Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

This week’s parshah, Miketz, details Joseph’s life in Egypt.  Joseph is our Jewish ancestor who lives his life blending into the larger culture around him.  He holds his covenantal identity in his heart, but he appears outwardly like anyone else.  

  We love the details of the story because we all want to teach our children to do what Joseph did.  Hearing Pharaoh’s concerns, Joseph describes the job needed to solve the problem, and then applies for that job.  

  In fact, everything goes beautifully until his family arrives.  Joseph must now find a way to blend his worlds into one identity.  Creating an identity that prospers in a dominant culture is challenging enough, but it becomes even more layered when two cultures are vying for our identities.  

  Chanukah is the holiday that speaks to us of a time when we tried blending cultural identities only to find that the dominant culture around us didn’t want the blend – it wanted assimilation.  This week we celebrate recognizing that important difference as we insisted on self-defining.  Chanukah marks a time when we encountered identity questions from the outside as well as from the inside.  One of the strongest lessons of Chanukah is that we do not live isolated from other cultures, but we do not ever forfeit our Jewish core, or our right to define our own identities.  

Eight little candles that remind us of the spiritual strength that lies within each of us as we navigate a complex world of cultural offerings.

      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

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins the Joseph narratives with all its beautiful complexities.  It begins by telling us that Joseph would bring bad reports of his brothers to his father, Jacob.  It then says that Jacob loves Joseph, and his brothers hate him. Most of the commentaries depict Joseph as privileged and spoiled —he is the favourite son who tells tales about his brothers.  But the Torah may be painting a different picture.

On the fateful day of Joseph’s kidnapping, Jacob sends him to check on his brothers.  As we follow him through his day, we see that his brothers are not where they’re supposed to be.  In fact, they’re camped by a trade route.  It begs the question of what they are doing with their father’s sheep near a trade route.  Perhaps these brothers are not as innocent as they seem.

As the story develops, we see the immorality of the brothers, including the cowardly lies that plunge their father into decades of mourning.  Given all the details, we might consider that they have been poaching their father’s sheep and selling them on the trade routes. This might be part of the ‘bad reports’ that Joseph was trying to tell his father.

The complex issues of the Joseph story start at home where he is faced with a conflict of morality.  His life journey will always centre on moments of moral choice, as do ours.  Our days are filled with moral conflicts that are usually small, but still quite meaningful.  When to speak up about something and when to let it go; when to confront and when to negotiate.  The Torah wastes no time showing us that the challenges Joseph faces appear in our lives all the time.

  There are no easy answers and no single solution to these nuanced moments

of choice.  At times we have done wrong, and stand in the footsteps of the brothers, at times we have been hurt, and stand where Jacob stood, and at times we have tried to resolve conflict, and only made it worse – we stand in Joseph’s shoes.

The power of these narratives is we see that healing can only start when each person owns the part they played and stops searching for someone to blame. 

Just another reason to cherish this beautiful narrative.

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 Toldot

This Shabbat we read parshat Toldot, and the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  It is also the Shabbat before Remembrance Day, November 11, as we remember our Canadian soldiers and veterans.  It’s interesting that these two things speak to each other with relevance for today.

The story of Jacob and Esau resonates as the story of two brothers in conflict. Jacob trades the stew he has made for Esau’s blessing as the eldest son. Esau feels betrayed when he later realizes he will not receive that blessing.  Jacob flees from his brother, Esau, who has pledged to kill him.  

       From Jacob’s point of view, the blessing was obtained fairly and legally.  From Esau’s point of view, it was a fleeting momentary decision, and doesn’t speak to the emotional reality of losing his father’s blessing.  Jacob sees the covenant while Esau sees his father’s love.  Both brothers sit in a single event with conflicting perspectives that cannot be reconciled.  It is the story of every human conflict —it is headed for war.

As we cross time from the ancient world to today, we often sit in this reality.  We struggle with warfare, aiming for peace which is often elusive.  Remembrance Day is a time for us to honour those people who risk everything to bring peace.  The Torah teaches us that peace is not a natural state, it is something to be solicited, pursued, negotiated, and fought for.  On Remembrance Day we remember the values for which someone would risk everything.  We honour the people as well as their vision.

       Jacob will eventually solicit Esau for peace.  In doing so, he will offer back the riches he has obtained, and Esau will refuse them.  The brothers are able to close the pain of the past and consider the hope of a future.

      On Remembrance Day, we remember our soldiers, veterans, and heroes.  We remember the pain of their loss, as we affirm knowing that everything they did, and everything they risk, is to consider a hope for our future.

       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 Chayei Sarah

This week, in parshat Chayei Sarah, the Torah tells us of Sarah’s passing.  Yet, when it speaks of the life of Sarah, our first matriarch, it begins with a strange phrase: “These were the lives of Sarah”.  We are struck by the plural forms. In fact, the name of the parshah, Chayei Sarah, translates as ‘the lives of Sarah’.

       Many of our commentaries offer beautiful insights into the choice of the plural.  One midrash offers the idea that all lives are connected through time, and therefore, every life is, in fact, a plural life.  It explains that when the book of Ecclesiastes said: “The sun rises and the sun sets”, the sun is understood as representing the brightness and warmth each of us brings to the world.  We’re told that before the sun sets – before we lose someone, it first rises -a new person has entered the world. The midrash points out that the Torah already told us that Rebecca, our next matriarch, was born, before it told us of the loss of Sarah.

            Rebecca is not the replacement of Sarah since people are not replaceable one with another.  The insight is for us to know that the world of relationships we build is limitless, as our relationships with others never end but build on each other.  Our lives connect with others, and when someone is lost to us, we may consider that, in time, some of the values they embodied may be found to shine in other people.  

        One opinion states that we all live many lives in our lifetime –that is why we find the plural noun here.  Sarah lived one lifetime but led many lives within that time.  During those lives, she influenced others and left an impression that stays with them.  Sarah continues to live her many lives even today.

        The eternal flow of sunrises and sunsets, as seen in the lives we live and the lives we touch, lets us know that the uniqueness of each person extends beyond anything we could contain in the singular –we need the plural.

        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 Vayera

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayera

This week’s parshah, Vayera, contains powerful concepts, not just for the ancient world but for our modern one.  We hear of strangers visiting Abraham and Sarah, and we suspect they’re angels.  Today, we often encounter people and are left with the impression they are more than they appear.  We glimpse the infinite depth that lies within each person.  Later in the parshah, Abraham argues with God about Sodom and creates a new moral dialogue.  His argument sets our understanding of how righteousness must be weighed and valued more than is evil – 10 righteous people can carry a region of thousands.  God agrees.  We also read of a desperate moment with Lot and his daughters that begins the lineage that will give us the Messiah.  We remember that sometimes the darkness of the moment can blind us to the redemption of the next moment.

   Yet, with all these tremendous perspectives, we usually focus on one element of the parshah, the binding of Isaac.  It is one of the most challenging and difficult texts we read, and we have yet to explain it in a way that sits comfortably in our hearts.  But because it disturbs us, we focus there and don’t value the positive messages in the rest of the parshah.

Sometimes in our daily lives, we experience things the same way we read this parshah.  Each day is filled with beautiful and powerful nuanced moments that positively impact how we think and feel, yet we will focus on something that disturbed us.  

  We protect ourselves by seeing what is negative, but we also deprive ourselves of seeing the positive growth in each day.  This week’s parshah invites us to broaden our views, seek the positive moments and value the change in perspectives they bring.

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

This week, we meet Judaism’s visionaries: Abraham and Sarah.  God reaches out with an invitation to take a journey: lech lecha.  It’s a Hebrew phrase that is often difficult to translate.  The first word, lech, is the command ‘go’, which we immediately recognize.  However, the second word, lecha, is out of place in this phrase.  Lecha means ‘for you’, which has generated many commentaries on how this journey will benefit them, it is a journey ‘for you’.  

But the word lecha doesn’t only mean ‘for you’, it also means ‘to you’.

It now suggests that the journey of covenant, and Judaism, is a journey of self-discovery.  At the end of the road we travel, we are to meet our true selves.  Lech lecha now translates as ‘go toward yourself’.   

For the first three generations of our ancestry, our Matriarchs and Patriarchs each embark on their own lech lecha journey that takes them to different Jewish realities.  Each of their journeys is unique.  Once Jacob, our last ancestor, lies on his deathbed, he passes it to his descendants as an inherited legacy.

Each Jewish person inherits the invitation.  Lech lecha, walk a path of unknown discoveries filled with challenges and surprises.  It is never guaranteed to be only good, but it is always guaranteed to feel right when you find your unique lech lecha path.

We sometimes make a life decision that can shape the years ahead, but the life journey of lech lecha sets our feet on a path that began long before us, and will extend far beyond us.  The future imagined by Abraham and Sarah, and the vision they bring to the world, is only surpassed by the courage of this moment as they answer God and take a first step.

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

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

It takes ten generations for the world to move from Adam to Noah, ten generations to go from creation to destruction. Yet, ten generations after Noah, we will read of Abraham. Throughout the ages, Jewish commentaries have compared Noah and Abraham, as they represent such different portraits of a hero.

Noah, knowing the world will be destroyed, doesn’t argue with God – he simply obeys.  Abraham, being told a region of Sodom will be destroyed, mounts a moral argument with God about sweeping judgments.  It seems that Abraham is the model of a hero, yet Noah and Abraham are both described with the same word: ‘Tzadik’.

The Sages tell us that a righteous person, a ‘tzadik’, is someone who stands firm in their morals, no matter what is going on around them.  In other words, a hero is defined by context.  Noah is righteous because he doesn’t have blood on his hands.  He doesn’t actively save people, but he doesn’t actively kill them, which was the cultural norm of his time.  He is righteous because he is blameless.  Abraham is righteous because he moves beyond being blameless and speaks for the potential victim.  His argument with God is not for those who are suffering, it is for those who will suffer in the future.  In this regard, both Noah and Abraham stand side by side in their righteousness – they both take their cultural norms one step further.

When we think of Torah in our lives, we do not think of it as standing far from us and our culture.  On the contrary, we contextualize Torah into our lives and have it strengthen us to take even one step forward.  A hero could be someone who stays calm when others are lashing out, or someone who sees the outcome of suffering and tries to intervene before it starts, or someone who gives their time to support someone in a culture where every minute is accounted for and scheduled.  

Noah and Abraham, so distinctly different, both show us there are heroes among us all the time, we just need to understand that subtle gestures can also be heroic.

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 parashat Bereishit

Rachael’s Thoughts on parashat Bereishit

We have danced, celebrated, fasted, and prayed for weeks, as we entered the High Holidays, moved through them, and now truly begin our Jewish new year.  This Shabbat, we begin reading the Torah again with the first chapters of Genesis, parashat Bereishit.

           We read of the beginnings of the universe, the world as we know it, and the human condition.  Einstein believed that the universe is not a defined, static thing, but that it continues to expand.  Our Sages taught us that creation renews itself every day, and that the creative elements God embedded into the universe will always renew.  Our worlds of science and faith are both telling us that nothing around us stands still – everything moves toward growth and expansion.

           With that in mind, we do not read the book of Genesis again, we read it anew.  It has new things to tell us, unique perspectives we haven’t heard before.  The entire Torah begins with the word ‘Bereishit’ – ‘in the beginning’.  It begins with the letter ‘b’ (bet), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our commentaries point out that it would be more appropriate to begin the Torah with the first letter, ‘a’ (aleph).  One reason is to show that there is always something more to know, something that pre-exists, something connected with ‘a’ (aleph) that is hidden and inviting us to explore.  But the Torah must begin with the second letter because we know we are entering a process that is already moving forward.

           Though we are careful  not to read Torah searching for endings – we engage with Torah as we search for beginnings.  Each person finds their unique starting place, knowing there is so much that exists before them – before anything they recognize.  The goal is not to unlock a mystery of the past, it is to courageously step in and enter the expansion.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: It Matters If It’s One Pocket or the Other

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: It Matters If It’s One Pocket or the Other

I was thinking recently about pockets.  As every woman knows, we shouldn’t assume our clothes come with pockets.  We definitely assume that men’s clothes come with pockets.  Anyone in the United States knows that a woman could carry a pocketbook to put all her things in, but in Canada it would be called a purse.  At least a ‘pocketbook’ acknowledges the missing pockets in her clothing.  Recently, a new mother told me that her newborn son has pants with pockets, but the same pants on the newborn girl side has no pockets.  She didn’t understand what the newborn boy would put in his pockets so she concluded it must be ‘pocket training’ for all the male clothing in his future — baby girls should learn to navigate without pockets, it’s never too soon.

When we start thinking about pockets, it is inevitable that we’ll think about the things we put in them.  I can only put material things in my pockets, tangible objects.  No memories, no perspectives or philosophies will ever be in my pockets.  But, from a Jewish point of view, not all material things are created equal.

Most of us have spent this last year primarily in our homes.  We’re surrounded by our things, and those things will speak to us of our memories.  Where did I get that thing?  Do I actually even like it?  Maybe it’s time to donate it and reduce the stuff that’s around me.  But then we inevitably come across something we would never part with.  When we find that something, it’s usually not the monetary value of it that strikes us, it’s more often going to be a memory it triggers.  I recently came across a nightgown my grandmother gave me when I was little.  It’s not a little girl nightgown, it was actually her nightgown and I remember it being huge on me.  I loved it because it was soft, it smelled like her and it was so big I could tuck my feet up into it and feel surrounded by her.  I told her I loved that nightgown and she gave it to me.  Today it’s quite thin and I would be afraid to put it on because I don’t want to damage it, so perish the thought that I would ever wear it, but I will never give it up.  When I look at it, I think of my grandmother but even more, I think that I now have grandchildren and so I look at that nightgown and my thoughts move forward, not backward.  That nightgown will be seen with the eyes of five generations of one family.  To me, I look at that nightgown and I see a blessing.

In Judaism, materialism speaks to us in many ways.  There is certainly the utility of something, how it serves us, how it benefits its user.  Then there is the meaning of the object, how it triggers us, how it inspires us.

All of these thoughts intersected for me when I read what seemed like an insignificant part of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei.  Israel is ready to build the Tabernacle, the place of holiness and ritual.  God tells Moses that everyone of a ‘giving heart’ should offer fine and beautiful linens, precious metals and jewels so those of a ‘knowing heart’ can fashion holy objects.  While it lists all the beautiful and precious objects, it neglects to remind everyone where all these objects came from.  

Anything of any value that the Israelites have is something they got in Egypt.  Before leaving, the Israelites were told to ask their Egyptian neighbours for finery and goods.  It was understood that nothing would ever be returned.  It is interpreted as Egypt paying the slaves for all the work they were forced to do, and it would close the door on any future claims.  It is a reparation settlement.

God has now suggested to them that they offer those very goods toward creating a place of holiness, expression and community.  It is not the material wealth that is crucial, it is the history that attaches to those objects.  The nature of reparations goes to the very meaning of the word: to repair.  It is not compensation, and it is not an assessed amount based on hours worked or pain suffered.  To repair an injury, to heal a transformative pain, doesn’t come down to how much money is paid, it comes down to what happens to that money.

The Torah has created the scenario of two pockets.  The material things I earn will go into one pocket, and I will be commanded to give some to charity, provide for my family and enjoy the world.  That money is for utility.  My other pocket is reserved for the material things that have meaning to me.  It is my choice whether I keep it, gift it, cherish it or pack it away.  This week, the Torah suggested that I could use my reparations (those material gestures of repair and healing) to create larger places of holiness and community.  Offering a reparation, and accepting one, creates an agreement that both sides are committed to healing.  The materialism of that moment, the actual monetary amount, pales in comparison to the turning point two people reach when they agree to move forward and repair.

I’m touched by the irony that results: ancient Jewish holy objects are made from the riches of Egypt.  But God does not command anyone to use their reparations to contribute to a greater cause, that can’t be commanded. Transforming reparations, moving them from one pocket to the other, now that requires a giving heart that joins with a knowing heart.

Spring courses at Rachael’s Centre begin the first week of April, right after Pesach. Check out what we’re offering – we hope to see you in class soon!

And So This is Purim!

And So This is Purim!

(Sung to the tune of John Lennon’s: “And So This is Christmas”…because it’s… Purim!)

And so this is Purim,

And what have we done?

Another year over

And a new one’s just begun.

Let’s wear our Zoom filters

And don our Zoom masks

Let’s drink a L’chaim

And swig from our flasks

But party in private

No large Shushan feast

We increase our ‘happy’

But the parties decrease

So a very merry Purim

Take a moment to notice

We came close to disaster

But they couldn’t quite smote us.

(okay, not proud of that last rhyme but…it’s Purim so I can take rhyming liberties).

Today is Purim and we’re supposed to switch things up, listen to the Megillah, boo at Haman, and remember that being a Jew in exile means standing on the shifting sands of politics.  This year, of all years, we don’t need Purim to teach us about how crazy the world can get.  This year, we look for deeper messages of the holiday that can speak to us right now.

This morning, on my online weekly coffee discussion, we looked at the Megillah, and its message of privilege.  This year I saw it clearly, while every other year it sat quietly in the text waiting for its moment.

The Megillah begins with a portrait of complete privilege: the king is hosting endless feasting and debauchery for his invited privileged guests.  The description is surprising in its excess and the midrashim add details that complete the picture of privilege.  Within this setting, Queen Vashti is told to appear.  At this point, the story will unfold as an ongoing introduction of decreasing privilege.  The queen, who has little choice, refuses, and is ‘gotten rid of’.  The advisors have told the king that if his ultimate power (privilege) is challenged, then all wives will challenge their husbands — those of lesser power (privilege) will begin to question their standings, and challenge the rung above them. Esther is chosen as queen , and will gain privilege, but only as long as she hides who she is, Mordecai has told her she must hide her identity because he knows that knowledge of her people will rob her of any power she might attain.  Esther can blend, she can pass, she lives the life of the imposter.

The stand-off between Haman and Mordecai plays out the same way.  In fact, every detail from that moment onward speaks of a switching of privilege — the doors that open, the safety that privilege provides, and the redefinition of the society when it is challenged.

In the final moments of the narrative, the Jewish people (previously on the bottom rung of the ladder, facing a genocide) are allowed to arm themselves, and deliver a pre-emptive strike against those who had already armed against them.  It is the eleventh hour reversal.

Up to this moment in the Megillah, Esther and Mordecai tell us of the events of their time, but they have not yet weighed in on what we should do because of it.  Only in the last verses of the Megillah do they tell us to read their story every year, make it a day of joyous festivities and send presents to the poor.  In other words, hear their cautionary tale, remember it is a repeating story of hatred and privilege, combat the sadness of that fact with the expression of joy, and fight the reality of privilege by reaching out to anyone in need.  Try to equalize our society by sharing what is ours, and creating a bond across the strata of power.

I’m not sure that even Esther and Mordecai could have known how relevant their message has become. This year I read the Megillah with joy, and I add a measure of gratitude.

Happy Purim and shabbat shalom!

Check out Rachael’s revamped video for Purim:

Rachael hosts Food For Our Neshama, Coffee For Me Friday mornings from 10-10:30am ET on Zoom. The link is on our homepage.