Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat Shira

This Shabbat is special in that we read of leaving Egypt, crossing the Reed Sea, and singing our first song.  Because we sing the Song at the Sea, the entire Shabbat is named ‘The Shabbat of Song’, Shabbat Shira. 

We are born as a people when we emerge on the other side of the sea.  We inhale and take our first breath as free people; we are transformed from a clan to a nation.  The first thing any newborn must do is breath, and that first breath results in a sudden burst of crying.  Each parent waits for that first cry, the proof of life and breath.  But, in this moment of national birth, as Israel emerges from the sea, we inhale our first breath and sing.  As a newborn bonds to its parent, we bonded to God through breath and song. 

Our sages debated how Israel sang the lyrics to a song they didn’t know, since Moses is composing it on the spot.  One answer is that Israel was not singing the words, the people kept repeating the first word: “Ashira”, “I will sing”.  Every time Moses completed a sentence, the people sang their commitment to covenant and life: “I will sing”.  

In fact, the Torah refers to itself as ‘this song’, and when we chant Torah to each other we sing the traditional notes.  We have shaped the ritual of passage into Jewish adulthood, a Bnei Mitzvah, as calling a young person to the Torah to hear them sing it. We have learned the importance of song, and the importance of committing to it. 

A newborn baby does not consciously experience its birth.  The baby suddenly finds itself in a room of light when it had only known darkness; cold when it had only known warmth; aloneness when it had only known connection – of course a newborn will inhale and cry.  On this Shabbat we read of our conscious transformation, our feelings of freedom and safety, enveloped by God, whose Divine Presence is palpable– of course we would inhale and sing. 

It is traditional to stand in the service when the Song at the Sea is being read from the Torah.  We stand to remember that first instant we stood together, that moment of absolute completion.  We do not deny that life presents challenges, but on this Shabbat we recommit ourselves to sing. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Bo

This week, we finish reading the plagues of Egypt, and we are always stunned by the last plague: the death of the first born.  The magnitude of it, the severity, the immense loss of life always lingers with difficulty in our hearts.  This plague not only changed Egypt forever, it also changed Judaism forever. 

We usually understand the last plague is God passing through Egypt and taking the lives of all the Egyptian first born.  Except, the Torah didn’t exactly say that.  The Torah states that God will pass through Egypt and take the lives of every eldest child in Egypt.  Worded that way, it now includes all the Jewish first born as well.  The fact that the Israelite’s first born shelter in homes that have blood painted on the doorposts means they are protected, it does not mean they are exempted.   

Because Jewish eldest children were not exempted, they now owe every breath they take to God.  They are to live out their lives in the service of God, who owns their futures.  It is the first born who were destined to become those who serve God, the priesthood, what we now know to be the role of the Kohanim.  It would mean that every family gives up their first born to Temple service with no argument or exceptions.  But the Torah says we must redeem them out of that predestined future.  The ceremony is called ‘Pidyon Ha-ben’, the ‘Redemption of the Child’. 

Jewish families redeem their first born out of ritual service on the thirtieth day after the baby is born.  Actually, the Torah commands us to do this –we buy our children out of a lifetime of service to God.  It’s a lesser-known ritual, because the Sages minimized how often we would obligate parents to this service.  Technically, the word is masculine, so only baby boys would be obligated; it says first born, which implies first natural live birth, so all surgeries or previous unsuccessful pregnancies would exempt the baby.  The list goes on as to how infrequently we would actually need to redeem the baby because the goal is to not obligate them in the first place. 

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

Yes, we’re honoured with the concept, but we’d rather our children choose their own destinies.  Egypt showed us what it looks like when a person’s free will is taken from them, when their future is not their own, when their voices are ignored.  The Torah rightly reminds us that, technically, God spared our children, so logic dictates they are in perpetual service; but then the Torah immediately tells us how to release them. 

There are many moments in the Egypt experience that help shape Jewish values.  The importance of freedom, the centrality of choice, and the empowerment of destiny.  It is true for us, for our children, and as our Egypt experience teaches us, for all people. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat — our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Va’era

This week’s Torah reading, Va’era, begins detailing the plagues of Egypt.  We are familiar with these plagues, after all, we recite them every year at our Seders. But, in fact, we’ve been debating their meanings for millennia.  We’ve looked at them in their details, in their impact, and in their categories. 

One of the ways we categorize them is by realizing that each plague is targeting another god of Egypt.  The Nile was seen as a god since it flooded its banks every year and irrigated Egypt.  Frogs were viewed as representing the frog goddess who brought fertility to Egypt after the Nile would flood.  As the plagues progress, each one targets a different god worshipped in Egyptian life.   

To anyone sitting outside of that culture, the impact of the plagues is devastating, but random.  To anyone in ancient Egypt, it is clearly an attack on their gods, and their world view.  The result of the plagues is to discredit anything Egypt has trusted, leaving them feeling confused and powerless.  When trust is removed, paranoia sets in, and everything and everyone now sits under a cloud of suspicion.  The cohesion of a nation has fallen apart. 

When we read of the plagues, we are not meant to read them as distant, ancient world occurrences.  The plagues challenge us to look at the world around us today, and question what the things are we worship, as if they are gods; what are the myths we have created in our daily lives that now build into a house of cards.  Measures of success today may be sitting on materialism in our lives, rather than on the role of values, compassion, and acts of human kindness, the things Judaism tells us could truly change the world. 

We think we know all about the plagues of Egypt, but we shouldn’t read them as if we stand outside of their reality.  The Torah, in its eternal truth, invites us in, and positions us to ask those questions in our own lives –what are the things I worship that are truly meaningless? 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shemot

This week we start reading the book of Exodus.  We ended Genesis by reading of the loss of all that was familiar to us —Jacob and Joseph have both died, and the family is now living in Egypt with no leader.  Joseph’s last request to his brothers is to bring him home with them whenever it is they return to the land of Israel.  We are left with a hint that the future will be a future of hope and return. 

But as the book of Exodus begins, we hear the names of the sons of Jacob, and then we’re told that a new king has arisen who doesn’t know Joseph.  It’s disheartening to us, because all of Jacob’s children were protected by their connection to Joseph, a great Egyptian leader.  In fact, shortly afterwards, the Jews are enslaved and the baby boys are targeted.  We wonder how Joseph could be so easily forgotten by an empire he helped rule. 

The missing piece lies in the Hebrew name of this book: Shemot.  The name literally means ‘Names’, and now we understand that it isn’t the person Joseph who is forgotten, it is the name ‘Joseph’.  As modern, western Jews, we most relate to Joseph because he is the Jewish person in our Torah who lives in two realities, two different cultures.  While in Israel, he is only known as Joseph, but once he lives in Egypt, he gets another name, an Egyptian name. 

After Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, and is promoted to second-in-command, Pharaoh gives him a wife and a new name.  It is hard to imagine that anyone in Egypt would ever refer to him with any other name than the one Pharaoh gave him.  The Torah will never use the Egyptian name, he will always be Joseph to us, but he ceases to be Joseph in his new identity.  When a new king arises, the text says he doesn’t know Joseph, but perhaps he doesn’t know the name ‘Joseph’ and only knows him by his Egyptian name.   

Today, we understand that our identities sit in the two cultures we live within.  Like Joseph, we have our Jewish name and our secular name.  We use our Jewish name when we are in shul, engaged in Jewish ritual, but when we are in the larger world outside, functioning in our professions, we use our English names.  Quite often, our two worlds remain divided and unaware of each other. 

Joseph was not comfortable moving between his two worlds, and in the end, his Hebrew name disappeared from Egyptian history.  We learn that our Jewish identities are not to be quietly hidden, or erased, but are to be brought into our lives everywhere we go.  The new book we begin this Shabbat is called Shemot, and when we ask ‘what’s in a name’, the answer is: everything. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat —our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Veyechi

In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob blesses his children as he knows his last days are nearing.  Based on these verses, we learn to bless our children every Friday night.  We use the words of Jacob, and the verses of the Priestly Blessing, to add strength and balance to our children.  It’s a beautiful journey’s end for Jacob, the ancestor who seemed to parent so badly now leaves us with the formula for parenting strongly. 

But it raises a discussion about what is the nature of blessing another person.  Do we offer a blessing to reinforce a strength they already have or are we praying for a strength they need?  Is Jacob noticing individual traits within his children that should be expanded or is he praying for traits he thinks they lack and need? 

Because we are who we are, there are great opinions throughout Jewish texts that line up on both sides of that question.  We offer blessings that reinforce, and we offer blessings that introduce newness.  When it comes to our children, we offer both. 

Traditionally, a parent places their hands on the child’s head and recites the traditional blessings.  It’s a beautiful and powerful family moment, unless you weren’t raised with it and now it feels awkward.   Today, many parents love the idea of this but feel too uncomfortable placing their hands on someone’s head, especially if it’s a family gathering, and others are present.  The strangeness of the physical ritual now creates the barrier. 

While there are beautiful reasons behind placing parental hands on a child’s head, that is not the crux of the moment –it is the blessing that flows from a parent for a child that sits at the core.  We layer the moment, so we include the traditional words which can then be followed with a personal blessing.  We offer words to strengthen something unique we already see in them, as well as to invite a new strength into their lives.  We do not need to place our hands on their heads because a child can be held in our arms while we whisper these blessings, or they can be held in our thoughts while we whisper these same blessings.   

  As our children and grandchildren get older, they may not be at our Shabbat tables, but they are always residing in our hearts and that’s where blessings are created.  Our ancestors bring many different things into our lives, Jacob brought us this one and we can’t thank him enough. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayeshev

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we read the familiar story of Joseph and his brothers — drama and plot lines weaving themselves into one of the most complex stories of sibling rivalry in any of our texts.  Jacob favours Joseph, and consequently his brothers hate him.  They plot to kill Joseph, and ultimately compromise by selling him into slavery.  How did Jacob not see it coming?

Even more astounding is that the Torah shows us Jacob as a man with a shrewd understanding of people.  He managed his father-in-law, Lavan, even though Lavan himself was very shrewd.  Jacob understood how to reconcile with his twin, Esau, despite decades of estrangement and resentment.  Jacob knows how families function, so what blinded him to the problems he was setting up with his own children?

There’s a midrash that speaks of the connection between Jacob and Joseph.  It tells us a small detail that unlocks everything.  Apparently, Joseph looked exactly like his mother, Rachel.  Jacob had one true love in his life, the matriarch Rachel, who died in childbirth years before.  There was only one way for Jacob to ever see Rachel’s face again and that was to look at Joseph.  Rachel was Jacob’s blind spot and Joseph paid the price.

The problem here is that Jacob looks at his son and sees the past, he sees the love he had, the love he lost.  When a parent looks at their child they should see the future that is to unfold, and Jacob is unable to do that.  Because Jacob can only see the past, he unknowingly causes the painful future they will all face.

The Jewish world we bring to our children should be an anchor for them, never a burden.  The legacy of Judaism opens a world of spirituality and wonder for our children.  Jacob couldn’t see it, and we all learn from him to carry Jewish history with us, but always seek the beauty of future moments. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayishlach

In this week’s Torah reading, Vayishlach, we see Jacob wrestling with an angel all night until daybreak.  It results in an injury – the angel grabs Jacob’s thigh, injuring his nerve and causing him to limp for the rest of his life.  The severity of that injury has significance both in how it speaks to us in our Jewish identity, as well as how it remains silent. 

Before Jacob is injured, he demands that the angel bless him, and the angel tells Jacob his name will be changed to Israel.  According to the angel, the name means Jacob will struggle with people and with God but will be enabled to meet those challenges.  In the same moment of such a strong blessing we also hear of such a grave injury.  The two extremes sitting side by side teach Jews that Covenant conveys blessings but it is not a shield against injury or pain.  Jewish identity will always contain both the blessings and the pain. 

On a personal level, the injury remains silent.  The Torah tells us Jacob will now limp but Jacob himself never refers to it.  We do not hear him speak to his family of ever being in pain or ever feeling limited because of his limp. 

After Jacob, the Torah introduces us to our next leader, Moses.  Like Jacob, Moses also has a handicap which we learn of when he speaks with God at the burning bush.  Moses tells God he has a speech impediment.  Interestingly, God does not view it as a handicap and nowhere in Torah do we ever see anyone asking Moses to repeat himself because they can’t understand him.  Moses is the only one who sees his limitation and he feels insecure because of it. 

Two leaders stand side by side, both have physical limitations, but Jacob does not define himself by it while Moses does.  It challenges us to ask how much of how we perceive ourselves is based on self-imposed limitations.  Among the many things we learn from Jacob is this subtle detail of personal empowerment: choose the blessings over the pain, and question ourselves about our perceived limitations. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.  

Shabbat shalom,  

Rachael  

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayetzei

This week’s Torah reading, Vayetzei, begins with Jacob leaving his home, his family, the land of Israel, and ‘venturing outward’, which is what ‘vayetzei’ means.  Jacob is leaving all his comfort zones behind, and dreams of a ladder anchored where he is and reaching upward to God.  Angels are moving up the ladder from the ground and down the other side from heaven.  When he wakes up, he observes, somewhat surprised, that God had been there all along and he didn’t know it.  

Our first ancestors, Sarah and Abraham, were also told to leave behind all that was familiar to them as they began their journey with God.  But their grandson, Jacob, will take a uniquely different  journey, as it should be.  Jacob is not being instructed by God to do this nor is God leading him.  God is passively present in Jacob’s life, day to day, all the years that Jacob lives away from Israel.   

Jacob’s journey will lead him to his wives, his children, and to proficiency and success within a foreign culture.  He is not forging Covenant, he is learning how to bring Covenant into his busy life.  His generation will be the last of our ancestral generations because it is the final piece of the puzzle.  From here onward, Covenant will be inherited, not shaped. 

Our Jewish realities sit on the spectrum of our ancestral realities.  We, like Abraham and Sarah, build our Jewish homes filled with the anchors of Judaism and connections to God — homes that we intend to be the havens and anchors of our future generations.  At some point, like Abraham and Sarah, our children, or grandchildren, will venture out to find their own journeys.   God and Judaism may be present but fade into the background of their lives.  Like Jacob, they build their lives, and with maturity, they may look at life-changing moments only to realize, as did Jacob, God was in that moment all along “and I didn’t know it”. 

Like Jacob, our children eventually return to build their own Jewish homes that reflect their connections and covenantal expressions.  Abraham and Sarah would likely not have recognized Jacob’s Jewish home, as it contained elements of his ‘venturing outward’, but that is the path of our Jewish destiny – we never stagnate. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Lech Lecha

In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Lech Lecha, we meet our first generation of ancestors: Abraham and Sarah. We always think of them as the beginnings of Judaism, the ones who followed God into a relationship that changes them, changes their descendants, and changes the world. 

What we don’t often emphasize is that the journey to search for something more didn’t begin with Abraham and Sarah, it began with Abraham’s father, Terach. Before reading of the beginning of the Jewish journey, the Torah tells us that a man named Terach took his family, including his son Abraham and daughter-in-law Sarah, and left their home in Chaldean territory. Along the journey, Terach dies, and his family stagnates. They seem paralyzed by the loss of their father and the family journey seems to end just as it has barely begun. 

It is then that God speaks to Abraham and prompts him to ‘lech lecha’, ‘journey onward’. It is a Divine prod to continue with the vision and initiative of his father, Terach –to bring the family to new horizons. The relationship that God, Abraham, and Sarah, will form is not the relationship Terach envisioned but it is the continuation of his impulse to search beyond the usual. 

The Torah is always full of layers of meaning and timeless messages. Terach changed his family culture and envisioned what could be beyond, but his life ended. If not for God reaching out to Abraham and Sarah, Terach’s vision would have ended as well. The Torah is always full of timeless messages, and in this case, we are shown that the journey of a life takes longer than a lifetime. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Noah, tells us the story of Noah’s Ark – a story we’re all familiar with.  We know the grandeur of the problem: all of creation has corrupted and turned evil.  We know the grandeur of the solution: God destroys everything with a flood.  But within the narrative lies a subtle detail that speaks volumes to us today. 

The Torah says that the animals and people entered the ark in their designated numbers. They are referred to as pairs when they enter. Yet, when these same people and animals leave the ark, we’re told they leave in their family groupings.  In other words, the people and animals who were isolating together in the ark formed relationships and bonds while they were there.   

As nature raged outside, the ark protected those within — not just with shelter from the storm, but with the understanding that they will survive if they create strong bonds with each other.  When the destruction outside became overwhelming, it is the love and bond they developed for each other that secured difficult moments. 

The corruption that led to the flood included a preference for disconnect and ultimate autonomy from everyone and everything.  The Sages speak of a world where absolute self-interest and self-promotion became the motive and expression of everything.  The Torah contrasts that with the changing reality inside the ark.  While everything entered on its own, they quickly formed trust, family, bond, and the hope of continuity.  

After the High Holidays, I heard from many families who re-experienced the power and joy of sitting together with family members.  In some cases, it had been years since they were able to experience those moments.  The spirituality of Judaism is not just the holiness of God and ritual, it is also the holiness we create when we reach toward each other and build strong unions.   

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael