this moment because of the sharing everyone did about their faith and how she felt no one judged anyone.  She looked at me and smiled.  I approached her and hugged her, I wiped her tears but I did not celebrate with her.  I couldn’t push past my boundaries.  This was a seminar on teaching religion, a place to learn how to lead people into thoughtful and life-changing concepts, but I couldn’t lead her in this moment.  It was too private a revelation and I hit my wall of respecting privacy.  My wall was too big.

It’s all I can think about as I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Korach.  Moses is confronted with a challenge to his leadership.  His cousin, Korach, is gaining a following by saying that God is in the midst of the people and Korach is from the same family as Moses, so who does Moses think he is? The one attribute the Torah has told us time and again about Moses is that he is humble.  He can’t answer Korach, he ends up falling on his face in submission.

Korach is gaining popularity because at that moment it’s easy to believe Moses failed in his mission.  He led the people to the land of Israel but will not bring them in.  They are all destined to die in the desert, so maybe Moses just didn’t get the job done and it’s time to try different leadership.  What is forgotten is that getting everyone into Israel was never part of Moses’ job description–it was an expectation with no foundation.

At the burning bush, God commanded Moses to help get Israel out of Egypt and to Sinai.  He did that.  He was also told that all of Egypt should understand that God is a universal and unique Being.  The midrash says Moses did that as well.  Bringing the nation into the land was not on the list.

While at first glance it’s easy to be upset with Korach (after all he was trying to lead a rebellion against Moses), we should also consider that people have just been told they are going to die in the desert. Frankly, it would make sense that they believe Korach and that Moses has failed them as a leader. We shouldn’t be surprised that Korach acted the way he did, we should be surprised with Moses’ inability to face him. Moses, the man who stood up for a beaten slave, befriended God, survived Sinai and brought laws most of the world still lives by–this man couldn’t face a pushy cousin?

Moses’ humility kept him from saying anything and so God, Moses’ best friend, stepped in and took control.  Judaism is uncomfortable with extremes and extreme humility is no exception.  It becomes a limitation to Moses’ leadership.  This entire incident with Korach is a one time learning opportunity for Moses. It is a warning that should only happen once. Hopefully Moses can push past his limitations–push past his extreme humility–for future moments.

What do we takeaway? Not that we align with either Moses or Korach–we are not choosing sides since it’s obvious that Moses is the trusted leader. Korach’s mistake was that he remedied his dissatisfaction by pulling others toward destruction and doom–he is not the leader we seek. We continue to look towards Moses. We see that even leaders can be blind to their own boundaries and get in the way of connecting with those in their group. Moses’ limitation results in our growth. In this story, Moses is actually teaching us important lessons about leadership. Just as he was forced by God to learn from his experience, we are lucky to likewise learn from it. As a professor, I was blind to my own limitations, and this parsha helps me realize that I was missing unique, opportune moments with my students. 

My student kept in touch with me for a few years after.  She returned to her town but chose to live and teach in a school outside of her community.  She thanked me for the safe space and the good memory she holds of sharing her personal truth.  I feel good that she remembers it that way but I can’t ever think of it without remembering that I allowed my moment of confusion to overshadow her moment of authenticity.

We only see Moses’ limitation–his extreme humility–because it is mirrored by Korach’s extreme arrogance. LIkewise, I recognize being held back by my own boundaries because of my student’s bravery to break hers.  

I wonder how many other Moses/Korach moments pass us by.

Parshat Sh’lach: Could I Trouble You to Pass the Privilege, Please?

I found myself sitting between two worlds many times the last few weeks.  I’ve been watching the news, mostly the developments of racial conflict and tension in the U.S.  I’ve read blog posts from pastoral leaders in the Black community and many of them appeal to the Jewish community for support.  That’s when I started encountering the phrase ‘passing’ in what I now understand is a ‘new world’ usage.

When I was growing up, there was a clear definition to that phrase when it was termed ‘white-passing’ – it specifically accused a light skinned Black person of trying to pass themselves off as white.  To me, it was so offensive a phrase, I couldn’t stand hearing it and I would absolutely never use it!  Then I read a blog post accusing any Jewish person who did not speak out against Black racial discrimination as ‘white- passing’ (I even cringe as I keep writing that phrase).  My problem was I didn’t understand what the blogger was talking about.  I was offended because I could only understand that phrase as accusing me of intending to hide my true identity and pass as Christian.  I mentioned this to my kids and what followed was an eye opening, generationally shocking moment of trying to understand what the phrase means today.

It talks about the privilege a person has in society based on how they look, rather than the intention of the minority person entering that society.  Someone is ‘passing’ when they look the part, and based only on that, they now have privilege.  The example that finally lit the light bulb over my head was when my daughter told me that she has a friend who is bisexual and this young woman happens to be in a relationship with a man.  The friend terms her relationship as ‘straight-passing’ (…nope, still not comfortable with it…) – in other words, people seeing her and her partner together would not know that the woman involved is bisexual because her partner is a man.  It looks mainstream and therefore she has privilege in society that, had her true orientation been known, she would not have and would, in fact, face discrimination.  I asked if other people would refer to her as ‘passing’ and my kids were shocked and said ‘Of course not!! That would be offensive!’

And so I was caught between two worlds.

These complex ideas of who I am and where I belong are found in something as complex as race and as mundane as the difference between a fiance and a husband.  Years ago, I went out for dinner with a close friend and her husband.  We were in our early twenties and they were just married the week before.  Her husband went to the washroom just as we were to be seated at our table.  After a lengthy, awkward pause, my friend told the server that her friend would be joining us in a minute.  I asked her which friend is joining us and she named her husband.  I took a minute to process, looked at her intensely and asked when she put him in the ‘friend zone’, they’d only been married a week!  She said she can’t say the word ‘husband’ yet.  Caught between two worlds.

We’ve all had these moments.  When did we decide what our children should call us?  Mother, mama, mum, mummy, or dad, papa, father, pops…each one speaks of its own world and we need to choose.  It never stops, now the choice of Bubbie, grandma, grandmom, Savta, or Zaydie, (and on and on).  For the longest time I couldn’t make the decision what my kids should call my father and neither could he.  I went with ‘Grampa Sava Zaydie’, a mouthful of meaning.  We tried to have it all and it worked until the kids were almost teens.  Then they chose to call him Zaydie.  We can’t live uncommitted to a clear identity – they chose their name for him. 

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Sh’lach, shows us an entire people caught between two worlds.  The Jewish people have crossed the wilderness and are standing at the border of the land of Israel.  Moses sends spies to reconnoiter the land and they bring back scary images of giants and fortresses.  The people turn to Moses and plead with him to let them go back to Egypt.  They speak of Egypt with memories of things that never happened and privilege that never included them.  Fear of the world to come has created a utopia of the world they had.  Neither of those worlds are real.  They are caught.

God responds and tells them they will never leave the wilderness – no Israel, no Egypt – neither is real for them.  With no clarity of their past, and no realistic view of their future, they cannot move from where they are.  God is not punishing them with death since they will all live out their natural lives…in the only reality they chose, the one with no grounding and no promise of opportunity.

And all of this brings me back to my moments watching what is unfolding in the world around racial discrimination.  To some degree I hear a Jewish response that is caught between two worlds.  Should we ignore the past moments of our own discrimination that went unanswered by the world?  Should we weigh the politics of Israel and the political stands of some of the organized groups we would otherwise stand strongly with?  How much are we hurt that many of the rallying cries for justice are direct quotes from Jewish texts but that goes unnoticed as we are criticized?  Is this a moment of peoplehood, a moment of personal engagement, a moment of institutional leadership, a moment of political voices?

It is a Jewish moment.  Everything else will cloud the picture.  As we struggle with the confusion of these larger questions, we place ourselves in the wilderness, looking back at an Egypt we thought we knew and afraid of a future we can’t see.  Racial discrimination, in all its barbarism, has always been there, we didn’t see it on video and so we created the false Egypt of thinking maybe it wasn’t that bad.  As we stand in the comfort of our wilderness, we run the risk of saying nothing, waiting for someone else to lead.  Now we are doing exactly what the Sages warned us of when the Talmud said ‘silence is agreement’.

For the individual Jewish person, this is not politics, this is not a moment to reflect on Jewish suffering that went ignored.  This is the clarity of a Jewish moment where we understand that if we choose to stay between two worlds, we will choose a future of stagnation and waste, with nothing but a missed opportunity.

It is a Jewish moment where we are commanded to respond.  Over the last few weeks, we watched people shot, strangled and murdered.  The Torah has always told us that we must respond when we see these things.  Now is a time for our Jewish response.  We need not wait for the whole people to agree, we need to choose our own personal response and then find each other as each person chooses theirs.

In one of our ancient texts, the Sages give a beautiful list of how God can find each individual person.  At the end of the list it says that God can find us when we utter a ‘yes’ that means ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ that means ‘no’.  We are not easily found when we choose a world with no definition or when we choose to stand between two worlds.  We are found in a clear thought, that results in a clear communication, that we then commit ourselves to.

Parshat Nasso: “Is That a Gun In Your Pocket or Are You Just Glad to See Me?”

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Nasso and it got me thinking about jealous misunderstandings.  When I was studying in Israel (many years ago), I used to go out with my friends and we developed a game called ‘Flirtatious or European?’  We were usually a small group of young women sitting in a coffee shop or a bar and men would approach our table to talk to us.  Most of the men were not from North America and we quickly saw there were cultural misunderstandings running rampant.  Where we would hear certain questions as flirtatious, we would find out they were not intended that way, the man was simply from France.  Or, perhaps, a gesture of the hand, or an eyebrow raised in our direction, a crooked smile or an invitation to take a walk…flirtatious or European?  It only got more complicated if the men were Israeli, because then we had absolutely no idea how to reference what they were saying.  Casual dates would end with a man saying ‘I love you’ and only after several times were we told that there is no casual phrase in Hebrew for ‘I like you’ and so the context should inform what he means.  In my circle of friends, if a man said ‘I love you’ too soon he was never spoken to again because no one should use the ‘L’ word after two dates – clearly the mischosen translation of the word from Hebrew to English led to suspicion and mistrust of the man.

Suspicions, mistrust, misunderstandings or deliberate hunting down of ‘others’ is part of our world reality from the ancient to the modern.  I studied in Boston for many years and my proximity to Salem, Massachusetts, resulted in many trips to that beautiful city with much witch hunt history.  From Monty Python’s depiction of the witch hunts (“she’s a witch, burn her!” yelled at a woman with a carrot tied to her nose) to many Hollywood versions of this moment in history, witch hunts were official ‘trials by ordeal’.  In other words, they were there to resolve suspicions, not to punish the person.  When a court could convene with evidence (or, at least, things they accepted as evidence), it would result in a verdict and usually an execution.  But, what do you do when someone is only suspected of being a witch and it can’t be proved?  That’s when you resort to a ‘trial by ordeal’.  Let’s try drowning her – if she survives, then she’s a witch because only a witch could survive a drowning – now let’s burn her.  If she’s not a witch, she drowns (since humans actually die when they don’t have air to breath) and…well…at least we saved her immortal soul, so, too bad for her but the greater picture takes precedence.

‘Trials by ordeal’ are ancient and speak of how to get closure when you have no way to prove anything.  ‘Trials by ordeal’ were supposed to end when the rule of law took precedence.  If I can’t prove something then I can’t punish for it.  But, what happens when I can’t prove it, but I still need to live with the person?  In other words, when the suspicion of a crime committed now clouds everything about the future relationship.  How do we resolve suspicions?

This week’s parshah discusses the law of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress.  A husband is jealous of his wife’s behaviour with other men and suspects she has betrayed him (‘jealous’ is the word the Torah uses and it uses it an unusually large amount of times in this section).  The husband brings his wife to the High Priest who enacts a Jewish ‘trial by ordeal’.  She brings an offering, the High Priest dishevels her hair, mixes various things into water (creating ‘bitter waters’), makes the statement of accepting the ‘trial by ordeal’ and all its consequences to which she answers ‘amen’.  She then drinks the water.  If she is guilty, her body will bloat (actually, a bit confusing about exactly in what way but it sounds terrible whichever way we read it) and if she is innocent, she will be fertile.

Here’s what’s so unusual about this ‘trial by ordeal’:  the issue is not her guilt or innocence, it is her husband’s jealousy.  We already know we cannot prove her guilt or disprove it and therefore there is no way for this couple to move forward in their marriage.  If he wants to divorce her, he has the power to do so without any proof of any wrongdoing, so clearly there is a desire to continue the marriage, but not when one person is overcome with unresolved jealousy.  How do we close matters that need closure but can’t get there?

The Torah has repeated the word ‘jealousy’ several times but not the word ‘adultery’.  The offering she brings is said to be an offering for both her and her husband and it is called the ‘Jealousy Offering’, the challenge the husband is having.  The issue between the couple is not her actions, so much as it is the unresolved jealousy that is blocking them.  Was she flirtatious or European?

But the ‘trial by ordeal’ of the Salem witch hunts were not the same thing.  The witch hunts were there to target people and kill them in the name of some powerful authority and its desire to maintain power and status quo.  They were attempts to legitimate murder, not bring closure for moving forward.  The Sotah ceremony was a way to move past a hurtful and difficult moment toward some kind of closure and future.  But, let’s not forget, the Sotah ceremony is still a ‘trial by ordeal’ and it is the woman who is bearing the public shame of the accusation and drinking the bitter waters (not to forget everyone looking at her to see if she bloats!).  But the ceremony will resolve what could not be resolved in other ways.  Even the worst case scenario is addressed, since if she were indeed an adulterous and pregnant by another man, and she survives the bitter waters, the pregnancy would be accepted as the fertility she was promised by enduring this ordeal and now the child has a family and a future. 

Sometimes the difficulty of the ordeal is the way to move forward and secure a better future.  As a Canadian, I have watched with a broken heart what George Floyd was made to endure in the last moments of his life.  As a mother, I heard him call for his mother and everything in me wanted to answer him.  I’ve watched the anger, the violence, the protesting and the looting, but I’ve also watched the powerful moments of people in uniforms kneeling with protesters and other images where protesters and police were crying and praying together.  

Ordeals can be moments of growth or they can lead to moments of injury and chaos.  I pray that the heartbreak of what we all witnessed brings us to a place of resolution and a lasting change.  May this ordeal strengthen the world to take a necessary step forward.

Shavuot 2020: Late For Our Own Wedding…Actually!

It’s been an interesting week for me filled with Shavuot thoughts.  Everything we do is so new these days and now it’s the first Shavuot in the pandemic.  I’ve noticed many invitations online to join groups staying up all night to study.  The tradition is called ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’ – the Repair of the Night of Shavuot and it’s quite literally pulling an all-nighter with Torah study and then going to shul to hear the Ten Commandments.  It’s also traditional to eat deliciously sweet dairy foods (cheesecake) which now means eating all night as well (blintzes).

I remember my first all-nighter.  I was in high school and a few of my friends and I decided to stay up all night and study for the English exam we needed to write the next morning.  At first it was fun, at first it was productive, at first we felt so grown up.  Around midnight, anything anyone said was the most hilarious thing we’d ever heard (things became less productive).  By 3 a.m., it was agony.  Nothing made any sense and we didn’t notice we’d been reading the same line of Shakespeare over and over out loud for about fifteen minutes.  The friend reading out loud was from England and we loved the accent, so it lulled us into thinking we made progress, when, in fact, we were going round and round, staring blankly at nothing.   By 5 a.m., panic set in as we realized the whole night had gone by and there was so much left to do.  The exam was scheduled for 8:30 a.m.  We made it there on time (don’t remember how we got there, though I pray none of us drove) and I remember sitting in the chair and reading the exam questions.  I was overjoyed that I knew the answers.  I was literally wiping tears from my eyes with the joy of realizing that the all-nighter was the best decision I had ever made.  But when I picked up my pen to write all those essays to answer all those questions, I suddenly realized I was too tired to write anything worthwhile.  Things made sense in my head but I could not formulate proper sentences.  The insights from the night were useless.  

Needless to say, I did not do well on the exam and I learned that the brilliant inspirations that occur at 4 a.m. almost never result in the useful gestures needed for the next day.  All-nighters are spiritual quests.

So, why would we have a tradition to stay up all night and study Torah?  What is the ‘repair’ we are hoping to accomplish?

The tradition of staying up all night is rooted in a midrash that talks about the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.  We view the Revelation at Sinai as the metaphoric wedding of God and Israel.  The Torah is the gift we are given under the chuppah, it is the marriage contract, the Ketubah.  Israel is the bride and according to this midrash…we left God waiting at the altar (not exactly an altar since we get married under chuppahs, so, we left God alone at the chuppah/mountain).  We, the bride, were late for our own wedding – apparently we slept in.  The midrash says God sent Moses to wake us up.  Apparently, God and Moses blew trumpets at us because we were sleeping so soundly it was hard to wake us.  I actually think that one of the greatest expressions of love God could show the Jewish people was to give us the Torah at all, considering we got there so late, and one of our greatest expressions of love was to celebrate Sinai after having trumpets blasted at us and rushed out the door that way.  And so, the ‘marriage’ begins and the nature of its communication has begun.

But, in the end, we were late after all and now a repair is needed.  A forever ‘I’m sorry’ that we offer at every wedding anniversary – every Shavuot.  We will spend all night awake, studying the gift we were given at the mountain to show that we are sorry and that we have corrected our insensitive moment toward our Partner.  If it were my husband, there is no question that every anniversary would involve a gesture of repair, more than just flowers or a precious stone but something that spoke to that moment and reached out to me with love…and lots of I’m sorries…and cheesecake…and a few blintzes thrown in.

But, because we are who we are, there is, of course, another interpretation.  It’s not that we slept in, it’s that we were so excited before the wedding, we couldn’t sleep at all!  And yet a third opinion says we spend all night preparing each other to be the bride and that’s why we study all night in pairs or in groups – we are excited for each other and want the other person to get the most out of the wedding, as they are doing the same for us.

In these days of isolation, as we figure out how to have celebrations without gatherings, we require a new lens for viewing Shavuot.  It is the holiday that celebrates the chuppah where only the bride and groom can stand together.  It is the night of excitement when we are counting the moments until we can stand under our chuppah.  It is the holiday to remember that our spiritual strengths have gotten us through the last few months and our eyes have opened wider to everything we used to take for granted.  

It is a celebration in every sense of the word and it is worth having, especially now.

But, let’s not forget the cheesecake and the blintzes (the dessert table at the wedding).  The Sages tell us it connects to a verse in Song of Songs.  The book in the Tanach that describes the intimate relationship of God and Israel is the Song of Songs (Shir haShirim), which describes the intimate relationship of a man and a woman.  In chapter 4, the man beckons his lover and says: “Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride, milk and honey are under your tongue.”  And so, dairy and sweetness are part of the symbols of love and intimacy.  

I hope we all enjoy some beautifully sweet moments this Shavuot.  Maybe put a bit of something sweet under your tongue and enjoy the thought of a union that started at Sinai and continues to see us through everything.

Parshat Bamidbar: Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney Are Sitting in My Yard

As I’m sitting writing this blog for the Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, I happen to glance out my window into my backyard.  There’s a beautiful red cardinal pecking at my grass and behind it a black crow, also pecking.  I can’t help but notice how close they are to each other when another bird appears nearby and then a blue jay…a squirrel walks in front of them.  The squirrel is literally walking, not scurrying, not running, just walking.  The birds don’t fly away. In fact, the cardinal is now hopping toward my kitchen window.  A few weeks ago, I saw a rabbit on my porch next to my sliding door, looking in.  It’s Spring and my family has taken pictures of a young coyote exploring our yard at a leisurely pace and every morning there are little rabbits playing and hopping.  I am not exaggerating.  I honestly expect some birds to fly over with Cinderella’s dress so the mice can complete the alterations…

I believe the animals think we’ve all disappeared.  I don’t think they’re doing anything new, I think they hid all this from us.  They don’t know I’m in here watching (by the way, they’re all still there, I just looked).  I’ve been noticing the birds throughout this pandemic.  Last week I asked my husband how birds view the land.  Not physically how they see it, rather, what does it mean to them?  Their natural domain is in the air and they nest in trees so they can be close to the sky but they look for food on the ground.  Is the ground their unending buffet and do they view it that way?  If so, then it is a dangerous buffet for them because we were always outside threatening them and they are exposed to predators from above when they eat (another squirrel just frolicked past).   If that’s true, then eating has always been dangerous to birds, never the relaxed trip to the buffet we have always enjoyed.  But now, the ground is their safe and leisurely place and we’re not allowed to go to buffets anymore.

All our reference points have changed.

I like to notice these things because reference points are the rudimentary pieces of problem solving.  We tell our tiny kids that if they are ever lost, they should look for the person in the ‘helper’ uniform – the police, the firefighters, etc.  We give them reference points to solve the dilemma.  When my kids were little and still learning to get to a bathroom in time, I told them that if the house they’re in has mezuzahs, when they need a bathroom, look for the room without the mezuzah.  We use reference points all the time.  Every previous experience becomes a reference point from which to judge every future experience.  It’s how we grow.

So, what happens when the reference points are gone?  I most definitely have been noticing the birds the last few weeks.  I think it’s because I have always loved Hitchcock films, so birds behaving strangely will definitely cause me to glance over my shoulder (just making sure they’re not collecting on a jungle gym behind me as I stare strikingly off camera).

And so, the movie The Birds, becomes my reference point and I love watching them as I remain indoors, incognito. 

The reason reference points speak to us so strongly in Judaism is because in order to receive the Torah, we had to remove all the reference points we knew – we had to leave Egypt. We are taken from Egypt into the wilderness, the desert, Bamidbar, which literally means ‘in the desert’. The fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, is called ‘Wilderness’ in Hebrew. That’s not an insignificant difference because those two names are opposite points of view. The book is called Numbers because it starts with Moses taking a census of Israel, he is counting the nation. In fact, numbers are our greatest reference points. It starts with counting ten fingers and ten toes and lasts a whole lifetime as we fill the numbers of years we are each allotted. But Judaism teaches us that our lives and our worth must never be reduced to numbers and so the Hebrew does not reflect that reference point in the title. The Hebrew title presents the opposite point of view: the Wilderness. The name ‘Wilderness’ speaks of no reference points. The only defining feature of a desert is that it has no stable defining features. Israel must remove all familiar points of view to be open to the newness of Torah. Building the vision of a new world must happen without the constraints of the old. 

Once we remove the familiar we cease to be shackled by it, allowing us to entertain new ideas. For this reason, the wilderness in Judaism is not a place where we are lost, it is a place where we can entertain everything as new and make new choices without the hindrance of the old familiarities. Bamidbar guides us away from what threatens us–Egypt– toward what can redeem us–Torah. It is hard to navigate without reference points since we crave them and feel scared without them. Covid 19 is still a threat to so many in the world but we know our doors must start opening. We watch new reference points start to appear as we struggle with personal space defining as not less than 2 meters. How can we build community? How do we celebrate together and how can we support those who must not venture out still and for the foreseeable future.

This week’s parshah, which starts the book of Bamidbar, settles us into thinking of the stability we can now create in the midst of shifting sands. 

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Ah, To Be Fifty!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, has a lot of information about sacrifices, vows, slaves and agricultural things.  But it briefly mentions the number 50, which is the number designated for the Jubilee Year.  I can’t stop thinking about 50.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t put too much stock in how old I am.  I’ll admit, I sometimes have to stop and do the math when I’m asked.  To be fair, I do the math when I’m asked how old my kids are as well.  I remember birth years, because they don’t change, but ages change annually so I have to do the math.  I remember occasions when I was asked how old I am and I hesitated because I was embarrassed that I had to figure it out (I always know within a year or two but they seem to be asking for accuracy).  The other person says, ‘that’s ok, you don’t have to tell me’, thinking I am embarrassed by my age when I’m actually embarrassed by my memory.  I remember things that are important to me but age has never been that important to me. Except, now I can’t stop thinking about 50.

When I turned 50, a friend of mine joked and said ‘you’re not 50, you’re 39 American’ (to anyone in the U.S. reading this, we Canadians have inside jokes about the value of our dollar as compared to the U.S. dollar …you know, the expression “another day, another 85 cents American”).  The truth is, I never take offence if someone forgets my age (my father (z”l) was never quite sure how old I was and was sometimes off by decades – neither of us cared, I guess that’s where I get it).  But, Judaism seems obsessed with numbers so shouldn’t we also be?

But, it’s not all of the numbers Judaism seems to care about, it’s only certain ones, the “Jewish” ones.  The number 1 represents God, 7 is Shabbat, 8 is days for a bris, 10 commandments, 12 tribes of Israel (sounds like the song at the Seder), 18 is life, 40 is transformation, 49 is Omer, and then… I got nothing.  What happened to 50?

A full life is represented with the number 120, but we take that as a symbolic number, since some lives are full and fulfilling earlier while others can reach 120 in an unhealthy way.  It is not the number, it is the symbol.  But everything up to 49 is not the symbol, it really is the number.  So, what happened after 49?

The Torah seems to stay away from the number 50.  We are counting the Omer now, we are told to count 7 weeks of days which will result in 49 days.  The day after that (day 50) is called Shavuot. There are 50 letters in total when we add up all the names of the Tribes of Israel.  So 50 could represent the unity of Jewish perspective, which we never actually want, so we don’t ascribe any importance to the number of letters in the tribal name count.  The ‘redemption from Egypt’ phrase is mentioned in the Torah 50 times, yet that detail isn’t in the Seder at all.  It took us 50 days to journey from Egypt to Sinai which we don’t pay much attention to either.  

It’s not that there is no importance to 50, it clearly marks important moments.  So it’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s more that we don’t want to focus on it.  Shavuot is the holiday that will always fall on the 50th day but it is also the only Jewish holiday without a set date in our calendar.  We know it’s Shavuot because it’s the 50th day from the second day of Pesach – we counted.  Next year, we’ll count it again and the date for Shavuot will be determined by the date for Pesach.  The count produces the holiday, not the calendar.

What could be the reason for such hesitation around 50?

Actually, Judaism does show us glimpses of 50, which we peek at from 49.  A soul has 49 chambers, beyond that is the Divine Essence.  The world was created with 50 Gates of Reason but Moses, God’s closest human companion, could only cross 49 of those thresholds.  It is the number that exists in the world and yet we can never get there.  We seem teased by this week’s parshah when it tells us to mark the Jubilee year, the 50th year, with celebration and liberation for everyone and everything.

But today, these glimpses are all we get.  Today, when we get to the Jubilee Year, instead of hitting 50, we start at year 1 again – we never hit 50.

For example, in biblical time, in the Jubilee year, all land transfers nullify, all slaves are freed, all meadows must rest – everything hits ‘reset’.  The value of anything is measured by what year we’re in and how close we are to the Year of Liberation.  If I buy land in year 49 and one year later ownership goes back to the original owner, that land will cost me pennies.  Time becomes a variable in my economy.

One of the reasons stated for this is because God states that we only lease land, since we did not create it, we cannot own it.  The Torah says that we are residents with God on the land.  God is the landlord, we are the tenants and we all live together.  To remind us of this fact, land ownership transfers back and we become ‘residents by grace’ on the land.  It definitely frames the Jewish view of the world and the environment.

But, in reality, the Talmud tells us we could only celebrate the Jubilee for a very small period of time in the Biblical era.  Once we are in the era between the two Temples, we only counted the years to 50 but had no celebration or change of anything.  After the destruction of the 2nd Temple in the 1st century C.E., we don’t even count.  And so, today, there is no practice of a Jubilee year – we stopped noticing 50.

Jewishly, 50 represents everything around us that is always one step ahead of us.  The things we are yet to explore, the growth we are yet to achieve, the person we are yet to become.  Fifty is the step beyond where we are and will always remain the step beyond where we are, no matter how many steps forward we take.

And as I have shared my thoughts on the parshah and the number 50, I have come to a new conclusion.  The next time someone asks me how old I am, I will accurately answer, ‘I’m the same age you are, a Jewish 49.’

Parshat Emor: Where’s My ‘Do Over’?

With everything that’s happening in the world today, global shutdowns and pandemics, as well as slow reopenings, my mind turns to what used to be.  Ah, remember the days we would take a walk as a diversion from a hectic day?  Remember when we’d watch the news on tv, instead of talking back to it?  Remember when…

Which leads me to childhood thoughts of ‘do-overs’.  For me, it happened mostly at recess in school.  A game of skipping (that’s ‘jump rope’ for all who weren’t in the ‘in’ crowd, skipping-wise) when you ‘get out’ and you shout ‘do over’ to get a free turn.  I’m from the generation when boys and girls didn’t share recess sports together.  Basically, a shared gender recess would be a boy chasing a girl while holding a bug, a close second to a boy hitting a girl in the arm because he liked her.  But even though we didn’t share games at recess, I’m not sure the boys had ‘do overs’ in their soccer or football games.  I don’t mean a disputed foul play that needs to be replayed because it can’t be decided, I mean you clearly lost your turn because you failed but the ‘do over’ gets you a free turn to…well…do it over.  Essentially, it’s an act of grace granted by your peers.  But fair is fair, you only got one ‘do over’ per game, or per recess, or per whatever the owner of the skipping rope determined.  Amazing how much theology occurs at recess.

So, sitting at home, thinking of what was ordinary just a few months ago, I ask myself if I could think of ‘do overs’ in my life.  Here are some of the first things that come to mind:  my sister and I tried sneaking into the house once after being out with friends long after we should have been home.  We didn’t call to say we’d be late because we missed that window when you can call and inform versus your parents have already gone to sleep and now your call will disturb them, or worse, alert them how late you are.  Sweet spot window closes and now all you can do is pray you can sneak in quietly enough.  We took our shoes off on the porch, turned the key in the front door at record slow speed, didn’t turn on any lights…except the light that was turned on by our mother at the top of the stairs because she waited up for us.  We were too young to know that as far as parents are concerned, you stop sleeping when you conceive your child and you never get pre-child sleep patterns back.  We paid the price with days of maternal silence and learned the lesson of respecting the love others have for us.  Would I do that moment over?

Or the time I liked a guy in high school in a community where young girls never initiated contact with boys.  I had two tickets to a formal dinner at our shul and thought it was a great opportunity to ask the young man to be my escort. I had checked with family first, no one wanted to go so this seemed the perfect opportunity.  I covered my eyes while placing the call, navigated through asking his parents if he could come to the phone, heard him say ‘hello’ just as I heard my brother yell from upstairs ‘ok, I’ll go with you’ and now had nothing to say to the guy on the phone.  I stammered, hemmed, coughed, cleared my throat and then asked him how he’s doing.  Not only did we never speak again, even eye contact in school was awkward (I’m blushing as I write this).  Would I do that moment over?

Personally, I would do nothing over.  Each moment of where I came from contributed to where I am.  If I remove little moments of growth I remove little steps forward resulting in a shorter, less enriched journey.  

But while I don’t want the ‘do over’, I do want the ‘do again’.  I want to be in the moment under my chuppah with my chosen partner… again.  I want the moment I met each of my babies…again.  I want the bear hugs of my father and the perfume of my mother…again.  And the truth is, I can have them anytime I want because they wove their way into me and I can spend moments with them at will.

It all seems so obvious, and very this worldly, but this week’s Parshah, Emor, touches on much of this by discussing something called Pesach Sheni – The Second Pesach.  For anyone who missed the first Pesach (various biblical exclusion reasons), here’s the chance to do it again.  Not the ‘do over’, more the ‘sorry I missed it, could I do it again, please?’  It’s so wonderful that the Torah thinks we enjoyed it so much the first time!  Not sure how many of us would do ritual ‘do agains’ because we loved them so much the first time.

And that’s the detail that opens everything about our Jewish lives.  We are supposed to enjoy them!  Judaism should be a good thing in our lives, a positive and solid foundation from which we encounter the world.  Ritual is to open our minds and souls to various forms of expression into the world.  The moment we question why there would be a Pesach Sheni for those poor souls who (were lucky enough) not to worry about it a month ago, that’s an indicator we may have positioned our Judaism in an unhealthy way for ourselves.  We don’t want the Jewish ‘do over’, we want the Jewish ‘do again’.

The world around us will open its doors in the next few months.  Do we sit in our homes wishing for the ‘do over’ of last summer, because we know we won’t get one.  The truth is, I really don’t think we want one.  We want the open door to select which ‘do again’ moments do we want to build into the new moments ahead.

Personally, included in my ‘do agains’, is the moment I held my first baby in front of the window on her first Shabbat and told her God made it snow for her so she could see how the world can blanket in beauty.  A moment I would want to recreate for myself and others.

Parshat Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim: If Only I Could Sing I Could Be Holy

This week I heard government officials talk about getting ready to open our doors again.  Lots of different phases, many different scenarios and possibilities – depends on if we flattened the curve or plateaued the rise or squashed the line.  We’ll open the doors gradually, some of us but not others. Businesses will soon open to anyone whose last name starts with the letter Q…or something like that.  Essentially, it reminded me of bringing a new baby home.

Actually, our doors closed to expectant mothers long before the baby came home.  Not that long ago, women would enter their ‘time of confinement’ once their pregnancies started showing and they were not to leave their homes until they looked ‘normal’ again.  Those doors have certainly opened wide as maternity clothes now sculpt around the baby bump and hug the curves of the baby while it’s still in the womb. But opening the doors of acceptance for mothers-to-be is very different than opening the doors when the baby is born.

In my day, you brought the newborn home and the family cocooned at home as the baby got used to doing things like breathing.  Visitors were kept to immediate family who usually played short games of peekaboo with the baby (in Russian you say ‘coo-coo’ which I learned after trying to explain to my husband what the word peekaboo meant…just so we’re all on the same page…it doesn’t mean anything and can’t be explained in a foreign language)…(to be fair, coo-coo doesn’t mean anything either but we can all see I’ve let that one go…)

But I digress.  Newborn babies did not venture outside for weeks, if not months.  Outside had germs and inconsiderate people who didn’t know not to get too close.  With one of my kids, we took her out at 2 months old when a stranger approached her in her car seat, looked in and ran her fingers up and down the baby’s lips as she made burble noises.  The stranger was the one making the burble noises, I was the one gasping for air as I watched in horror. I quickly moved the baby away, back into the car, back into the house, not to venture out again for another month.

Opening doors for fashion baby bumps is not the same thing as opening doors to a vulnerable human being.  

So, I think about the Torah reading this week and how could it possibly speak to the news I’m hearing and the weeks to come.  Especially since this week there’s a double parshah: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei-Mot describes the continuation of inaugurating a priestly class while parashat Kedoshim contains the Holiness Code.  Most of us aren’t too familiar (or concerned) with how to inaugurate a priestly class, but we are very familiar with aspects of the Holiness Code. Things like who we can and cannot have sexual relations with, as well as the verse: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.  We seem to have a mix of the ‘why would I care’ information and the ‘this is so relevant’ information. In other words, the dilemma most Jews face.

When I was growing up, I remember learning about holiness by watching all the religious movies and shows on tv.  They were all Christian. Being holy meant being a priest or a nun, and you could only be called by God if you could sing really, really well.  Bing Cosby could croon his way to faith and every nun somehow knew how to harmonize the most beautiful renditions of ‘Glo-oh-oh-oh-rious’ you’ve ever heard.  I actually thought you had to pass a singing test to be good enough for God when I finished watching ‘The Song of Bernadette’. Nuns were the only women I saw who were unfathomably gorgeous with their heads, hair and bodies covered, because if you don’t look like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, you don’t get to take your vows.  Lest we also forget that Sally Field was a nun who could fly, if she tilted her habit-hat-wings just so and one of Elvis Presley’s leading ladies really did give up fame and fortune to become a nun (great documentary called “God Is The Bigger Elvis”). This world was only for the select few and the rest of us would just have to be happy with glimpses of their world… holiness was beautiful, sensual and hidden behind the cloistered doors of Hollywood. 

I knew that Jews don’t have nuns and I fully believed Jews didn’t have priests either.  We had Rabbis. They couldn’t moonlight as lounge singers because they didn’t sing, the Cantors did that.  Christian Hollywood had no Cantors. I actually argued with people when they told me that Judaism does have priests, that’s what a Cohen is.  Absurd (I said), Blasphemy (I proclaimed)!! 

Christian holiness was everywhere.  It was special and unattainable. Jewish stuff was in the ‘why would I care’ camp and all my friends spurred each other on with ‘what a drag it is to have to (fill in with anything ritualistic)’.  Deep inside I liked the gentleness of Jewish holy things, but adolescence does not value the gentleness of very much. I quickly learned to cover up my attraction to Jewish holiness and when I learned that Judaism expresses holiness by covering things – my heart burst with joy!

The Holiness Code speaks to us of personal elevation from the mundane to the holy.  We understand that we cover holy things because they are powerful, and we must choose the moments when they are uncovered and expressed into the world.  We cover a Torah until we read from it and we cover it again between aliyahs. We cover our bodies because they are holy. The power is in the uncovering, the revelations, the interactions.  When I love my neighbour as myself, I have elevated another person to the status of my own ego because holiness is always about reaching upward and bringing someone with us.

One of the most unusual aspects of the Holiness Code for the ancient world is that it speaks of how each person can create that holiness for themselves and the things around them.  Usually holiness is reserved for the priestly class. They are the ones that need to know how to make sacrifices, how to facilitate ritual, how to create and elevate from the mundane.  Suddenly, within the ancient world, the Torah speaks of how an entire people could do it – how each individual could do it. It is a revolutionary moment.

Yet, before we delve too deeply into our personal Holiness Codes and our revolutionary endeavours, let’s remember that the first parshah we read this Shabbat is Acharei-Mot, which means ‘After the Death’.  It speaks of inaugurating the priesthood after the death of two of Aaron’s sons.  Aaron must move forward and complete what was started, devastated as he is, broken as he is.  Inaugurating a priesthood in the Jewish world of today is irrelevant to our Jewish reality but how we proceed forward toward holiness after a devastating loss is tremendously relevant.

By reading both portions this Shabbat, the message we need lies within the titles themselves.  After the hit, we move toward a higher expression. As I take social distancing walks these days, I am comforted by simple greetings I exchange with strangers on the street.  A moment of contact and good wishes. The artists and musicians offering their gifts to support others from a balcony or on a front lawn. The voluntary acts of human kindness as strangers find ways to shop for others and people continue paying workers who can no longer show up for work.  

The government has told us that soon our doors will reopen and we will all re-enter the world.  For some, it is the welcome open door of new expressions while for others it might be the gradual open door of caution and responsibility.  But for all of us, it is the open door after the hit.  

Perhaps we can take a moment to remember that the next part of the Torah reading is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code that firmly says ‘aim high’.

Sometimes we don’t want the world we left behind, sometimes we want to continue building the one we’ve been creating.

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Pooh Bear & the Pox

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tazria-Metzora.  It’s a double portion and it has a lot of information about how to identify sores that are oozing and contagious from sores that are passing and benign.  Yes, there are ways to know. They include whether or not a hair spontaneously grew in the middle of the sore and what colour that hair is (I’ll spare you any more details than that).  Buried in the material are relevant concepts for our world today, as is always the case with Torah…but with your permission, I’d rather not immerse myself in the details of leprosy and contagion right now.

AND HAPPILY, IT’S ALSO ROSH CHODESH!

It’s not just any Rosh Chodesh, it’s Iyar. It’s the second month of the Jewish ritual year (remember we have two new years: Rosh Hashanah, which is the universal for humanity and Nisan, which is when Pesach is, when we became the Jewish people).  Iyar is the month after Nisan so it is the second month of our year – it’s the Jewish February. January has all the excitement and hype of newness and February has…28 days. Nothing special going on in February. It’s about the number of days, really similar to Iyar.  Iyar is the month of counting the Omer as we head to Shavuot. The entire month is a month of counting, it’s about the number of days.

I have to imagine that’s why I always get funny messages about how Iyar is like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood.  Eeyore, the dismal donkey, the flatlined monotonic friend who cannot rise to the excitement of anything. 

And so, sitting at home in isolation these days, I’ve decided to explore the Jewishness of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Pooh bear is the innocent kid who goes to the Jewish after-school program at shul.  He can’t really see how much of the Jewish stuff fits into anything else, but in the end, Pooh finds that the information always speaks to him in some way.  Eeyore is Iyar (how could I resist?), the ‘goes along to get along’ person in the shul who anchors and comforts with their very presence but seems to always know what’s wrong with what they just saw. Piglet is the loyal bubbly shul goer who gets excited about everything and is always the first to arrive.  Tigger shows up at all our simchas, we’re not quite sure whose guest list he was on but he’s in every hora and kicks up the party to true joy. Rabbit heads the committees to make sure things get done. A stickler for detail, so Rabbit’s always worried about stuff we don’t usually pay attention to but, in the end, he’s the reason things run smoothly.  Christopher Robin is the gabbai who makes sure things are as they should be. Kanga is every parent and Roo is every toddler. Owl is, of course, the Sage Talmudist. And now, with Gopher the industrialist, we have a complete Hundred Acre Minyan.

They are all in our shuls, in our communities, in our schools and, of course, in our homes.  As isolation focuses us more and more toward reflection, it becomes clear that the Sages were correct when they said each person is a universe unto themselves.  I am the Hundred Acre Wood and they are all living in me.

But aside from the philosophical approach to Winnie the Pooh, the month of Iyar does have a beautiful and incredibly relevant voice in these times.  The Chassidic Masters highlighted that the acronym for ‘Iyar’, in Hebrew, stands for the verse “I am the God who heals you” (Ani ‘Yod Yod’ Rof’echa).  And our ancient texts are filled with debates about whether we should rely on only God for healing and medicines. Is it a sin to see a doctor?

The overwhelming response, and certainly the ruling in Jewish law, is that we are to seek the remedies of science and the skills of physicians.  The God who heals us does it directly within our souls and also by imbedding the knowledge of cures and remedies into the world and the ability to discover those cures into us.  In other words, seeing a doctor is part of recognizing God as the Healer.

But the texts also make it clear that we must advocate for our own health and healing.  When Hagar prays for her dying son, Ishmael, the angel first responds to the voice of the child – the one who is sick.  While our prayers support others, their prayers are the leading voices. 

So, in these trying times of challenge and virus, we support ourselves, we support others and we listen to make sure they are likewise supporting themselves.  When speaking of themselves, we want to hear their voice of self-leadership. If not, it is a moment of reaching out we should never ignore.

And now I’ve discussed Rosh Chodesh, I took a trip to the Hundred Acre Shul, had a quick appointment with God the Healer, bringing us to today’s challenge of illness and contagion…and Parshat Tazria-Metzora was, in fact, relevant.  

I knew we’d get there.

Parshat Shemini: Who Knows 8 – I Thought I Did

This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, delves into all the things that happen on the 8th day.  The only problem is, there is no 8th day. I mean, of course there’s an 8th day if we’re counting from day 1 and we just keep counting, but that’s not how the Torah taught us to do things.  The universe was created in 7 days. The world revolves around 7 days. When I get to number 7 I am supposed to start again at number 1 – so really the 8th day is actually day 1 of my second group.

In fact, everything in the Torah revolves around 7 for groupings.  Now that Passover is finished, we are counting the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot.  We are told to count these days in groups of 7: seven weeks filled with 7 days each. We count the Omer by citing which week it is and which day, always aware of how the number 7 is framing our count.  We are counting up to Shavuot, we add in our counting. In Judaism we never count down to things, we always count up to them. Counting down has a sense of doom as we near the deadline (who thought up these terms?). When we count down we have a sense of dread but when we count up we have a sense of anticipation.

I recently asked an engineer why space shuttle launches count down with the phrase ‘T minus 10 seconds, T minus 9 seconds…’ etc.  I was told that T stands for the Time variable and therefore the time variable is set to 10 and the countdown will now reference that variable with the subtraction of 1 second each time.  I asked why they don’t just count down without the ‘T’, like the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He blinked a few times and said he didn’t understand my question. However, he did tell me that after the launch they switch to T plus formulas.  But even there, the T refers to the deadline for launch and so the deadline becomes the constant reference point, the ‘zero’ – except we all know there is no such thing as zero, it’s a place holder (all our math teachers were correct, we just didn’t get it till we were older).  So everything counts toward and away from something that doesn’t really exist…and we’re all fine with that?

The most I can make sense of all of this is that our physical bodies move forward with a set rate of cellular decay.  Aging is a process of our cells breaking down, not building up. Maybe that’s why we naturally gravitate toward countdowns.

But Judaism speaks to our souls as well as our bodies.  Our souls grow in strength and expression, they count up.  

All of this brings me to how Jewish text teaches us of the numbers 7 and 8.  As I mentioned, 7 frames our week and frames our holidays. Here is how the number 7 stabilizes us:

  1. The world was created in 7 days
  2. The 1st verse of the Torah has 7 words
  3. We count the Omer in 7 groups of 7 days
  4. The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches
  5. There are 7 Noahide laws guiding all of humanity
  6. There are 7 blessings for a bride and groom
  7. We mourn a loved one by sitting shiva for 7 days (the word shiva means 7)

The world was created in 7 days and we mourn a loved one for 7 days.  Life itself is framed with the number 7.

But then the Parshah says “And on the 8th day” and we are struck!  What 8th day?! And as we read further, we realize the 8th day contains irrational things.  It is the 8th day on which the Tabernacle is inaugurated, the place that embodies holy space that we created.  We take it with us as we move nomadically. It is a threshold of connection between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and another world.  It is the doorway to the irrational. But it doesn’t end there.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini (the 8th day), Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer foreign fire on the altar and are immediately killed.  We’re never quite sure what foreign fire is and we’re never quite sure what they intended because we’re all so stunned by their deaths. Ritual is supposed to be a safe place, holiness is supposed to be a haven and a relationship with God is supposed to be a protected space.  They entered all of that and were killed. We will never figure out what it all means because it will simply never make sense. It is irrational and we live with it because we have no choice.  

In the parshah we are also told of the laws of kosher animals and fish.  Again, try explaining rationally why an animal with a split hoof that chews its cud is ok but one with a split hoof that doesn’t chew its cud is not ok.  You’ll never explain it because it’s irrational.

And the irrational of 8 continues.  Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth (notice we count up from the birth, not down).  Circumcision is irrational. We do it because we are commanded to do it. Even if one argued a medical benefit, there is no medical benefit to be had by saying a bracha – it is clearly a spiritual moment.

Ancient Jewish texts list 8 genders within humanity.  If gender were rational, there would only be 2 to facilitate procreation, yet 2000 years ago the Sages were discussing 8 of them.  

The number 8, the space within Judaism where things exist and impact us but our minds will never catch up with them.  

Pesach just ended and we look forward to Shavuot – we are counting up toward the holiday.  The spirituality of Judaism is moving us toward a positive future moment and we can start to get excited for it.  We are still in our homes, Covid 19 is still not understood well enough and so the world around us has mostly shut down.  It is unrecognizable to us right now – it is the 8th day. But a beautiful Talmudic text states that all the harps of the Temple had 7 strings on them and all the soulful melodies of the Levites were played on those harps, but in the days of Redemption, the harps will have 8 strings on them.

So the 8th day is the day of the irrational, it has both positive and negative within it but it mostly has potential redemption.  It is only negative if we try to force it into the rules of the 7th day – if we fight it. We move through the 8th day often in our lives.  We need to accept it for what it is and understand that it speaks to our souls and in that way it can make us feel redeemed. We will feel it, we will never understand it.

The 8th day teaches us that our eyes are always forward.  It shows us that we are always counting up.