Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Eikev

As we continue to hear Moses’ thoughts in parshat Eikev, our Torah reading this week, Moses says something that confuses us.  Moses tells Israel not to forget the past 40 years and the hardships we endured since this was God wanting to know what was in our hearts.  The confusing part is that God is omniscient, all-knowing, wouldn’t God already know what’s in our hearts, and then we could be spared all the hardship and suffering? 

It raises the tension between God knowing everything yet granting us free will.  They seem to be opposing truths that cannot coexist.  While there is no clear resolution, generally our Sages understood that God chooses not to know what we will choose, granting us the space to exercise our free will.   

The greatest gift God bestowed on us is the gift of choosing.  It is an ultimate statement of trust because I could choose to keep myself from God, to exclude God from my life, to deny.  The gift of free will is the act of trust that I will find my own unique way to God and genuinely desire that partnership. 

But why through hardship? When there are simchas in our lives, we open all the doors, as we open our hearts, to celebrate together.  When there are challenges in our lives, we narrow the scope, guard our hearts and trust only those we have chosen as our inner circle.  Moses has told Israel that God desires a presence in our inner circle.   

The strength of free will is immeasurable.  It is how we choose to shape the world around us, to form our families, to create a life journey, and to include God.  Moses has reminded us that our relationships with God are tremendously empowering, often fragile, but ultimately of our own choosing. 

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 Vaetchanan

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, has many verses we recognize from within our Siddur.  One of the things we immediately notice is the statement of Shema Yisrael, a core statement of Jewish unity and declaration of monotheism.

​Interestingly, the statement is most often translated as: Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.  But the word shema’, in Biblical Hebrew, doesn’t mean ‘hear’ as much as it means ‘understand’.  We are not telling each other to listen up, we are telling each other to try and understand this all important statement.

​Once we reframe the meaning in our minds, we start to notice how many times the word shema appears in this parshah -suddenly it’s everywhere.  Moses tells Israel that God is not ‘listening’ to his need to enter the land; Moses repeatedly tells Israel they must ‘listen’ to the commandments; Moses declares to Israel they must ‘listen’ to each other.

​​In other words, we often tell people they’re not listening to us when we actually mean they’re not understanding us.  Rather than putting the focus on the other person and their listening skills, perhaps the focus should be self-directed by asking if we are expressing ourselves in order to be understood.  If not, we should change our communication, not assume the other person has to change how they listen.

Moses has named the relationships in our lives that are key for understanding each other: God, the society we are building together, and our personal community.  Even as Moses faces his final days, he continues to lead and inspire.

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 Matot/Masei

This week, we read a double portion from the Torah, the chapters of Matot/Masei.  Included in these chapters is a request from two tribes to live outside of Israel.  It raises the ongoing question of whether Jews must live in Israel or can we choose to live elsewhere.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad argue that their livelihoods are better suited to the land they saw before entering Israel.  Just as the daughters of Zelophehad previously argued to change the laws of inheritance so they could acquire land in Israel, these tribes now argue to change the law, so they do not have to acquire land in Israel.  Right from the start, Israel presents a challenge to us where some of us will do anything to be there while others would not.

In the end, Moses strikes a deal with the tribes. They may live outside of Israel if they help acquire the land and ensure that the rest of the nation can live there safely.  Once that is accomplished, they may return to their homes outside of Israel.  Everyone agrees, and it seems to work well until we are told, a generation later, that there are now challenges of common identity when it comes to everyone’s children.

These ancient questions never resolve.  The relationships we all have with Israel are always complex.  They include understandings of identity, politics, ethics, religion, family, and peoplehood.  Everything we’re taught not to discuss at work or at parties.  The strength of the portion in the Torah is the honesty with which everything is raised, discussed and agreed, while showing us that resolutions will be momentary –each generation will face its own Israel challenge.

The last few years we’ve all had our plates full of health concerns, financial changes, and new societal norms.  We’re still in the midst of understanding much of what the world looks like now.  Through it all, Israel, and our relationship with it, may have faded into the background of our lives.  This week the Torah reminds us that even if we do not live there, the commitment, the oneness of nation, and the responsibility to its welfare must never fade.

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 Pinchas

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we see opposite arguments sitting side by side.  We meet five outstanding sisters who bring an argument of fairness to Moses.  They state that since their father died without leaving a son, the laws of inheritance do not apply, and their family name and legacy will be lost.  Their argument is based on the underlying assumption that a covenant with God sits on an ethical foundation of fairness.  Moses presents their case to God, and God agrees with the women, changing the inheritance laws in Israel forever.  It seems their argument of covenantal fairness prevails.

But then, immediately, we hear of Moses’ death sentence.  God tells Moses to climb to the top of the mountain and see the land of Israel but know that he will never enter it.  Moses responds with a plea to appoint a leader for the people so there is continuity –it is unfair to leave them without a leader, even for a moment.  Coming immediately after the sisters and their successful argument for fairness, we are shocked to hear of what will befall Moses.

The two opposite texts highlight an ongoing tension we all have in our Jewish lives: my needs as an individual and the needs of a community.  There are times when our spiritual needs seek privacy and isolation –indulgence in our own thoughts.  Yet, we are commanded to build community and join a minyan.  Some people have shared with me that sometimes it is the distraction of being around others that actually blocks their spiritual moment.  Judaism keeps us balancing on the line between the individual and the community, we are not to serve only one, we are to harmonize them both.

In fact, we are given tools to engage outwardly at times, and to disconnect and journey inward when we choose.  Some people cover their eyes with their Tallit at certain moments, others may cover their face with their Siddur – we all cover our eyes during Shema.

The five sisters argue for personal fairness, and they are successful.  Moses argues for fairness for the people, and he is successful.  It is we who cannot switch our thoughts to consider that what the people need may present as unfair to what the individual needs. Clearly, the new generation of Israelites need Joshua as a leader, Moses could lead a generation of slaves, not a generation of freeborn.  

Whether it is something as grand as leadership and legacy, or something as personal as how many times we go to shul, the question of balancing the personal and the communal is always a delicate balance of fairness and fulfillment.

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 Chukat

In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Chukat, we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and Moses’ death sentence when he hits the rock.  We are always troubled by reading of the loss of these leaders but we don’t often reflect on the loss of them as siblings.

    Throughout the book of Genesis, we are introduced again and again to siblings with issues.  It starts right at the beginning with the first brothers, Cain and Abel, and then continues through with Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and all his brothers.  The first question a sibling ever asks God is when Cain asks: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God does not answer the question.

    Throughout Genesis, we are shown the lives of people who do not feel they are responsible for their siblings.  The book ends with brothers selling a brother into slavery, the entire family following him into Egypt, resulting in the enslavement of the Jewish people.

    But, as we are told of the despair of the people, we are introduced to another set of siblings: Miriam, the oldest, Aaron, the middle child, and Moses the baby.  Pharaoh targets the baby boys  which places Moses’ life in danger.  Moses’ mother tries to protect him by placing him in an ark on the Nile, but it is Miriam, his sister, who stands guard at the banks to guard him.  Miriam is the one who courageously speaks to the daughter of Pharaoh and arranges to have Moses nursed by his mother in his Jewish home.  In that moment, Miriam changes the picture of siblings in the Torah forever.

    When Moses grows up and stands before the burning bush receiving his life mission from God, he expresses fear at the thought of confronting Pharaoh.  God tells Moses that his brother, Aaron, is already on his way to meet Moses and support him.  Aaron will stand by his brother’s side for the rest of their lives.

    These three siblings, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, will have the usual angst that siblings will always experience.  They will argue, they will compete, they will become estranged, they will reconcile, but they will always live inside their sibling relationship.  

When Miriam guards her baby brother at the Nile, she is answering Cain’s question through her actions.  She has decided to become her brother’s keeper.  Because of Miriam’s decision, Moses has a window in which to live his life.  Aaron will follow along this path with his big sister, and together they give us the leadership we hold as our model.

    While Genesis shows us the challenge of the sibling relationship, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, show us its rewards.  The 14th century Jewish philosopher, Ralbag, stated that although siblings may not be as good company as friends, it is siblings who are more likely to respond in times of challenge.  Miriam, Aaron and Moses taught us more than they ever imagined.

    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 Bechukotai

This week’s parsha, Bechukotai, is one of those sections of Torah we’d prefer to skim.  It paints two extreme pictures of a future.  If we live by the rules of Covenant, we will flourish, but if we do not…. The list of curses to befall the nation are bone chilling.

The obvious question remains one of theology.  Is God bullying Israel into accepting Covenant?  Who, in their right mind, would choose to live within the portrait of defeat and suffering that a non-Covenantal life would bring?  Is God threatening Israel?  If so, do I really have free will?

With the holiday of Shavuot around the corner, we are reminded that the Torah was placed into our hands, and we are commanded to interpret it.  One of the tasks of interpretation is to align the morality Torah teaches us with the laws we are commanded to observe.  We have examples throughout Jewish history where the Rabbis of their time interpreted laws away from their literal meanings to reconcile them with the morality of their time.  Restricting capital punishment is only one of the more well-known of these examples.

But we do not need to interpret the curses in our parsha this week because they are not law, they are outcomes.  The onus of responsibility sits on us to align fulfilling the commandments with the ethics of Torah.  The tool for this is Talmudic: discourse, support for various interpretations, vote, majority rules.  The parsha lays out for us what it would look like if we rejected the laws and the morality they are to embody.  The bone chilling portrait laid out is the one we create by ignoring both the rule of law, and the morality at its core.

The free will God gifted to all humanity involves informed free will.  I don’t like reading the dystopian portrayal of a cursed future that plays out in this parsha, I prefer to skim those verses.  At the same time, I realize that being informed means I must be told of the utopia I could create as well as the dystopia I could bring about.  This parsha is not a picture of God dictating our future, it is a picture of God following our lead.

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 Shabbat HaGadol

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol – the Grand Shabbat.  It is always the Shabbat before Pesach, and there is much debate in our texts on how it got its name.  An interesting comment suggests that as we prepare to leave Egypt, we are given our first commandment as Jews.  We are told to separate the lamb to be sacrificed at Pesach.  We are still in Egypt, still slaves, yet being commanded to start to think as free people –to make choices.  The first choice we must make is one of identity.  Do we choose covenant and freedom, or do we choose Egypt and slavery?

This same view tells us that the moment of Jewish choosing happens when we are Bnei Mitzvah, when each of us reaches Jewish adulthood.  That is the moment we are responsible for the commandments, and for adding our voice to the choir of Jewish thinkers throughout time.  On that day we become an adult, or, in Hebrew, Gadol.  That is how this Shabbat gets its name.  We step over the threshold into the understanding of freedom and choices.  We accept that while we are commanded to obey the Torah,  it will always boil down to our free will –we choose to express ourselves through this identity.

Starting with Shabbat HaGadol, and growing in excitement as the Seders approach, we remember that our Jewish choices are there to enhance us, to enrich us, and to elevate us.    Lofty ideals, igniting concepts –one might even say stepping into the Grand Shabbat.  How better to prepare for our celebration of freedom!

 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 Shemini

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Shemini, begins by telling us about “the eighth day” of consecrating the Kohanim.  Amidst the routine of offering sacrifices, a horrific tragedy occurs within Aaron’s family on this day.  The problem is, there is no ‘eighth day’.

Genesis clearly outlines a seven-day cycle.  Everything that was created fits within the structure of seven days.  We learn to feel secure in the number seven —the number that represents completeness, stability, and consistency.  

So what do we do with the ‘eighth day’?

The other time the Torah focuses us onto the eighth day is the commandment of Brit Milah.  God commands that a parent circumcise their baby boy on the eighth day of his life.  It’s a ritual that is both challenging and mysterious.  Each person present at a Brit ceremony cringes and celebrates at the same time.  We experience conflicting emotions that overlap within seconds of each other.  

In this week’s parshah, Shemini, which means ‘The Eighth’, we read of Aaron losing two of his sons in a shocking and inexplicable way.  Inappropriate ritual leads to their deaths.  We do not understand what happened, as we rarely understand it when death comes from nowhere and changes things forever.  

We cannot unlock the mystery of the eighth day.  It is where we find the hidden, underlying fabric of God manifesting in the universe.  When we find ourselves in the eighth day, where the unknowns of life can take over, we appreciate the seventh day, Shabbat, even more.

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 Tzav

As we continue to read of biblical sacrifices, we sit today and ask how these commandments can be relevant in our current lives.  Parshat Tzav, this week’s Torah reading, outlines the sacrifices and all their details.  Eventually, Jewish history will bring the sacrificial system to a halt with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  From then on, Judaism forbids the bringing of any sacrifices.

Yet, we continue to read of them, and we continue to mention them in our prayers.  If we are forbidden to bring sacrifices, why do we keep their details so alive?

In fact, Jewish tradition emphasizes sacrifices even more by stating that children should begin their study of Torah with the book of Leviticus, the laws of sacrifices.  One of our oldest texts explains that children begin with studying sacrifices because the goal of the sacrifices was to bring us back to a place of purity, and our children always exist in a state of purity, so “let the pure connect with the pure” and strengthen us.  

The Hebrew word for sacrifice in the Torah is the word korban.  It means ‘drawing near’.  In the ancient world we are taught to draw near to God through physical sacrifices.  Later, the Sages teach us that we can also draw near to God through studying Torah and speaking of the details of sacrifice.  The Midrash tells us that when our children learn of their Judaism, and their priceless legacy of Torah, they draw all of us closer to God.

Physical sacrifices no longer speak to our Jewish reality, but we keep them present in our religious view and our prayers.  We understand that the goal is to create a personal closeness with God and to use the power of that relationship to change the world.  

There are infinite ways to get there –watching our children learn of their ancient unbroken Jewish chain is one of those ways.

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 Pekudei

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, tells us that Moses put the Ten Commandments into the Ark of the Covenant. Both sets of tablets – the ones he broke, and the ones he delivered to Israel. The Ark of the Covenant held both the broken pieces and the whole tablets.
 
When something is broken, it cannot function as intended, and we are taught to throw it away. But when something is broken, it does not mean it is useless. Certain things can still function, sometimes to remind us of important lessons or to motivate us to find repairs. Broken things can be cautionary tales.
 
In Judaism, a core value is our commitment to Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world. We believe the world is a place filled with cracks and breakage by the very nature of how life functions. We do not walk away. On the contrary, we commit ourselves to find new and creative ways to implement a change, a healing, a repair.
 
Our eyes were meant to move from the shards of broken tablets to the whole ones and back again, always aware that the potential of each to become the other is quite real.
 
This week we’ve been watching one country try to break another. It is happening across an ocean, seemingly distant from us, but we might struggle with layered family histories in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s easy to get confused about what we feel. In these moments we listen to our Jewish values reminding us to respond with support, with donations and with our voices.
 
We remember that the Ark of the Covenant held both the broken and the complete. While we remember the harsh reality of the shattered one, our eyes would always move to the other, inspiring us to find ways of repairing so it becomes whole again.
 
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat -– our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.
 
Shabbat shalom,
Rachael