Parshat Chukat: But It Was Only a Rock!

Parshat Chukat: But It Was Only a Rock!

Over the past 15 months, I have begun talking to the television more and more — I never used to talk to the television.  I always found it amusing when I heard other people warn the characters in a movie not to go into the basement because the killer is hiding there.  But now, I can honestly say that my view of how I watch television has changed.  In fact, I’ve noticed that all the time spent watching our devices these days has resulted in many changes in how people interact with what they see on their screens.

While I have begun to interact with the television screen as if the people I’m seeing are actually on Zoom, and therefore I can speak to them, I’ve noticed the opposite has happened to other people.  Some of my colleagues have mentioned that when they teach on Zoom, their students sit back in their chairs and watch the class, expecting it to unfold the way a television show would unfold.  There is less interaction, less conversation, almost no dialogue.  The students are watching their computer screens the same way they are watching their television screens, and the expectations have transferred.  

I am guilty of the opposite.  Since I teach often on Zoom, I have developed the habit of talking to any screen I see.  I have become that person who warns the characters in the movie not to go to the basement (though you have to wonder about a script where none of these characters don’t seem to know not to go to the basement…but I digress).

It raises the question of how, and why, we would consider talking to an inanimate object at all.  Yet, many times we do.  If our car won’t start, we try to persuade it with our words.  On some level, we build relationships with the material things around us.  But we will always view them as objects, and so we do not judge if someone is rude to their computer, or perhaps strikes a rock in their garden.

Which can only raise the question of the incident in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Chukat, when Moses is told by God to speak to a rock and bring water for the people, but instead, Moses hits the rock.  As a result, God tells Moses he will never enter Israel, and we all wonder how the consequences could possibly fit the action — it was only a rock!

While we are bewildered at the imbalance of it, the midrash introduces an entirely new nuance to us.  This was no ordinary rock.  According to the midrash, the entire time we’re in the desert, there’s a well providing water for us.  This was Miriam’s Well, and it was a gift to Israel that was based on the merit of Miriam.  Wherever Israel travelled, the rock was carried with them.  When Israel camped, the rock was placed in the centre of the encampment and all the tribal leaders came to the rock, staff in hand.  Together, each leader drew a line in the sand with their staff from the rock to their tribe’s camp.  Once all the lines were drawn, water flowed from the rock into the lines, and irrigated the camp.  Miriam’s Well sustained everyone in the desert.  Her lifelong bond with water was embodied in the rock that manifested her guardianship.

But then Miriam died, the water stopped, and all of Israel complained to Moses.  The rock won’t release the water without her.  God tells Moses to speak to the rock and show Israel that the material world around them can be elevated to holiness.  Moses was to model the potential that exists when we elevate the mundane to the holy.

Unfortunately, Moses repeated a pattern he learned in Egypt.  When he first saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, he killed the Egyptian.  But, being raised in Pharaoh’s palace afforded Moses the authority to command the Egyptian to stop, yet he responded with violence.  When Moses breaks the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, he is again resorting to a moment of violence, and now, standing by the rock with all the people getting impatient and angry, Moses, again, chooses an expression of power over an expression of conciliation.  

Moses’ upbringing as an Egyptian prince makes him the perfect leader for the Israelite slaves, but those same attributes make him the wrong leader for their children.  If Moses leads the next generation into Israel, they will never leave Egypt behind.  They will never see that expressing power is not always the only choice.

Judaism teaches us that the objects in our world are there to fulfill our needs, but they also show us we can elevate some moments of interaction beyond the physical..  When I talk to my television, warning fictional characters of unseen dangers, I have not actually accomplished anything.  But if I view talking to the television as my way of creating a comfort level with screen interaction, opening myself to interacting with others while on Zoom, rather than remaining the silent observer, then I am learning to use the objects around me to elevate the moment.

Parshat Korach: A Moment That Defined a Leader

Parshat Korach: A Moment That Defined a Leader

This week I had the pleasure of seeing my extended family on Zoom as we gathered to celebrate my great-niece’s third birthday.  I watched the little Zoom squares appear as each family signed on.  Over the last 15 months, there have been new babies born into some of these families, and I was able to see these babies, who are now almost toddlers.  But it was more than seeing the babies that caught me off guard, it was seeing their older siblings.  When I last saw the older siblings, they were mostly the only children in their families and now they are big brothers and sisters.  I watched them sit next to their younger siblings and I listened as the 3 year old party girl asked each new face what their middle name was.  She was extremely interested in middle names, not so much in first names.  If anyone didn’t have a middle name, she happily assigned them one.  When we asked her what her middle name is, she ignored her actual name and headed for the Disney movie “Frozen” – her new middle name is now Elsa.

Children have wonderful playfulness with names in ways adults would never try.  Some of it is intentional and much of it isn’t.  One of the toddlers in my family couldn’t pronounce another family name: Chava.  Instead, she mispronounced it as ‘Hug-a’.  It stuck.  Unknowingly, the toddler had keyed into a warm expression of sharing a hug and now the mispronounced name is too meaningful to be let go.  She is ‘Chava’ in most of her life but when the family gathers in numbers she will easily be called ‘Hug-a’ by everyone, and she happily embraces it.

We are often renamed, reidentified and subsequently rediscover ourselves, and hidden aspects of who we can become, by the insight of an innocent moment.  We welcome the endearment when it touches something about us we thought lay too deep to be noticed.

There’s a wonderful meme on social media that says: ‘Picture this: You’re 20 years old and at war fighting evil, you’re a skilled machine, 6’2” tall, 240 pounds of all muscle.  You are the epitome of the man in his prime -nothing can stop you.  Flash forward 41 years: people call you Peepaw because your granddaughter couldn’t say it right.’

We will answer to these names because they bring out something unique within us.  It raises the question of the mysteries that lie within each of us and the moments they find their ways out.

In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Korach, we are told of the extreme moment when the earth opens and swallows the rebellious group of Korach and his followers.  It is a shocking moment.  Korach has challenged Moses and Aaron’s leadership and they are unable to speak on their own behalf.  God intervenes, the earth swallows the rebels, but afterwards Israel blames Moses and Aaron for what happened.  God intervenes again and a plague emerges in the people.  As thousands are dying, there is a surprising moment when Aaron does something he’s never done before.  Aaron takes his incense plate, used for offering atonement, and we are told he “stands between the living and the dead”.  

Aaron puts himself between God and the people and protects them.  We have never seen Aaron confront God before and we will not see him do it again.  It is a moment in time that he owns, defines, and leads.  We are left to wonder what he found within himself to draw on at precisely that moment. 

We have all read of people who do extraordinary things once in their lives.  The man who stood in front of an array of tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989.  One man who stopped a row of tanks by simply standing his ground.

We know that Aaron, Moses’ brother, was the first High Priest, the man who stood by Moses’ side as a support and an ally.  We know he is the middle child of the three siblings: Miriam, Aaron, and Moses.  The Sages tell us that Aaron’s role within Israel was as the peacemaker among the people.  It is fitting that as the middle child, Aaron was the peacemaker.  But we are only shown one instance of exceptional courage and strength, and it is when he stands between the living and the dead.  

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that the day you are born is the day God decided the world couldn’t exist without you.  We are all unique with hidden mysteries that lay inside and infinite strengths.  For some of us, those moments might redefine how we answer a crisis.  For others, those moments might redefine us if some little person tries saying ‘Bubbie’ and ends up saying ‘Bubbly’

Parshat Shlach: When Worlds Collide

Parshat Shlach: When Worlds Collide

One of the changes that has occurred over the last year and a half is my adjustment to working from home.  I’m not working at home, I’m working from home.  The difference is in how we view the content of the work.  When I’m working at home, I’m doing the things my home requires.  In fact, the challenge has never been ‘how I would work at home’, the challenge is always ‘how can I rest at home’.  Home has too much work that always needs doing, and so I plan time away from my home in order to rest.  If I can’t see the chaos in my closet, I can’t clean it out and bring order to chaos.  ‘Staycations’ mean I can finally attend to all the work I have to do at home, it rarely means I have nothing to do.

But, many of us have layered ‘working from home’ into our at home work.  Now my home becomes the base from which I launch my professional work so it is, in fact, only coming from my home but not relating to my home at all.  Both ‘home’ worlds begin to collide and I hear of family members who are doing their work on computers in their homes while wearing unicorn hats because their toddler is colouring next to them.  More and more, work at home and work from home realities are blending together.  

I’m not referring to the mishaps, the lawyer who appeared virtually in court as a cat, or people meeting online without any clothes below the waist who forget and suddenly stand up.  These mishaps are accidents, but there are definitely times when we combine our worlds intentionally and create beautiful layered moments.

A marketing executive I know shared with me that while he was in an important Zoom meeting last week, he could hear his 6 year old daughter nearby in her Zoom classroom.  He heard her say to her class: ‘Wanna see a picture of my daddy without any clothes on?’ at which point he left his meeting and ran, panicking, into his daughter’s room.  She had pulled up a photo of their vacation from years ago where he is standing by a pool in a bathing suit.  Now the trick was to return to his meeting and have to explain why he ran out of the meeting.  Two worlds that never had to speak to each other before are now in constant conversation.

A few years ago, we were introduced to the concept of a work/life balance.  Once technology could find us anywhere, and anytime, people were working nonstop and couldn’t manage to live a life outside of work.  We learned how to juggle, how to try and balance things, how to remember that work should serve our lives and not the other way around.  I’m not sure we ever mastered the concept before the world moved us to the present moment of worlds colliding.  It begs the question of whether there really ever was a possibility of a work/life balance — perhaps the key always lay in a work/life blend.

In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Shlach, God tells Moses that he can send spies into Israel if he so chooses.  It is left up to Moses.  Israel has asked for it, and clearly it represents a mistrust in God, since the people need to check whether God has brought them to a good place.  To Moses, leadership has always represented his work life.  It’s a job he never wanted, that turned into a lifelong career.  It has few perks, no promotions, and many bad days.  On the other hand, Moses’ relationship with God is his personal life.  The text tells us that God is his best friend, they share everything, they even chit chat together.  The question of sending spies is a moment of choice for Moses.  To choose not to send them is to prioritize his relationship with God, his personal life, and to choose to send them is to prioritize his relationship with the people, his work life.  

Moses chooses work life over personal life and sends 12 spies into Israel.  It ends badly and will trigger 40 years of staying in the desert.  As Moses repeatedly tries to separate his worlds, Israel and God continue to move in and out of challenges.  There is no blending of relationships and no learning of accommodations.  Moses is the leader that Israel needed in order to leave Egypt and move forward because a slave needs a world of clear lines and stark definitions.  But, as we read of the spies and their failed mission, we see that separating our worlds and our identities into defined compartments might be making our lives more challenging.  Work life and home life can blend in ways that make us stronger and more productive.  I don’t want to choose between the pieces of who I am, I want them to merge together.  I welcome any work that has a toddler colouring next to me while I wear a unicorn hat. 

Parshat BeHa’alotcha: I’ve Looked at Clouds…

Parshat BeHa’alotcha: I’ve Looked at Clouds…

The other day I was watching the clouds.  I remember learning about clouds in school and that there are different names for the different clusters and colours of clouds…I don’t remember what those are.  I’m pretty good at identifying rain clouds or snow clouds (granted they’re pretty much the same thing but I still take pride in identifying them).  I know some clouds might turn into other kinds of clouds while some clouds will never transform.  Sometimes clouds will gather in dangerous ways, pushed by winds, to form funnel clouds.  Even with my rudimentary understanding of clouds, I know I would never follow one toward a destination because it’s essentially a cluster of water vapour so it has no permanent substance.  I can trust clouds to be transient and wispy.

It would be a shocking moment if a cloud suddenly hovered over my house, and only my house.  If that cloud didn’t change shape or form, didn’t release rain or snow on my house, but simply hovered, lifted high and then hovered again, I would be curious and then terrified.  Clouds shouldn’t have behaviours that break the rules.

I could also say the same thing about the opposite of water vapours – fire.  I am far more aware of the properties of fire than I am of clouds because fire is dangerous.  It’s warm and hypnotic to watch but I know it must always be contained.  Any fire burning in my home would immediately draw my alert attention.  I don’t question it, I react to it.

Clouds and fire are central to this week’s Torah reading, parshat BeHa’alotcha.  Not in the fact that they’re mentioned, rather in the way they are behaving.  We are told that God leads Israel through the wilderness in a column of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  It makes perfect practical sense since a cloud would shade the sun for Israel during the day and a fire would keep them warm in the cold desert night.  That part isn’t what would make us question.  The description of the leader and follower becomes central to Israel, the fire and the cloud.

Contrary to the well-known idea that Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years, we were never wandering.  When you wander, it implies aimless meanderings.  The text tells us clearly that we are always following God, we are always being led.  The inevitable question becomes how we can be led by an invisible God.  

The Torah describes this leadership to us when it tells us that when it was time to camp, the cloud would hover over the Tabernacle, the communal place of worship.  As long as the cloud is hovering there, Israel will not move.  It might hover for a few days, a few weeks or a year or so.  There is no explanation given nor is one ever asked for.  When the cloud lifts off the Tabernacle, Israel knows to break camp and start to journey.  It’s an extremely unusual way to communicate.  Why doesn’t God just tell Moses when it’s time to camp or journey?

The purpose of the cloud and the fire is not to let Israel know what to do, it is to get Israel to break their slave mentality.  The essence of a slave is obedience.  No questions are to be asked and nothing should be challenged, questioned or wondered about.  A slave who questions things is a potential rebel and would be gotten rid of quickly.  How can Israelite slaves make the mental journey from knowing they should question nothing to receiving the Torah which tells them to question everything?  God is manifesting through natural, familiar things that everyone would recognize, but them behaving in a way that anyone would question.

As trust grows, Israel will learn to question more and more.  Ultimately, Judaism tells us to notice everything around us, enjoy the blessings, repair the damage but never stop questioning. 

Parshat Naso: Stand Up & Be Counted? I Don’t Think So

Parshat Naso: Stand Up & Be Counted? I Don’t Think So

This week, I completed the national census that the government sent everyone.  It’s illegal to not participate.  It makes some people nervous to be giving personal information to the government, which is an interesting measure of our trust in governments.  Collecting information for a census is nothing new, it appears in our Torah reading this week.

What’s different about the way the Torah describes a census is the verb that’s used.  The Torah doesn’t tell us to count anyone, it tells us to ‘carry’ everyone.  The name of the parshah is Naso, which means ‘carry’, but is always translated as ‘count’.  The translation reflects the context because we are then told names, households and total numbers of tribes — it clearly reflects a census.  So why doesn’t the Torah just use the verb ‘count’ as it does when telling us to count days?

Judaism tells us to be careful to never reduce people to numbers or objects, and so we are careful about moments when we need to count people.  We find creative ways to get the tally we need without reducing anyone to a mere number.  But the verb ‘carry’ doesn’t really help us in that regard, it actually introduces an entirely new concept.  I, as the subject of the sentence, am the one using the verb, and so it is speaking to me of what I am doing, and not speaking of the outcome.  If the focus was on counting, it would speak to the final number, but since the focus is on carrying, it speaks to my action. With the perspective of myself at the centre of this action, I bring the verb ‘carry’ to the other things mentioned in the Torah reading this week.

There are two unusual life events described by the Torah that only apply to unusual moments.  The first is the ordeal of the Sotah, the suspected adulterous.  A husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful but can’t prove it.  Now they are in a stalemated marriage because the suspicion of betrayal means they can’t cohabit until they resolve the doubt.  But how can you resolve the doubt of something you can’t prove?  The ritual described is one of the more unusual moments in Torah.  The woman is put through a ‘trial by ordeal’ in public and God is brought into the ritual as the Divine Judge.  What I find most interesting is that before any of the ritual begins, the husband prepares a sin offering, whose ingredients classify it as an offering to atone for jealousy.  In other words, it’s an offering for what he did, not what she might have done.  He can’t seem to carry his own doubts and suspicions, and so he transfers them to his partner, and now she must endure the ordeal.  It is his failure to carry that she must now bear.

Shortly after, the Torah describes the journey of a Nazirite.  This is any person who takes upon themselves the vow of being a Nazirite, which entails a set amount of time in their life devoted to a spiritual journey.  They are forbidden to drink wine (participate in communal celebration); to mourn as needed (participate in communal grief); or to cut their hair (participate in communal social norms).  The goal is to pull away from society and draw closer to God.  At the end of their  Nazirite pledge, they are to cut their hair and bring a sin offering.  The sin offering reflects the fact that this particular choice of journey was a sin to begin with.  The goal of Judaism is not to pull away from each other and seek isolated holiness with God.  The aim of Judaism is to bring God and holy moments into our world, as we work toward a better world for everyone.  Disengaging from this obligation is the choice not to carry the human responsibility we believe we all share.  The Nazirite chose to carry only themselves while ignoring the joy and tears of others, that’s a sin.

When the Torah tells us to take a census, it deliberately uses the verb “carry”.  When we form a united group together, we begin to see the obligation toward each other.  If I fail to carry my own doubts, and then project them onto you, I have failed to carry you and my responsibilities.  Likewise, if I only answer to my own needs and desires, and I fail to connect and participate with others, I have failed to carry anyone and have turned away from my obligations.

It now becomes impossible to reduce anyone to a number, or to conclude that taking a census boils things down to numbers.  We do not count each other, we carry each other.  In our world of overwhelming data, statistics and numbers, it becomes too easy to slip away from one another and leave someone standing on their own.  I do not want to ‘stand up and be counted’, I want to join hands and stand strong.

Parshat Bamidbar: Reflected in the Shifting Sands

Parshat Bamidbar: Reflected in the Shifting Sands

With everything that’s been going on in Israel this past week, I find myself caught in moments of memory.  Years ago, I remember exploring the Sinai desert, mostly on an Egged bus (Israel’s public bus system).  A group of strangers would board the bus in Tel Aviv and we would all prepare ourselves for hours and hours of sitting as the bus took us into the desert.  This was long before we had personal technological devices to distract us, though every bus had an intercom system.  Sometimes the bus driver would entertain us with jokes or singing on the intercom, and sometimes that helped hold-off the boredom, but we had no say in the matter so you prayed for a decent driver ‘host’.  

We formed a community on that bus each time.  Debates often centred on whether someone should be allowed to smoke on the bus if it bothered someone else.  Everyone in Israel smoked so it usually only bothered a tourist.  That would start a debate about who should have the right to vote about who was allowed to smoke.  There was air conditioning on the bus but you couldn’t tell.  I once held up a bottle of coke to the vent above me in the hopes it would at least reduce how hot the liquid was inside.  I was near the front of the bus and I remember that after holding it for about 10 minutes, a voice from the back yelled ‘Geveret (Miss), you can hold that bottle until the Messiah comes, it’s not going to change anything’, — and community was established.

On one of these trips, in the middle of the desert, I felt the bus stop and heard the doors open.  In walked a man in robes, he didn’t say anything.  After a while, the driver turned to him and said ‘Where?’ and the man just pointed diagonally right.  A few minutes later he tapped the bus driver on the shoulder, the bus stopped and the man got out.  The entire time we had been in the middle of nowhere.  I asked someone what had just happened and I was told the man is a Bedouin, a nomad, who lives in the desert.  There seems to be an agreement that a bus will pick up a nomad and stop wherever they indicate with no fare requested and no questions asked.  The bus community had developed a bit of international relations and everyone voiced silent agreement.

I’ve always wondered how the Bedouin man knew where to get off the bus.  What geographic marker could be meaningful in a desert of shifting sands?  Is he looking for the same things I would look for?  Is he looking for markers at all or is he looking for a new place that invites him to explore?  Are the moments on our bus a shortcut, or an adventure, or a visit?  Could I possibly have common dialogue with this man if I remind myself that ancient Israelites also wandered in the desert?

It’s only when I think about the last question, the ancient Israelites, that I start to get some answers.

We never wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Sinai, we were led and we followed.  The desert terrain never became meaningful to us, the manifestation of God was our constant, we moved where God showed us.  The wilderness became our Egged bus.

This Shabbat, we begin reading the book of Numbers, in Hebrew, Bamidbar, which is also this week’s parsha. Bamidbar literally means ‘In the Wilderness’. Typically, culture and society are informed by their surroundings (for example, a group living in a cold climate will learn to exist in warm clothing). However, in Bamidbar we are shown the possibilities of building something strong from the inside out. Ancient Israel cannot form itself around its surroundings, they are surrounded by desert… the sands shift, the rocks all melt together into a visual of dust… and so they must bond as a group internally with the structure and vision the Torah has provided.

In this week’s parsha, ancient Israel begins its journey through the desert to establish itself in the land of Israel.  Once in the land we can view the wilderness but it must never be a comfortable place for us. Remember, the desert represents impermanence through its shifting nature. And so it is fitting that this week is the holiday of Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah.  It is the Torah that will give us the structure and vision of what a society of value and ethics can look like. It is the Torah that provides the boundary against the desert — against the wilderness.  

When we are in the desert, we lose Torah.  In the desert, our morals and principles shift.  That is why ancient Israel is brought through the desert and is never told to settle there.  Recently, the events in Israel have challenged us in so many ways.  At times we were angry and other times we were baffled.  Some actions of violence in Israeli cities, where innocent people were trapped in the angry spillover, brought our thoughts back to the desert — but we know in our hearts those actions are not our way.  Personally, I have heard an overwhelmingly strong Jewish response critical of these actions. We are brought back from the desert with our feet solidly planted on Torah values.

Parshat Bamidbar and the holiday of Shavuot remind us so strongly that our ancient Jewish past can inform our modern Jewish moment.  We stand together as Jews, we support Israel as our homeland, and we celebrate the Torah as our grounding document.

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Standing Within and Bridging Outward

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Standing Within and Bridging Outward

Many years ago, I was working my way through the Royal Conservatory of Music grades and requirements for completion.  I started playing piano at a very young age, along with my siblings.  I always loved it, and was working with the same teacher well into my teen years, hoping to complete the Royal Conservatory’s entire certification program.  We hit a bump when I had to pass the exams in music theory.  

My piano teacher was an avid church going woman and she and I would have great conversations about religious practice.  Her social engagements (as she put it) always revolved around her church groups.  These personal exchanges would never be long conversations, since time for the piano lesson should never be compromised — she was a very stern and serious teacher.  She was the first person in my life where I would attach the phrase ‘prim and proper’ to her demeanor.  As we both grew older, the piano lessons moved to her place since I eventually drove and she officially stopped teaching.  

My piano teacher showed me how to create tea essence rather than quickly use a teabag, an inexcusable shortcut in her eyes..  I saw how a china teapot could sit on the counter with the tea essence that would then give the base tea for all the cups of the day…did I mention she was several generations Canadian and proud of her British heritage?  In time, I would go to her basement apartment earlier and earlier so we could have our talks and not take time from piano time.  Once, she told me that her brother was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force and had been killed in the Second World War.  I saw a swell of tears, that she quickly overcame, and closed the discussion by saying ‘so many people were so hurt, and so many others bear their scars.’  

So much more than piano lessons occured in our time together.  Once, she asked me why I had begun to put question marks at the end of the things I said, even when they weren’t questions (I had a brief period of ‘up-talking’ in middle school–she put an end to it).  

The only time we had a disconnect of understanding was when I had to book my music theory exam.  We were nearing the last stages of the program and I had left all the written exams to this point.  The booking needed to be done by the teacher and she was filling out the forms, trying to secure a date.  Every date she mentioned was a Saturday.  I told her I can never take that exam on a Saturday.  I outlined the problems getting to the Conservatory on a Saturday, as well as the problem of writing anything.  We went over possibilities of staying in the neighbourhood and could I do the exam orally.  No variations on the exam were possible. Rules were rules.  This was back in the day when not only would no institution accommodate difference, but no one wanted to highlight that they were different.  I was blocked, and there was nothing I could do.  Worse, my teacher felt frustrated and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t negotiate around the problem with a religious leader.  She asked me why my rabbi couldn’t just give me a dispensation to write the exam.  That was our moment of disconnect –I didn’t understand what she was referring to.

As much as we had spent years discussing the vast differences between us, I had also spent those same years growing personally from our moments of difference.  This instance, her question, my inability to understand the possibility she accepted as the solution, resulted in our two worlds separating.  I never took those exams and after all our years of preparation, and her commitment to see it through with me to the end, she felt I had let her down, and I knew she felt that way.  We grew apart.

I think of her when we read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Behar/Bechukotai.  The very beginning of the parshah states: “When Moses was at Mount Sinai (behar)”, which is geographically correct, but ignores the literal layers of the word ‘behar’.  While it does mean ‘at the mountain’, it also means ‘in the mountain’.  The revelation at Sinai is not an experience that is lived, it is an experience that is entered.  At one point, Moses asks to see God, and God says no.  Instead, God tells Moses to enter a nook in the rock so God can pass over Moses’ face and Moses will then feel the Divine Essence.  God could easily have done the same thing to Moses while standing in open spaces, but God instructs Moses to stand inside the mountain.  Some things can only be felt and understood while standing within them.

The revelation at Sinai, and ‘behar’, tell us that our Judaism is best understood while we stand within it.  Not everything will make sense, and life will probably be more challenging, but ration and ease are not the pre-conditions on which we choose to enter.  When we step inside, we see the world differently, we understand that Judaism, like nature, will evolve over time, and we are part of that evolution.  We find our place within.

The Torah reading this week invites us to enter our Judaism and ask all our questions while standing inside, protected with the solid rocks of ancestry.  From that position we build bridges and the world connects.

My piano teacher enriched who I am, and my measure of gratitude for this woman is always high.  When I think of her, I also feel some regret that in the end, we stood so far apart.  I like to believe that we had an unusual and unique bond, as I stood within one nook in the rock and she stood within another.  

By the way, her favourite composer was Mozart.

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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“Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

Parshat Toldot: “Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

This week, in one of my online classes, we had a fascinating discussion about Judaism and multiple truths.  In Judaism, we have many debates about whether there is such a thing as absolute truth, or can various truths co-exist without having to determine which is…truly true?

It’s actually difficult to mount a Jewish argument for absolute truth, since our ancient texts clearly describe revelation at Sinai, our Jewish defining event, as one where 600,000 people gathered and heard 600,000 different things — all of them the result of the same revelation experience.  Text after text tells us that absolutes could only apply to God, the human domain is a space of relativity.

To take it even further, the ‘truth’ of a moment is usually decided by the authority in charge, and not the actual truth that might be proved.   As an educator, I learned of a case where a high school English teacher put a poem on the final exam.  The students were asked to write an essay on the central theme expressed.  One student wrote an essay that was returned with a barely passing grade and the teacher commented that although they had discussed a theme, it was not the central theme.  The student wrote to the author of the poem and included the exam question, their answer, and the teacher’s response.  The author supported the student’s reading of the central theme.  When all this was brought back to the school for evaluation, the school decision backed the teacher and dismissed the author.  The ‘true’ answer was what the teacher had taught in class, not the author’s stated truth about the poem.

Once I learned of that incident, any time my kids would ask me a question about their homework, I would always begin my answer by saying: ‘are you asking me this because you’re wondering about it, or are you asking me because you’re studying for a test?’  I felt it important to teach my kids that truth has a context.

Over the years, my kids have brought multiple truths to my attention as they encounter them on social media.  By multiple truths, my family has included what Neils Bohr (famous Jewish Nobel Prize winning physicist) observed: “Sometimes the opposite of a fundamental truth is another fundamental truth”.  (It helps when scientists echo what ancient Jewish texts have said all along…but I digress.)  Social media has fun challenges about multiple truths.  For instance, the famous ‘is it blue or is it gold’ dress:

Some people genuinely see this as a white dress with gold, while others genuinely see a blue dress.  Apparently, they’re both correct.

Or, for the math lovers among us:

Due to the order of operations, there is legitimately more than one answer to the equation.

But I’m not referring to misunderstandings, like this one:

  • though you can’t help but love the student who does that…

Nor am I referring to a ‘made-up truth’ that is the result of denial, like every toddler who blames their sibling for the spilled juice, even though all siblings are at school at the moment…

Jewish multiple truths refers to the honest perception a person has of what they consider the truth, which is then offered in the open arena of Jewish discussion so others can expand their thinking of what they thought was their truth.  Multiple truth encourages humility within us, since everything I think I believe is now open for listening to someone else’s view — it might also be true.  

In fact, there are so many examples of this in Torah, it’s a challenge to list them.  Several of them occur in this week’s parshah, Toldot.  One of the main instances of multiple truth surrounded Rebecca and Isaac in how they built their family.

Rebecca is pregnant but feels something is wrong — too much activity in her womb.  She seeks an answer from God and is told that what she is feeling is two nations that are struggling within her.  She is also told that the elder will serve the younger.  She trusts this answer completely, to the point that after her children have grown, she will actively deceive her husband so that the younger one (Jacob) gets the covenantal blessing.  Total trust in God, no questions asked.

Isaac, however, has a different experience of the world.  The Torah says that he has bonded to his son Esau because Esau is a hunter (Jacob makes vegetarian soups).  It makes perfect sense that Isaac bonds to the son who hunts, the son who uses a knife to provide food for him.  It’s not a coincidence that Issac, whose father Abraham placed a knife to young Isaac’s throat years before…on God’s orders…now bonds with his son who uses a knife to protect and provide.  What was a threat from his father is now the security from the son.  

It’s also not a coincidence that Isaac barely ever speaks to God and God mostly leaves Isaac alone.  According to Isaac’s world view, the relationship with God could turn on a dime, so best not to open too many doors.

Rebecca and Isaac are married and are the second generation of Matriarch and Patriarch.  One trusts God fully and gives herself over to that truth, while the other backs away and bonds with the non-covenantal son.  Both their truths are correct.

There is a beautiful midrash that discusses how before God created humanity, God threw Truth to the earth where it shattered into infinite shards.  After humanity is created, each person embodies within them one of the shards of truth, and together, when we listen, we reveal more and more, and grow.  We discuss and debate so we can combine shards of truth and learn of a greater picture.

As the Jewish people, we are a diversity of view and opinion which each of us believes is truly what Judaism means to us.  We learned this approach at Sinai, and we celebrate it as foundational.  

As one rabbi put it: Just because I’m right doesn’t mean you’re wrong.