Shavuot 2020: Late For Our Own Wedding…Actually!

It’s been an interesting week for me filled with Shavuot thoughts.  Everything we do is so new these days and now it’s the first Shavuot in the pandemic.  I’ve noticed many invitations online to join groups staying up all night to study.  The tradition is called ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’ – the Repair of the Night of Shavuot and it’s quite literally pulling an all-nighter with Torah study and then going to shul to hear the Ten Commandments.  It’s also traditional to eat deliciously sweet dairy foods (cheesecake) which now means eating all night as well (blintzes).

I remember my first all-nighter.  I was in high school and a few of my friends and I decided to stay up all night and study for the English exam we needed to write the next morning.  At first it was fun, at first it was productive, at first we felt so grown up.  Around midnight, anything anyone said was the most hilarious thing we’d ever heard (things became less productive).  By 3 a.m., it was agony.  Nothing made any sense and we didn’t notice we’d been reading the same line of Shakespeare over and over out loud for about fifteen minutes.  The friend reading out loud was from England and we loved the accent, so it lulled us into thinking we made progress, when, in fact, we were going round and round, staring blankly at nothing.   By 5 a.m., panic set in as we realized the whole night had gone by and there was so much left to do.  The exam was scheduled for 8:30 a.m.  We made it there on time (don’t remember how we got there, though I pray none of us drove) and I remember sitting in the chair and reading the exam questions.  I was overjoyed that I knew the answers.  I was literally wiping tears from my eyes with the joy of realizing that the all-nighter was the best decision I had ever made.  But when I picked up my pen to write all those essays to answer all those questions, I suddenly realized I was too tired to write anything worthwhile.  Things made sense in my head but I could not formulate proper sentences.  The insights from the night were useless.  

Needless to say, I did not do well on the exam and I learned that the brilliant inspirations that occur at 4 a.m. almost never result in the useful gestures needed for the next day.  All-nighters are spiritual quests.

So, why would we have a tradition to stay up all night and study Torah?  What is the ‘repair’ we are hoping to accomplish?

The tradition of staying up all night is rooted in a midrash that talks about the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.  We view the Revelation at Sinai as the metaphoric wedding of God and Israel.  The Torah is the gift we are given under the chuppah, it is the marriage contract, the Ketubah.  Israel is the bride and according to this midrash…we left God waiting at the altar (not exactly an altar since we get married under chuppahs, so, we left God alone at the chuppah/mountain).  We, the bride, were late for our own wedding – apparently we slept in.  The midrash says God sent Moses to wake us up.  Apparently, God and Moses blew trumpets at us because we were sleeping so soundly it was hard to wake us.  I actually think that one of the greatest expressions of love God could show the Jewish people was to give us the Torah at all, considering we got there so late, and one of our greatest expressions of love was to celebrate Sinai after having trumpets blasted at us and rushed out the door that way.  And so, the ‘marriage’ begins and the nature of its communication has begun.

But, in the end, we were late after all and now a repair is needed.  A forever ‘I’m sorry’ that we offer at every wedding anniversary – every Shavuot.  We will spend all night awake, studying the gift we were given at the mountain to show that we are sorry and that we have corrected our insensitive moment toward our Partner.  If it were my husband, there is no question that every anniversary would involve a gesture of repair, more than just flowers or a precious stone but something that spoke to that moment and reached out to me with love…and lots of I’m sorries…and cheesecake…and a few blintzes thrown in.

But, because we are who we are, there is, of course, another interpretation.  It’s not that we slept in, it’s that we were so excited before the wedding, we couldn’t sleep at all!  And yet a third opinion says we spend all night preparing each other to be the bride and that’s why we study all night in pairs or in groups – we are excited for each other and want the other person to get the most out of the wedding, as they are doing the same for us.

In these days of isolation, as we figure out how to have celebrations without gatherings, we require a new lens for viewing Shavuot.  It is the holiday that celebrates the chuppah where only the bride and groom can stand together.  It is the night of excitement when we are counting the moments until we can stand under our chuppah.  It is the holiday to remember that our spiritual strengths have gotten us through the last few months and our eyes have opened wider to everything we used to take for granted.  

It is a celebration in every sense of the word and it is worth having, especially now.

But, let’s not forget the cheesecake and the blintzes (the dessert table at the wedding).  The Sages tell us it connects to a verse in Song of Songs.  The book in the Tanach that describes the intimate relationship of God and Israel is the Song of Songs (Shir haShirim), which describes the intimate relationship of a man and a woman.  In chapter 4, the man beckons his lover and says: “Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride, milk and honey are under your tongue.”  And so, dairy and sweetness are part of the symbols of love and intimacy.  

I hope we all enjoy some beautifully sweet moments this Shavuot.  Maybe put a bit of something sweet under your tongue and enjoy the thought of a union that started at Sinai and continues to see us through everything.

Parshat Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim: If Only I Could Sing I Could Be Holy

This week I heard government officials talk about getting ready to open our doors again.  Lots of different phases, many different scenarios and possibilities – depends on if we flattened the curve or plateaued the rise or squashed the line.  We’ll open the doors gradually, some of us but not others. Businesses will soon open to anyone whose last name starts with the letter Q…or something like that.  Essentially, it reminded me of bringing a new baby home.

Actually, our doors closed to expectant mothers long before the baby came home.  Not that long ago, women would enter their ‘time of confinement’ once their pregnancies started showing and they were not to leave their homes until they looked ‘normal’ again.  Those doors have certainly opened wide as maternity clothes now sculpt around the baby bump and hug the curves of the baby while it’s still in the womb. But opening the doors of acceptance for mothers-to-be is very different than opening the doors when the baby is born.

In my day, you brought the newborn home and the family cocooned at home as the baby got used to doing things like breathing.  Visitors were kept to immediate family who usually played short games of peekaboo with the baby (in Russian you say ‘coo-coo’ which I learned after trying to explain to my husband what the word peekaboo meant…just so we’re all on the same page…it doesn’t mean anything and can’t be explained in a foreign language)…(to be fair, coo-coo doesn’t mean anything either but we can all see I’ve let that one go…)

But I digress.  Newborn babies did not venture outside for weeks, if not months.  Outside had germs and inconsiderate people who didn’t know not to get too close.  With one of my kids, we took her out at 2 months old when a stranger approached her in her car seat, looked in and ran her fingers up and down the baby’s lips as she made burble noises.  The stranger was the one making the burble noises, I was the one gasping for air as I watched in horror. I quickly moved the baby away, back into the car, back into the house, not to venture out again for another month.

Opening doors for fashion baby bumps is not the same thing as opening doors to a vulnerable human being.  

So, I think about the Torah reading this week and how could it possibly speak to the news I’m hearing and the weeks to come.  Especially since this week there’s a double parshah: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei-Mot describes the continuation of inaugurating a priestly class while parashat Kedoshim contains the Holiness Code.  Most of us aren’t too familiar (or concerned) with how to inaugurate a priestly class, but we are very familiar with aspects of the Holiness Code. Things like who we can and cannot have sexual relations with, as well as the verse: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.  We seem to have a mix of the ‘why would I care’ information and the ‘this is so relevant’ information. In other words, the dilemma most Jews face.

When I was growing up, I remember learning about holiness by watching all the religious movies and shows on tv.  They were all Christian. Being holy meant being a priest or a nun, and you could only be called by God if you could sing really, really well.  Bing Cosby could croon his way to faith and every nun somehow knew how to harmonize the most beautiful renditions of ‘Glo-oh-oh-oh-rious’ you’ve ever heard.  I actually thought you had to pass a singing test to be good enough for God when I finished watching ‘The Song of Bernadette’. Nuns were the only women I saw who were unfathomably gorgeous with their heads, hair and bodies covered, because if you don’t look like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, you don’t get to take your vows.  Lest we also forget that Sally Field was a nun who could fly, if she tilted her habit-hat-wings just so and one of Elvis Presley’s leading ladies really did give up fame and fortune to become a nun (great documentary called “God Is The Bigger Elvis”). This world was only for the select few and the rest of us would just have to be happy with glimpses of their world… holiness was beautiful, sensual and hidden behind the cloistered doors of Hollywood. 

I knew that Jews don’t have nuns and I fully believed Jews didn’t have priests either.  We had Rabbis. They couldn’t moonlight as lounge singers because they didn’t sing, the Cantors did that.  Christian Hollywood had no Cantors. I actually argued with people when they told me that Judaism does have priests, that’s what a Cohen is.  Absurd (I said), Blasphemy (I proclaimed)!! 

Christian holiness was everywhere.  It was special and unattainable. Jewish stuff was in the ‘why would I care’ camp and all my friends spurred each other on with ‘what a drag it is to have to (fill in with anything ritualistic)’.  Deep inside I liked the gentleness of Jewish holy things, but adolescence does not value the gentleness of very much. I quickly learned to cover up my attraction to Jewish holiness and when I learned that Judaism expresses holiness by covering things – my heart burst with joy!

The Holiness Code speaks to us of personal elevation from the mundane to the holy.  We understand that we cover holy things because they are powerful, and we must choose the moments when they are uncovered and expressed into the world.  We cover a Torah until we read from it and we cover it again between aliyahs. We cover our bodies because they are holy. The power is in the uncovering, the revelations, the interactions.  When I love my neighbour as myself, I have elevated another person to the status of my own ego because holiness is always about reaching upward and bringing someone with us.

One of the most unusual aspects of the Holiness Code for the ancient world is that it speaks of how each person can create that holiness for themselves and the things around them.  Usually holiness is reserved for the priestly class. They are the ones that need to know how to make sacrifices, how to facilitate ritual, how to create and elevate from the mundane.  Suddenly, within the ancient world, the Torah speaks of how an entire people could do it – how each individual could do it. It is a revolutionary moment.

Yet, before we delve too deeply into our personal Holiness Codes and our revolutionary endeavours, let’s remember that the first parshah we read this Shabbat is Acharei-Mot, which means ‘After the Death’.  It speaks of inaugurating the priesthood after the death of two of Aaron’s sons.  Aaron must move forward and complete what was started, devastated as he is, broken as he is.  Inaugurating a priesthood in the Jewish world of today is irrelevant to our Jewish reality but how we proceed forward toward holiness after a devastating loss is tremendously relevant.

By reading both portions this Shabbat, the message we need lies within the titles themselves.  After the hit, we move toward a higher expression. As I take social distancing walks these days, I am comforted by simple greetings I exchange with strangers on the street.  A moment of contact and good wishes. The artists and musicians offering their gifts to support others from a balcony or on a front lawn. The voluntary acts of human kindness as strangers find ways to shop for others and people continue paying workers who can no longer show up for work.  

The government has told us that soon our doors will reopen and we will all re-enter the world.  For some, it is the welcome open door of new expressions while for others it might be the gradual open door of caution and responsibility.  But for all of us, it is the open door after the hit.  

Perhaps we can take a moment to remember that the next part of the Torah reading is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code that firmly says ‘aim high’.

Sometimes we don’t want the world we left behind, sometimes we want to continue building the one we’ve been creating.

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Pooh Bear & the Pox

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tazria-Metzora.  It’s a double portion and it has a lot of information about how to identify sores that are oozing and contagious from sores that are passing and benign.  Yes, there are ways to know. They include whether or not a hair spontaneously grew in the middle of the sore and what colour that hair is (I’ll spare you any more details than that).  Buried in the material are relevant concepts for our world today, as is always the case with Torah…but with your permission, I’d rather not immerse myself in the details of leprosy and contagion right now.

AND HAPPILY, IT’S ALSO ROSH CHODESH!

It’s not just any Rosh Chodesh, it’s Iyar. It’s the second month of the Jewish ritual year (remember we have two new years: Rosh Hashanah, which is the universal for humanity and Nisan, which is when Pesach is, when we became the Jewish people).  Iyar is the month after Nisan so it is the second month of our year – it’s the Jewish February. January has all the excitement and hype of newness and February has…28 days. Nothing special going on in February. It’s about the number of days, really similar to Iyar.  Iyar is the month of counting the Omer as we head to Shavuot. The entire month is a month of counting, it’s about the number of days.

I have to imagine that’s why I always get funny messages about how Iyar is like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood.  Eeyore, the dismal donkey, the flatlined monotonic friend who cannot rise to the excitement of anything. 

And so, sitting at home in isolation these days, I’ve decided to explore the Jewishness of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Pooh bear is the innocent kid who goes to the Jewish after-school program at shul.  He can’t really see how much of the Jewish stuff fits into anything else, but in the end, Pooh finds that the information always speaks to him in some way.  Eeyore is Iyar (how could I resist?), the ‘goes along to get along’ person in the shul who anchors and comforts with their very presence but seems to always know what’s wrong with what they just saw. Piglet is the loyal bubbly shul goer who gets excited about everything and is always the first to arrive.  Tigger shows up at all our simchas, we’re not quite sure whose guest list he was on but he’s in every hora and kicks up the party to true joy. Rabbit heads the committees to make sure things get done. A stickler for detail, so Rabbit’s always worried about stuff we don’t usually pay attention to but, in the end, he’s the reason things run smoothly.  Christopher Robin is the gabbai who makes sure things are as they should be. Kanga is every parent and Roo is every toddler. Owl is, of course, the Sage Talmudist. And now, with Gopher the industrialist, we have a complete Hundred Acre Minyan.

They are all in our shuls, in our communities, in our schools and, of course, in our homes.  As isolation focuses us more and more toward reflection, it becomes clear that the Sages were correct when they said each person is a universe unto themselves.  I am the Hundred Acre Wood and they are all living in me.

But aside from the philosophical approach to Winnie the Pooh, the month of Iyar does have a beautiful and incredibly relevant voice in these times.  The Chassidic Masters highlighted that the acronym for ‘Iyar’, in Hebrew, stands for the verse “I am the God who heals you” (Ani ‘Yod Yod’ Rof’echa).  And our ancient texts are filled with debates about whether we should rely on only God for healing and medicines. Is it a sin to see a doctor?

The overwhelming response, and certainly the ruling in Jewish law, is that we are to seek the remedies of science and the skills of physicians.  The God who heals us does it directly within our souls and also by imbedding the knowledge of cures and remedies into the world and the ability to discover those cures into us.  In other words, seeing a doctor is part of recognizing God as the Healer.

But the texts also make it clear that we must advocate for our own health and healing.  When Hagar prays for her dying son, Ishmael, the angel first responds to the voice of the child – the one who is sick.  While our prayers support others, their prayers are the leading voices. 

So, in these trying times of challenge and virus, we support ourselves, we support others and we listen to make sure they are likewise supporting themselves.  When speaking of themselves, we want to hear their voice of self-leadership. If not, it is a moment of reaching out we should never ignore.

And now I’ve discussed Rosh Chodesh, I took a trip to the Hundred Acre Shul, had a quick appointment with God the Healer, bringing us to today’s challenge of illness and contagion…and Parshat Tazria-Metzora was, in fact, relevant.  

I knew we’d get there.

Parshat Shemini: Who Knows 8 – I Thought I Did

This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, delves into all the things that happen on the 8th day.  The only problem is, there is no 8th day. I mean, of course there’s an 8th day if we’re counting from day 1 and we just keep counting, but that’s not how the Torah taught us to do things.  The universe was created in 7 days. The world revolves around 7 days. When I get to number 7 I am supposed to start again at number 1 – so really the 8th day is actually day 1 of my second group.

In fact, everything in the Torah revolves around 7 for groupings.  Now that Passover is finished, we are counting the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot.  We are told to count these days in groups of 7: seven weeks filled with 7 days each. We count the Omer by citing which week it is and which day, always aware of how the number 7 is framing our count.  We are counting up to Shavuot, we add in our counting. In Judaism we never count down to things, we always count up to them. Counting down has a sense of doom as we near the deadline (who thought up these terms?). When we count down we have a sense of dread but when we count up we have a sense of anticipation.

I recently asked an engineer why space shuttle launches count down with the phrase ‘T minus 10 seconds, T minus 9 seconds…’ etc.  I was told that T stands for the Time variable and therefore the time variable is set to 10 and the countdown will now reference that variable with the subtraction of 1 second each time.  I asked why they don’t just count down without the ‘T’, like the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He blinked a few times and said he didn’t understand my question. However, he did tell me that after the launch they switch to T plus formulas.  But even there, the T refers to the deadline for launch and so the deadline becomes the constant reference point, the ‘zero’ – except we all know there is no such thing as zero, it’s a place holder (all our math teachers were correct, we just didn’t get it till we were older).  So everything counts toward and away from something that doesn’t really exist…and we’re all fine with that?

The most I can make sense of all of this is that our physical bodies move forward with a set rate of cellular decay.  Aging is a process of our cells breaking down, not building up. Maybe that’s why we naturally gravitate toward countdowns.

But Judaism speaks to our souls as well as our bodies.  Our souls grow in strength and expression, they count up.  

All of this brings me to how Jewish text teaches us of the numbers 7 and 8.  As I mentioned, 7 frames our week and frames our holidays. Here is how the number 7 stabilizes us:

  1. The world was created in 7 days
  2. The 1st verse of the Torah has 7 words
  3. We count the Omer in 7 groups of 7 days
  4. The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches
  5. There are 7 Noahide laws guiding all of humanity
  6. There are 7 blessings for a bride and groom
  7. We mourn a loved one by sitting shiva for 7 days (the word shiva means 7)

The world was created in 7 days and we mourn a loved one for 7 days.  Life itself is framed with the number 7.

But then the Parshah says “And on the 8th day” and we are struck!  What 8th day?! And as we read further, we realize the 8th day contains irrational things.  It is the 8th day on which the Tabernacle is inaugurated, the place that embodies holy space that we created.  We take it with us as we move nomadically. It is a threshold of connection between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and another world.  It is the doorway to the irrational. But it doesn’t end there.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini (the 8th day), Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer foreign fire on the altar and are immediately killed.  We’re never quite sure what foreign fire is and we’re never quite sure what they intended because we’re all so stunned by their deaths. Ritual is supposed to be a safe place, holiness is supposed to be a haven and a relationship with God is supposed to be a protected space.  They entered all of that and were killed. We will never figure out what it all means because it will simply never make sense. It is irrational and we live with it because we have no choice.  

In the parshah we are also told of the laws of kosher animals and fish.  Again, try explaining rationally why an animal with a split hoof that chews its cud is ok but one with a split hoof that doesn’t chew its cud is not ok.  You’ll never explain it because it’s irrational.

And the irrational of 8 continues.  Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth (notice we count up from the birth, not down).  Circumcision is irrational. We do it because we are commanded to do it. Even if one argued a medical benefit, there is no medical benefit to be had by saying a bracha – it is clearly a spiritual moment.

Ancient Jewish texts list 8 genders within humanity.  If gender were rational, there would only be 2 to facilitate procreation, yet 2000 years ago the Sages were discussing 8 of them.  

The number 8, the space within Judaism where things exist and impact us but our minds will never catch up with them.  

Pesach just ended and we look forward to Shavuot – we are counting up toward the holiday.  The spirituality of Judaism is moving us toward a positive future moment and we can start to get excited for it.  We are still in our homes, Covid 19 is still not understood well enough and so the world around us has mostly shut down.  It is unrecognizable to us right now – it is the 8th day. But a beautiful Talmudic text states that all the harps of the Temple had 7 strings on them and all the soulful melodies of the Levites were played on those harps, but in the days of Redemption, the harps will have 8 strings on them.

So the 8th day is the day of the irrational, it has both positive and negative within it but it mostly has potential redemption.  It is only negative if we try to force it into the rules of the 7th day – if we fight it. We move through the 8th day often in our lives.  We need to accept it for what it is and understand that it speaks to our souls and in that way it can make us feel redeemed. We will feel it, we will never understand it.

The 8th day teaches us that our eyes are always forward.  It shows us that we are always counting up.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young…Calf

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Ki Tisa, is filled with the definitions of Jewish art.  We don’t often think Judaism is filled with artistic expressions because we’re not allowed to make graven images…or images of God…or images of things that others worship as God…so, anything.

But we forget that most of Jewish expression is actually artistic.  We don’t read the Torah, we sing it. We sit at our Shabbat tables and sing blessings for wine and bread.  We even get creative with sculptures when we braid challah – 3 strand braids or 4 strand braids or twisted or round – it seems trivial, but we all love a beautiful challah.  

We are created with artistic souls, as proved by our kids.  All children are artistic and only colour inside the lines to please the adult world.  There are no lines constraining their artistic thinking. Several of my kids decided to express their artistic passions in our home, specifically in the wall to wall carpet.  I’m not being sarcastic, I’m being quite literal. One of my daughters noticed the carpet looks different if you brush it up or brush it down. She discovered her preferred artistic medium.  The carpet of an entire floor would be used to show grand portraits of cities or people that resulted from her moving her fingers through the carpet. It was beautiful, I beamed with pride, how creative, how artistic…how tremendously inconvenient!  If anyone walked on the carpet, we risked disturbing her masterpiece and no amount of explaining could move her artistic soul one bit. We all had to walk around the edges of the rooms. Artists can be very headstrong.

One of my sons did a similar thing with pennies lined up on the carpet (he loved the colour contrast) and towers and citadels built with pennies (he preferred the 3D approach to art and I gained incredible insight as to how a Roman army would lay siege to a city).  Usually a jar of pennies was a good idea – rookie mistake. Same problem with the carpet, same problem walking in the rooms. 

I’d had enough when I walked into my youngest daughter’s room one day and noticed she was lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, creating a mosaic on her floor.  Lying next to her on the floor was a pile of her hair. I froze, stared at it for a while and finally asked her if that was her hair. Without looking up, without breaking her concentration to speak, my 6 year old daughter simply said ‘uh huh’.  Why is it not attached to your head, I asked. She told me it kept falling on her face and getting on her work so she cut it off.          

For clarity,  she had long hair that reached her hips.  She didn’t give herself a haircut, she only cut the part that bothered her, so only a chunk was missing.  I reached my ‘living with an artist limit’.  

We bought disposable cameras (…back when the dinosaurs roamed…) and I told them they could take pictures of their art and they could pay to develop the film (it’s better when the artist suffers).  I got my floors back.

We are all artists and our artistic visions have no limits – in our heads.  Judaism does not discuss limiting our creative visions but we most certainly are told to limit our creative products.  In this week’s parshah, we are introduced to directed artistic passion that brings others to inspired expressions of their own, as well as chaotic artistic passion that brings others to destruction.

While instructing Moses on how to create holy space, God introduces Moses to Betzalel, the artist that is inspired with the creative expression to form the articles of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  He has the skill and God will fill his heart with the inspiration. It is a passion project that results in artistic objects whose purpose is to move the observer from the mundane to the holy. It is the path, the journey, the window through which others can travel.  It is transformative.

But later in this parshah, Israel notices Moses is late coming down from Mt. Sinai.  We’re never quite sure how being punctual became the definition of Jewish behaviour, certainly that didn’t continue to inform our Jewish identities, yet, somehow, all of covenant is going to sit on Moses being late.  He’s only perceived as late, he’s not really late because he never said what time he’d be back…but I digress.

The mob turns to Aaron and demands he make them a god.  According to Aaron, he gathered gold, threw it into the fire and (poof) out came a calf.  It is the description an artist would give of how the art forms itself as inevitable, the artist is but the instrument.  

While God is teaching Moses how holy space is created through the inspired heart of an artist, Israel is demanding that Aaron create a profane object through mob pressure and fear.  While God shows that the creativity of an artist can transform any moment into a meaningful one, Aaron creates something that transforms those moments into ones of betrayal and chaos.  Juxtaposed examples of Jewish art and the power to transform.

Artists must express their passion, they are driven, they are inspired, but Jewish art is the result of transformative intent.  Judaism commands us to engage with Torah, its concepts, its ideas, its values. We do not read, memorize, rinse and repeat. Engagement means we creatively explore, interpret and share.  The pinnacle of text study is to create a ‘hiddush’, a newness, another doorway through which to explore a new thought, a new artistic moment. We create conceptual artwork that contains a spark of our being and we passionately debate and defend our artistic interpretations.  Pluralism is hard because we’re trying to get Picasso and Van Gogh in a room together and have each credit the other’s vision as equal to their own.

So, embrace the artist within you, celebrate your childrens’ artwork, fill your fridge with your grandkids’ beautiful drawings as they beam with pride.  When it comes from a giving heart with a transformative intent it opens the door to a new meeting place of meaning. When it feeds fear and panic, when it results from opportunistic intentions, it is the betrayal of a nation, a faith and each other.

Does That Mean I’m Crazy? (A Blog for Purim)

The holiday of Purim is coming up in a few days.  It’s a holiday that baffles us because we don’t quite understand it’s contradictions.  Somehow, it’s a holy day but it seems to celebrate the mundane. Where’s the holy in the holiday?   

By celebrating the mundane, I mean the ways in which we are to observe this holiday don’t involve the usual observances.  First, we’re not prohibited labour, so, like Hannukah, it’s easier to fit into our lives, it fits the mundane. Secondly, we fulfill its observance by listening to someone read us a book, dress in an unusual way, drink a lot and give food to people.  The story of Purim revolves around an enemy of the Jewish people, Haman, who targets the Jews for extermination. We are saved because a Jewish woman, Esther, married a non-Jewish king, Ahashverosh, and made him jealous of Haman so he would kill him. While all of these events play out, the Jewish people, as a whole, are trying to get permission to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple.  Actually, it’s Ahashverosh who could grant them that permission and yet no one asks for it. He repeatedly asks Esther what he can do to make her happy and she never suggests giving her the province Israel is in. It just doesn’t seem to occur to anyone.

And that’s only the beginning of the crazy.  When the king doesn’t know how to handle his first queen, Vashti, he takes marital advice from his…eunuchs.  When Haman doesn’t know how to handle his political dilemma, he turns to his male and female lovers. No one seems to know where to go for good advice.  When Haman wants to exterminate the Jews, the king empowers him with his ‘Ring of Power’…and when Mordecai wants the Jews to save themselves the king empowers him with the same ‘Ring of Power’.  When Haman thinks the king is talking about him, he’s actually talking about Mordecai and when the gallows is built for Mordecai, it’s actually going to be used for Haman.  

You also can’t help but wonder where all the other Jews are.  In Hanukkah, the leading Jewish figures have a group of people with them.  At Pesach, all the Jewish people are redeemed. This holiday seems to revolve around 2 people…where are the rest of the Jews?

And let’s not forget that the hero of the story, Esther, can only do what she did because she married a non-Jewish king.

I remember celebrating Purim as a teenager.  I went to a Jewish high school that was pretty religiously observant – girls and boys were in separate classes and girls weren’t allowed to study Talmud.  We used to play fun games about it, like drawing six pictures of a man with a beard, kippah and glasses. Then we had to try and match the names of our teachers with the ‘correct’ picture (all the pictures were the same).  But when Purim was approaching, you could sense it in the air. The school Purim party involved wild costumes. Several of our teachers would wear their wives’ wigs while a few others wore women’s nightgowns over their suits.  In one case I remember seeing baby doll pyjamas over a black suit with long blond hair down the back until the person turned around and I saw the long black beard in the front.  

And I haven’t even touched on all the drinking…

But this wasn’t merriment, this was mitzvah.

Turning the day into a day of crazy is exactly how the Talmud says we should commemorate it.  Because the story involves confusion of gender identities, our costumes will push on that line.  Because Haman and Mordecai step in and out of each other’s shoes all the time, we are told to drink until we don’t know the difference between them.  And somehow we answer it all by giving treat bags to each other.

SO WHAT’S BEHIND ALL THIS MADNESS!?!

The answer to everything lies in the first line of the Megillah: “It was, in the days of Ahashverosh (Xerxes), that is the Ahashverosh who ruled 127 provinces from India to Cush.”  The line we don’t pay attention to is actually the most important line of the book. It states the theme. Within the 127 provinces is Israel…and it’s never mentioned. This is a book of exile.

For Jews in exile, it is a world of confusion and chaos.  Lines are blurred, definitions are floating and heroes become villains in an instant.  Assimilation is real and Israel fades from the top of our priority list. The Sages say that all those drinking parties happening in the palace, and throughout the realm, are populated by Persians and Jews.  The Jews are indistinguishable from the Persians. The objects from our Temple were brought out as trophies in these parties and we celebrated with the rest of them. Our holiest of objects being treated like the Stanley Cup at a party, and we were in there drinking with the best of them.  There is no community, there is only society and it’s a foreign one.

Purim is a cautionary tale that Mordecai and Esther send to every Jewish generation through time.  They beseech us to read their story so we will never forget that exile means we are sitting on shifting sands.  

The Sages push it into the absurd so we won’t miss their point.  In fact, the name of the holiday, Purim, means Lottery. It’s what Haman did to choose which day to murder all the Jews.  We named the holiday after something the villain did! We named the holiday ‘The Lottery’ – the message screams to us each time we celebrate it – living in exile is a crapshoot.

But they also gave us the answer.  Take the day of crazy and answer it by creating a community of celebration.  Show up at each other’s homes and give out treat bags. Get together for festive meals and discuss the crazy of everything while we feel the strength from each other.  The height of irony would be if someone turned down an invitation to enjoy a Purim meal at someone’s home because they weren’t part of that particular Jewish community.  On this holiday all denominational and philosophical differences should fade into the background as we eat, celebrate and remind ourselves that we rely on each other for stability.

Wouldn’t it be something to celebrate if the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal, LGBTQ, Humanistic and every other group on the Jewish spectrum got together on one day out of the year, suspended all the distinctions and reinforced the nation!  It’s beautiful to think that the zaniness of Purim could be the open door for a day of Jewish community with no boundaries and no judgments.

So, let’s celebrate the day of Lottery, Purim, the mirror we hold to the world we live in.  We often think that the ancient world was a ridiculous place. We marvel at how brutally and nonsensically people behaved then and how modern and advanced we are today.  In that moment remember the messages of Purim and recognize how timeless the message is of how crazy the world can get. If that doesn’t do the job, just turn on CNN.

For more Purim fun, check out our latest YouTube video: Am I Crazy Or It Purim?

Looking for more opportunities to learn from Rachael? We’re currently accepting registrations for our Spring Lunchtime Learning Series – Check out the Centre Happenings page for all the information!

Parshat Terumah: Angels and Demons and Shades…Oh My!

This week’s Torah portion is parshat Terumah.  It includes the details of building holy objects for the Tabernacle…the details that make many people’s eyes glaze over.  It lists colour selections and table dimensions and what gets coated in gold and what doesn’t. Because we don’t have a Tabernacle anymore, or a Temple, we don’t build these objects today and so we don’t often listen with a keen ear while this portion is read in synagogue.

But, amongst all these details is the description of the cherubim that will sit on the Ark of the Covenant.  A cherub is a type of angel. It is not a pudgy baby angel with a diaper and a bow and quiver waiting to shower us with ‘love arrows’.  It does not have rosy cheeks and a ‘cherubic smile’. By Jewish mystical accounts, a cherub is a fierce, frightening looking and not-happy-to- be-among-us type of angel.  There are two of them sculpted onto the lid of the Ark. They look down, toward the Ark and their wings are spread over them, almost touching wingtips. Almost touching, because the Divine Voice will speak from the space between – the tiny void framed by their wingtips.

Everything about it begs the question of why are there angels in my holy spaces?  Why do I keep inviting them into my world?

On Friday nights, with family gathered around our tables, we sing Shalom Aleichem.  It’s a beautiful, soulful song that frames our Shabbat meal. The phrase ‘shalom aleichem’ means ‘peace on you (plural)’ and we are welcoming the ministering angels and the angels of peace into our homes.  Verse 1 welcomes them, verse 2 beckons them to come in peace, verse 3 asks them to bless us with peace, verse 4 asks them to leave. We don’t want angels hanging around us for longer than needed.

Many ancient Jewish texts tell us that angels and demons are around us all the time and interact with us constantly.  As long as we think of angels as sweet, benevolent miracle workers, we like that they’re here. On a personal and very mundane note, I have struggled with my hair all of my life.  It is very fine. I always remember my mother putting bobby pins in my hair to keep it out of my eyes, only to have the pins float out the bottom of my hair an hour later. It’s a struggle that continues to this day.  Hair stylists have always told me I have baby fine hair. It sounds lovely but imagine being told you’re still carrying your baby weight with you all your life. A year ago, I walked into a salon and the stylist looked at my hair and told me how wonderful it must be to have angel fine hair.  He is now my regular stylist.

But, unfortunately, there really aren’t sources that tell us angels are saints.  They don’t sit on our shoulders whispering good things into our ears. Angels are messengers who do what God bids them to do – they have no free will and they are not always on our side of things.

According to the Kabbalah, angels were created before humanity was created.  That makes them our older sibling species, since God is the Divine Parent. We are the younger sibling that bothers them.  God will command some of them to protect us (Guardian Angels), just as an older sibling is responsible for its younger ones, not a cherished moment for an older sibling.  God will give us special things (the Torah) that the angels will argue they had first and don’t want to share. We overhear them say something that pleases the Parent and then we usurp it (“Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”).  We bother them.

There are positive and negative angels.  A midrash tells us that angels follow us into our homes on Friday evenings.  If they see a home of peace and readiness for holiness, the positive angels say this should continue and the negative angels must answer ‘amen’.  If they see a home of conflict and chaos, the negative angels say this should continue and the positive angels must answer ‘amen’. I’m not sure I want them in my home.

But, just as we live with our siblings from cradle to grave, we live with our angelic siblings every moment of every day.  The Talmud says there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have its angel tapping the earth above it and coaxing it to grow.  When two friends who have been apart for over a year reunite, they are to recite the blessing that thanks God for resurrecting the dead.  This is because love and fellowship create positive angels. The angel of our friendship will guard the relationship and will be nourished by it.  It takes a year apart to starve that angel, but when friends meet again, the angel is immediately resurrected, triggering the blessing.  

This week’s parshah teaches us how to create holy objects, and ultimately, to create holy space.  But we are always warned that holiness is powerful and extreme holiness is dangerous. The Cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant are keeping Israel at a distance from the power of such holiness.  The fierceness of their appearance is protecting us and they stare at the Ark, directing our focus. By spreading their wings to almost touch, they create the void in which to hear God’s Voice. Like an older sibling, they teach us about the world and how sometimes it is the spaces of silence that carry the greatest of revelations.

Parshat Mishpatim: Something’s Not Kosher in Denmark

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Mishpatim, has some very controversial and challenging laws.  Statements about witches and slaves and seducing virgins seem to fade into the background as compared with the tiny statement about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.

For many people, the parameters of kosher revolve around not eating pork or bacon, not eating any shellfish, and separating milk and meat.  When my kids were little, my father would tell them they were so delicious he could eat them up. One of my kids looked at him and said ‘silly Zaidy, people aren’t kosher.’  It was a sweet moment for me because my dad usually didn’t tease that way (grandparenting is a whole new way of expressing) and I got to see that my kid understood that people are animals who don’t have split hooves or chew cud.  Win/win.

But living in a community that keeps kosher creates a familiarity with something we easily forget is so foreign to others.  A friend of mine once told me about a time that he had non-Jewish colleagues over for dinner for the first time. They planned to cook a meal together.  He explained to them how his kitchen was laid out and that he keeps meat and dairy separate. Every cabinet and drawer was labelled in advance and meat and dairy were colour coordinated so things were pretty easy to navigate.  Dinner went great and while they were cleaning after and he was doing the dishes, he decided to have a moment of what he thought would be levity. He turned to his friends and said ‘Oh no! You put the dairy garbage into the meat garbage!!’  He went back to washing dishes chuckling to himself about how cute and funny he was but when he turned back around his friends were rummaging through the garbage separating the meat from the dairy. When he told me the story I started laughing and he chuckled again, this time at my reaction.  He asked me why separating the garbage was any more ridiculous to them than anything else about his kitchen.

He was right.

In fact, there are two different categories of keeping kosher in the Torah: the rational and the irrational.  An irrational law in Judaism is called a ‘hok’. That is where we find the categories of kosher animals and the list of birds we can and cannot eat.  They are irrational because left to our own devices we would never have figured out not to eat a pig. Once we can eat another living thing, why would we be limited to some and not others?  It does not lie within the realm of logic, it lies within the realm of meaningfulness and so each Jewish approach will give it meaning in different ways.  

Then there are the rational laws, ‘mishpatim’, the laws we would have derived on our own because they are the result of logical thinking.  Laws like not stealing or murdering fall in this domain. The laws in this week’s parshah fall in this domain…and so does separating milk and meat.

We mark this separation because the Torah forbids cooking a kid in its own mother’s milk.  Since we can never be sure which animal belonged to which mother, we separate all meat from milk.  The law has grown into separating our dishes, our utensils and in some communities, separating appliances as well.  But how is it logical?

There is definitely a cruelty to taking a baby animal, slaughtering it and then cooking it in the milk its own mother made.  But the cruelty only exists within us, the animals would never know. The Torah is teaching us the logical understanding of cruel concepts that embed within innocuous actions.  And that’s just the start.

The milk a mother produces is specifically there for her offspring.  Its purpose is to nourish and secure a new life. It has no other purpose and most animals become milk intolerant once their digestive systems mature.  Milk’s function is to promote life and begin the relationships of bonding and trust with another. (See my blog on Parshat Beshalach for other “mother’s milk” imagery in the Torah.)

Eating meat, according to the Torah, is self-indulgent.  Something Judaism tells us is a concession on God’s part introduced into the world after the Flood.  It is understood as more of a lust than a reasoned choice. Immediately after the Flood, the Torah lists the 7 Noahide laws, one of which is to never eat the limb off a living animal.  Humanity may eat meat but must kill the animal first. In other words, eating meat must now necessitate interacting with death.

So while milk exclusively supports life, meat must interact with death.  As Judaism often reminds us to choose life, it is now crucial that we understand the images and symbols we use everyday.

It is logical to not inculcate cruel concepts within us; to recognize that hurting anything must begin with an internal dismissal that it matters.  We would never cook a baby animal in the milk its mother made to nourish it. And growing in holiness, we would understand what we see when we see milk and what we have done when we see meat.  Both are permitted but both must be allowed to speak to us separately.

The complexities layer on top of each other so much, you yearn for the irrational laws that just say ‘do this…don’t ask because it will never make sense anyway’.  But in a parshah that discusses the logic of building a society that tries to give people rights and fairness, how subtle and humbling to see that even the baby kid should be on our minds.  

It’s not about how complicated I can make my kitchen, so much as knowing that avoiding concepts of cruelty and building clarity in my world could bring me to endless layers of meaning.  When symbols work properly, they have no limit to their meanings. I may separate my food but not my dishes or I may separate my dishes but not my sinks, or my sinks but not my dishwasher racks, or… but I could never judge someone who is so struck by the profound message of clarity between life and death that they separate it every way they can.  

The only reason we don’t separate our garbage is because, well, that would be irrational.

Parshat Yitro: Even Moses Had In-Laws

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Yitro, contains the Ten Commandments, which tends to always catch our attention.  But the parshah begins with, and is named after, Moses’ father-in-law: Yitro. It is the part of Torah that shows us the father-in-law/son-in-law relationship…and it’s timeless.

There’s an interesting dynamic that exists between fathers and daughters that I’ve watched in my own family.  I quickly learned to brush up on my Freud and then quickly remembered why I don’t like Freud. I watched with confused interest as my husband and my daughters figured things out with each new stage of maturity.  I most definitely remember that each time a new boy showed up at the house to pick up one of our daughters for a date, my husband would greet them at the door with an apple.

I kid you not, my husband would stand in the hallway by the front door with his hand open and an apple lying on his palm.  He would make eye contact with the boy and would say ‘watch this’ as he closed his hands over the apple and split it in half with his hands.  He then opened his hands to produce two perfect halves of the apple, one in each palm. Through it all, he never broke eye contact. I always thought he was showing off his martial arts training and I thought it was cute.  Apparently the boys watching didn’t think it was so cute. It seems they all read it as a message. Years later I found out from my daughters that all their friends were aware of the ‘apple thing’ and it intimidated the boys who’d witnessed it.  I told my husband that it was making them uncomfortable and he smiled a bit and said, ‘is it really?’, but the next date faced the apple.

Ah, yes, fathers and daughters.

When it comes to our in-laws, relationships suddenly become very complex.  They are parents within our marriage, they’re just not our parents. They embody knowledge of our partner that we will never have – they know who they were and who they became.  But we know who they became and who they are becoming, something their parents no longer witness moment to moment. And yet, the Torah commands us to teach our children, no matter whether or not they are young, old, married, single, parents or even grandparents.  We are to evolve into new relationships as they evolve into new stages because we are always obligated to teach them. When they no longer respond to our lessons, we are the ones who must change how we teach them. We are commanded to teach, they are not commanded to learn.

When Yitro joins Moses in the wilderness, he brings Moses’ wife and sons with him.  Moses has not called for them but Yitro decides it is enough time apart. He does not accuse Moses of anything, he simply reunites him with his wife and sons.  It is hard to discuss personal family matters between father-in-law and son-in-law so action is what is needed. They speak all night about the events of Egypt and God, and since Yitro is the High Priest of Midian, this is akin to talking shop.  

The next day, Yitro watches Moses at work and critiques his process.  After all, Yitro knows what it is to lead a people and he’s watching Moses devote his entirety to leading Israel and has nothing left for his family life.  That’s when we remember fathers and daughters.

Yitro tells Moses to delegate, to build a system of appeals that will free Moses from this crushing burden (…and maybe get home…).  Yitro has no vested interest in making Moses the best leader of the Jewish people, but he does have a vested interest in getting Moses to find room in his life for his family.

The only problem is that the system Yitro suggested was one of privilege – only the important people would end up in front of Moses.  For a foreign leader, that has worked, but for the vision of covenant, that would be a betrayal. So Moses sets up a system of challenges rather than privilege.  The cases that are too challenging for a lower court would bump up to eventually come before Moses. He will solve what others could not, regardless of the importance of the participants.  It is this system that we inherit which is why, much later in our history, King Solomon will adjudicate a case with two prostitutes standing before him each claiming motherhood over a single baby.

Once Moses has taken the idea from Yitro and shaped it into what he needs…he sends Yitro home.  Moses will keep his focus on the people and his family life will suffer. Moses will not raise his sons as leaders and he will eventually live apart from his wife.  If Moses were to find a work/life balance, Israel would suffer. If Moses is always monitored by Yitro, his father-in-law, he would insist on sending Moses home at the end of the day.  Choices must be made and Yitro is sent home.

It’s an extremely delicate balance when a relationship between two men exists only because they are bonded to the same woman.  Not enough credit is given to that relationship. Jewishly, we praise the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who brought us defining concepts that include “whither you go, I will go”.  That relationship speaks so loudly and clearly that we all but ignore that men may not express their interactions the same way.

Yitro will protect his daughter and mentor his son-in-law while bringing his grandsons to their father.  The Jewish people are better off because Yitro spoke with familial authority to Moses. He was the only person in Torah to ever speak as a parent to Moses and it gives us a glimpse into how complex that relationship can be.

To the fathers-in-law and sons-in-law all around us, I tip my hat to you for navigating these nuances as often as you do.  I support you in any hallway you choose to stand with every apple you hold in your palm.

Parshat Beshalach: The Miraculous, Wondrous, Unimaginable, What-cha-ma-call-it

A while ago I saw a funny cartoon (I think today it’s called a meme though I still don’t understand why we can’t just keep calling it a cartoon…) that I thought speaks beautifully of our era.  It generally goes like this: two rabbits sitting on a park bench and the caption reads: ‘Life Before Google’. One rabbit says to the other, ‘I wish I knew more about the history of rabbits’ and the other rabbit says, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.’   Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how everything is at our fingertips and communication is but a few clicks away. When my husband is late getting home, I admit I have said to him: ‘if only there were a handy little device in your pocket that could help you let me know.’

So, I can’t help but wonder if there is any excitement left in the unknown.  Do we feel that things are beyond our reach conceptually? Could we ever be the rabbits on the park bench?

One of the great moments of mystery is when we explain to our kids that they’re going to have a sibling.  I remember understanding never to tell a child that we love them so much, we just couldn’t wait to have another.  It’s like telling your spouse you love them so much you couldn’t wait to be intimate with someone else. It sounds logical but it’s a terrible thing to communicate.

Whichever way we told our kids about a new addition to the family, I am always struck by the things kids filled in because we neglected to address their perspective.  Some of my kids assumed that the new baby would live with my parents. Friends of mine mentioned their kids thought the new baby would come home with its own mother because they didn’t agree it could share theirs.  Other friends mentioned that they dropped their daughter with her grandparents on the way to the hospital to deliver the new baby. After coming home with the baby, the daughter refused to visit the grandparents for a long time, afraid the parents would pick her up with yet another new baby.  When we think we know everything about something we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, we are suddenly struck with understanding how little we really know.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Beshalach, Israel leaves Egypt and starts to complain about not having food.  God sends manna from heaven. The description of manna is that it’s off-white, moist, spoils easily, it’s flavour changes person to person although it always looks the same.  The Sages tell us that the way God sends the manna and feeds Israel is a means of building trust between God and Israel. In essence, the Torah is describing mother’s milk.  

It also fits the context in that Israel, as a people, were just born by walking through the dry canal of the Red Sea and now they want to nurse and bond.  In fact, later in the Torah, Moses will get angry with God and say he no longer wants to ‘nurse’ the people. Remembering that Israel left Egypt with full supplies of everything they need, including cattle, it completes the image of a newborn in a household filled with food but unable to access any of it.  The newborn needs a special food relationship that nourishes and builds trust.

But while the imagery is familiar to us, it is completely unknown to Israel.  The Torah says they wake up in the morning, look outside and see the ground covered with this stuff, at which point they exclaim: ‘what is that stuff?’, in Hebrew: ‘maan hu?’, in transliteration: ‘manna’ and in translation: ‘It’s manna’.  And that is how we get the word ‘manna’ that literally means: the ‘what is that?’ (the word what-cha-ma-call-it comes to mind).

We are so baffled by it, that we perpetuate the name that embodied the wonderment.  And yet, it is the Divine expression of what goes on naturally between the females and babies of every mammal in creation.  We’ve taken it for granted to the extent of not recognizing it when we see it in our parshah.

The Torah shows us that wondrous things occur around us constantly.  With our phones in our pockets, and seemingly unlimited access to everything through our electronics, we can still be the rabbits on the bench.  Abraham Joshua Heschel used to teach that we should opt not to ask God for success or power, but choose instead to ask God for wonder. It sits around us all the time, it’s a matter of perspective.