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.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Two old men are sitting on a park bench together one afternoon watching the people walking by (stop me if you’ve heard this one).  A group of young girls stroll by chatting.  One old man leans to the other and says ‘I can’t believe how short their skirts are, you can see everything, including their pupiks!’  The second man turns to his friend and says, ‘I agree! What a bracha…I mean a broch!’

For non-Yiddish speakers, the punchline is the second man saying ‘what a blessing…I mean a disaster!’

As much as we believe that a blessing would be a universal thing, the truth is that blessings are usually quite subjective.  They are layered with assumptions and expectations that we then project onto each other almost without thinking.  When I was growing up, if I was at a wedding it would be only polite for women to wish single women ‘Mirtzem bi-you’, (God willing this should happen to you).  The assumption is that every woman would want to be married and that single women should not feel envious of the bride because we have prayed that God should make her a bride soon.  We don’t say that so much anymore, I hope that’s because we have understood that blessings have the power to communicate more than we intended.

Judaism views blessings as double edged swords.  The very general, non-specific ones are great.  We bless each other with happiness and long life.  I have had occasions to sit with family members discussing insurance policies a few times over the years.  Most of those occasions involved insurance agents who were Jewish (once it was a friend of ours who is a Lubavitch Rabbi).  The conversation took much longer than it needed to.  Life insurance discussions would always involve following any example with ‘you should live to 120’; disability insurance policies were explained with every other sentence being ‘you shouldn’t know from this, not you, not your family, not anyone we know’.  After signing the policy with our friend, the Lubavitch Rabbi, he reminded us that he is also a sofer (scribe) and set aside time to check all our mezuzahs.  Once, I sat in such a meeting with a non-Jewish insurance agent —I couldn’t do it.  I kept wanting to say ‘God should keep us all safe and healthy (amen)’.  

Blessings are powerful and empowering moments we offer each other, but we’re not often taught how to do that.  When someone sneezes, we may offer the traditional ‘God bless you’.  Historically, that is not because we are worried the sneeze indicated they were getting sick, but because during the instant of sneezing they were left unaware and that’s when Satan can enter the soul.  We protect them by invoking God’s name.  The Hebrew sneeze response, ‘livriyut’, means ‘to health’, more of a Jewish response —the offer of a blessing.  Even when we say goodbye to each other, most of us forget that the word ‘goodbye’ is a short form for the original phrase ‘God be with ye’, the blessing we offered each other before departing and encountering danger on the roads (God forbid).  In Yiddish, the traditional parting phrase is ‘zei gezunt’, ‘be healthy’ —another blessing offered to each other.

While we all exchange and feel positively about the general blessings we offer each other, the specific ones are when it can get tricky.  Offering the blessing of an upcoming marriage to a single woman assumes she would want that for herself; offering the blessing of children to a woman who has suffered a recent miscarriage is well intentioned but often times painful to the recipient.  There is an art to crafting a blessing, but most of us are not taught the technique.

In this week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah, the upcoming matriarch, Rebecca, has chosen to leave her home, her family, and marry Isaac, sight unseen.  Her family offers her a blessing: “May you become (the mother of) hundreds of thousands and may your seed inherit the gates of their enemies.”  It’s a beautiful blessing, who wouldn’t want hordes of descendants and to inherit gates of enemies?  If I inherit their gates, it means I outlived them.  I didn’t have to battle them, I simply endured longer than they did —I waited them out.  What could be the problem?

The midrash points out that this blessing is a double edged sword.  For me to inherit the gates of my enemies, I must accept the inheritance and claim their cities.  What if they don’t live near me?  What if I don’t want what they had?  What if their things are a constant reminder to me of the suffering experienced at their hands?  What if I want to close that chapter, feel relieved that they’re gone, and never have to think of them again?  Why would I want their past constantly in my present and speaking into my future?  What if I don’t think it’s a blessing?

Then the midrash points out that these sentiments were also expressed to the patriarch, Isaac.  Now what has been offered to Rebecca is her own legacy of blessing to bring to her marriage.  She will not fulfill her future by trying to find ways to enter the blessings of Isaac.  That’s what happened to Sarah, that’s how Abraham ended up with Hagar, fathering Ishmael.  

Between the first generation of ancestry and the second generation, we watch the balance of blessings be introduced between patriarch and matriarch.  The blessing sits in the balance.

It’s not so easy to bless each other.  We must always be careful of nuance, personal preferences and the appropriate opportunities to offer someone our most heartfelt prayer of something beautiful.  We’ll never learn the skill if we don’t take a risk and start offering a blessing to each other.

May we all stay healthy and well, and may God bring wisdom to those seeking cures and vaccines.  Amen.

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Parshat Noah: Zen & the Art of…Wait, Was That My Phone?

Every now and again I look at my kids and marvel at how different they are from me.  They are, of course, their own individual persons, but they come from me, and they carry my DNA in their cells which will pass to their children…so how different could they really be?  But, we all know, my DNA sitting inside their cells does very little to shape them in my image.  Even so, over the years, I have tried doing things with each of them that they have suggested, and since it clearly interests them, I hoped it might interest me as well.  One of these moments was the day I tried hot yoga.

One of my daughters explained to me how much she loved it and I need to go with her so I could love it too.  She remembered that I used to be very involved in yoga exercises but she forgot that I overheat easily and prefer cold climates to hot ones.  The moment we entered the yoga studio I knew I’d made a mistake.  As everyone gathered for the class, the temperature was only slightly tropical so I thought it might be ok until I was told the temperature would be turned up every few minutes.  The instructor introduced herself (her name was Blossom…I kid you not) and she explained to everyone how vital it is to leave the world outside the studio.  This space is about our breathing, said Blossom, it is about relaxation and letting go, so all electronics are to be outside the studio.  She said it with a smile, a glow, an ethereal glint in her eye.  

The class started, but within 10 minutes I had overheated and wondered if Blossom would mind if I poured my water bottle over my head. I could do it quietly, no one would need to know and everyone was already so drenched in sweat I wondered if anyone would even notice the puddle…but then IT happened.  The woman on the mat next to me had her phone on vibrate and…yes…it vibrated with an incoming call.  I barely noticed it, but Blossom immediately appeared out of nowhere and gone were her smile, her glow, her ethereal glint in the eye.  This was Blossom Imperial Guardian of Hot Yoga.  “GET THAT PHONE OUT OF HERE!!” (the capital letters aren’t because she yelled but because the bite in her tone was worse than if she’d yelled).  The woman guilty of the phone violation apologized but Blossom was having none of her apologies – not until the phone was gone and the woman with it.  Once the offending woman was exiled from the hot yoga paradise, Blossom’s smile reappeared as she floated from mat to mat to encourage our relaxation.  I only lasted a few minutes longer, I needed to recover from the heat but mostly I needed to recover from Blossom.

Interestingly, I usually think of my hot yoga experience when we read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Noah.  We know the story so well, Noah built the ark that God told him to build, he put animals and plants in it and God flooded the world destroying everything except what was in the ark.  The grandeur of the narrative easily overtakes the nuances.  

The Torah states that the world had become ‘corrupt’ and that’s why God decided to destroy it.  The Sages question what kind of corruption could have warranted such a Divine response.  One of the answers is that everything had denied its true nature and chose to express other than what was its genuine expression.  According to this midrash, you could plant corn but the earth would decide to grow wheat instead, or an apple tree would decide to grow pears.  Everything in nature denied its authentic true core and tried to be something else – something it saw someone else doing.  The world became a place of imitation and superficial gestures, it had redefined itself.  

Chaos was returning to the world because the uniqueness of each creation was being denied, and the singular, distinctive nature of each voice was missing.  God created a world of authenticity but the world itself had erased that authenticity to produce blended chaos and a facade filled with impersonators.

After the flood, the world changes.  The seven Noahide laws are introduced, and free will gains parameter.  The ground can no longer choose to grow corn when I plant wheat and an apple tree cannot prefer to grow pears.  Likewise, although I have free will, I cannot become something other than my authentic self, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking I can.  

We often know things about ourselves and believe we have accepted who we are, but then we don’t follow through to the next step — the celebration of who we are.  Part of what I should celebrate is how easily I overheat and how detrimental an encounter with Blossom can be to me.  Part of what Blossom should celebrate is how easily she can go from ‘Zen’ to ‘superhero – defender of the tranquility’.  

What we should all celebrate is how magnificent the world is when we feel proud to be authentic.  It seems to be the Divine Plan.

If you would like to learn more about this story in the Torah and Rachael’s commentary on what truly took place, consider joining us this spring for Reserve Me An Aisle Seat Please: A Look At Noah’s Ark.

If you would like to know what happens before the ark, The Garden of Eden: The Best of Times and The Worst of Times begins November 3rd. If mindfulness is more of interest, Mussar: Finding Empowerment and Healing the World begins November 4th.

More information on our Learning Page.

Parshat Beha’alotcha: Have You Heard About…?

I’ve had quite a bit of time these last few months to reflect on so many things.  Isolation will do that for us – lots of time, lots of reflections.  

I remember so many conversations, some make me smile, some make me cringe, some I realize were left open ended and need to be revisited.  But, one conversation always makes me laugh and I’d like to share it.  

I was sitting in my car with one of my sons and I was thinking of whether or not criminals who committed crimes in their youth should be paroled in their old age.  It’s a tough topic for me, since I am definitely someone who believes in accountability, but at the same time, I believe that people can grow and change.  Can our entire future lives be set in stone based on a single act from our past?

It’s easy when we think of mundane youthful transgressions – certainly we don’t want people locked in by a minor mistake, but what about the major things?  Should someone like Charles Manson ever have seriously been considered for parole?  And now we have arrived at the conversation I had with my son.

    Rachael: Do you think Manson deserved parole or to die in prison?

    Son:  Why was he in prison?

    Rachael: Because he killed a lot of people.

    Son:  I don’t think he actually killed anyone.

    Rachael: Ok, he didn’t actually kill anyone.  But that’s a loophole.

    Son: What are you talking about?   

Rachael: He didn’t actually kill anyone himself.  He ordered other people to kill them.  So, I still think he’s responsible.

    Son: He didn’t order anyone to kill anyone.

    Rachael: Of course he did!  Sharon Tate, and that  poor LaBianca couple – he had a whole cult thing going on there in the desert!

    Son: They’re fans mum…I wouldn’t call that a cult.

    Rachael: What are you talking about?  Of course it’s a cult!

    Son: His music was a little strange, I’ll admit, but I don’t know that I’d call his fans a cult.

    Rachael: I don’t know that I’d call him a musician!  I think HE thought he was, but I don’t think anyone else thought he was.  That whole thing with The Beatles is maybe the music connection, but I really wouldn’t go so far as calling him a musician.

    Son: What connection to the Beatles?

    Rachael: Helter Skelter – his whole defense during his murder trial.

(Silence)

    Son: Who are you talking about?

    Rachael: Charlie Manson.  Who are you talking about?

    Son: Marilyn.

    Rachael:  Marilyn Monroe?  

    Son: Of course not!  Marilyn Manson!!

I think about the layers of misunderstandings that fed this exchange.  My generation, his generation, the differences in our gender, the differences in our cultural contexts – and yet I raised him in my home and we should have been on the same page.  And with all that embedded into the conversation, I also wondered afterwards if we were not actually talking about it but rather gossiping about the respective Mansons involved.  If I tell someone how I feel about a named person and what they did, is that always gossip, and if so, how serious is it?

I agree with all Jewish scholars and sages who have told us that keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat or any of the holidays, is not the hard part of the commandments.  Keeping guard of how we speak is the hard part.  In fact, the Talmud tells us that the tongue is situated behind two unforgiving guards: the lips and the teeth (even a momentary recall of accidentally biting our tongues and the pain and tears in our eyes confirms their image).   Judaism says our thoughts may be unfettered but our speech must not.

In this week’s parshah,  Beha’alotcha, Miriam is punished for gossiping about her brother, Moses.  She initiates a conversation with Aaron about their little brother, Moses.  God hears it and gives her leprosy.  It’s a death sentence, since leprosy had no cure.  Moses prays for her (the heartfelt plea: “Please, God, please, heal her”) and she is cured after one week.  In other words, Miriam, who stood guard over Moses while he was floating in a basket on the Nile, the little girl who united Moses with his mother so she could nurse him, the woman who created a community of women within Israel and taught them to sing and dance their prayers – this woman is cut no slack for a casual sibling conversation!  It’s not Shabbat that’s hard, it’s choosing how we speak of each other.

The example of Miriam, Aaron and Moses at that moment always strikes me.  They are siblings.  We always talk to our brothers and sisters about our brothers and sisters.  We talk to them about our parents.  They are our sounding boards, our first partners for venting, they teach us about life differently than our parents will – they stand next to us from cradle to grave.  Yet, we think they are so much a part of us that we can speak of them without a second thought.  Miriam did something we all do without thinking twice.  

So, why the harsh reaction?

I think it comes down to leadership.  Judaism believes that all people are equal and no one is a saint.  We will all make mistakes and we will all fail, but any leader is first and foremost an example.  We do not expect that leaders never make mistakes, we expect that they never whitewash them.  Leaders are accountable for their choices at all times and while Miriam shows us a leader who is held accountable for her words, Moses shows us a leader who advocates for mercy and forgiveness, even though she hurt him.  It is not Miriam alone who is the focus of this moment, it is her brother, whom she critiqued, that stands next to her before God.  

MIriam guarded Moses from Pharaoh’s death decree and Moses now guards Miriam from God’s.

We all gossip, we all try not to and then we all do it again.  We speak of those closest to us to those who are…closest to us.  We are both Miriam and Moses, two siblings who needed each other, had human moments together and then showed us how to forgive and continue the journey together.  It’s not the adage about picking ourselves up again after we make a mistake, this is more about remembering that relationships are always about ourselves involved with others and not just how we get back up.  It’s about hurting someone and then finding  a way to re-enter the relationship.  The momentary offense sits within a greater commitment and so Moses and Miriam will emerge standing together.

It’s not just about recognizing the moment we gossiped without also asking ourselves about facing the person afterward

Pesach Message for 2020

This year, Pesach will be unique for the Jewish people everywhere.  The other unique moment it brings to mind is the very first Pesach, the one in Egypt.  Here are some moments to help fulfill the Sages’ proclamation that we should all experience Egypt.

  • The Israelites in Egypt were told to stay in their homes
  • They were surrounded by a deadly ‘wave’
  • They knew that they would emerge stronger than they entered
  • They knew that ultimately they would receive an identity and relationship with God and the Torah that would guide and secure every journey forward

And here we have arrived.  

How is this Pesach different?  How is this night different? We sit apart and yet together.  We have scaled down the preparations so we can scale up the conversations.  Our bodies are frustrated by the confinement while our minds are filled with the debates of Pesach:  justice or mercy; joy or suffering; passive knowledge or prompted questions; the taste of tears or the taste of sweetness;  have I been privileged all along or have I been enslaved and unaware?

The physicality of this Pesach has reduced but the engagement and comfort to openly share everything we feel has opened wide.  

May God keep everyone safe, strong, healthy and redeemed with the coming of Pesach.  When we open our doors and welcome Eliyahu this year, ask him to bring our prayers of strength to the next house he enters.  May we keep connected and look forward to Next Year in Jerusalem sitting together.

Every generation brings its unique moment of history to the growing lessons we teach our children at the Seder.  Let them see that the strength they are showing now is the strength that can serve them always.

Chag Kasher, Sameach veChazak.

Rav brachot,

Rachael

Parshat Shmot: Sugar and Spice

This Shabbat we start reading the book of Shemot (Exodus).  And the first parshah takes us quickly into the land of women.

For any of the men reading this, be aware that I am venturing into female territory – discussing ‘womens’ things.  To refer to the sage advise of Bette Davis: fasten your seatbelts, boys, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

To begin, there are topics women discuss easily with each other and the moment these topics arise I witness men finding ways to leave the room.  When I was young, if my sister and I ever mentioned our periods, my brothers couldn’t get away fast enough. When my daughters likewise mentioned it, my sons would diplomatically excuse themselves and only come back into the room after checking if it was ‘safe’.

But for women, these kinds of topics are so much part of our reality, so frequently part of our mundane, that we forget not everyone around us shares these things.  When my oldest daughter began her cycles, I went through all the beautiful concepts of maturity and womanhood with her. Everything was perfect until she realized this would happen every month.  She was then pretty angry – it’s beautiful once in a while but what did I mean EVERY month?!? By the time my youngest daughter crossed that threshold she was so used to hearing about it from her sisters that she had no hesitation communicating why she was moody.  I had to put my foot down when she would curl into a ball, snap at her brothers and then exclaim: ‘Leave me alone, my ovaries are killing me!”

What is mundane and routine for one gender can be totally opaque to the other.  I remember the predicament of watching feminine hygiene commercials with my sons in the room.  They weren’t curious about what the products were for (they were quite young at the time) but they were livid that girls get something with ‘wings’ and they don’t.  In their minds their sisters get to be airborne with these things – why don’t they get to fly too?!

We all get to a point of accepting that some things will be natural to one gender and somewhat enigmatic to the other.

I raise all this because this week’s parshah talks about Israelite women giving birth in Egypt and the midwives who attend them.  Pharaoh has issued an edict for the midwives to kill all the baby boys. The midwives refuse. But why would Pharaoh command midwives to do his dirty work?  He has soldiers, he has unlimited ways to get the job done. The problem he faces is that while a conquered people will endure almost anything, they do it in the hopes that the future for their children will be better.  People will bear the burdens put upon them as long as they feel they can protect their children. If a tyrant targets the children, he is risking a revolt. Pharaoh is a brilliant tyrant, we see it again and again in text. He is instructing the midwives to kill the baby boys on the birthing stones so the mothers won’t know what they did. Present the baby as stillborn.

And here is where we delve into the world of women.  In the ancient world, women did not give birth lying on a bed. That would be silly, because then the women are pushing a baby laterally while gravity is pulling the baby downward.  Women would squat on stones that allowed gravity to help with the delivery. As any pregnant woman can tell you, there comes a point in the pregnancy when your can no longer see anything below your belly button.  Whatever is below that sight line is a blind spot. So, a woman giving birth in ancient Egypt cannot see the baby birthing. The midwife will narrate everything and then produce a baby…or not.

But these midwives, these women in charge of ushering life into the world, defy Pharaoh’s edict.  So he commands that the babies be ‘given’ to the Nile. Make it a religious sacrifice – anything but an open attack on the children.

Pharaoh is set up in the text as the destroyer, while the women are set up as the life givers and Egypt now represents a world of black and white. When Moses is born, he is a male rescued by women and named for Pharoah’s daughter.  He is the intersecting moment of black and white that produces the grey zone. It is only then that Israel can be redeemed.

Often times in today’s world, we crave the simplicity of black and white definitions.  We leave the room when we don’t want to hear the other opinion or entertain another point of view.  We might think we’re avoiding being uncomfortable, but maybe avoiding Egypt is worth a bit of discomfort

Letting Go of My ‘Do Over’

Parshat Vayichi introduces a question we’ve all asked at one time or another.  What if I had a chance for a ‘do over’ with something in my life? What if I could go back to a moment in the past and live it again so I could do it differently?

The parshah begins with Jacob on his deathbed.  We are told he has lived in Egypt for 17 years. It seems like one of those moments that the Torah gives us a detail for the sake of…giving us a detail.  Until you remember that Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. In other words, the time of Joseph’s youth, living in Jacob’s home, the time that went so wrong – that same amount of time was gifted back to Jacob in Egypt.  Could he make these last 17 years wonderful, to ‘do over’ the first 17 years?

But we see Jacob on his deathbed and we don’t see the wonderful father-son bond that he might have built with Joseph.  Jacob tells Joseph to bring his sons for a blessing but then doesn’t recognize those sons when he sees them. When Jacob crosses his hands to bless his grandsons, Joseph tries to correct him and Jacob assures him he knows what he’s doing.  There is no heartfelt hugging, no lamenting the years wasted, no tears are shed until that dreaded moment when Jacob slips away. Only after Jacob dies does Joseph break down in grief and you’re left to wonder if the grief is for the lives and opportunities that came and went without connection.

The ‘do over’ never works.  Jacob redid the 17 years without being able to change anything.  He still looks at Joseph and is reminded of his lost love, Rachel.  He so much as says so in his last moments. ‘Do overs’ don’t work because we are still the same people who made the choices we made, so the answer will never lie somewhere in a past event.  The key is not to go backwards but to go forwards.

Jacob tells Joseph he will adopt and bless Joseph’s sons: Ephraim and Menasheh.  It is in these last moments of his life that Jacob stops searching for Rachel in every family face and begins to look forward.  Joseph is the child who found his world outside of the family. Joseph succeeded in a foreign culture, married a foreign woman and raised foreign children…and he thrived.  Joseph is the child who stepped outside of his Judaism because he couldn’t find his place within. While there were moments in Jewish history when that reality would cause parents to disown their children, how interesting that the Torah does not represent that parental choice.  Jacob reaches out to the future and tells Joseph that his choice to live outside Judaism need not be extended to his children. Jacob adopts his grandchildren and blesses them with the balance of their two worlds. Their names represent Joseph’s two lives. Menashe is the eldest and his name means thanking God for forgetting the suffering of Jacob’s house.  Ephraim is the younger and his name means that God made Joseph fruitful in his new life. One name is negative while one name is positive. One represents the old world and one represents the new. One speaks of a Jewish struggle unresolved while the other speaks of embracing a foreign world of opportunities. Thank God Jacob crosses his arms when he blesses them.  He is becoming the conduit that will transfer the positive onto the negative and vice versa. He blesses them with finding the balance of their two worlds.

Jacob is the patriarch we question the most about his family life.  His partnering skills, having married two sisters while clearly preferring one, as well as his parenting skills, preferring Joseph so overtly, all make us question his judgment.  Yet, in his final moments, he owns all his shortcomings and finally looks to the future. Joseph’s Jewish dilemmas do not define how Jews should look at his children.

Today there are many challenges within the Jewish world.  Families are still thrown into turmoil when a child decides their life is more fulfilled outside of their Jewish roots.  Often, loved ones will reject the people involved, not only the choice they made. Future generations, future possibilities, everything closed forever because of the pain of the moment.  Hours spent wishing for a ‘do over’. But one of Jacob’s eternal strengths is to teach us that it’s never too late. Parenting is never about going back to do it again, it is always about looking at the next step and parenting moments will fill every breath we take, right up to the last one.  

The generations that unfold before us are filled with unique individuals who deserve offers of connection at every turn.  With all of our concerns about Jacob’s relationship judgment, we continue to bless our sons every Friday night as Jacob did.  Our hands rest on their heads and we pray that God should make them like Ephraim and like Menasheh.

We do the same thing with our daughters.   Hands on their heads, we pray that God should make them like Rachel and Leah.  But Leah was older and she was the first wife. Her name should come first. But, again, Leah lived a negative existence while Rachel was so cherished.  We reverse the names of the Matriarchs to bless our daughters with balance. May God help all our children find the balance in their worlds. We thank Jacob for showing us that the ‘do overs’ of our past actually lie in our future choices.

Parshat Vayigash: The Human Family Blood, Sweat & Tears

I was on vacation with my family for 10 days, together, 12 of us, in one house with one virus we all shared.  Like dominoes, one by one, each of us developed a cough, a fever, aches, pressure in the sinuses…and lousy moods.  Innocent questions of ‘how did you sleep’ were often met with variations of responses from ‘how do you think I slept’, to ‘what did you mean by that’.

We struggled to understand why medicines we can get on the shelf at home were only available by prescription where we were.  In moments of respite, we played games together in one room until someone started to cough at which point we all pulled our shirts over our mouths and noses.  People were sent into their rooms for the duration as others dreamed of bathing in hand sanitizer.  

In the midst of the roller coaster of vacation get-away and sickness overload, I heard someone ask a sibling why they were moody.  The question was posed as: isn’t blood thicker than water? And because we were all stuck in a house together and had already talked about anything interesting, and because…we are who we are… we argued about whether or not that phrase makes any sense.

If it’s a declaration of fact, then of course blood is thicker than water…big deal! (Amazing how being sick robs you of any sense of nuance or compassion).  But the phrase is used to indicate that family is more important than other things. How do blood and water mean that? We all agreed that ‘blood’ is family, but then how does ‘water’ mean everything else?

In my family there are history buffs and the historic phrase ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than water’ was volunteered as a source.  Pooling the information people had, as well as a quick check on the internet (which, by the way, doesn’t know much about the phrase), here’s what we came up with:

  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is an image of warfare. Those who spill blood together with you on the battlefield are more your family than your biological family – ‘water’ being the waters of the womb.  Your brothers-in-arms should come first.

OR

  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is the blood of the New Covenant, the blood of Christ.  When women would join a convent they were taught that the ‘blood’ of Jesus as redeemer is thicker than their biological families.  The church family should come first.

So, it actually never means that family should come before all else.  It clearly means the opposite!

Yet, there’s no question that it is ALWAYS used with the intention of saying that family should always come first.  But, in a way, it opens the possibility of defining families as those with whom we strike a covenant. It is not the womb alone that defines a family and the pull we feel toward it.

A friend of mine is adopted and she knew from her earliest memory that she was adopted.  Her parents put it to her that she was ‘chosen’. In fact, they explained to her that they felt bad for other families because other parents were stuck with what they got but her parents felt lucky because they got to choose her.  She was told that she was born of their hearts.

This idea of family by choice speaks clearly in this week’s parsha, Vayigash.  Jacob and his family have been brought to Egypt to reunite with Joseph. In fact, it is Pharaoh who commanded that they all come to Egypt.  Pharaoh is not unbiased in this matter. In essence, Pharaoh adopted Joseph when he renamed him, gave him a wife and a job as second in command.  Pharaoh has heard that Jacob, the biological father, is still alive. As the head of an empire family, Pharaoh knows ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.  Jacob must appear before him.

When Pharaoh and Jacob meet, they both realize they represent different families to Joseph.  Jacob is the family of birth, while Pharaoh is the family of choice. Why else did Joseph never send for his father in all the years of Egypt?  One of Pharaoh’s first questions of Jacob is to ask how old he is (in other words, how much longer do I have to worry about you). Jacob answers by saying ‘I’m old but I come from a line of people of longevity’, (I might be old now, but I’m not as old as I’m going to get – I’m not going anywhere fast).  Interesting response, since earlier Jacob stated that he only wants to live long enough to see Joseph, then he can die. Now, with Pharaoh in the picture, he suddenly indicates he’s got a lot of living to do.

There are many relationships in our lives and we build many families around us.  Some feel the commitment of blood should surpass all else while others feel the commitment of loyalty should define.  The Torah commands us to behave a certain way toward family, without stating that the family of birth is of preference to all others.  Family is a foundation from which we build more families and we define and navigate peace within our families – all of them.

As Pharaoh and Jacob stand facing each other, I can’t help but think each of them, in their own cultural language, is looking at the other and thinking ‘but blood is thicker than water’ and they’d both be right.