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.

Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Gift giving is an art.  By the time the gift has been selected, acquired, wrapped for presentation and delivered, many decisions have already been made.  The first question that arises when thinking of giving a gift is whether I am giving them something I want them to have or something they want to have.  Big ticket simcha gift giving has taken a cultural turn and answered this question for us.  People register for the gifts they want or need.  I can now select an item from their registry that fits my budget and our relationship.  But it isn’t always that simple.  What if I want to gift a newlywed couple something meaningfully Jewish but the gift registry doesn’t include Judaica?  What if I appreciate the artistic moments in my life, and want to gift them a subscription to a museum or theatre, but that’s not on their list?  Once someone has created a registry, do I still have the freedom to gift both the item and the implied wish I am expressing with that item?

When my children were little, both my husband and I wanted to have them begin to understand the messaging of gift-giving.  When one of us had a birthday, the other one would take the kids to a store in the mall that had a wall of gifts for $5 and under.  The kids were told they could choose one thing from the wall as their gift.  Some of our kids chose quickly (whatever was at eye level), while others stood and agonized for far too long about what to get.  They were caught on trying to decide if it was something they thought was beautiful or something they thought the receiver would think is beautiful.  Personally, I received a lot of sticker earrings and way too many baseball caps in tiny sizes. Teaching what a gift means is a very nuanced affair.

I can gift my time, which for many of us is far more valuable than our gift budget.  I can gift my talents, my vision, my expertise…the list goes on.  

It’s interesting that in our society we don’t gift someone the things we already own — we need to buy something new.  Anything we own is seen as already used, second hand, lesser than new and store bought.  Ironically, the idea of a gift is the opposite.  I want to give you something I know is useful or enjoyable because I have used and enjoyed it.  I am gifting you the experience of the thing, I have removed any doubt.  I gift you the book I loved, the art I find meaningful, but our modern sensibilities will conclude that it’s used — I should buy you the same thing I have, but gift you the new one.  The new book has the benefit of the unbroken spine and the new crispy pages, but the loss of opening the book and having it fall open to my favourite page that I read a thousand times — the one I want you to see first.  When I buy you the new one, I remove my presence from the object, and now I have given you…a book.

This is the subtlety of gift giving in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah.  God is teaching Israel how to create a Tabernacle, holy space.  The very first words are that Israel should contribute the things their hearts tell them to give.  It is a list of precious things they already own.  They are not to barter with each other or ‘trade up’.  Their eyes are on their possessions, not their neighbours’.  It’s hard to part with beautiful things I own and value, but I am not being asked to part with them, I am being taught to invest them into building a place of relationships I fully intend to enjoy.  Holy space is open to everyone, and when an Israelite enters the Tabernacle, they will see the things they contributed woven together with everything everyone else brought, and know it was hard for everyone to give these things up and we built it together.

The Hebrew word terumah does not mean donation, it literally means ‘to separate and raise it’.  I am not donating something to the Tabernacle, I am taking it from what I already own, and therefore a piece of me moves into the actual physical space — even when I’m not there, I’m there.  In fact, once introducing this concept to us, God states that by building this Tabernacle “I can dwell inside them” — even when they think I’m not there, I’m there.  

Today, when people are marrying and setting up a new home, or growing their family and in need of specific items, it is extremely helpful to have a registry outlining for us what would be most helpful for them.  Maybe with terumah in mind, that gift could be accompanied by something chosen by our hearts that moves from holy space to holy space, from our home to theirs.

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A new 4-week course begins on February 24th! More info here: https://www.rachaelscentre.com/learning/classes/#myths

Rosh Chodesh Adar: I Think I’m Sad That You’re Happy

Rosh Chodesh: I Think I’m Sad That You’re Happy

Happy Adar everyone!  Today and tomorrow are the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar.  Happy, happy, joy, joy, is what the Talmud tells us occurs in the month of Adar.  We are to find our happy and express our joy.  It is the only month where Judaism tells us to feel a certain way all month long.  

Adar is the astrological sign of the Jewish people, say the Sages.  It is the sign of ‘Dagim’ (fish, Pisces), and covenant promises that we will be as abundant and bountiful as fish that swarm and thrive in the oceans.  Some Jews wear beautiful artistic renderings of fish jewelry as a sign of good luck — this is why.  So we are to wear a smile and find joy all through Adar…but what about all the bad things that happened in Adar?

In ancient Persia, Adar is the month that was chosen by Haman to slaughter each and every Jew.  The fact that it ends well doesn’t change the fact that the Jews of that time were threatened by a government intent on their extinction.  Horrific plans were made, edicts were sent out, armies were ready, and Jewish parents chilled at the possibility that there might not be a tomorrow for their children.  Am I to forget their terror as I celebrate the outcome?

Following Adar is the month of Nisan, the month of Passover.  That means that during Adar, the Jews in Egypt were in the midst of the plagues, facing an unknown future, with death and the screams of suffering all around them.  Are their moments of terror erased?

Moses, our greatest leader, and our greatest advocate, dies on the seventh day of Adar. Is my joy meant to blind me to this loss, the leader who gave us everything?   Like any month of any year, Adar can be filled with moments of challenge and anguish that could anchor us in darkness…if we so choose.

I remember years ago, I was teaching grade one as a student teacher, and I was in the classroom with the kids on the last day of school.  They were excited that school was ending, and summer was beginning, but they were sad that school was ending, and summer was beginning.  One little girl arrived in the morning already crying.  I tried to comfort her and tell her that everything is ok because summer will be fun, and in a few short months everyone will be back again.  She just looked at me and cried.  I listed some fun things that can happen only in the summer.  She cried some more.  I tried to get her to join the class activities, but nothing I said or did could slow her tears.  I turned to the host teacher and asked for some advice.  The teacher told me that today is that girl’s birthday and her mother explained to the teacher that the child is overwhelmed and doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad.  The teacher was giving her room to work it through.  The hope was that she would eventually remember that at the end of the day her mother was bringing birthday cupcakes for everyone.  

That day and the dilemma it presented has stayed with me since then.  How does a six year old navigate the day when she is equally happy and equally sad?  How do any of us authentically honour the conflicting emotions within us?  To tell her to only be happy, because today is her birthday, is to undervalue that there is legitimate sadness to saying goodbye to her friends.  Of course, conversely, to focus only on the end of the year is to forget that her birthday makes the day joyous.  We’re the teachers, how do we teach that one?

There’s a powerful tradition practiced by a small group of Jews that speaks exactly to this point.  The tradition is mostly unknown to the majority of the Jewish people because it is practiced by a group of people who prefer to remain anonymous, the Chevrah Kadishah.  This is the group of Jews who prepare, care for, and bury someone who has passed away.  On the seventh day of Adar, the day Moses died, they fast and then they feast. 

The fasting is to remember that this is the day when Moses died, alone on a mountain, with only God at his side.   Ultimately, every person faces death alone with only God at their side, but we always try our utmost to make sure that they are tended to and buried with Judaism all around them.  We do this without ever expecting that they thank anyone because they have already passed away so clearly there is no expression of gratitude forthcoming.  We consider it to be the greatest act of chesed that we could ever do for each other.  Moses taught us that.  

And yet, when Moses died, there was no one to tend to him, no one to bury him.  The man who taught us the meaning of chesed, acts of human kindness that expect no gratitude in return, this man had no one to extend chesed to him when he needed it.  The Chevrah Kadishah spends that day in sadness and regret.  They fast.

But, as the day is ending, the fast is broken with a great feast and celebration.  That is because the seventh of Adar is also the day Moses was born.

Two events representing the two extremes of life occurred on the same day.  Moses’ birth, the celebration of life, should have been celebrated first, since it occurred first.  Moses’ death, the threshold away from life, should be mourned afterwards.  In other words, chronologically, the Chevrah Kadishah should celebrate first, and then fast.  But Judaism is not about historic chronology, it is about meaningfulness.  Two events representing two polar extremes happening on the same day.  Now the choice is ours.

The Sages aren’t telling us that bad things didn’t happen in Adar because we know they did.  They are telling us that we need to learn how sadness must resolve into joy, how suffering must resolve into growth, how threat must resolve into opportunity.  

Adar is here, and finding our joyous expressions must be sincere.  The sadness and challenges didn’t disappear, life is not a fairy tale.  The joy of Adar is not a description of its every moment, it’s a description of our arrival.  That little girl was correct to cry at the end of grade one, and her mother was brilliant to make sure the day would end with a cupcake.

This week’s Parsha is Mishpatim. If you would like to read Rachael’s reflections on this parsha, please read last year’s post: Something’s Not Kosher In Denmark.

A new 4-week course begins on February 24th! More info here: https://www.rachaelscentre.com/learning/classes/#myths

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

I, like so many others, am at home during Ontario’s provincial lockdown.  My home now consists of five people (some of our kids are back in the house from university).  Five people in one home, all adults, all family, all with shared history and family experiences.  This lockdown should be a breeze, I mean, how different could we all be?

Generally speaking, most things run smoothly, but that is after we went through designating spaces in the house.  The tv room can’t be the hobby room, because some of the hobbies are loud (one of us has a loom) and some hobbies involve relentless pounding noises (one of us has decided to learn how to tan leather), while others are trying to focus on playing chess.  We finally agreed that the news updates should only happen on the tv in the kitchen, because the big tv is in the family room which has been designated as Switzerland — neutral territory so no news allowed.  Making that decision was not easy, since it sparked a spirited debate on whether Switzerland was truly neutral, and is anything in the world truly neutral, either by politics or by nature.  Some of us volunteered to cook, while others volunteered to clean (we decided to head to the self-defined chore system), which worked…until the people cooking communicated they didn’t mean every time and every meal.  Likewise, we had not defined whether the cleaning group could enter someone’s private house space in order to clean, or is everyone responsible for their own personal space.  

The other day, my daughter walked into the room and asked if anyone had given any thought to dinner.  The cleaners and the cookers all looked at each other, and the room went silent.  We are trying to be so respectful of everyone we have actually stalemated ourselves in certain moments.

It took years of ongoing discussion to modify our family model as we’ve grown and changed, but the usual model isn’t working anymore because anything we enjoyed doing outside has now struggled to find its place inside.  We did not account for needing a political model that would address our home reality.  When the children were growing up, our house was a dictatorship — my husband and I were the decision makers.  Temper tantrums were waited out and never gained the upper hand (we both agreed we don’t negotiate with terrorists).  The kids were taught that their opinions would always be heard, but life experience would empower their view, so the more life experience, the more weight to the opinion.  But our little oligarchy lost much of its force each time another child attained ‘adulthood’, as well it should.  And now, we are five adults together in the house searching for a political model.

Together we have discussed the differences between republics and democracies (decided neither will truly work for us).  Then we watched the political struggles in the United States, and our discussions gained many layers.

As a Canadian, I am mindful that we have a parliamentary system and a multicultural view.  Although we are close neighbours to the United States, we are distinctly different.  I watched a mob attack the Capital building in Washington, and could only imagine how my American neighbour might feel.  I could only imagine the shock and the heartbreak.

But after watching all the news reports and the videos, I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot, with different eyes.

The book of Shemot (Exodus) begins with a list of names of Jacob’s descendants who came to Egypt.  After the names of his sons, it tells us that seventy people had all come from Jacob, and had all descended to Egypt.  Over the years, I have looked at the commentaries and opinions on why we need that information, since it seems more appropriate to the book of Genesis –all the people listed are long dead.  Then I thought of my current household.

We are all one family but we are all distinct in every way.  The number ‘seventy’ in Judaism represents all peoples and all nations.  It reflects the totality of diversity contained under the common umbrella of humanity.  Jacob, the single patriarch, had produced a clan of total diversity, and then they all entered Egypt, a tyrannical empire.  It is of no great surprise that they are noticed and viewed as a threat.  It is not the people that are threatening, it is the model.

While the text is detailing the names of everyone (the book itself is called Shemot, which means “Names”), pharaoh will always remain without a name.  In fact, we are told the old pharaoh died and a new pharaoh arose, and we still don’t have a name for either one of them.  The Torah will always refer to the king as “pharaoh”, because this model of leadership does not value the distinct individual, and so no name is attached.  History will continue to perpetuate our understanding of that model through the development of the title.  The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt was Ptolemy XV Caesar (nicknamed Caesarian) who reigned with his mother, Cleopatra.  It is from his name, Caesar (named after Julius Caesar) that the title persists into the word Tsar (Czar) and Kaiser.  They are all words that track back to ‘Caesar’, which tracks to pharaoh.  

Interestingly, the Torah never gives Moses a title, we are always on a first name basis with him, but we never know pharaoh’s first name, only his title — two distinct models of leadership.  As the leadership model is forming with Moses, the model of the people is also forming.  All of Israel must learn how to retain their distinct voices while sharing a common vision of the future.  The Israelite slaves who leave Egypt will struggle with this their entire lives as they expect Moses to behave like a pharaoh and tell them what to do.  They never quite understand that without distinct and different opinions, we do not learn discourse or dialogue, and we cannot learn resolutions.  They always speak to Moses as a mob, and when we speak as a mob we return to Egypt.

There is a wonderful story from the village of Chelm, that Jewish place where the logic could be sideways but the insights are always there.  One night, a great fire is raging in the village.  The rabbi gathers everyone together for a blessing.  He addresses the village and says he will now lead them in a blessing of gratitude.  Everyone asks how he could possibly think of gratitude at this moment.  The rabbi responds that without the illumination from the fire, they could not see where the buckets are to put it out.

No one wants the fire, but when it happens, do we want to focus our eyes on the damage of the fire and blind ourselves by its glow? Perhaps the preferred choice would be to search for what it has shown us that we didn’t realize we should always have valued.

As I get ready for Shabbat, I listen to the sound of the loom, the silence of the chess game and the tv turned to the news in my kitchen.  The balance of a working political model is always delicate, and should never be underestimated.

Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

Parshat Miketz: Two Strangers Walked Into an Elevator…

Everyone I talk to lately is communicating, in one way or another, that we’re all tired of living with COVID.  The cracks are starting to show.  I heard recently of a young pregnant woman who was at the hospital for her monthly appointment.  She was alone in the elevator when it stopped and a stranger got in.  The stranger looked at the pregnant woman and said, ‘what a terrible time to have a baby’.  She caught herself and followed it with ‘of course, babies are blessings.’  In normal circumstances I would question whether this stranger, with such poor judgment, has a driver’s license, and would I want to be on the road with them…but it’s COVID and the cracks are starting to show.

So, as the winter progresses, and the days get shorter, we need to remind ourselves that the Jewish world is a resilient one.  We roll with the punches.  Chanukah just ended, and the dreidels reminded us that when teaching Hebrew was prohibited, we put letters on toys, pretended to gamble, and taught our children the Hebrew alphabet.  It may not be historically true, but our Jewish world is not defined by a historical moment, it is about meaning and growth.  When we couldn’t gather in shuls, or have holidays together, we figured out how to zoom, and we taught the skill to anyone in our family who didn’t know how to use the technology.  We then zoomed so much that we coined the new Yiddish word, ‘oysh-ge-zoomed’, to tell someone we’ve had too much.  That’s how we roll.

But, these are the times when nuance defines everything.  We figured out the major stuff, now we need to remember that the handful of words spoken in a tired moment have the same impact as it always had.  The Sages told us to be mindful of our words, and that message couldn’t be more relevant than now.

The Sages also told us that the wise person is one who learns from everyone.  With that in mind, this week’s Torah portion, parshat Miketz, describes Joseph and his rise in Egypt.  We’re all familiar with the trials and tribulations of Joseph landing in a prison in Egypt, and how he uses his dream interpretation skills to end up standing before Pharaoh.  There is much we could learn from Joseph.  

It starts in his childhood, he teaches us that if you torment your siblings, they can get together and make your life miserable.  In Potiphar’s house, Joseph shows us that the ancient world also had times of sexual harassment, so best not to be alone behind closed doors with people who hold all the authority.  In prison, Joseph learned that the power never sits with the dreamer, it sits with the dream interpreter, and so he shifts his skills.  Before he is brought to Pharaoh, the text says he is hurried out of ‘the pit’, referencing the prison, but it is the same word as the pit his brothers threw him into.  His identity of victim stayed with him until he could see it was a choice and he could leave it behind.  Once ‘raised from the pit’, Joseph is washed and given new clothes.  Never underestimate the impact of washing our bodies, cleansing our minds and souls, and putting on new clothes.  It sounds mundane but it is transformative.  Yet, Joseph’s greatest life lesson for us occurs in his conversation with Pharaoh.

Joseph stands before Pharaoh and interprets Pharaoh’s dreams beautifully.  But then he proceeds to do something we would all want to teach our kids to do.  He applies for the job he wants, not the job that’s available.  Joseph could well have continued to be the royal dream interpreter, but he outlines a greater vision to Pharaoh.  Joseph creates the job, outlines the requirements and then applies for it.  

Pharaoh accepts everything Joseph has proposed and moves beyond it.  Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name, Egyptian clothes and an Egyptian wife.  All the fatherly duties that are absent in Joseph’s life.  Pharaoh has created more than an allyship with Joseph, he is creating a familial bond.  The Pharaohs of Egypt were brilliant strategists.

Years later, Jacob, Joseph’s father, will eventually reunite with Joseph.  Through the entire emotional text of their reunification, and their subsequent years together, we anxiously await the moment when Joseph tells his father what all the brothers did to him.  Surely, Jacob must have wondered how Joseph got to Egypt, but he never asks.  The moment never arrives, Joseph never tells Jacob of the betrayal at the hands of his brothers.  Moments of truth can be devastating and damaging beyond repair.  Judaism compromises the moment of truth in favour of peace in the family, in favour of peace in general.

So we navigate our lives today, and we know that we will get COVID under control and come out the other end of this.  Many people will be looking for jobs that have been lost, and many families will have shaped new and powerful values that will continue to stabilize them.  But right now, we know that these are challenging times, and the cracks are starting to show.

Remembering to learn from every person, we should keep Joseph in our thoughts and his understanding of using words to create opportunities and bonds while shying away from the words that convey unnecessary hard truths.

Whether in an elevator, or walking on the street, greeting a stranger with wishes of health and strength is perhaps the truer Jewish moment of how we roll.

Rachael is taking a vacation until January 3rd. She looks forward to sharing her next blog with you on Friday, January 8th, 2021. In the meantime, we invite you to join Rachael for a lecture presented by Kolot Mayim Reform Temple on Sunday January 3rd – Mussar & Tikkun Olam: Is There a Commandment to Build Bridges. All of the information can be found here.

Parshat Vayishlach: Because Angels Don’t Fight Fair

Parshat Vayishlach: Because Angels Don’t Fight Fair

As a music student in Israel I would often be seconded to different communities to teach music to school children. One school in particular placed me in a town where my father’s cousin lived, someone I came to know well and would often stay with during my placement. My cousin was a wonderful man with a family of grown daughters, and he would proudly mention (often) that he had married them all off and got them out of the house. He told me not to worry, he would find someone for me too.  

Whenever I was there, he would mention the new person he found for me.  The first time he said I don’t need to worry about looking good, since this prospective groom doesn’t really see very well. If I want him to see me at all, I should always stand at a 35 degree angle from his nose.  A few minutes later he’d add that it’s ok if I don’t like to dance, since this prospective groom has one leg significantly shorter than the other, and did he mention that the prospective groom has a hump on one side which blocks all peripheral vision so I would have to drive?  Yes, he’d say, the prospective groom is very tall, but the hunch in his back brings him to slightly shorter than me, so we’re well matched.  The longer I visited, the more physically complex the prospective groom became.  

Needless to say, there was no such person, no such prospective groom.  As the months went by, I enjoyed the humour of it and greatly increased my Hebrew vocabulary for malfunctioning body parts.  He’d always ask me if I had any scars he should tell the groom about and I’d always say no.

But I do have scars.  Many from childhood mishaps of exploring the world – a nail in my knee, a cat scratch on my wrist, a glass breaking while I was washing it –all the usual mishaps that leave the lessons learned on our bodies.  I don’t introduce myself to anyone by pointing out my scars, they’re personal.

So, how is it that the Torah portion this week tells us to commemorate a scar?

In this week’s parshah, Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an angel.  It is the night before he is hoping to reconcile with his estranged twin brother, Esau.  Jacob is alone with his thoughts and worries of the day to come.  The last time he saw his brother was when he tricked Isaac, their father, into giving him the covenantal blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau.  As a result, Esau vowed to kill Jacob and the family broke apart.  The night before they face each other again, decades later, Jacob is alone with a strange man, and they wrestle.

We find out the man he is wrestling is an angel, and Jacob grabs him in order to force a blessing.  The blessing he receives is a name change, from Jacob to ‘Israel’, and the blessing involved is the explanation that Jacob (and those who bear the new name ‘Israel’) will struggle with people, and with God, but they will sustain and prevail.  It’s a beautiful blessing, and certainly one that enters the national consciousness of being Jewish.  But the Torah goes on to note that the angel grabbed Jacob’s sciatic nerve, causing Jacob to let him go and injuring Jacob in the process. From then on Jacob will walk with a limp–angels don’t always fight fair.

Despite Jacob’s name change to ‘Israel’ the Torah will continue to call him Jacob.  He will waiver between these two names so, in fact, the name change is truly an augment rather than an actual change.  At times he is ‘Jacob’ and other times he is ‘Israel’.  There is no permanence to his name.  In fact, at times the Jewish nation that bears his name is called ‘Beit Yaakov’ (House of Jacob) and other times we are called ‘Israel’.  However, something permanent results from this angel encounter, but it’s not the use of the name ‘Israel’.  The singular thing that the Torah tells us to always definitively do from then on is to never eat any meat that has the sciatic nerve in it, the hindquarters, because that’s where Jacob was injured.

Filet mignon and T-bone steaks are not sold in kosher butcheries because they have not removed the sciatic nerve, not because the meat itself is not kosher.  The Torah has commanded us to always remember the wound, always honour the scar.  That particular scar resulted from an angel hitting Jacob’s weak point.

Yet, most importantly, we are told only once that Jacob limps, it is of no significance moving forward.  He remains powerful, effective, in control, and he thrives.  The scar becomes personal, and informs rather than impedes.

Jewish resilience has always understood that covenant never promises we won’t be hurt, it promises we’ll endure.  The province of Quebec recently decided that although Covid is spiking with unprecedented numbers there, it is permissible for families to gather over several days to celebrate Christmas.  When asked about Jewish families gathering for Hannukah, the Quebec government said no, only Christmas gatherings are allowed.  Similarly, I know someone who spent over a year sitting on a university’s Council for Equity & Inclusion trying to convince them that although many Jews may be white, they are still a minority group to be considered in decisions of equity.  They weren’t successful.

The Torah wisely told us that we come out of struggles with scars that don’t fade because they always continue to inform.  They are the marks of endurance–the blessing of Israel.  If we mistakenly believe that the back of a kosher animal is not kosher, we have missed the point that the entire animal is kosher yet we refrain from eating the sciatic nerve because we honour the scar.  Scars do not only mark an injury, they are in and of themselves the stronger skin that forms through the healing. 

Whether your scars are visible, or not, they still exist–we all carry them. We can either see them as a permanent mark of an injury, or honour them as the reminders of endurance that they are.

Interested in more stories about Angels? Wondering if they have rules they live by? Join Rachael for a 4-week shiur course – Am I Ever Without My Angel? Getting to Know Our Celestial Siblings begins Wednesday, January 20th from 7:30-8:30pm ET. Click here for more info!

Parshat Vayetzei: The Crown of a Good Name

Parshat Vayetzei: The Crown of a Good Name

Recently, my nephew and his wife had a baby, and we are all looking forward to zooming together to find out the new baby’s name.  Judaism is very sensitive about the names we give our children.  In this part of the world, our babies will usually get an ‘inside name’, the Hebrew one, and an ‘outside name’, the English one.  Often, they are not translations of each other or even referring to the same namesake.  Sometimes the Hebrew name speaks of family ancestry and tradition, and the English name speaks of what the culture around us accepts as a name that blends.  But in Judaism, names are essence…and so we agonize.

I am named after two of my great-grandmothers, both from my mother’s side –it was her turn to name.  I know it was my mother’s turn to name the baby (me) because my older sister has names that come from my father’s side.  My grandmother used to call me her ‘imaleh ketana’ (her little mother) and always follow it up by reminding me that I was named after her mother, so that made me her little mother.  It’s beautiful now, it was confusing then.  It prompted me to ask my grandmother about her mother and so it opened the door to learn  more about  my namesake.  But my grandfather never told me about his life growing up, and so I didn’t have the opportunity to ask him about his mother (my middle name).  She remains a mystery within my identity.

We learn from Genesis that every new creation was not completed until it was named. Adam names the animals (beginning humanity’s partnership with God in completing the creation vision).  There’s a great midrash that asks how Adam knew to name the elephant ‘elephant’, he said he called it that because it looked like an elephant (oh to be a fly in the Garden when all this was going on…), and so we learn that our names complete our births.  The names we are given will mold our essence and begin a dialogue with God about our destinies.  That’s why we agonize.

If someone falls on hard times or is challenged with illness, one of the Jewish choices is to add a name that will bring strength and healing with it.  In very extreme cases we could consider a name change, though we’d rather expand the dialogue and add a name than begin from scratch and change the name.  

It is also traditional to name babies in memory of someone from the past.  Usually, the baby would bear the name of an admired family member, or someone we dearly loved, or a Jewish leader we felt was unique.  In part, this is to keep the memory of that person alive in this world since it will now be carried into the future by a new person.  Also, we believe that since souls are eternal, the soul of the departed loved one will bond with the soul of the newborn, giving it insight and strength.  By naming a baby this way, we believe we have created a blessing that will inform the essence of the baby throughout its life.

In fact, rabbis have commented on the fact that the numerological sum of the word ‘name’ in Hebrew (‘shem’) is the same as the numerological sum of the word ‘book’ (sefer). They both equal 340.  In other words, every name is the beginning of a book to be written and edited and expanded on by it’s writer, the person who bears the name (now embodying those who bore that name in the past).  In Kohelet Rabbah, we are told that every person bears three names: the one his parents give him, the one other people call him, and the one he creates for himself.   Our book is created for us when we are born and is named for us when we are named.  It becomes the story of the name we all create for ourselves.

As beautiful as all this sounds, it can also lead us to dark places.  In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Vayetzei, Jacob, Leah and Rachel are building their family.  The children who will head the tribes of Israel are born and named.  Leah bears the first sons and names them Reuven, Shimon and Levi.  She explains that the names mean: Reuven – God saw my pain, Shimon – God heard my affliction, and Levi – maybe now my husband will accompany me.  I can’t imagine an outing with this young family to the park as Leah calls out: ‘God heard my pain’, go get your brother ‘God saw my affliction’, time to go home!

As the family grows, more and more brothers are added, whose names represent the problems of their parents.  It is of no great surprise that these boys will grow up and plot to kill a despised brother, Joseph.  Knowing their names, what else did we think they would do?

But, as the years passed, these boys, now men, wrote different ‘books’ of themselves.  Each one stood before Joseph in Egypt as a distinct individual with a distinct voice.  The tribes that come from them will likewise each develop its own culture and its own identity within Israel.  We will become a people of diversity, rich with a past that strengthens us, and unwritten books to fill.

Mazel tov to Eric, Michelle, Adina and the whole family on the birth of their new baby – I can’t wait to hear her name.

“Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

Parshat Toldot: “Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

This week, in one of my online classes, we had a fascinating discussion about Judaism and multiple truths.  In Judaism, we have many debates about whether there is such a thing as absolute truth, or can various truths co-exist without having to determine which is…truly true?

It’s actually difficult to mount a Jewish argument for absolute truth, since our ancient texts clearly describe revelation at Sinai, our Jewish defining event, as one where 600,000 people gathered and heard 600,000 different things — all of them the result of the same revelation experience.  Text after text tells us that absolutes could only apply to God, the human domain is a space of relativity.

To take it even further, the ‘truth’ of a moment is usually decided by the authority in charge, and not the actual truth that might be proved.   As an educator, I learned of a case where a high school English teacher put a poem on the final exam.  The students were asked to write an essay on the central theme expressed.  One student wrote an essay that was returned with a barely passing grade and the teacher commented that although they had discussed a theme, it was not the central theme.  The student wrote to the author of the poem and included the exam question, their answer, and the teacher’s response.  The author supported the student’s reading of the central theme.  When all this was brought back to the school for evaluation, the school decision backed the teacher and dismissed the author.  The ‘true’ answer was what the teacher had taught in class, not the author’s stated truth about the poem.

Once I learned of that incident, any time my kids would ask me a question about their homework, I would always begin my answer by saying: ‘are you asking me this because you’re wondering about it, or are you asking me because you’re studying for a test?’  I felt it important to teach my kids that truth has a context.

Over the years, my kids have brought multiple truths to my attention as they encounter them on social media.  By multiple truths, my family has included what Neils Bohr (famous Jewish Nobel Prize winning physicist) observed: “Sometimes the opposite of a fundamental truth is another fundamental truth”.  (It helps when scientists echo what ancient Jewish texts have said all along…but I digress.)  Social media has fun challenges about multiple truths.  For instance, the famous ‘is it blue or is it gold’ dress:

Some people genuinely see this as a white dress with gold, while others genuinely see a blue dress.  Apparently, they’re both correct.

Or, for the math lovers among us:

Due to the order of operations, there is legitimately more than one answer to the equation.

But I’m not referring to misunderstandings, like this one:

  • though you can’t help but love the student who does that…

Nor am I referring to a ‘made-up truth’ that is the result of denial, like every toddler who blames their sibling for the spilled juice, even though all siblings are at school at the moment…

Jewish multiple truths refers to the honest perception a person has of what they consider the truth, which is then offered in the open arena of Jewish discussion so others can expand their thinking of what they thought was their truth.  Multiple truth encourages humility within us, since everything I think I believe is now open for listening to someone else’s view — it might also be true.  

In fact, there are so many examples of this in Torah, it’s a challenge to list them.  Several of them occur in this week’s parshah, Toldot.  One of the main instances of multiple truth surrounded Rebecca and Isaac in how they built their family.

Rebecca is pregnant but feels something is wrong — too much activity in her womb.  She seeks an answer from God and is told that what she is feeling is two nations that are struggling within her.  She is also told that the elder will serve the younger.  She trusts this answer completely, to the point that after her children have grown, she will actively deceive her husband so that the younger one (Jacob) gets the covenantal blessing.  Total trust in God, no questions asked.

Isaac, however, has a different experience of the world.  The Torah says that he has bonded to his son Esau because Esau is a hunter (Jacob makes vegetarian soups).  It makes perfect sense that Isaac bonds to the son who hunts, the son who uses a knife to provide food for him.  It’s not a coincidence that Issac, whose father Abraham placed a knife to young Isaac’s throat years before…on God’s orders…now bonds with his son who uses a knife to protect and provide.  What was a threat from his father is now the security from the son.  

It’s also not a coincidence that Isaac barely ever speaks to God and God mostly leaves Isaac alone.  According to Isaac’s world view, the relationship with God could turn on a dime, so best not to open too many doors.

Rebecca and Isaac are married and are the second generation of Matriarch and Patriarch.  One trusts God fully and gives herself over to that truth, while the other backs away and bonds with the non-covenantal son.  Both their truths are correct.

There is a beautiful midrash that discusses how before God created humanity, God threw Truth to the earth where it shattered into infinite shards.  After humanity is created, each person embodies within them one of the shards of truth, and together, when we listen, we reveal more and more, and grow.  We discuss and debate so we can combine shards of truth and learn of a greater picture.

As the Jewish people, we are a diversity of view and opinion which each of us believes is truly what Judaism means to us.  We learned this approach at Sinai, and we celebrate it as foundational.  

As one rabbi put it: Just because I’m right doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Two old men are sitting on a park bench together one afternoon watching the people walking by (stop me if you’ve heard this one).  A group of young girls stroll by chatting.  One old man leans to the other and says ‘I can’t believe how short their skirts are, you can see everything, including their pupiks!’  The second man turns to his friend and says, ‘I agree! What a bracha…I mean a broch!’

For non-Yiddish speakers, the punchline is the second man saying ‘what a blessing…I mean a disaster!’

As much as we believe that a blessing would be a universal thing, the truth is that blessings are usually quite subjective.  They are layered with assumptions and expectations that we then project onto each other almost without thinking.  When I was growing up, if I was at a wedding it would be only polite for women to wish single women ‘Mirtzem bi-you’, (God willing this should happen to you).  The assumption is that every woman would want to be married and that single women should not feel envious of the bride because we have prayed that God should make her a bride soon.  We don’t say that so much anymore, I hope that’s because we have understood that blessings have the power to communicate more than we intended.

Judaism views blessings as double edged swords.  The very general, non-specific ones are great.  We bless each other with happiness and long life.  I have had occasions to sit with family members discussing insurance policies a few times over the years.  Most of those occasions involved insurance agents who were Jewish (once it was a friend of ours who is a Lubavitch Rabbi).  The conversation took much longer than it needed to.  Life insurance discussions would always involve following any example with ‘you should live to 120’; disability insurance policies were explained with every other sentence being ‘you shouldn’t know from this, not you, not your family, not anyone we know’.  After signing the policy with our friend, the Lubavitch Rabbi, he reminded us that he is also a sofer (scribe) and set aside time to check all our mezuzahs.  Once, I sat in such a meeting with a non-Jewish insurance agent —I couldn’t do it.  I kept wanting to say ‘God should keep us all safe and healthy (amen)’.  

Blessings are powerful and empowering moments we offer each other, but we’re not often taught how to do that.  When someone sneezes, we may offer the traditional ‘God bless you’.  Historically, that is not because we are worried the sneeze indicated they were getting sick, but because during the instant of sneezing they were left unaware and that’s when Satan can enter the soul.  We protect them by invoking God’s name.  The Hebrew sneeze response, ‘livriyut’, means ‘to health’, more of a Jewish response —the offer of a blessing.  Even when we say goodbye to each other, most of us forget that the word ‘goodbye’ is a short form for the original phrase ‘God be with ye’, the blessing we offered each other before departing and encountering danger on the roads (God forbid).  In Yiddish, the traditional parting phrase is ‘zei gezunt’, ‘be healthy’ —another blessing offered to each other.

While we all exchange and feel positively about the general blessings we offer each other, the specific ones are when it can get tricky.  Offering the blessing of an upcoming marriage to a single woman assumes she would want that for herself; offering the blessing of children to a woman who has suffered a recent miscarriage is well intentioned but often times painful to the recipient.  There is an art to crafting a blessing, but most of us are not taught the technique.

In this week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah, the upcoming matriarch, Rebecca, has chosen to leave her home, her family, and marry Isaac, sight unseen.  Her family offers her a blessing: “May you become (the mother of) hundreds of thousands and may your seed inherit the gates of their enemies.”  It’s a beautiful blessing, who wouldn’t want hordes of descendants and to inherit gates of enemies?  If I inherit their gates, it means I outlived them.  I didn’t have to battle them, I simply endured longer than they did —I waited them out.  What could be the problem?

The midrash points out that this blessing is a double edged sword.  For me to inherit the gates of my enemies, I must accept the inheritance and claim their cities.  What if they don’t live near me?  What if I don’t want what they had?  What if their things are a constant reminder to me of the suffering experienced at their hands?  What if I want to close that chapter, feel relieved that they’re gone, and never have to think of them again?  Why would I want their past constantly in my present and speaking into my future?  What if I don’t think it’s a blessing?

Then the midrash points out that these sentiments were also expressed to the patriarch, Isaac.  Now what has been offered to Rebecca is her own legacy of blessing to bring to her marriage.  She will not fulfill her future by trying to find ways to enter the blessings of Isaac.  That’s what happened to Sarah, that’s how Abraham ended up with Hagar, fathering Ishmael.  

Between the first generation of ancestry and the second generation, we watch the balance of blessings be introduced between patriarch and matriarch.  The blessing sits in the balance.

It’s not so easy to bless each other.  We must always be careful of nuance, personal preferences and the appropriate opportunities to offer someone our most heartfelt prayer of something beautiful.  We’ll never learn the skill if we don’t take a risk and start offering a blessing to each other.

May we all stay healthy and well, and may God bring wisdom to those seeking cures and vaccines.  Amen.

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