And So This is Purim!

And So This is Purim!

(Sung to the tune of John Lennon’s: “And So This is Christmas”…because it’s… Purim!)

And so this is Purim,

And what have we done?

Another year over

And a new one’s just begun.

Let’s wear our Zoom filters

And don our Zoom masks

Let’s drink a L’chaim

And swig from our flasks

But party in private

No large Shushan feast

We increase our ‘happy’

But the parties decrease

So a very merry Purim

Take a moment to notice

We came close to disaster

But they couldn’t quite smote us.

(okay, not proud of that last rhyme but…it’s Purim so I can take rhyming liberties).

Today is Purim and we’re supposed to switch things up, listen to the Megillah, boo at Haman, and remember that being a Jew in exile means standing on the shifting sands of politics.  This year, of all years, we don’t need Purim to teach us about how crazy the world can get.  This year, we look for deeper messages of the holiday that can speak to us right now.

This morning, on my online weekly coffee discussion, we looked at the Megillah, and its message of privilege.  This year I saw it clearly, while every other year it sat quietly in the text waiting for its moment.

The Megillah begins with a portrait of complete privilege: the king is hosting endless feasting and debauchery for his invited privileged guests.  The description is surprising in its excess and the midrashim add details that complete the picture of privilege.  Within this setting, Queen Vashti is told to appear.  At this point, the story will unfold as an ongoing introduction of decreasing privilege.  The queen, who has little choice, refuses, and is ‘gotten rid of’.  The advisors have told the king that if his ultimate power (privilege) is challenged, then all wives will challenge their husbands — those of lesser power (privilege) will begin to question their standings, and challenge the rung above them. Esther is chosen as queen , and will gain privilege, but only as long as she hides who she is, Mordecai has told her she must hide her identity because he knows that knowledge of her people will rob her of any power she might attain.  Esther can blend, she can pass, she lives the life of the imposter.

The stand-off between Haman and Mordecai plays out the same way.  In fact, every detail from that moment onward speaks of a switching of privilege — the doors that open, the safety that privilege provides, and the redefinition of the society when it is challenged.

In the final moments of the narrative, the Jewish people (previously on the bottom rung of the ladder, facing a genocide) are allowed to arm themselves, and deliver a pre-emptive strike against those who had already armed against them.  It is the eleventh hour reversal.

Up to this moment in the Megillah, Esther and Mordecai tell us of the events of their time, but they have not yet weighed in on what we should do because of it.  Only in the last verses of the Megillah do they tell us to read their story every year, make it a day of joyous festivities and send presents to the poor.  In other words, hear their cautionary tale, remember it is a repeating story of hatred and privilege, combat the sadness of that fact with the expression of joy, and fight the reality of privilege by reaching out to anyone in need.  Try to equalize our society by sharing what is ours, and creating a bond across the strata of power.

I’m not sure that even Esther and Mordecai could have known how relevant their message has become. This year I read the Megillah with joy, and I add a measure of gratitude.

Happy Purim and shabbat shalom!

Check out Rachael’s revamped video for Purim:

Rachael hosts Food For Our Neshama, Coffee For Me Friday mornings from 10-10:30am ET on Zoom. The link is on our homepage.

Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Gift giving is an art.  By the time the gift has been selected, acquired, wrapped for presentation and delivered, many decisions have already been made.  The first question that arises when thinking of giving a gift is whether I am giving them something I want them to have or something they want to have.  Big ticket simcha gift giving has taken a cultural turn and answered this question for us.  People register for the gifts they want or need.  I can now select an item from their registry that fits my budget and our relationship.  But it isn’t always that simple.  What if I want to gift a newlywed couple something meaningfully Jewish but the gift registry doesn’t include Judaica?  What if I appreciate the artistic moments in my life, and want to gift them a subscription to a museum or theatre, but that’s not on their list?  Once someone has created a registry, do I still have the freedom to gift both the item and the implied wish I am expressing with that item?

When my children were little, both my husband and I wanted to have them begin to understand the messaging of gift-giving.  When one of us had a birthday, the other one would take the kids to a store in the mall that had a wall of gifts for $5 and under.  The kids were told they could choose one thing from the wall as their gift.  Some of our kids chose quickly (whatever was at eye level), while others stood and agonized for far too long about what to get.  They were caught on trying to decide if it was something they thought was beautiful or something they thought the receiver would think is beautiful.  Personally, I received a lot of sticker earrings and way too many baseball caps in tiny sizes. Teaching what a gift means is a very nuanced affair.

I can gift my time, which for many of us is far more valuable than our gift budget.  I can gift my talents, my vision, my expertise…the list goes on.  

It’s interesting that in our society we don’t gift someone the things we already own — we need to buy something new.  Anything we own is seen as already used, second hand, lesser than new and store bought.  Ironically, the idea of a gift is the opposite.  I want to give you something I know is useful or enjoyable because I have used and enjoyed it.  I am gifting you the experience of the thing, I have removed any doubt.  I gift you the book I loved, the art I find meaningful, but our modern sensibilities will conclude that it’s used — I should buy you the same thing I have, but gift you the new one.  The new book has the benefit of the unbroken spine and the new crispy pages, but the loss of opening the book and having it fall open to my favourite page that I read a thousand times — the one I want you to see first.  When I buy you the new one, I remove my presence from the object, and now I have given you…a book.

This is the subtlety of gift giving in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah.  God is teaching Israel how to create a Tabernacle, holy space.  The very first words are that Israel should contribute the things their hearts tell them to give.  It is a list of precious things they already own.  They are not to barter with each other or ‘trade up’.  Their eyes are on their possessions, not their neighbours’.  It’s hard to part with beautiful things I own and value, but I am not being asked to part with them, I am being taught to invest them into building a place of relationships I fully intend to enjoy.  Holy space is open to everyone, and when an Israelite enters the Tabernacle, they will see the things they contributed woven together with everything everyone else brought, and know it was hard for everyone to give these things up and we built it together.

The Hebrew word terumah does not mean donation, it literally means ‘to separate and raise it’.  I am not donating something to the Tabernacle, I am taking it from what I already own, and therefore a piece of me moves into the actual physical space — even when I’m not there, I’m there.  In fact, once introducing this concept to us, God states that by building this Tabernacle “I can dwell inside them” — even when they think I’m not there, I’m there.  

Today, when people are marrying and setting up a new home, or growing their family and in need of specific items, it is extremely helpful to have a registry outlining for us what would be most helpful for them.  Maybe with terumah in mind, that gift could be accompanied by something chosen by our hearts that moves from holy space to holy space, from our home to theirs.

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A new 4-week course begins on February 24th! More info here: https://www.rachaelscentre.com/learning/classes/#myths

Rosh Chodesh Adar: I Think I’m Sad That You’re Happy

Rosh Chodesh: I Think I’m Sad That You’re Happy

Happy Adar everyone!  Today and tomorrow are the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar.  Happy, happy, joy, joy, is what the Talmud tells us occurs in the month of Adar.  We are to find our happy and express our joy.  It is the only month where Judaism tells us to feel a certain way all month long.  

Adar is the astrological sign of the Jewish people, say the Sages.  It is the sign of ‘Dagim’ (fish, Pisces), and covenant promises that we will be as abundant and bountiful as fish that swarm and thrive in the oceans.  Some Jews wear beautiful artistic renderings of fish jewelry as a sign of good luck — this is why.  So we are to wear a smile and find joy all through Adar…but what about all the bad things that happened in Adar?

In ancient Persia, Adar is the month that was chosen by Haman to slaughter each and every Jew.  The fact that it ends well doesn’t change the fact that the Jews of that time were threatened by a government intent on their extinction.  Horrific plans were made, edicts were sent out, armies were ready, and Jewish parents chilled at the possibility that there might not be a tomorrow for their children.  Am I to forget their terror as I celebrate the outcome?

Following Adar is the month of Nisan, the month of Passover.  That means that during Adar, the Jews in Egypt were in the midst of the plagues, facing an unknown future, with death and the screams of suffering all around them.  Are their moments of terror erased?

Moses, our greatest leader, and our greatest advocate, dies on the seventh day of Adar. Is my joy meant to blind me to this loss, the leader who gave us everything?   Like any month of any year, Adar can be filled with moments of challenge and anguish that could anchor us in darkness…if we so choose.

I remember years ago, I was teaching grade one as a student teacher, and I was in the classroom with the kids on the last day of school.  They were excited that school was ending, and summer was beginning, but they were sad that school was ending, and summer was beginning.  One little girl arrived in the morning already crying.  I tried to comfort her and tell her that everything is ok because summer will be fun, and in a few short months everyone will be back again.  She just looked at me and cried.  I listed some fun things that can happen only in the summer.  She cried some more.  I tried to get her to join the class activities, but nothing I said or did could slow her tears.  I turned to the host teacher and asked for some advice.  The teacher told me that today is that girl’s birthday and her mother explained to the teacher that the child is overwhelmed and doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad.  The teacher was giving her room to work it through.  The hope was that she would eventually remember that at the end of the day her mother was bringing birthday cupcakes for everyone.  

That day and the dilemma it presented has stayed with me since then.  How does a six year old navigate the day when she is equally happy and equally sad?  How do any of us authentically honour the conflicting emotions within us?  To tell her to only be happy, because today is her birthday, is to undervalue that there is legitimate sadness to saying goodbye to her friends.  Of course, conversely, to focus only on the end of the year is to forget that her birthday makes the day joyous.  We’re the teachers, how do we teach that one?

There’s a powerful tradition practiced by a small group of Jews that speaks exactly to this point.  The tradition is mostly unknown to the majority of the Jewish people because it is practiced by a group of people who prefer to remain anonymous, the Chevrah Kadishah.  This is the group of Jews who prepare, care for, and bury someone who has passed away.  On the seventh day of Adar, the day Moses died, they fast and then they feast. 

The fasting is to remember that this is the day when Moses died, alone on a mountain, with only God at his side.   Ultimately, every person faces death alone with only God at their side, but we always try our utmost to make sure that they are tended to and buried with Judaism all around them.  We do this without ever expecting that they thank anyone because they have already passed away so clearly there is no expression of gratitude forthcoming.  We consider it to be the greatest act of chesed that we could ever do for each other.  Moses taught us that.  

And yet, when Moses died, there was no one to tend to him, no one to bury him.  The man who taught us the meaning of chesed, acts of human kindness that expect no gratitude in return, this man had no one to extend chesed to him when he needed it.  The Chevrah Kadishah spends that day in sadness and regret.  They fast.

But, as the day is ending, the fast is broken with a great feast and celebration.  That is because the seventh of Adar is also the day Moses was born.

Two events representing the two extremes of life occurred on the same day.  Moses’ birth, the celebration of life, should have been celebrated first, since it occurred first.  Moses’ death, the threshold away from life, should be mourned afterwards.  In other words, chronologically, the Chevrah Kadishah should celebrate first, and then fast.  But Judaism is not about historic chronology, it is about meaningfulness.  Two events representing two polar extremes happening on the same day.  Now the choice is ours.

The Sages aren’t telling us that bad things didn’t happen in Adar because we know they did.  They are telling us that we need to learn how sadness must resolve into joy, how suffering must resolve into growth, how threat must resolve into opportunity.  

Adar is here, and finding our joyous expressions must be sincere.  The sadness and challenges didn’t disappear, life is not a fairy tale.  The joy of Adar is not a description of its every moment, it’s a description of our arrival.  That little girl was correct to cry at the end of grade one, and her mother was brilliant to make sure the day would end with a cupcake.

This week’s Parsha is Mishpatim. If you would like to read Rachael’s reflections on this parsha, please read last year’s post: Something’s Not Kosher In Denmark.

A new 4-week course begins on February 24th! More info here: https://www.rachaelscentre.com/learning/classes/#myths

Parshat Yitro: The Blessed Event at Miami Beach

Parshat Yitro: The Blessed Event at Miami Beach

Picture it…Miami Beach, any year before 2020.  The sun is beating down, the sky is clear, and you are lying on the beach absorbing the rays, thoughts floating wherever they choose, and an older Jewish couple makes their way to the water.  You lazily watch as they walk slowly across the sand and enter the ocean.  They get into the water until it almost touches the bottom of the bathing suit (just before that spot where we all gasp), and each will now bend to splash a bit of water under the arms and onto the back of the neck.  It looks so mundane but it’s actually a very Jewish moment.  What makes it so Jewish is the very next thing that happens.  If you’re lucky to be close enough, you will hear the words: ‘What a mechayeh, oy a broch!’

The Jewish words we have used to express ‘what a life-enhancing moment, oy what a blessing!’  The life-enhancing moment is easily understood, since the sun is truly beating down mercilessly and no one wants to cook.  Why it’s a blessing is a bigger question.

As Jews, we have always said brachot (blessings), and true to who we are, we have always argued about what it means to say a bracha.

The word itself comes from the Hebrew word for ‘knee’ –what we would think of as ‘bend the knee’.  If we were to only look at the word itself, a bracha would be uttered in a moment that brings us to our knees.  A moment of such magnitude that we are unable to stand in that instant, we are so humbled, so overwhelmed.  Yet, most of our ‘bracha moments’ are mundane.  When I make a bracha over a piece of fruit, no matter how much I may love that fruit, I’m not sure it brings me to my knees.  And there are moments when I am overwhelmed and feel weak at the magnitude of the meaning of the moment, marriage, birth (to name two)…and yet, no bracha.  So the meaning of the word helps but doesn’t really open our understanding of a bracha.

One of the first disagreements about the meaning of a bracha sits in the intention of the words.  When I say, ‘Baruch ata Adonai’, am I stating a fact (God is blessed), or am I actively doing the blessing (I bless God)?  If I don’t bless God, is God still blessed?  If I am stating a fact about God, where is the action within my blessing?  Both questions prompt contrary views, and both views have their good arguments.  However, all opinions agree that a bracha is an expression of God as the source of all things –regardless of whether I am acknowledging it or actively blessing God for it.

We also agree that we should say a bracha when we feel we have been blessed by God, and God’s blessings always anchor through something that exists.  Jewish law tells us that when we are saying the Grace After Meals (Birkat haMazon), there should be bread on the table since God blessed us with a meal, and our answer to God (our blessing) acknowledges the physical anchor represented by the bread.  Every bracha opens layers and layers of awareness.

Our mystical Jewish selves will connect to the numerical value of the word bless (b-r-kh) noticing each letter is an expression of the number 2.  ‘Beit’ = 2, ‘Reish’ = 200, ‘Khaf’ = 20, making the full word equal 222.  In Judaism, the number one represents singularity (think singing ‘Who Knows One’ at the Seder), and the number two represents plural, amplification.  Now one of the layers of saying a bracha includes the subtle request to keep the good things coming.

With all those wonderful layers and meanings of a bracha, why not say them all the time, at every moment?  This is where Jewish text and structure begins to have a voice.  We are very careful about when we should say a bracha, because within the words is the invocation of God’s Name –and there’s the rub.  As told explicitly in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Yitro, which includes the Ten Commandments, we are never to take God’s Name in vain.  It’s the third commandment, and it doesn’t mean we should never curse, it means we should always intend the seriousness and relevance of invoking God’s essence into our human moments.  Because we must be aware of that intention, there are important moments in our lives when we minimize saying a bracha.  I once asked a rabbi why a person does not say a ‘Shehecheyanu’ bracha the first time they are sexually intimate.  The bracha itself thanks God for sustaining us long enough to arrive at an important moment in our lives.  We are told to say it even for mundane things such as wearing a new garment for the first time, because it is a tiny moment of achievement and joy.  How could we justify not recognizing the threshold of first sexual intimacy?  The rabbi asked me if I thought such a person has the ability to form intent at that moment.  I loved the truth of the answer, and I loved that he answered my question with a question.

Usually, when we think of the Ten Commandments, we think of the huge, world changing insights about monotheism, family structure, Shabbat, and the social contracts of societies.  We don’t often think that the third commandment, the one about God’s Name, is actually in our lives far more often than is the reality of crimes such as theft, murder, adultery or coveting.  The third commandment challenges us to recognize the amazing moments of each day.  What do we do when we feel blessed?

Today, the world is rolling out vaccines to keep everyone safe from Covid 19.  Israel is currently leading the world in its vaccination numbers, and it has opened the Jewish discussion about whether the person being vaccinated should say a bracha.  Most Jewish leaders around the world are in agreement that a bracha (or several) should be said by the recipient.  True to form, they disagree about which brachot to say.  There is agreement that a ‘Shehecheyanu’ is needed, but they disagree whether it should include God’s Name.  Some say the bracha for wisdom should be said, others say that after full immunization is reached, the bracha for being saved from danger should be said.  Wonderful discussions are being had about thanking God for putting the cures into nature before putting the diseases in, while we should also thank God for giving us the skills to look for the cures, and recognize them when we see them.  Of course, these arguments wouldn’t be complete without the follow-up arguments over which bracha should be said first.  People in Israel are saying brachot when they receive the vaccine, they’re not waiting for all rabbis to agree since the moment has already arrived.

Whether in Israel or not, we have arrived at the question of what do I thank God for first when there is so  much to be grateful for.  That is a moment that brings me to my knees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parshat Bo: Thanks But I’d Rather Be Second

Parshat Bo: Thanks But I’d Rather Be Second

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parshat VaErah: But I’m Still Crying

Parshat VaErah: But I’m Still Crying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoying Rachael’s blog? Why not try out a course?
Rachael’s Centre is hosting two, 4-week, min-courses this winter:
Am I Ever Without My Angel? Getting to Know our Celestial Siblings January 20 – February 10
&
That’s Not What Zayde Said! Jewish Myths and Bubbemeisses February 24 – March 17

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle

Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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