The Prayer, the Parrot, and the Rabbi

As we are just days away from Yom Kippur, my mind goes to three places: the prayer, the parrot, and the rabbi.  I am speaking very specifically about one prayer, one parrot and one rabbi.  In general, I am a big fan of prayer.  I believe it works the way the Hebrew verb ‘lehitpalel’ tells us –it is a reflexive verb, so it will be an action that moves from me outward, only to reflect back onto me again.  Prayer works when it shows me something about myself I’m ready to see, because I spoke it outwardly where I could look at it.  Brilliant!  Except for one prayer in particular, usually referred to as “Who by Fire”.  For me, that’s a prayer that triggers my inner fear and helplessness.  

Here are the words:

“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at an extreme and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by natural and widespread catastrophe and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

You can’t help but ask yourself ‘who wants to go to shul ever again?’  It strikes terror into our awareness of human frailty.  

And then my mind goes to the parrot.  The story of that one parrot who won’t stop swearing.  No matter what its owner does, all the parrot wants to do is curse its owner with the most foul and offensive language imaginable.  The parrot was an inherited gift and came to the owner already knowing these curses and simply won’t give them up.  One day, the owner decides he can’t take it anymore, he needs to punish the parrot and maybe fear of the punishment will make the parrot stop.  Since parrots come from hot climates, the owner decides to put the parrot into the freezer for a few minutes and maybe the parrot will get the message.  The owner puts it into the freezer and shuts the door.  He hears the parrot squawking and cursing, and after about a minute, there is silence.  The owner opens the freezer and the parrot immediately apologizes to the owner profusely and vows never to curse again.  The owner says he forgives the parrot but the parrot wants to ask the owner a question.  ‘Of course’, said the owner.  The parrot looks at the owner and asks, ‘what did the chicken do?’

For me, that is ‘who by fire’ — life and destiny can scare me into compliance and obedience but too much of Jewish text tells me to challenge myself to explore a deeper relationship than fear.

And so, I turn to a verse we use often in prayer, and during Yom Kippur: “Hashivenu Adonai ve-nashuva” – “Cause us to return, God, and we will return to You”.  Judaism teaches us that we are involved in a covenant with God, two partners committed to the same relationship.  When I see my partner behaving a certain way I will respond.  When I feel the distance, I turn to my partner and ask that my partner pull me back.  

There is a powerful story of a Chassidic rabbi who would stop teaching his students in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  When asked why, he would say that he is preparing for Yom Kippur day and night and therefore can’t teach.  His students would watch him through his window as he wrote and wrote, filling pages with his writings.  One student courageously asked him how these writings prepare him for Yom Kippur.  The rabbi said that first he makes a list of everything he’s committed himself to in the last year and did not fulfil.  He puts all those pages in one pile.  Then he goes through the Tanakh and makes a list of all the things God committed to do and didn’t do.  He puts those pages in another pile.  The rabbi tells his student that on Yom Kippur he will read both lists over and over.  At the end of the day, before the shofar sounds, the rabbi turns to God and says, ‘You forgive me and I forgive You’.

On Yom Kippur we stand with our Divine Partner and present our best case.  There will be moments when we must acknowledge how frightening life can be and how frail we truly are (who by fire and who by freezer)…and then we get back to being the strong and committed partners we are trusted to be.

May this year bring everyone, everywhere, health, safety, joy, and a future of new opportunities!

Parshat Nitzavim: It’s My Song To Sing

A few years ago, I decided to get adventurous with my cooking and bought cedar planks for fancy salmon cooking.  The planks needed to be soaked in water for some time before using them and so I carefully put them to soak overnight.  I realized, when I got into bed, that I had not told my husband there were cedar planks soaking in the kitchen, and since the next day was garbage day – without question those cedar planks were going to end up in the recycle bin and my dream of cedar infused salmon filets was over.  I woke my husband and mentioned that there’s wood soaking in the kitchen, it shouldn’t be thrown out.  He said ok.  I asked if he heard me, he said ok.  I asked if he could tell me what I just told him…he said ok.  I decided to catch him in the morning before any damage was done.

The next morning, I woke up and mentioned the cedar planks to him once I saw he was truly awake.  He told me he didn’t know what they were and had already taken out the recycling, but he was happy to retrieve them, since nothing gets picked up for about an hour.  I got dressed, went downstairs and saw the wood was not back in the kitchen, my husband was having coffee and I could hear the recycle truck approaching on our street.  I quickly shouted, ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and my husband immediately put his coffee down, jumped up, ran out the door and saved them.  What I didn’t notice was my teenage daughter was in the room watching this happen.  As my husband ran out of the house, she looked at me and shouted, ‘What the hell does that mean?!?  Should I drop and roll???  What just happened?!’  I later heard her telling her siblings: ‘I can’t explain it.  Mum walked into the room and yelled ‘cedar planks’ and papa dropped everything and ran out of the house –it made perfect sense to them.  Actually happened, I couldn’t make this stuff up.’

The phrase has now entered our family lexicon.  When something is pressing and needs immediate attention, we just raise our voice and proclaim ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and we stop what we’re doing to listen and attend.  It makes perfect sense to us…it also looks strangely quixotic to anyone else.

Every family has their vocabulary of experiences that create phrases that are meaningful to them and opaque to anyone else.  The explanations won’t work, it is the result of shared experience.

As Jews, we have done the same thing by creating the shared experience vocabulary of a people.  ‘Rosh Hashannah is so early this year’ is meaningful to a Jew but to someone who does not share the experience it is a confusing statement – how is it early or late if it’s a calendar event?  ‘Seder madness’, ‘Pesach politics’, ‘being Jew-ish’, ‘being a mensch’, ‘raising a l’chaim’, are all examples of phrases that have immediate meaning and can’t really be fully explained with their nuances. 

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Nitzavim, is Moses knowing his final moments are imminent.  He is sounding more desperate in an effort to make sure Israel can handle what is coming.  He repeats, in various ways, that if Israel strays from God, nothing good will result.  It doesn’t matter how many times the people assure him they got the message, he will repeat it nonetheless, with increasing images of doom and destruction.  If they don’t see the sense of the matter, maybe fear will protect them.

Then Moses tells the people that two paths lie before them: life and death.  We are commanded to choose life (interesting that it’s a commandment, which means it needs intention and action).  Toward the end of his message, Moses refers to the song that he is writing and that everyone must learn the song and teach it to their children.  The song must be in their mouths and always available and meaningful.  Moses writes it, teaches it and beseeches everyone to sing it and teach it for shared singing.  The song is to keep us united and protect each other.

The ‘song’ is understood by the Sages to be the Torah.  We study it so it can become second nature for us.  We teach it to our children so it will stabilize them.  It is poetic and melodious and joyful.  The song is the place we all meet and recognize, how sad if we turn it into the place of judgment and discord. 

The High Holidays are approaching quickly, and we might not all be sitting together in our shuls as we have in years gone by. But wherever we are, we know that we can share the same song and it will always speak to us in that Jewish moment.  This year, my kids will be blowing shofars in my yard and for me that is part of my Jewish song.  It connects with the songs I’ve inherited and the ones I’ve created.  It is a call to history, to repentance, a pull on my heart with the immediacy of the day.  It is my personal ‘cedar planks!’

Parshat Ki Tavo: As Is Holiness

Parts of my family got together in my backyard last week for a socially distanced Friday night Shabbat meal.  Things were so different and yet so beautifully the same.  I have a basket filled with kippahs that is available to anyone who would like a kippah but hasn’t brought their own.  The basket has memories of simchas, family moments embossed on the kippah with the names and dates and labels of milestones gone by.  If I dig through that basket, I can find kippahs from friends’ weddings, family bnei mitzvahs –I dare say my own wedding kippah might be buried somewhere deep inside that basket.  When babies are born into the family we put some of their tiny hats into the basket so they can likewise have a ‘head covering’ for singing on Friday nights.  The basket is filled with various colours, textures, sizes and designs.  I learned this from my mother who has a similar kippah bag in her home –huge amount of choices in my mother’s kippah bag!  

But more choice is not necessarily better.

Whenever my extended family would get together at my mother’s for a Shabbat or holiday meal, the kippah bag would get passed around and the ‘shopping’ would begin.  I would watch each person put their hand into the narrow opening of the bag and pull out a kippah they didn’t like.  It might be the colour, the texture or even the embossed message inside that would make that person decide to put the kippah back and choose another.  By the time the bag made its way around (about 40ish people), everyone was getting a bit ‘hangry’ and starting to snip at each other about why it’s taking so long.  Toward the end of the process, people would just give out head coverings to the people around them to speed things up (funny how personal liberties get limited when people get hungry).  In the end, half the room had lovely kippahs on their heads and the other half had quirky caps, children’s hats that didn’t fit or tiny infant kippahs with the laces hanging down on each side.   We eventually had to institute the sage advice we learn in kindergarten: ‘You get what you get and you don’t get upset’ –first kippah you touch is the one you wear and no one’s allowed to judge you.

It’s not that there aren’t good choices in the kippah basket, it’s that we’re tempted to think there are somehow always better choices in there, we just have to exhaust the possibilities.  This can often become our approach to life.

The obvious downside to all of this is that the search will never end.  It is impossible to exhaust every possibility of anything, and we can fall into a life perspective of continuous searching with no arrivals.  This week’s Torah portion is named Ki Tavo, translated as ‘When you arrive’.  It contains all of Moses’ warnings to Israel about their behaviour once he’s gone.  It is filled with a short list of blessings and a really long list of curses (Covid is still with us so no need to dwell on the curses right now).  Interestingly, when discussing building an altar ‘once we arrive’ in Israel, the text forces us to scale down not up.

The altar is to be built by our hands with any tools we may need, excluding any tool made of iron.  Iron is for weaponry, and so it should never be used to create sacred altars which are meant for building peace.  War doesn’t create peace, peace is what happens in the absence of war.

The altar should be built using stones we find, not stones we fashion.  We are forbidden to hew the stones to fit each other, we need to figure out how to fill the gaps created when the stones don’t fit each other.  In other words, don’t create false conformity, learn to value the distinctiveness of each piece and how to join them effectively without changing them. Holiness is created when each part is allowed to remain its authentic self.

Through the simplest of restrictions, the Torah has shown us that any object lying around us daily can transform when we see its potential.  There is holiness within something when we recognize that its utility is speaking to its beauty which builds into its connection to other objects –when we see their value ‘as is’ (how interesting that the retail phrase ‘as is’ means an object is somehow less than it should be but we accept it and buy it in its diminished form, directly opposite to the Torah’s lesson here).

‘When we arrive’ somewhere is when we can look at what we have around us and recognize that it is simultaneously ‘as is’ and ‘as it could be’.  The journey is the search, the arrival is when my hands build–knowing I have everything I need by just looking around.

With Rosh Hashannah approaching, and many of us finding ourselves creating holy spaces in our homes, unable to go to shul, the powerful message of building an altar speaks with such relevance.  Finding the things around us that suddenly become beautiful in their mundane distinctiveness and the way they fit together to represent who we are.  

We don’t need more objects to choose from to create holiness in our homes, we know how to do this with what we have. We somehow all knew to fill a basket with kippahs of memories, or a drawer, or a bag.  Each of our homes have everything we need to create the holiness we all intuitively understood lies within us and all around.

Parshat Ki Teitzei: Is It Really Blowing in the Wind?

The world is now functioning online in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few months ago.  Work, school, shopping, entertainment, social encounters and shul are now part of our online existences.  It’s been an incredible learning curve for me.  When I first started shopping online, I allowed the ‘shopper’ to make replacements to food items that were out of stock.  I ended up with several non-kosher products my family couldn’t eat, and so began the weekly bag of food that I gave to my neighbour, the Anglican minister.  I shopped for clothes that weren’t exactly what I thought, patio furniture that never arrived, electronics that glitched and television channel subscriptions that I forgot would renew after the two week trial period.  I started to build my Facebook page for online social interactions, but once my friends group grew, I became too intimidated to actually post anything.  Online living has become the country I now live in, never having planned the trip.

I remember first learning of what ‘online’ meant through music sharing and something called Napster (for those of you who remember what that is, I don’t need to explain, for everyone too young to know about it, essentially we got to look at other people’s playlists and download anything they had that we wanted -it was a world where everyone was innocent and didn’t feel they were violated by you having access into my private computer files…we have since learned better).  At first, it didn’t occur to the average person that we were all infringing on copyright laws.  Then it didn’t occur to us that the artists who created all that wonderful music would never be paid for their genius.  When all these issues came out, the argument I kept hearing was that ‘if it’s in the air, it’s free.’  Radio waves, actually, any waves, once put into the air shouldn’t belong to anyone, so technically I can grab what I want out of the air.  I mean, how can you license the right to use air?

Napster was sued, people were charged, education took place and we understood that online still has protocols, legalities and decency of ownership and acknowledgments.  

We used to think the same thing about water.  When I was growing up, only science fiction described a world where people would pay money for water.  It comes from the ground, or falls from the sky, why would we pay for that?  If it’s in the air, it’s free.  Does a country own the air above it?  If so, how far up?  At what point is it outer space and ownerless?  Who decided how far a country’s border rights extend into the oceans?  If we call it ‘international waters’ does that mean all nations own it or no nations own it?

It’s a tricky concept, the idea of understanding how ownership and economics can play into the natural world we all need and share.  We’re still trying to figure it out, while the Torah introduces a perspective on all this that is unique in its understanding of nuance and human bond.

In this week’s portion, Parshat Ki Teitzei, the Torah discusses what a labourer is entitled to, in terms of ‘eating on the job’.  When someone is working in the fields of a landowner, the worker is entitled to eat the raw produce from the land, but cannot take any of it home.  In other words, until the produce of the land begins its economic journey (wheat being milled or olives being pressed, etc.), it is part of what the land gives the world and therefore the worker is entitled to share.  Once it begins its transformation into processed goods for market, it now becomes a commodity, owned by the corporate owner.

The picture in the Torah is one of ownership and balance.  Some of us own things, some of us produce what others own, some of us sell what others produce and on and on.  At some point, we must all find a moment of equalization and participation in understanding that raw materials from the earth remind us that only God truly owns the world and we impact it with the permissions the Owner has granted.  The harvesters can eat from the grapes being harvested while they are in their hands (and it’s lunchtime so they do not take time they are paid for and compound it by eating the inventory – Mishnah’s got that one covered).  Workers should not be hungry while they collect food, but food that moves from the earth to the processing plant is now owned and must not be eaten by another.

The Torah tells us that working to feed others should not leave me poor and hungry, but those who hire me to work there should not be my family’s personal food bank.  There is a balance to be struck between what nature gives us, what we put into it and how we enjoy the benefit of it.

I don’t know if the world will ever return to its pre-online realities.  Will shopping ever look the same?  I hope, one day, we can sit together in a beautiful concert hall and enjoy the full body experience of an orchestra.  If we do, the music will fill us, the notes will float in the air for everyone sitting there to enjoy.  If I worked in that concert hall and helped bring about that reality, the Torah would absolutely allow me to pause in my work and enjoy the beauty of the sound, as it would also always prohibit me from recording it to take home —even if the last note resonates and hangs in the air.

Parshat Shoftim: The Torah, the King, the Horses and the Wives

This week my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary.  We shared a lovely dinner and talked about our memories, our kids, our life journeys, how we never imagined we would be together through a pandemic and how lucky we are that we like each other.  A relative posted one of our wedding pictures on social media with anniversary wishes —we look so young and innocent…and so well dressed.

I got my wedding gown from a wholesale factory in the garment district (apparently buying retail was simply not done back in the day).  I showed them the dress I wanted from a magazine, they took my measurements and told me I could pick up the dress two days before the wedding.  It all sounded good to me.  Once I had the dress I was told I now need shoes to go with it, a veil that matches, which of course needs the part that covers my face.  Once I have the veil worked out, I needed to decide on the headpiece for the veil…that would need to go with the dress… and the shoes… and the veil.  Now let’s talk flowers for the bouquet! I will be holding a bouquet that needs to go with the dress…and the shoes…and the veil…

The bridesmaids needed dresses and shoes and bouquets and all the bells and whistles.  Only problem was, anyone who knows me knows that I am not someone who enjoys getting involved in all these details —I was thrilled with showing the picture in the magazine, getting measured and picking up the dress just before I needed it.  I like simplicity that leads to simplicity.  Most of life never happens that way.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Israel is told about what happens when the nation decides it wants a king.  There are particular laws in place to describe what the king can’t do.  First and foremost, the king can never be a foreigner and must always be accountable to the same laws of Torah that defines the people.  In fact, the king must write his own Torah scroll so he has shaped every word, every sentence.  Interestingly, the king is prohibited from taking too many horses and too many wives.

Of all things to prohibit, horses and wives aren’t what instantly come to mind.  But when we pull back for the bigger picture, we realize the brilliance of the prohibition and the definition it provides.  Heads of government who work efficiently, quickly understand that you do not waste resources.  If I have horses, I need chariots; if I have chariots, I need warriors to drive them; if I have horses, chariots and warriors, I need campaigns to engage them.  Armed campaigns build territory and territory acquisition builds empires.  Limit the horses and you limit your army which will limit your expansion toward empire.  In other words, thrive in Israel but don’t let a king become an empire builder, that’s not what covenant is about.

Similarly, kings take wives to build political alliances and not because they are in true romantic love with each wife and build personal relationships with them.  Each wife is an alliance with her family, her nation and her king.  Wives are political chess pieces.  The more wives, the more alliances, the more strategic complexity for when you expand your territory (all those horses) and build your empire.

When we think of Jewish leadership, as described in this week’s parshah, we understand that the details in the Torah speak of the vision and its definition, and they are now essential to the picture.  Covenant details the Jewish relationship with the land of Israel and the society we build there.  It also lets us know of the temptations and human inclination towards ego, grandeur and expansion.  Limit the horses, limit the wives and thrive.

Just before my wedding anniversary this year I took out my wedding gown and changed the hanger and garment bag.  There was a tag hanging on the inside I had never noticed before.  It was a handwritten note with numbers of some code dressmakers use to communicate something.  I was intrigued, I stared and turned myself inside out trying to decipher the code.  It suddenly hit me, these were the measurements they had taken of me all those years ago. I gasped…sat for a moment before looking in the mirror and had to laugh.  I realized that the dress needed the shoes and the veil to grow into the outfit that I would never fit into again and that my marriage had grown into my family that fits me so beautifully.  

The growth of something allows for the imagination to fly high with possibilities.  Most of us are empowered to reach beyond, personal growth should be limitless but a leader’s growth requires boundaries.  The Torah shows us that the balance within power sits in the defined limits that stop unimpeded growth before it starts.

Want to read more? Check out Rachael’s previous blog on Parshat Shoftim.

Parshat Re’eh: One to Fly the Heavens

For years I had an arrangement with my kids that if I’m driving them somewhere they have to play DJ and only put on music they think I’ll like.  It’s a win/win since I get to hear all the great music and they had to research my favourite musicians and which genres I prefer.  There was one song that was lovely and soothing but I had to nix it from the playlist because it’s too soothing for driving –it would lull me into a trance.  It’s called Three Wishes by The Pierces and the lyrics I really like brought beautiful images to explore:

You want three wishes

One to fly the heavens, one to swim like fishes

You want never bitter and all delicious

And a clean conscience and all its blisses

You want one true lover with a thousand kisses

You want soft and gentle and never vicious

And then one you’re saving for a rainy day

The proverbial 3 wishes, the magic Genie who will grant those magic secrets of our heart, the fantasy of wish fulfillment that Freud named and we all primordially desire.

It seems to never go away.

I recently asked some young people what they would wish for if they had 3 wishes.  The usual exclusion applied — you could not wish for more wishes.  

I had some interesting responses:

One person wished for an end to the pandemic, international communication, and youth.

One person said they’d have to think about it, they’d get back to me at some point.

One person said they’d want infinite resources, infinite time, and because that was all they’d ever need, they’re donating their third wish to charity.

No one wished for happiness.

King Solomon was once asked by God what he would like as a Divine gift and he asked for wisdom.  The Sages praised his choice, saying wisdom would grant him anything else in life he could desire, wisdom would find the way to achieve it.

Even King Solomon didn’t ask for happiness.

But when you ask any parent what they want for their child, they would all, undoubtedly, say they want their kids to be happy.  So, why do we want it for those we love but not for ourselves?

When we celebrate a life milestone Jewishly, we celebrate a ‘simcha’, which means ‘happiness’.  Quite literally, planning any simcha translates as ‘we’re planning the happy’.  I send out invitations so you can join my happy and no matter what life may throw at me, I don’t postpone my happy once it’s planned.  We’ve witnessed Covid simchas proceed as planned, once scheduled, even though every detail about the event has changed, but the date usually won’t.  Happy is not to be delayed.

I also asked the same group of young people why they would choose to have Judaism present in their lives.  Why get married with a chuppah?  Why recognize a Jewish holiday?  Why put a mezuzah on your house?  I got varied and unique responses, but when I asked them if they did any of that because it made them happy to do it, only 1 person said yes…after thinking about it for a while.

We have so many Jewish expressions for being happy, but we don’t internalize how important that is within Judaism and within the Torah.  We want to get the commandments ‘right’, we want to celebrate holidays without upsetting family members who are Jewishly traditional or putting off family members who are Jewishly liberal.  We set the bar for Jewish holidays at hoping no one walks away offended and let’s all say a communal prayer that the drama stay outside the gathering.

It’s so interesting, given this week’s portion, parshat Re’eh.  It’s a daunting Torah portion.  Moses is getting ready to die and he’s addressing Israel with a warning about blessings and curses.  He reviews EVERYTHING he can think to say: don’t worship idols, keep the holidays, here are the details of the holidays, don’t worship idols, don’t eat blood, remember to tithe, don’t worship idols…

It’s exactly what we’d expect him to say:  do what God wants and you get blessings, go astray and you get curses.  The surprise isn’t in the information or the instruction, it’s the thing we hardly notice: the number of times Moses tells us to be happy.

On six separate occasions Moses commands us to be happy.  The first time he refers to being happy because we have food.  The second time we should be happy with family and friends.  The third time it lists food, family and friends and the works of our hands.  The fourth time it includes everything up to then, while we embark on a pilgrimage to meet our fellow Jews.  The fifth time it refers to the holiday of Shavuot and now includes foreigners, widows and orphans.  The sixth time it tells us to be happy in our holidays, includes everyone mentioned before and ends with declaring “And you should be oh so happy”.

Each time, we are to bring our happiness to God when we visit and remember, it’s not nice to come empty handed, always bring a gift.  

Moses uses the language of commandment to discuss our happiness.  It is not something we wish for, it is something we choose.  It starts with recognizing we have what we need — food — and it builds from there to family, to friends, to nation, universally and transformatively.  Things don’t make me happy, I choose the happy, but happy does not create rose coloured glasses.  It is happy within a world that is challenged and filled with suffering.  My obligations are not diminished by my happiness, they are simply met more fully when I choose to smile.

Moses has done what every parent would hope to do: remind us of our commitments, our obligations, our responsibilities, and then command us to find ‘the happy’, or we will grow to resent it.  As the High Holidays start to approach and we question how this year will look, it is so crucial to hear Moses remind us that the challenges will never go away so why focus there, the part we can fulfill, no matter what, is to look forward to celebrating another Jewish holiday in a way that makes each of us uniquely happy.

So why not have it all?  In a challenging moment, I could list how many things have gone wrong with my electronics in the last 24 hours…or…close my eyes and imagine I can fly the heavens, swim like fishes, find I’m covered with a thousand kisses as I save a last wish for a rainy day. 

Parshat Eikev: I’m Sorry, Did You Say Wear These Boxes?

I’ve been thinking about tefillin this week.  Not just because it’s in this week’s parshah, Eikev, but more because it’s summer.  In Canada, summer is the season for cottages and camping —both have been challenging this year.  So I’ve spent some time remembering summers gone by and I keep coming back to one memory when one of my sons was invited to go camping with a school friend and his family.  The friend isn’t Jewish which raised some logistical questions for us.  My husband and I decided years ago that we wanted to teach our children how Judaism enhances their lives, not restricts it.  We decided we needed to raise them with increasing awareness of how to navigate a world that doesn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat or Jewish holidays.  We wanted them to learn where Jewish law is flexible, how it can be adhered to, while still developing relationships and having experiences in the world at large.  All was going well until the camping trip invitation.

I called the friend’s mother to ask about the food arrangements (perhaps the family is vegetarian?). She told me they camp by a lake and catch fish to eat.  She asked if that was ok and I mentioned that we’re Jewish, my son keeps kosher but he would know which fish he could eat so all should be fine. She didn’t know what kosher was, she’d heard the word, but so long as my son knew what to do, she was comfortable. Great opportunity for family education on ‘Jewish living in the wild’.  My family sat down and we went over the kosher fish identifiers (scales and fins) and refreshed on the difference (kosher wise) between hot and cold food, cooked or fresh, packaged or binned and some of the ins and outs we had taught the kids before. Everything was good to go.  We started packing for the trip and my son reached for his tefillin, which he put on every morning.  That’s when it hit me.  

I asked if his friend knows he puts tefillin on.  He said his friend wouldn’t know what tefillin is, so probably no.  He thought for a moment and then asked if it would be ok to walk away from the campsite to put his tefillin on so he wouldn’t look odd to his hosts.  I told him it would probably be ok, but if they asked why he was leaving the campsite he shouldn’t lie about it.  Then I pictured him in the woods putting tefillin on and I told him not to stand in front of a singular tree and pray, find a place with a few trees grouped together but remember to face east (some of the nuanced sensitivities Jewish law has about praying to a tree, didn’t have time to explain it all to him, too busy focussing on the food thing).  Also, don’t go too far from people because campsites always have bears nearby —any bear tracks nix the whole deal!  He asked what to say if they ask what he’s doing and he can’t lie.  I came up with a blank.  He could say he’s going to pray…in the woods…away from everyone…not too close to a tree…with a book and a velvet bag…no worries…not weird at all.

All this time I thought keeping kosher would always be the challenge and suddenly the food was easy, it was the tefillin.  We get so used to it, we forget how strange it can look to others.  I enjoy watching adolescents practice putting tefillin on.  Most often the arm straps are too tight and the skin bulges.  One wonderful moment involved a boy somehow ‘tefillining’ his arm to his head and searching for his father to untie him.  Beautiful moments of passage.

You can’t help but ask why the Torah would command us to do this, as it does in this week’s parshah.  We are to place ‘these words’ on our arms and between our eyes.  From that statement onward, we develop laws and practices of how and when and what.  According to Jewish law, every component of the tefillin has to be a product of nature, mostly animals.  Tefillin is symbolic of our partnership with God and so we turn to nature to see God’s Hand in it all.  But the boxes themselves, as well as some of the stitching, must be perfect squares.  Perfect squares don’t exist in nature —that’s entirely us.  And so the union of nature and perfect squares embodies the partnership between us and God woven together.

The configuration of tying the tefillin on the arm, and its placement on the head, spells out one of the names of God.  We are literally writing God’s Name on our bodies as we put on the tefillin.  The placement on the arm symbolizes restraining our physical might to never harm the partnership.  The placement ‘between the eyes’ puts the tefillin where the soft spot of our heads was when we were born.  The front fontanel, the soft part of the skull, only hardens in the first year of life.  It symbolizes the flexibility of our minds, our thoughts, our perspectives.  The tefillin knot at the back of the head lies on the smaller fontanel at the back of the skull that hardens between the ages of 2 and 3.  In other words,  I place the symbolic commitment of my partnership with God on the parts of my skull that remained flexible even after birth.

At one point, while putting on the tefillin, it is customary to quote the prophet Hosea: “I betroth you to me forever.  I betroth you to me in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and mercy.  I betroth you to me in faithfulness —and you shall know God.”  It’s the statement of intent and commitment that we would all want to hear from our intimate partners and, in turn, be able to pledge to them.

In today’s world, some people choose to tattoo the names of their lovers onto parts of their body.  Jewish law prohibits permanent tattoos, but the desire to ‘wear’ the identity of a loved one, to clothe ourselves with them, seems very primal.  The Torah has told us there is a ritual where we can ‘write’ the name of God on us, commit ourselves to the partnership, restrain our ability to harm it and always remember to be flexible within the partnership —it’s called tefillin.

 The strange looking, hard to explain, cherished right of Jewish passage that embodies the expressions of love, partnership and commitment we would all crave.  My son’s camping trip with his friend went really well.  The tefillin question never came up, they were too busy asking why the fish had to have scales AND fins.

Parshat Va’etchanan: If I Could Walk In Your Shoes I’d Have Bigger Feet

One of my daughters told me about a book club she recently organized.  She didn’t mean to organize it, it just ended up that way.  It wasn’t even her idea, it was the result of a friend telling her that isolation was getting to her and she couldn’t take any more virtual relationships —she needed “real.”  And so the idea of an actual book club, where people sit together (socially distanced) in one place (outside) and share thoughts on a book (since they are socially distanced, they will be sharing these thoughts with 4 neighbours who are also in their yards) was born.  

The idea was great, but within a few days, her friend told her she was having difficulty finding friends to bring.  All of her friends were busy reorganizing their lives, working from home, streaming media on their devices, too overwhelmed to commit to an actual meeting together once a month, or to pledge to finish reading the book.  My daughter (continuing to feel compassion for her friend who wants the “real” experience) found a friend who agreed to find more people. (She told me the second person she found is the sister of the first person since it was indeed a challenge to get someone to agree to an actual “real” obligation these days).  Soon, friends were finding friends and a book club was formed.  Everything went fine and just as they were getting ready to meet for the first time, one month away, the friend tells my daughter she’s not sure she can be there because she had to go to the United States for an important event and when she gets home she will have to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  My daughter reminded her that the book club has been organized for her.  The friend assured my daughter she could be there…virtually.  “Just plug in your laptop in the backyard and zoom me in,” said the friend.  

As my daughter was telling me this story I started laughing, at which point she told me that she’s not sure how she got into this position but she is now leading a book club (she didn’t want) with a friend, a ‘sister’ and multiples of people (she’d never met) hosting them in her backyard with a computer plugged in for all the neighbours to share in this “real” experience she suggested while trying to help a friend.  I couldn’t stop laughing, the only thought in my head was that this book club should come with only one rule: we never talk about book club (for anyone who’s seen the movie Fight Club, that rule will make sense —for anyone else —it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something to watch because you’re not currently in a book club.  If you’re in a book club, it’s also a good book).

Compassion and empathy for others can get all of us into a labyrinth of strategic planning and twists and turns that often lead us to places we never planned.  In fact, we often use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as if they are synonyms — they are not.  While Judaism acknowledges the nuances of difference with all of these terms, it doesn’t name them all, but it does show, by example, what the differences are.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who helps a colleague rise from his sickbed.  After a discussion on the advantages of suffering (which the sick person concludes isn’t worth the price), the rabbi extends his hand and leads his friend to health.  Soon after, another rabbi falls ill and the now recovered rabbi visits his sick friend.  They also explore the depths of suffering but now the sick rabbi is beginning to pull his friend into the realm of despair along with him.  His friend remembers how he was helped to health and so he asks the bedridden rabbi if there is value to this moment of suffering.  The sick rabbi responds that he doesn’t want this suffering and the friend extends his hand and leads his colleague to health.

Sympathy is when I feel bad for you, empathy is when I realize I have been in your place and I can help you.  The first is an emotion that churns within me, the second is my insight that leads me to act.  When we sympathize with each other, we can be pulled into the dark moments of those we are trying to help; when we empathize with each other, we can find ways out of the darkness together because one of us remembers the road out.

In this week’s parshah, Va’etchanan, Moses is pleading with God to be allowed to enter the land of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear his anguish and even more difficult to read that God has told Moses to stop asking for it —essentially telling Moses that this particular prayer will not be answered and it’s hurtful so the request must stop.  Sympathy for Moses will lead us further into our personal theological questions of our relationship with God.  It should lead us there.  But Moses goes on to teach empathy.

Moses immediately instructs Israel that they must always be kind to strangers because we must always remember we were strangers in Egypt (sympathy) and that God led us out of that predicament to freedom (empathy).  If I only feel compassion towards someone who is suffering, I have misunderstood the point of the full statement Moses made.  I have been the stranger, I have been the slave, I have been the victim who stands alone, so I can now recognize this predicament when I see it in someone else.  Because I have a model of how to be redeemed from that horror, I can extend my hand and lead the stranger out.  I am commanded to be empathetic toward someone and not to only feel sympathy for them.  Every time we are told we were strangers in Egypt, we are immediately told that God brought us out.  It is a full model of moving from sympathy to empathy.  It is the way things will change.

My daughter now leads a book club of strangers in her backyard.  I imagine them sitting together and sharing new perspectives, without the audio lag of an online portal.  It started with a friend reaching out to another friend and a way to share some new perspectives sitting with real people amidst a global pandemic.  The answer seemed simple: let’s read some books together.  

We’ve all had our moments lately where we are ‘done’ with Covid and not sure what to do.  We all sympathize with each other and think of the now popular government slogan to remember “we are all in this together”, which only reinforces that we are all sharing the predicament.  I think we’re ready to empathize with each other and find the insights to move from sharing the predicament to enjoying the next step.  I can’t help but think of a rabbi, two thousand years ago, who extended his hand to a colleague and said ‘I’ve been where you are, I can show you the way out.’

Parshat Devarim: How Do I Ask How?

I’ve been thinking about the world that used to be and the person I was within it.  In fact, I’ve lived through a number of ‘worlds that used to be’. When I was growing up, there were distinct lines of casual and formal.  Casual was what happened at home and formal was anything outside.  At home, we could wear ‘play clothes’ and not worry about getting them dirty; school had a uniform; outings had party clothes.  If we went out for dinner as a family, I would have to wear a dress.  If I was invited to a birthday party, I would likely have to wear my party dress and if the party was my own birthday party then I got to wear the dress with the crinoline.  My party shoes were shiny and I could only wear ‘play clothes’ to…play.

There was most certainly the larger world outside filled with strangers, and the smaller circle of my world filled only with family and a few friends.  Any adult was called ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ or Miss (Ms was introduced only later in my youth and was only for radical feminists who burned their bras – interesting fact, no one ever had that famous public bra burning event because apparently they couldn’t get a permit to ignite a public open fire – they cut their bras with scissors…it was a ‘bra scissor cutting’ event, which I guess doesn’t have the same impact as ‘burning’ and so we just decided to revise history (a lot of that going on these days)…but I digress…except I have had my moments, as an adult, trying to ignore the pain my bra is causing me and eyeing the scissors with longing – the radical feminist within us all!)

Back to my memories of worlds gone by.  The few times I took an airplane trip as a child, the dress with the crinoline came out with the shiny shoes.  My sister and I were often dressed the same for anything formal –she’s older, so I loved it and she very much did not, apparently in this ‘world gone by’ children were not meant to have autonomous identities, they were meant to show the world their parents knew how to dress them the same.  Oh yes, there was also no hint of any security measures needed for anything at any time.  Once when I was really little I remember we went to Israel and had to get a cholera vaccine to come home.  In hindsight, this is a memory remnant of an Israel with cholera, another world gone by.  We got the cholera vaccine and all I remember is the stewardess (not flight attendant) who kept banging into my vaccinated little girl arm every time she walked by.  I remember not sleeping on the plane because I had to track where she was at any given moment.  I was too little to understand cholera or vaccines but not too little to understand there are people in the world who carelessly hurt others so I tracked her with my eyes.

And then I think of the next world change I saw.  9/11 changed everything and now Covid 19 has changed things again.  Maybe there’s something about the ‘1’s and the ‘9’s, I’m sure Jewish kabbalists have endless layers of meaning to explore there – the 18s are great but the 19s…not so much.

And now I have shared with you the ‘stuff’ in my head that has all flashed in my mind within the last minute or two.  It’s what happens to all of us and it is the name of the new book in the Torah we are starting to read this Shabbat: Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is titled Devarim, “Stuff”.  It is a book filled with the stuff in Moses’ head as he knows time is running out and he will die within weeks.

Moses starts speaking and within a few verses we hear him use an unusual word: ‘Eichah’, which literally means ‘how’, but it is always associated with the book of Lamentations, which in Hebrew is titled ‘Eichah’.  It is a book that describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the horror of our lowest historical moment.  The prophet, Jeremiah, writes the book Eichah as a lamentation where we look around and ask ‘how did that happen to the world’, but when Moses uses this same word, he is using it differently.  Moses remembers that he turned to God and asked ‘how am I supposed to bear these people?!’, a very different ‘eichah’.

So we enter our text through two different versions of ‘eichah’ –one used by Jeremiah and one used by Moses.  This Shabbat is the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day on which we mourn Jewish suffering and the loss of our Temples –the day we read the book of Eichah.  How interesting that we hear Moses utter this same unusual word in the parshah this week.  When we line up the two ‘eichah’s we notice the two perspectives of the question we should always ask.  The first question is from the book of Lamentations as it asks ‘How did Jerusalem lay so abandoned?’  In other words, how did the world around me get so unrecognizable, so steeped in trouble, so isolated?  

The second question comes from Moses asking God how he can bear these people.  It becomes my second ‘how’ question.  How can I bear the other person?  Do I hear their nuances and respond with an act of human kindness, or are they burdens that weigh me down?  Moses’ question to God is a genuine question from a man raised as royalty who must now bear the weight of a people incapable of anything.  How can I bear you?

But if we only focus on ‘eichah’ regardless of whether it’s Moses or Jeremiah saying it, we are left to lament a world gone by and the challenge we present for each other.  The key lies in the word immediately following ‘eichah’.  In the book of Lamentations, the prophet bemoans the city of Jerusalem and the verb that follows is in the past tense, “how Jerusalem had sat desolate and alone”.  In this week’s parshah, when Moses asks God about the people, he uses the word ‘eichah’ and the word right after it appears in the future tense, “how will I carry them?”.  When we ask ourselves the ‘how’ questions, we easily set up a pull into lamenting a world gone by, a world filled with ‘Mr’s and ‘Mrs’s and shiny shoes and crinolines.  But if I ask myself the question Moses asks, how can I help carry you forward, how can I bear you along with myself as we move into the future, ‘eichah’ becomes the question of opportunity.

And so we start reading the book of Devarim, the stuff in Moses’ head, the insights, the anger, the regret and the digressions.  And with it all, it never ceases to amaze me how he never fails to teach us something, no matter which world we’re in.

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Parshat Matot-Masei: The Biblical Run For Your Life

Kids are incredibly creative creatures.  I don’t mean how they can play ‘make believe’ endlessly or sing ‘this is the song that never ends…’ for hours, changing only their voices and volume.  They are brilliant creative strategic thinkers.  It is nothing short of brilliance how a child can stay within the rules adults set forth yet still manage to do what they want.

We’ve all experienced the moment when a parent tells their fighting kids that they’re not allowed to touch each other.  The next hour is spent with a child’s finger sitting millimeters from the cheek of a sibling repeating ‘I’m not touching you’ over and over. I try to think of the thinking that goes on in the child’s mind while strategizing the moment.

“Goal: annoy my brother

Personal risk: breaking the rule and getting mum mad at me

Answer: don’t touch him…almost touch him…tell him I’m almost touching him…make sure he sees me almost touching him

Quick evaluation: kept the rules, still annoyed my brother…WIN!”

We’ve all seen it –I dare say we’ve all done it.

The rules are usually there for good reasons though sometimes we’re not sure what the reasons might be.  In fact, sometimes knowing the reasons tempts us to disregard the rule if we think it doesn’t apply (given the reason).  For example, you’re driving on a deserted country road in the middle of the day.  Sun is shining, visibility is wonderful and there’s not another car in sight in any direction.  Suddenly, you approach a red light on this deserted country road.  A red light that means you stop and wait but the reason for stopping and waiting doesn’t seem to speak to this given moment.  If there’s no car in sight, that means there is no police in sight so you won’t get caught.  Do you stop?  If the point of the red light is to keep you safe, and there isn’t a safety issue at the moment, is there still a point to stopping at the red light?

That’s the modern question we pose to the biblical rule of shelter cities.  In this week’s Torah readings, Matot-Masei, Israel is instructed to set up shelter cities.  These cities are run by the Levites and are places of refuge for anyone who has accidentally taken a life.  Once someone is found guilty of manslaughter, they are to flee to a shelter city where they will live out their lives in safety.  Who are they running from?  The Blood Avenger, the male relative of the dead person who must now avenge the blood of the dead.  If the Blood Avenger catches the guilty person before reaching the shelter city, the Blood Avenger can kill that person and is not guilty of anything.  Blood for blood.  Somehow, it doesn’t sound quite Jewish.

The Jewish part of all this is that the Blood Avenger only gets one ‘kick at the can’.  If he can’t kill the person between the verdict and the shelter city then the window of opportunity closes.  In the ancient world that would seem very unfair…to the Blood Avenger.  When blood lust burns, it stays burning until more blood is spilled — what do you mean I only get one try??

And then time goes on, societies change and the Sages decide that even one try for a Blood Avenger is too many.  They cannot change what the Torah says and it clearly says the guilty person can flee to a shelter city and the Blood Avenger can kill him along the way.  The Sages become brilliantly creative.  They place the court within the shelter city.

Any guilty verdict now results in the person already sheltered within a shelter city and there is no longer an opportunity for the Blood Avenger to kill anyone.  In fact, no reason for the Blood Avenger to even come to the trial and likely wouldn’t be allowed in since shelter cities are monitored very closely to make sure Blood Avengers don’t get in.  We quickly get to the point of not identifying anyone as a Blood Avenger and the burning of a blood lust quiets down.

By not changing the rule, we continue to understand that for those who feel fire within them, accidents take time to accept and time to reconcile.  It is our nature to look for closure through blame, but accidents, by their very nature, leave no one to blame.  Without the rule, we miss a primal understanding of what drives us, but with the rule and no creativity, we might continue to allow ourselves to seek vengeance and justify it by saying God said we could.

The creativity we test as children, and the creativity modelled to us by the Sages, allow us to learn about ourselves and still preserve the frameworks we need.

And, yes, we stop at the deserted red light.