Taking A Break

Taking A Break

I recently accepted a position as Rabbanit at a synagogue in Toronto, the Beth Torah Congregation.  I am very honoured with this position, as my parents were among the founding members of this shul.  In light of my new community position, and with all the exciting new courses being offered this fall at Rachael’s Centre, I will be taking a break from writing my weekly blog.  

I want to personally wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat, and meaningful weeks leading up to our High Holidays.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,


This week’s parsha is Va’etchanan.

Read or revisit Rachael’s previous blogs on this parsha:

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

Parshat Va’etchanan: Learning To Listen

Being the Tooth Fairy Was Easy

Being the Tooth Fairy Was Easy

When I was little, I believed in the Tooth Fairy.  Whenever I would lose a tooth, I would put it under my pillow, and in the morning I knew that one of my parents took the tooth and placed a nickel in its place.  I knew they wanted me to think it was the Tooth Fairy, and so I decided to play along and make them happy.  We all ‘believed’ in the Tooth Fairy and were quite happy to live the fantasy.  A few times, I woke up in the morning. and my tooth was still under my pillow. I made sure to mention to my parents that the Tooth Fairy hadn’t come (read: ‘I thought you were good parents but I believe I’m down a nickel…).  

No one is really sure how the Tooth Fairy started, but some theories track it as early as the 1200s, when Norwegian soldiers bought children’s teeth to wear around their necks for good luck in battle (not quite my image of a ‘tooth fairy’ but then no one made me look it up so I have only myself to blame).

When my kids started losing their teeth, I most definitely told them to put the tooth under their pillow for the Tooth Fairy.  The first few times I was shocked to hear from friends that you had to put a quarter for each tooth (gone were the good old nickel-per-tooth days).  By the time we were at the fifth child, each tooth cost us a loonie (a Canadian $1 coin) – tooth inflation is shocking!

I never considered not being the Tooth Fairy.  The guilt, the blame, the parental insecurity would have cut me to the core.  Wasn’t a piece of my child worth the $1?  Once, I remember trying to get the tooth out from under my kid’s pillow when they opened their eyes and looked at me, as my face was millimeters away from theirs.  I froze.  I told them I was just coming to say ‘I love you’ – we smiled at each other and they went back to sleep while I went to shower the cold sweat off me.

Yet, with all that said, I do remember that by the end of it all, my youngest child would ask me if the Tooth Fairy had remembered to get some cash that day. She would then hand me her tooth and I would hand her the loonie.  I appreciated that she indulged my Tooth Fairy secret identity. 

Pretending to believe in things we don’t actually believe in is a tricky thing.  

Needless to say, it is a crucial question within our Jewish lives and it becomes very central today, as we approach Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av – a day that marks Jewish historical disasters throughout time.  The decree that ancient Israelites should stay in the desert for 40 years occurred on Tisha B’Av.  Both ancient Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on this day and Jerusalem was lost as a 2000 year exile began.  

Throughout Jewish history, we move all our sadness and tragic memories to Tisha B’Av.  The same Sages who tell us to express our Judaism through happiness also tell us to focus all the negativity of our history onto one specific day. It is a brilliant way to frame a troubled history that could result in a depressive culture.  To ensure that a difficult history does not define our perspective, we are told that for 364 days of the year we must find our joy, and for 1 day we express our tragedies. 

The problem with believing in something is when we are told that all our suffering is because we didn’t have enough faith in God – we didn’t believe enough.  According to this view, all our suffering is the punishment we have brought upon ourselves, and therefore the answer is to repent and strengthen our belief.

The problem is we are never commanded to believe in the first place.  Commandments speak to the consistency of our behaviours while our beliefs are expected to wax and wane.  Yes, Judaism is a religion, and we could easily conclude that everything sits in our faith, but Judaism is far more layered than that.  The Talmud tells us that we lost the Temples because of ‘baseless hatred’ – a general animosity we felt towards other people for no valid reason.  We weren’t punished because of it, we sabotaged ourselves.  I cannot build a family, a community, or a society, if I see no value in anyone around me.  Losing everything that mattered to us wasn’t the punishment, it was the inevitable outcome.

Rav Kook, Israel’s first Chief Rabbi, once expressed that the answer to baseless hatred is baseless love.  If I am able to reach out to someone and create a positive moment, we are then actively pushing against baseless hatred.  If one community offers allyship to a vulnerable group, we are building baseless love.  We know that the world before us will not be the same as the world of 18 months ago.  The world before us can become a world where we actively push away from Tisha B’Av – where we choose the strength of love and bond.

On Tisha B’Av, we read the book of Lamentations.  The first word in the book is ‘Eichah’, which means ‘how’ – how did such a catastrophe occur?  It does not begin by asking ‘why’, which would be a question of faith, rather it asks ‘how’, which is a question of accountability.

True belief is never a game we pretend to play, and we are not punished for our journeys of faith.  While the ancient prophet Jeremiah asked the question of how things could collapse so fully, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves how we can build things anew so beautifully.

Parshat Pinchas: Learning to Build a Legacy

Parshat Pinchas: Learning to Build a Legacy

Over the last year, my mother has been texting me some of her recipes so that I could make them in my own home.  Sometimes it worked well, but often, although it tasted fine, it just didn’t taste like it does when she makes it.  I think the problem lies in how I define “a smidge” or “a pinch” or “fill the palm of your hand with pepper”, versus my mother’s definition of these measures.  I’ve learned to accept that I can’t duplicate these dishes, I can only personalize them and carry on.

But every now and then, when I’m able to speak with my aunt (my mother’s sister who lives in Israel), I manage to get actual measurements for things.  She is the keeper of the family flavours — the problem is she learned these recipes from her mother, and neither of these women were speaking English to each other.  In fact, although they lived in Israel, these recipes weren’t exactly in Hebrew either.  They’re in some old-world mix of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Ladino.  I end up with descriptions of the ingredients, rather than the actual names of them.  In the end, I get measurements from my aunt, but I have no idea what ingredient I’m supposed to be measuring.  In essence, I play Russian Roulette with the traditional family recipes.  However, I did notice that anytime I asked my aunt about when she and my mother were growing up, she would tell me to ask my mother about details and names because she never remembers them.

Somewhere between my mother and my aunt lies the full memory of that side of the family.  Each is the expert of a corner of the legacy I’m searching for. 

I can’t help but think of another woman who harboured a priceless legacy, and she appears in the Torah reading this week, parshat Pinchas.  Our Jewish heritage teaches us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they wandered in the desert for 40 years, during which time the slave generation died out.  Miriam, Aaron, and ultimately Moses, don’t enter Israel, as they were from the generation of Egypt.  Yet, surprisingly, the Torah tells us that one woman, Serach, who left Egypt as a slave, will be among those who enter Israel.  We see her name listed in the parsha during a census.  Amidst all the names of men appears the name of only one woman, Asher’s daughter Serach.

The Torah never explains why this woman’s name is listed in the census, and we are never told of anything she did.  The only thing we notice is that her name is listed among those who entered Egypt, it appears here in the census, and it will be listed later among those who enter Israel.  What do we know of this unusual woman?

Some of our sources speak of her position as the embodiment of our memories.  She is the woman who knew us when we were a clan in Canaan, and then knew our pain and torment in Egypt.  She is the woman who witnessed the leadership of Moses and the challenges of the people.  She is the same woman who watches all her peers perish as she educates the next generation about their roots and their anchors.  

She is our living legacy.

Serach is how the Torah teaches us that our history sits within the people first.  It is their voices that will speak of our experiences and will create a history we can trust.  She observes it all, records it all, and teaches it all.  I can’t help but think of the year and a half we’ve all just been through and how we will choose to record it.

Aside from the changes to our daily lives and our relationships, there have been challenges to our Jewish experiences.  Did we maintain holiness to our holidays and our Shabbat experiences when we couldn’t gather together?  Were our Jewish moments still special when we couldn’t sit with our families?  Did we pray? Did we find ways to seek community?  Were we able to reach out and help those who needed our helping hands?  Did our Jewish values guide us through dark moments or were they sitting silently as we struggled?

Added to all these questions is the question this week’s parsha adds: will we chronicle our experience in all its positive and negative aspects, or are we eager to forget it and move on?

Everyone of us has endured a difficult year, and each of our experiences are different.  Judaism always teaches us to study the texts we’ve inherited and create new texts as we move forward.  All of us had private moments of sadness, but we also had surprising moments of appreciation and gratitude.  As we are able to move beyond the experience, we must decide if the year becomes a memory or a legacy.  A memory will sit inside of us and it will speak to us every now and again as a ‘remember when’ moment.  A legacy is something that sits on the experience in all its facets and emerges with the lessons learned.  A legacy moves beyond us and becomes an inheritance. 

Parshat Balak: But Did You Really Mean It?

Parshat Balak: But Did You Really Mean It?

Someone I hadn’t spoken with in years called me the other day.   When I answered the phone, she immediately greeted me warmly and said her name.  I was thrilled to hear from her — it had been so long.  I excitedly asked her how she was and how her family had been over the past few years.  She told me they were all well and asked me about my kids, each by name, and how they are.  As I was answering, in the back of my mind, I began to wonder at this voice from the past reaching out to me. 

I met this woman years before when I walked into a salon at the shopping mall near my house.  I wanted to cut my hair and she had some time available.  We talked and she shared her story of leaving Iran and her former life behind.  We’d see each other every month or so, and each time we shared stories of our families and our lives.  Eventually, she invited me to her home and we began a friendship.  But over the years our lives got busier, and we saw each other less and less.  When she called me a few days ago,  I instantly smiled and was excited to catch up with her.

As soon as we finished the general updates, she told me that the salon would be opening to clients again in a few weeks and I should feel free to make an appointment.  The province is going to allow in-person appointments indoors, but I would need to book an appointment, since they weren’t taking walk-ins.  I thanked her for letting me know, told her I really appreciated her thinking of me, and I proceeded to ask her more questions about what she’s been doing.  She indicated she needed to get off the phone and I realized she was probably making many calls to many former clients to try and rebuild her income. I thanked her again and we hung up.

Since then I’ve been thinking about that phone call.  I misunderstood her intentions.  I thought the phone call was a sudden and courageous reach-out, to connect with me because we’d lost touch with each other.  In fact, it was a formal and economically practical means to try and recover from a difficult year.  Salons have been closed for months, and anyone in that industry must now rebuild.

I couldn’t decide if I was hurt or not.

It reminded me of an interesting dilemma that presents itself in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Balak.  A foreign prophet, Balaam, is hired to curse Israel, and although he tries several times to fulfill the job, he fails each time.  In fact, every time he tries, his words are turned into blessings.  The final blessing, ‘Ma tovu’, becomes the opening prayer of our Siddur — it is the blessing that says ‘How wonderful are your tents’.  It is a beautiful blessing that speaks of our community, our respect for each other and our inclusion of God into our society.  But, Balaam clearly intended to curse us, do we ignore his intent?

Yes, we do.  Judaism tells us to couple our intention with our actions, but only I can form my intention, and only I will know how authentic it is.  I cannot judge another person’s intentions, since I could never truly know them.  I am to work on my own intentions, but I can only ever observe the actions of others — their intentions are private, and I must respect that privacy.

The old friend who called me may have intended to rebuild her client base, or perhaps she coupled that with the opportunity to reach out to an old friend — I’ll never know.  But the truth is that her call made me smile, and I felt excitement at hearing the voice from the past.  Whether she meant to or not, she made me feel better and I’m grateful to her.

True intentions can only sit inside our own hearts.  For more than a year, we’ve had to limit our contact with each other, and now that we are more able to connect, maybe it’s worth picking up the phone and calling an old friend.  We may leave them wondering what led us to make that phone call, but wondering about it won’t last as long as the smile will.

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.