Please Don’t Pass Me Your Torah

We’ve celebrated Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the midst of Covid 19, which means a Jewish cycle of pilgrimage festivals is now complete.  At this point, it’s fair to conclude that, Jewishly speaking, we can handle what lies ahead since we’ve already managed our Jewish touchstone holidays.  With that said, I can’t help but approach Simchat Torah with some nostalgia of years gone by, dancing with Torah scrolls, singing and dancing for hours as a teenager, and sitting on my father’s shoulders as a child.

I remember getting excited about Simchat Torah in elementary school when we made Israeli flags with blue construction paper cut into strips.  We had sticks and Elmer’s glue globbed onto paper in front of us while beautiful images of Stars of David danced in my head as I imagined my perfect Israeli flag.  I dipped my fingers in the glue, tried to handle strips of construction paper that stuck to itself, my fingers, and my clothes.  My construction paper strips had developed free will, and in the end, Picasso would have been proud of my interpretive flag.   With my blue stained fingers, I could now choose an apple to stick onto the top of my flag, rush home, eat, change into my ‘shul’ clothes and go to shul for chaotic singing, dancing, and getting hoisted onto the shoulders of men as I waved my flag and watched the apple on top of it shoot across the room.  Those were the days!

As I got older, I joined ‘the cause’ with my teenage friends to solicit and lobby for a Torah to be brought to the women’s section so we could celebrate and sing and dance with a Torah in our midst (on reflection, there were less flags and apples stuck on them at this stage).  As a young woman, I remember participating in a celebration where ‘the cause’ had been embraced and advanced —now a Torah scroll was thrust into my arms and I was told to walk a circuit around the shul with it.  I was shocked, I was honoured, I was intrigued and then within 3 minutes I was terrified.  Never in my life had it ever occurred to me that TORAH SCROLLS ARE INCREDIBLY HEAVY!!

I remember learning that the parchment used for a Torah scroll is made from the skin of a goat, cattle or deer, and I was moved by the symbolic weaving of nature into Judaism.  But I had never actually touched or held one.  Perfect example of how flawed knowledge can be without the benefit of experience.

And so, there I am, holding my first Torah scroll, and trying to remind myself I am actually holding the embodiment of the history and values I hold so dear.  I fought back the tiny voice in my head that kept telling me I’m holding a goat.

I began to walk around the shul with the other Torah people when I felt the scroll begin to slide downwards in my arms.  Terror set in as I became more and more convinced I might drop it (oh, God, all those details I learned about what the whole congregation has to do if someone drops a Torah scroll —it’s not pleasant!  No problem, I thought, everyone will be very forgiving of a woman dropping a Torah and the whole congregation repenting for it…no problem, I’ll just worry about a new identity when I get to Europe).  With every step I took, the Torah inched lower.  All I could think was that I am walking around carrying a goat and it wants to roam free.  I managed to hang on as I completed the circuit and (gratefully) passed the Torah to the next person.  At that point it was at my knees.  

I have faced the hard reality that I am not a ‘Torah carrier’, it is not safe in my hands, I should not be trusted to hold it, please don’t pass me your Torah.  But that is just my personal moment of understanding what the history of Simchat Torah has taught us on a national level.

There was an ancient tradition that lit torches and candles be carried on Simchat Torah, and used to escort anyone reading from the Torah during the celebrations.  But, after a few hundred years, rabbis didn’t feel comfortable that it’s a Jewish holiday when we can’t ignite or extinguish fires, and yet people are carrying torches.  Obviously, the answer was to give the lit torches to children who don’t have obligations to the commandments yet…it didn’t take long to see the flaw in that solution, and so torches were no longer used.

What’s even more interesting is how the tradition of putting the apples on the flags developed.  Ancient texts tell us that we used to ‘lob’ apples at each other during Simchat Torah as a way to offer sweet treats that are associated with Torah.  The intention was to gently, oh so gingerly, lob the apples so children could catch them or collect them later.  Apparently, it got out of hand and we started pelting apples at each other.  Dare I say, it became a form of apple dodgeball until some time in the 13th century when it was disallowed by the rabbinic authority of the time.  Apples, if used, must now be secured to other things so no one gets any ideas of ‘holier than thou’ apple fights.

Simchat Torah is the holiday when we physically celebrate with our Torah scrolls and commit ourselves to new insights in our Torah studies.  This year, we cannot gather in our large groups to sing and dance in close proximity or to pass Torah scrolls to each other.  But that reality doesn’t change anything.  The celebration of Torah continues and at these moments I rely on Jewish peoplehood.  I am not a Torah carrier but I know many other Jews are.  Many Jewish families have Torah scrolls of their own which will be used on Simchat Torah and danced with in their homes.  I believe they include me in their intentions of joy and celebration as I intend to include others in my joy and celebration of Torah values.

Throughout Jewish history we have actively changed how we celebrate Simchat Torah when we realized safety was an issue.  We no longer throw apples at each other when we gather and I, personally, will always ‘pass’ if a Torah is again offered for me to carry.  It is the model of a Jewish holiday that shifts in its practice to accommodate the reality of the times.  

Given everything we’ve been through in the last year, I think we can confidently say, ‘we got this one’.

Sometimes It Really Is Me

There are definitely moments in life when we all ask ourselves ‘is it me?’  When suddenly everything seems to go wrong, every word is misunderstood, every gesture is taken in the wrong way –we have to ask ourselves, ‘is it me?’

Personally, I try to notice patterns and trends in my life and when I end up asking myself if it’s me, the answer is usually ‘yes.’  I can easily be well in control of how I present myself or just as easily wear my shirt (or dress) inside out and be unaware.  There are times I have tried on clothes in the store and couldn’t quite figure out how the straps are supposed to work.  When I emerged from the change room, the saleswoman remarked on how creative I was by wearing it that way.  She thought it was great, I felt ridiculous and stood at a crossroads.  Do I say ‘thank you’ or do I ask her how it should be worn?  Is there a set and prescribed way to do everything? Are accidents welcomed or is every accident, in fact, an authentic expression of who we are and how we think?  If so, of course we would get that particular thing wrong.  I once had a fashion expert tell me that I dress the way I do because I live inside my head.  I’m not sure how anyone would not live inside their heads…can’t get my head around that…so, indeed, it’s me.

I think about that question of having things go wrong in our lives, seemingly in waves of recurrence, and the things we try to do ‘correctly’ and then can’t.  The beauty of it is that we’re all in the same boat –it happens to all of us.  In fact, it’s part of the human condition and therefore timeless and so we find it central to the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiates, the book we are to read on the holiday of Sukkot.

One of the names for Sukkot is ‘Chag Ha’Asif’, the Holiday of the Gathering, clearly referring to the harvest that is part of the holiday.  Interestingly, the word Kohelet translates as ‘The Gatherer’, and is the way Solomon refers to himself as the narrator.  It starts with a famous verse everyone has heard (and then sighs): “Vanity of vanity, all is in vain”, the classic Biblical citation for ‘whatever’ or ‘why bother’ or ‘if I’m only going to sleep in my bed again tonight, why should I bother making it in the morning?’  Kohelet continues by concluding over and over “there is nothing new under the sun”…(sigh).

Because we understand “all is in vain” as the concluding statement, the tone of the book becomes very depressing and sad.  If nothing I do matters, if it’s all in vain anyway, why do I bother to invest myself?   But, what if it weren’t the conclusion but the introduction?

The word being repeated in Hebrew, translated as ‘vanity’, is the word ‘hevel’ (“hevel havalim, hakol hevel”).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first time we see this word is in Genesis, it is the name of Eve’s second child: Abel (Hevel).  Abel is killed by his brother Cain, for no good reason and with no formed intent to harm.  It is the first death in the Torah, the first victim, the first broken human being.  What if Kohelet is saying that our starting point in life is to recognize we are all Abel (“hakol hevel”) –we have all been hurt, we have all felt broken and we have all had moments when someone we loved wounded us deeply even though they didn’t intend to.  It is not where we all arrive, it is where we all start.

Sharing instances of human frailty connect us and can produce some of our most powerful steps forward, or we conclude we are weak and therefore a life is lived in vain.  It is not the conclusion that the book is presenting, it is the challenge.

So why would we read it on Sukkot?  Another name for Sukkot (yes, it is the holiday with a whole list of names) is ‘Zman Simchatainu’, ‘the Time of Our Joy’.  Interestingly, the book of Kohelet concludes by saying that if there is nothing new under the sun, what is the point?  The point is to live a life where we find joy from within what already exists.  The change lies within us, not around us.  Now it makes perfect sense that we would read Kohelet during Sukkot.  In the moments when I conclude that, in fact, the problem is me, why can’t I figure out how simple straps on a dress should work?  Why have my children appointed one of them to look me over before any public lecture (check list of what shouldn’t be tucked into what and that clothes are right side in and price tags are gone) –it is who I am, there will be nothing new under the sun.  The things that are in vain are the moments we could waste by not recognizing we all get things wrong.  Sometimes it’s major, sometimes it’s minor, sometimes we hurt ourselves and sometimes we hurt others when we only meant to have a good day.  We are all Abel and then Sukkot reminds us to listen to the end of Kohelet: now find the joy!

Parshat Nitzavim: It’s My Song To Sing

A few years ago, I decided to get adventurous with my cooking and bought cedar planks for fancy salmon cooking.  The planks needed to be soaked in water for some time before using them and so I carefully put them to soak overnight.  I realized, when I got into bed, that I had not told my husband there were cedar planks soaking in the kitchen, and since the next day was garbage day – without question those cedar planks were going to end up in the recycle bin and my dream of cedar infused salmon filets was over.  I woke my husband and mentioned that there’s wood soaking in the kitchen, it shouldn’t be thrown out.  He said ok.  I asked if he heard me, he said ok.  I asked if he could tell me what I just told him…he said ok.  I decided to catch him in the morning before any damage was done.

The next morning, I woke up and mentioned the cedar planks to him once I saw he was truly awake.  He told me he didn’t know what they were and had already taken out the recycling, but he was happy to retrieve them, since nothing gets picked up for about an hour.  I got dressed, went downstairs and saw the wood was not back in the kitchen, my husband was having coffee and I could hear the recycle truck approaching on our street.  I quickly shouted, ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and my husband immediately put his coffee down, jumped up, ran out the door and saved them.  What I didn’t notice was my teenage daughter was in the room watching this happen.  As my husband ran out of the house, she looked at me and shouted, ‘What the hell does that mean?!?  Should I drop and roll???  What just happened?!’  I later heard her telling her siblings: ‘I can’t explain it.  Mum walked into the room and yelled ‘cedar planks’ and papa dropped everything and ran out of the house –it made perfect sense to them.  Actually happened, I couldn’t make this stuff up.’

The phrase has now entered our family lexicon.  When something is pressing and needs immediate attention, we just raise our voice and proclaim ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and we stop what we’re doing to listen and attend.  It makes perfect sense to us…it also looks strangely quixotic to anyone else.

Every family has their vocabulary of experiences that create phrases that are meaningful to them and opaque to anyone else.  The explanations won’t work, it is the result of shared experience.

As Jews, we have done the same thing by creating the shared experience vocabulary of a people.  ‘Rosh Hashannah is so early this year’ is meaningful to a Jew but to someone who does not share the experience it is a confusing statement – how is it early or late if it’s a calendar event?  ‘Seder madness’, ‘Pesach politics’, ‘being Jew-ish’, ‘being a mensch’, ‘raising a l’chaim’, are all examples of phrases that have immediate meaning and can’t really be fully explained with their nuances. 

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Nitzavim, is Moses knowing his final moments are imminent.  He is sounding more desperate in an effort to make sure Israel can handle what is coming.  He repeats, in various ways, that if Israel strays from God, nothing good will result.  It doesn’t matter how many times the people assure him they got the message, he will repeat it nonetheless, with increasing images of doom and destruction.  If they don’t see the sense of the matter, maybe fear will protect them.

Then Moses tells the people that two paths lie before them: life and death.  We are commanded to choose life (interesting that it’s a commandment, which means it needs intention and action).  Toward the end of his message, Moses refers to the song that he is writing and that everyone must learn the song and teach it to their children.  The song must be in their mouths and always available and meaningful.  Moses writes it, teaches it and beseeches everyone to sing it and teach it for shared singing.  The song is to keep us united and protect each other.

The ‘song’ is understood by the Sages to be the Torah.  We study it so it can become second nature for us.  We teach it to our children so it will stabilize them.  It is poetic and melodious and joyful.  The song is the place we all meet and recognize, how sad if we turn it into the place of judgment and discord. 

The High Holidays are approaching quickly, and we might not all be sitting together in our shuls as we have in years gone by. But wherever we are, we know that we can share the same song and it will always speak to us in that Jewish moment.  This year, my kids will be blowing shofars in my yard and for me that is part of my Jewish song.  It connects with the songs I’ve inherited and the ones I’ve created.  It is a call to history, to repentance, a pull on my heart with the immediacy of the day.  It is my personal ‘cedar planks!’

Parshat Ki Teitzei: Is It Really Blowing in the Wind?

The world is now functioning online in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few months ago.  Work, school, shopping, entertainment, social encounters and shul are now part of our online existences.  It’s been an incredible learning curve for me.  When I first started shopping online, I allowed the ‘shopper’ to make replacements to food items that were out of stock.  I ended up with several non-kosher products my family couldn’t eat, and so began the weekly bag of food that I gave to my neighbour, the Anglican minister.  I shopped for clothes that weren’t exactly what I thought, patio furniture that never arrived, electronics that glitched and television channel subscriptions that I forgot would renew after the two week trial period.  I started to build my Facebook page for online social interactions, but once my friends group grew, I became too intimidated to actually post anything.  Online living has become the country I now live in, never having planned the trip.

I remember first learning of what ‘online’ meant through music sharing and something called Napster (for those of you who remember what that is, I don’t need to explain, for everyone too young to know about it, essentially we got to look at other people’s playlists and download anything they had that we wanted -it was a world where everyone was innocent and didn’t feel they were violated by you having access into my private computer files…we have since learned better).  At first, it didn’t occur to the average person that we were all infringing on copyright laws.  Then it didn’t occur to us that the artists who created all that wonderful music would never be paid for their genius.  When all these issues came out, the argument I kept hearing was that ‘if it’s in the air, it’s free.’  Radio waves, actually, any waves, once put into the air shouldn’t belong to anyone, so technically I can grab what I want out of the air.  I mean, how can you license the right to use air?

Napster was sued, people were charged, education took place and we understood that online still has protocols, legalities and decency of ownership and acknowledgments.  

We used to think the same thing about water.  When I was growing up, only science fiction described a world where people would pay money for water.  It comes from the ground, or falls from the sky, why would we pay for that?  If it’s in the air, it’s free.  Does a country own the air above it?  If so, how far up?  At what point is it outer space and ownerless?  Who decided how far a country’s border rights extend into the oceans?  If we call it ‘international waters’ does that mean all nations own it or no nations own it?

It’s a tricky concept, the idea of understanding how ownership and economics can play into the natural world we all need and share.  We’re still trying to figure it out, while the Torah introduces a perspective on all this that is unique in its understanding of nuance and human bond.

In this week’s portion, Parshat Ki Teitzei, the Torah discusses what a labourer is entitled to, in terms of ‘eating on the job’.  When someone is working in the fields of a landowner, the worker is entitled to eat the raw produce from the land, but cannot take any of it home.  In other words, until the produce of the land begins its economic journey (wheat being milled or olives being pressed, etc.), it is part of what the land gives the world and therefore the worker is entitled to share.  Once it begins its transformation into processed goods for market, it now becomes a commodity, owned by the corporate owner.

The picture in the Torah is one of ownership and balance.  Some of us own things, some of us produce what others own, some of us sell what others produce and on and on.  At some point, we must all find a moment of equalization and participation in understanding that raw materials from the earth remind us that only God truly owns the world and we impact it with the permissions the Owner has granted.  The harvesters can eat from the grapes being harvested while they are in their hands (and it’s lunchtime so they do not take time they are paid for and compound it by eating the inventory – Mishnah’s got that one covered).  Workers should not be hungry while they collect food, but food that moves from the earth to the processing plant is now owned and must not be eaten by another.

The Torah tells us that working to feed others should not leave me poor and hungry, but those who hire me to work there should not be my family’s personal food bank.  There is a balance to be struck between what nature gives us, what we put into it and how we enjoy the benefit of it.

I don’t know if the world will ever return to its pre-online realities.  Will shopping ever look the same?  I hope, one day, we can sit together in a beautiful concert hall and enjoy the full body experience of an orchestra.  If we do, the music will fill us, the notes will float in the air for everyone sitting there to enjoy.  If I worked in that concert hall and helped bring about that reality, the Torah would absolutely allow me to pause in my work and enjoy the beauty of the sound, as it would also always prohibit me from recording it to take home —even if the last note resonates and hangs in the air.

Parshat Shoftim: The Torah, the King, the Horses and the Wives

This week my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary.  We shared a lovely dinner and talked about our memories, our kids, our life journeys, how we never imagined we would be together through a pandemic and how lucky we are that we like each other.  A relative posted one of our wedding pictures on social media with anniversary wishes —we look so young and innocent…and so well dressed.

I got my wedding gown from a wholesale factory in the garment district (apparently buying retail was simply not done back in the day).  I showed them the dress I wanted from a magazine, they took my measurements and told me I could pick up the dress two days before the wedding.  It all sounded good to me.  Once I had the dress I was told I now need shoes to go with it, a veil that matches, which of course needs the part that covers my face.  Once I have the veil worked out, I needed to decide on the headpiece for the veil…that would need to go with the dress… and the shoes… and the veil.  Now let’s talk flowers for the bouquet! I will be holding a bouquet that needs to go with the dress…and the shoes…and the veil…

The bridesmaids needed dresses and shoes and bouquets and all the bells and whistles.  Only problem was, anyone who knows me knows that I am not someone who enjoys getting involved in all these details —I was thrilled with showing the picture in the magazine, getting measured and picking up the dress just before I needed it.  I like simplicity that leads to simplicity.  Most of life never happens that way.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Israel is told about what happens when the nation decides it wants a king.  There are particular laws in place to describe what the king can’t do.  First and foremost, the king can never be a foreigner and must always be accountable to the same laws of Torah that defines the people.  In fact, the king must write his own Torah scroll so he has shaped every word, every sentence.  Interestingly, the king is prohibited from taking too many horses and too many wives.

Of all things to prohibit, horses and wives aren’t what instantly come to mind.  But when we pull back for the bigger picture, we realize the brilliance of the prohibition and the definition it provides.  Heads of government who work efficiently, quickly understand that you do not waste resources.  If I have horses, I need chariots; if I have chariots, I need warriors to drive them; if I have horses, chariots and warriors, I need campaigns to engage them.  Armed campaigns build territory and territory acquisition builds empires.  Limit the horses and you limit your army which will limit your expansion toward empire.  In other words, thrive in Israel but don’t let a king become an empire builder, that’s not what covenant is about.

Similarly, kings take wives to build political alliances and not because they are in true romantic love with each wife and build personal relationships with them.  Each wife is an alliance with her family, her nation and her king.  Wives are political chess pieces.  The more wives, the more alliances, the more strategic complexity for when you expand your territory (all those horses) and build your empire.

When we think of Jewish leadership, as described in this week’s parshah, we understand that the details in the Torah speak of the vision and its definition, and they are now essential to the picture.  Covenant details the Jewish relationship with the land of Israel and the society we build there.  It also lets us know of the temptations and human inclination towards ego, grandeur and expansion.  Limit the horses, limit the wives and thrive.

Just before my wedding anniversary this year I took out my wedding gown and changed the hanger and garment bag.  There was a tag hanging on the inside I had never noticed before.  It was a handwritten note with numbers of some code dressmakers use to communicate something.  I was intrigued, I stared and turned myself inside out trying to decipher the code.  It suddenly hit me, these were the measurements they had taken of me all those years ago. I gasped…sat for a moment before looking in the mirror and had to laugh.  I realized that the dress needed the shoes and the veil to grow into the outfit that I would never fit into again and that my marriage had grown into my family that fits me so beautifully.  

The growth of something allows for the imagination to fly high with possibilities.  Most of us are empowered to reach beyond, personal growth should be limitless but a leader’s growth requires boundaries.  The Torah shows us that the balance within power sits in the defined limits that stop unimpeded growth before it starts.

Want to read more? Check out Rachael’s previous blog on Parshat Shoftim.

Parshat Eikev: I’m Sorry, Did You Say Wear These Boxes?

I’ve been thinking about tefillin this week.  Not just because it’s in this week’s parshah, Eikev, but more because it’s summer.  In Canada, summer is the season for cottages and camping —both have been challenging this year.  So I’ve spent some time remembering summers gone by and I keep coming back to one memory when one of my sons was invited to go camping with a school friend and his family.  The friend isn’t Jewish which raised some logistical questions for us.  My husband and I decided years ago that we wanted to teach our children how Judaism enhances their lives, not restricts it.  We decided we needed to raise them with increasing awareness of how to navigate a world that doesn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat or Jewish holidays.  We wanted them to learn where Jewish law is flexible, how it can be adhered to, while still developing relationships and having experiences in the world at large.  All was going well until the camping trip invitation.

I called the friend’s mother to ask about the food arrangements (perhaps the family is vegetarian?). She told me they camp by a lake and catch fish to eat.  She asked if that was ok and I mentioned that we’re Jewish, my son keeps kosher but he would know which fish he could eat so all should be fine. She didn’t know what kosher was, she’d heard the word, but so long as my son knew what to do, she was comfortable. Great opportunity for family education on ‘Jewish living in the wild’.  My family sat down and we went over the kosher fish identifiers (scales and fins) and refreshed on the difference (kosher wise) between hot and cold food, cooked or fresh, packaged or binned and some of the ins and outs we had taught the kids before. Everything was good to go.  We started packing for the trip and my son reached for his tefillin, which he put on every morning.  That’s when it hit me.  

I asked if his friend knows he puts tefillin on.  He said his friend wouldn’t know what tefillin is, so probably no.  He thought for a moment and then asked if it would be ok to walk away from the campsite to put his tefillin on so he wouldn’t look odd to his hosts.  I told him it would probably be ok, but if they asked why he was leaving the campsite he shouldn’t lie about it.  Then I pictured him in the woods putting tefillin on and I told him not to stand in front of a singular tree and pray, find a place with a few trees grouped together but remember to face east (some of the nuanced sensitivities Jewish law has about praying to a tree, didn’t have time to explain it all to him, too busy focussing on the food thing).  Also, don’t go too far from people because campsites always have bears nearby —any bear tracks nix the whole deal!  He asked what to say if they ask what he’s doing and he can’t lie.  I came up with a blank.  He could say he’s going to pray…in the woods…away from everyone…not too close to a tree…with a book and a velvet bag…no worries…not weird at all.

All this time I thought keeping kosher would always be the challenge and suddenly the food was easy, it was the tefillin.  We get so used to it, we forget how strange it can look to others.  I enjoy watching adolescents practice putting tefillin on.  Most often the arm straps are too tight and the skin bulges.  One wonderful moment involved a boy somehow ‘tefillining’ his arm to his head and searching for his father to untie him.  Beautiful moments of passage.

You can’t help but ask why the Torah would command us to do this, as it does in this week’s parshah.  We are to place ‘these words’ on our arms and between our eyes.  From that statement onward, we develop laws and practices of how and when and what.  According to Jewish law, every component of the tefillin has to be a product of nature, mostly animals.  Tefillin is symbolic of our partnership with God and so we turn to nature to see God’s Hand in it all.  But the boxes themselves, as well as some of the stitching, must be perfect squares.  Perfect squares don’t exist in nature —that’s entirely us.  And so the union of nature and perfect squares embodies the partnership between us and God woven together.

The configuration of tying the tefillin on the arm, and its placement on the head, spells out one of the names of God.  We are literally writing God’s Name on our bodies as we put on the tefillin.  The placement on the arm symbolizes restraining our physical might to never harm the partnership.  The placement ‘between the eyes’ puts the tefillin where the soft spot of our heads was when we were born.  The front fontanel, the soft part of the skull, only hardens in the first year of life.  It symbolizes the flexibility of our minds, our thoughts, our perspectives.  The tefillin knot at the back of the head lies on the smaller fontanel at the back of the skull that hardens between the ages of 2 and 3.  In other words,  I place the symbolic commitment of my partnership with God on the parts of my skull that remained flexible even after birth.

At one point, while putting on the tefillin, it is customary to quote the prophet Hosea: “I betroth you to me forever.  I betroth you to me in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and mercy.  I betroth you to me in faithfulness —and you shall know God.”  It’s the statement of intent and commitment that we would all want to hear from our intimate partners and, in turn, be able to pledge to them.

In today’s world, some people choose to tattoo the names of their lovers onto parts of their body.  Jewish law prohibits permanent tattoos, but the desire to ‘wear’ the identity of a loved one, to clothe ourselves with them, seems very primal.  The Torah has told us there is a ritual where we can ‘write’ the name of God on us, commit ourselves to the partnership, restrain our ability to harm it and always remember to be flexible within the partnership —it’s called tefillin.

 The strange looking, hard to explain, cherished right of Jewish passage that embodies the expressions of love, partnership and commitment we would all crave.  My son’s camping trip with his friend went really well.  The tefillin question never came up, they were too busy asking why the fish had to have scales AND fins.

Parshat Va’etchanan: If I Could Walk In Your Shoes I’d Have Bigger Feet

One of my daughters told me about a book club she recently organized.  She didn’t mean to organize it, it just ended up that way.  It wasn’t even her idea, it was the result of a friend telling her that isolation was getting to her and she couldn’t take any more virtual relationships —she needed “real.”  And so the idea of an actual book club, where people sit together (socially distanced) in one place (outside) and share thoughts on a book (since they are socially distanced, they will be sharing these thoughts with 4 neighbours who are also in their yards) was born.  

The idea was great, but within a few days, her friend told her she was having difficulty finding friends to bring.  All of her friends were busy reorganizing their lives, working from home, streaming media on their devices, too overwhelmed to commit to an actual meeting together once a month, or to pledge to finish reading the book.  My daughter (continuing to feel compassion for her friend who wants the “real” experience) found a friend who agreed to find more people. (She told me the second person she found is the sister of the first person since it was indeed a challenge to get someone to agree to an actual “real” obligation these days).  Soon, friends were finding friends and a book club was formed.  Everything went fine and just as they were getting ready to meet for the first time, one month away, the friend tells my daughter she’s not sure she can be there because she had to go to the United States for an important event and when she gets home she will have to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  My daughter reminded her that the book club has been organized for her.  The friend assured my daughter she could be there…virtually.  “Just plug in your laptop in the backyard and zoom me in,” said the friend.  

As my daughter was telling me this story I started laughing, at which point she told me that she’s not sure how she got into this position but she is now leading a book club (she didn’t want) with a friend, a ‘sister’ and multiples of people (she’d never met) hosting them in her backyard with a computer plugged in for all the neighbours to share in this “real” experience she suggested while trying to help a friend.  I couldn’t stop laughing, the only thought in my head was that this book club should come with only one rule: we never talk about book club (for anyone who’s seen the movie Fight Club, that rule will make sense —for anyone else —it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something to watch because you’re not currently in a book club.  If you’re in a book club, it’s also a good book).

Compassion and empathy for others can get all of us into a labyrinth of strategic planning and twists and turns that often lead us to places we never planned.  In fact, we often use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as if they are synonyms — they are not.  While Judaism acknowledges the nuances of difference with all of these terms, it doesn’t name them all, but it does show, by example, what the differences are.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who helps a colleague rise from his sickbed.  After a discussion on the advantages of suffering (which the sick person concludes isn’t worth the price), the rabbi extends his hand and leads his friend to health.  Soon after, another rabbi falls ill and the now recovered rabbi visits his sick friend.  They also explore the depths of suffering but now the sick rabbi is beginning to pull his friend into the realm of despair along with him.  His friend remembers how he was helped to health and so he asks the bedridden rabbi if there is value to this moment of suffering.  The sick rabbi responds that he doesn’t want this suffering and the friend extends his hand and leads his colleague to health.

Sympathy is when I feel bad for you, empathy is when I realize I have been in your place and I can help you.  The first is an emotion that churns within me, the second is my insight that leads me to act.  When we sympathize with each other, we can be pulled into the dark moments of those we are trying to help; when we empathize with each other, we can find ways out of the darkness together because one of us remembers the road out.

In this week’s parshah, Va’etchanan, Moses is pleading with God to be allowed to enter the land of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear his anguish and even more difficult to read that God has told Moses to stop asking for it —essentially telling Moses that this particular prayer will not be answered and it’s hurtful so the request must stop.  Sympathy for Moses will lead us further into our personal theological questions of our relationship with God.  It should lead us there.  But Moses goes on to teach empathy.

Moses immediately instructs Israel that they must always be kind to strangers because we must always remember we were strangers in Egypt (sympathy) and that God led us out of that predicament to freedom (empathy).  If I only feel compassion towards someone who is suffering, I have misunderstood the point of the full statement Moses made.  I have been the stranger, I have been the slave, I have been the victim who stands alone, so I can now recognize this predicament when I see it in someone else.  Because I have a model of how to be redeemed from that horror, I can extend my hand and lead the stranger out.  I am commanded to be empathetic toward someone and not to only feel sympathy for them.  Every time we are told we were strangers in Egypt, we are immediately told that God brought us out.  It is a full model of moving from sympathy to empathy.  It is the way things will change.

My daughter now leads a book club of strangers in her backyard.  I imagine them sitting together and sharing new perspectives, without the audio lag of an online portal.  It started with a friend reaching out to another friend and a way to share some new perspectives sitting with real people amidst a global pandemic.  The answer seemed simple: let’s read some books together.  

We’ve all had our moments lately where we are ‘done’ with Covid and not sure what to do.  We all sympathize with each other and think of the now popular government slogan to remember “we are all in this together”, which only reinforces that we are all sharing the predicament.  I think we’re ready to empathize with each other and find the insights to move from sharing the predicament to enjoying the next step.  I can’t help but think of a rabbi, two thousand years ago, who extended his hand to a colleague and said ‘I’ve been where you are, I can show you the way out.’

Parshat Pinchas: Both a Bang and a Whisper

There was once a Jewish bubbie who was standing with her little grandson by a beautiful seashore.  As they stood admiring the water, a huge wave came out of nowhere and carried her grandson into the ocean.  The woman turned her face to heaven and called out to God.  She screamed of the injustice of the moment and the cruelty of Divine Decree.  She cried, she begged, she bargained and she demanded that her grandson be returned to her.  Within minutes the wave returned, but this time it deposited her little grandson on the beach to stand beside her again.  The Jewish bubbie looked at her grandson speechless for a full moment, then turned her face to heaven again and called out to God: “He was wearing a hat.”

It is the embodiment of chutzpah and we love it!

The blessings God gives us are never enough.  We are grateful for what we have and then we always return to ask for more.  It is not us being selfish, it is us being biblical.

In the Torah portion this week, parshat Pinchas, we meet the 5 daughters of Zelaphchad who come to Moses with a petition for fairness.  It is not another Israelite who has treated them unfairly, it is God.  The daughters present a case that their father has died leaving no sons and now there is to be no land inheritance in Israel since the laws of the Torah only grant inheritance rights to a male.  It is an astounding moment of courage since they are challenging within a legal system that has not yet proved itself open to a challenge of any kind.

The courage they find sits on the relationship described to us between Jacob and God.  When Jacob flees his brother Esau to go live with his uncle, he dreams of God who reiterates covenant to Jacob.  According to God, Jacob is to make God his God and in return God will give him the land of Israel, many children to fill the land and God will not leave Jacob while he is on his journey.  It’s beautiful, it’s spiritual…but it’s not enough.

Jacob responds in the morning with a vow.  He states that if God will watch over him on the journey and give him food and clothes and then return him safely to his father’s home, then God has a deal!

It is biblical chutzpah.  It pushes on covenant so we (the party of the first part) advocate for what we know we need from God (the party of the second part) who is in a position to grant it.  Partnerships mean both parties give and both parties receive.  It won’t work if I’m not clear on what I expect or what I am able to give.  Jacob taught us to push on God and the daughters of Zelaphchad model to us that anyone has the right to demand what is right.  They are women, not recognized by inheritance law, standing with no power and no rights but it doesn’t matter since we are focused on these women – their show of power.

So, isn’t it interesting that within the same portion is a woman named Serah that no one pays any attention to?  She is the daughter of Asher, the granddaughter of Jacob and she is listed in the census recorded in this parshah.  She is the only woman in the list and she is counted because she’s still alive.  Shockingly, she is also listed among those who entered Egypt with Jacob as well as those who came out of Egypt with Moses.  She will now be around to enter Israel with Joshua…who is this woman?

The Torah gives us no details, but the midrash fills us with images.  She is the one who gently broke the news to Jacob that Joseph was still alive so Jacob would not succumb to emotional shock.  She is the one who confirmed Moses was the leader when the elders weren’t sure and it is she who found Joseph’s bones so Israel could leave Egypt.  Later, she settles an argument in the rabbinic academies about how the Red Sea split since she alone witnessed it.

She is the embodiment of Jewish history from the time we became a nation until… forever, since according to the Sages, she is one of the few people to never die.  She is subtle and nuanced within any text that alludes to her but she is the constant, the foundation and the endless future.

The daughters of Zelaphchad are the power of the moment but not all Jewish expressions must contain such power.

A student of mine, a Jewish bubbie, told me that she was at the Kotel in Jerusalem with her grandson who was around 4 at the time.  They stood together and her grandson asked for a book to hold.  Of course, he couldn’t read yet but everyone was holding a book so she happily handed him her Siddur.  He held it, and then started mumbling something.  This Jewish bubbie leaned down slowly to hear her grandson’s prayer and here’s what she heard him singing:

“Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.”

Not all powerful Jewish moments are modelled on the daughters of Zelaphchad, some of them are the humble whisperings of Serah, who shows us the power of our history, our spirituality and our continuity.

Parshat Chukat/Balak: My Brother from Another Mother

This week’s Torah reading is a double parshah: Chukat and Balak.  Balak is the outstanding narrative of a foreign prophet, a talking donkey and the opening prayer of our Siddur.  Chukat is about paradox and irrational realities…and the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  As fantastic as is that talking donkey, I can’t get my mind off losing Miriam and Aaron.

Maybe it’s all the Covid numbers that get reported everyday or maybe it’s summer and the sun is shining but things feel different. I’m not exactly sure why but I keep thinking about Miriam and Aaron.  Not the strong figures of leadership the Torah presents, rather the nuanced moments and the midrashic portraits.

Miriam, Aaron and Moses are the powerhouse of leadership in Judaism.  They’re three siblings with totally different realities.  In today’s world, siblings are most often defined as sharing the same parents.  But in the ancient (and up until very recent) world, siblings were children sharing a household.  I was once going through some old family photos with my mother.  I saw a picture of a group of children standing together posing with snowballs.  I asked my mother what the picture was about, she said that her father posed her and her siblings with the snow because it was rare to have snow in Safed.  But I realized she said ‘siblings’ and there were most definitely too many kids in that photo.  

I recognized one little girl as a cousin.  I asked my mom about her.  

Here’s her answer: ‘Yes, she’s a cousin, but I think of her as a sister because she spent so many years with us growing up. Her parents were caught behind borders in the war so she ended up staying with us for years.’

So what was to be a family visit with a cousin turned into years of siblinghood.  I asked her who the other little girl was, and my mother said, ‘That’s my Yemenite sister.’  My response was to stare and blink. My mother asked if I wanted to see her wedding picture and flipped to a picture of a young woman in traditional Yeminite clothing.  I finally managed to ask how she acquired a Yeminite sister.  She told me they’re not actually blood sisters, but this young woman came to live with them, stayed for most of her childhood until she married.  They always called themselves sisters.

Lest we think this is a Sephardic family dynamic, I remember the same thing happening with some of the stories my father told me about the shtetl he came from.  We were visiting distant cousins and my father was explaining how we were all related.  I lost track of it after the third time I heard him say ‘They’re not really brothers, they just grew up together because there were too many kids in their house.’  I asked him if it was common for people to give their kids to relatives and he said yes, a shtetl was like a large family.

So whether Ashkenaz, Sephardic, or blends of different communities, Jewish families are always defined by the unities we create and the households we open to each other.  But even when raised in the same household, the word ‘sibling’ is descriptive of the relationship, not the personhood.  The same household will always produce unique individuals, each with their individual strengths and chosen connections.

None of this is new, it’s how we were meant to see Miriam, Aaron and Moses.  Miriam – the oldest, the guardian – is always described to us as uniquely different from Aaron – the middle child, the peacemaker – and both distinctly different from Moses – the baby, the prince.  

Miriam is the oldest of her siblings and right from the start she protects her younger brothers.  She is the one who guards Moses while he is floating in a basket on the Nile and she is the one who is responsible for uniting Moses with his birth family so he could bond with them.  These moments describe a little girl stepping forward to speak to a princess of Egypt to save her baby brother.  We never recognize her courage — we should.

Speaking of the babies in Egypt, there is an unusual midrash that describes how the Israelite women secretly delivered their babies in the fields and hid them so the Egyptians wouldn’t kill the babies. According to this midrash, when these infants cried from hunger, wanting to nurse, the rocks around them would bring forth milk so the babies could eat, calm themselves, stop crying and stay safe.  Rocks in a field can appear like breasts, and the midrash describes this beautiful collaboration between the females and the earth to secure life in an empire that glorified death.  Why are we so concerned with this midrash?  Because the image of the rock as giving the waters of life continues with Miriam.

The Sages tell us that there is a giant rock that is rolled alongside the holy objects in the desert.  When Israel would make camp, each tribal leader would use their staff to draw a line in the sand from the rock to where their tribe was camped.  Once 12 lines were drawn, the rock would fill the lines with water and all of Israel drank fresh water in the desert.  The rock was referred to as ‘Miriam’s Well’.  As soon as Miriam dies, we are told Israel complains to Moses that they will die for lack of water — the well has dried up.

God tells Moses to gather the people at the rock and speak to it so it will bring water (again).  The image is that Moses should console the rock, comfort it, since its waters have dried up, perhaps it has cried itself dry over losing Miriam.  Instead, Moses gathers everyone at the rock and succumbs to the pressures of the people and does the unthinkable, he hits it!  

God’s reaction is extreme since God’s view is universal.  God tells Moses he will never enter the land of Israel because of hitting the rock.  It is not any rock, it is Miriam’s Well, it is the embodiment of the rocks of Egypt that saved all those babies and partnered with all those desperate mothers – it is the symbol of life when only death defined each moment.  Hitting the rock is an affirmation of Egypt and an assault on Miriam’s legacy.  As a result of Moses’ hitting the rock, it brings water, so the problem has been solved, but unfortunately, the moment was lost and the wrong message was delivered.  God tells Moses that his leadership now has an expiry date attached. 

Not long after all this, God tells Moses to go with Aaron and Aaron’s son onto a mountain where Aaron will die.  After placing all of the priestly garments on Aaron’s son, Aaron quietly passes away and the nation cries for him.  You can’t help but notice no one cried when Miriam died, they just complained that now they don’t have water.  Why no tears for Miriam?

It seems that the progression of their deaths and the peoples’ reaction contains the lessons of their leadership.  Miriam provided the safety and the water.  It was brought to the people and they did not have to find their own solutions.  All the images are of babies and nursing and guardianship.  No one can cry for her because they haven’t learned that they can provide water for themselves.  In other words, if all the water came because of Miriam, then how can they manufacture tears?  By the time Aaron dies, they have somehow learned that the answers lie within themselves and they should not expect them to come from anyone else — now they can make tears, supply water, sustain themselves and be ready to enter the land.

What caused the shift?  Aaron’s son is the only difference.

Of the three siblings responsible for getting us out of Egypt, only Aaron will pass his role to his child.  He is the symbol of continuity and growth.  The Torah tells us that Moses is told to put Aaron’s clothes on Aaron’s son and we watch continuity establish itself.  When we see continuity, we see empowerment and with empowerment comes independence – with independence comes Israel’s ability to make tears.

The midrash explains this beautifully when it comments on God telling Moses to take Aaron and his son up the mountain.  The Sages say “take him with words of comfort and consolation” (the words that should have been spoken to the rock).  The Sages continue by saying that Moses comforts Aaron by saying; ‘how complete you must feel, seeing your crown removed from your head and placed on the head of your son – something I will not be privileged to see.’  

Miriam teaches us guardianship, Moses teaches us law and Aaron teaches us continuity.  They will die in the order they were born – Miriam first, Aaron second, Moses last.  It completes the picture of these three and I can’t help but think of the people my parents viewed as siblings because they lived together and enriched their lives.  I’m reminded of how many times people have said to me that they view a close friend as a sister or a brother, unaware that they are describing ancient realities.  Miriam, Aaron and Moses, three siblings who each deserve their moment and recognition of how they each enrich us every time we read of them.

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Parshat Korach: A Priest, a Rabbi & an Imam walk into a classroom…

Years ago, I was on faculty at a major Canadian university, mostly in the Faculty of Education.  As my specialty is in Religious Studies, my degrees in the field of education made for a good fit with the Faculty of Education as Religious Studies Coordinator.  Essentially, I was advising and teaching student candidates on the verge of graduating and starting careers in teaching all aspects of religious studies.  I had the privilege of running seminars that always included students preparing to teach in various religious venues.  Some candidates were Jewish, many were Catholic, several were clergy, Muslim men and women enrolled, as well as a Zoroastrian principal–always a beautiful mix of age and faith expressions.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.  

There were times when some of the candidates presented a challenge for me in ways they could not possibly have known.  Since there were often clergy in the class, I could be sitting with students who were much older than I.  I found it difficult to demand work and penalize for lateness on assignments with someone who was clearly my elder.  I admit, at times eye contact was difficult when I was visually locked onto the priest’s collar or the nun’s wimple and veil.  In fact, there was a myriad of covered hair, covered heads, beards, modest outfits and all styles in between–a truly inspiring snapshot of multicultural faith communities.

Except when I missed unique, opportune moments.

We struggled with how anyone could teach religion at all, let alone in a structured school setting.  Teaching prayer is one thing, but how do you assign a grade?  Does the student get an ‘A’ in prayer if God answers (and God must answer so the teacher can hear, otherwise the student might have made up God’s answer…)–you can see how this could get complex quite quickly.  But there were brilliant moments of collaboration as well.  In group assignments, candidates would form groups of their own religions (I noticed they chose their groups that way), only to realize they didn’t have the resources they needed for the assignment.  I remember one wonderful moment when the room was buzzing with group activity at a low hum only to have one nun call out: ‘Could we get some Jewish help over here, we’re not sure how a yarmulke works!’

And then there was the missed moment.

One year, an older student approached me before class and asked if she could make an announcement to the class before we start.  I agreed and asked if she wanted to let me know what it was about and she said she’d rather surprise me.  This woman was a mature, somewhat shy, studious person and always respectful of everyone in the room.  I wasn’t the least nervous about taking this risk.  As everyone found their seats, she stood in front of the class and started crying as she shared with the class that she’s gay.  She said it was the first time in her life she’d ever said that out loud to anyone.  Oh, right…did I mention this woman was part of the Amish community?

Several students went to hug her and celebrate her moment.  I wasn’t sure what to do.  My confusion wasn’t about her sexual orientation, it was more about her choice of this class and this moment to come out.   I understood my role at the university as leading these student candidates to their graduation and leading them to their new career opportunities.  Nowhere in my job description as a professor did it include leading a student in the most intimate moments of her life.  I am a very private person and I try to strictly respect other people’s privacy which at times causes problems–this was one of those times.

She said she chose this moment because of the sharing everyone did about their faith and how she felt no one judged anyone.  She looked at me and smiled.  I approached her and hugged her, I wiped her tears but I did not celebrate with her.  I couldn’t push past my boundaries.  This was a seminar on teaching religion, a place to learn how to lead people into thoughtful and life-changing concepts, but I couldn’t lead her in this moment.  It was too private a revelation and I hit my wall of respecting privacy.  My wall was too big.

It’s all I can think about as I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Korach.  Moses is confronted with a challenge to his leadership.  His cousin, Korach, is gaining a following by saying that God is in the midst of the people and Korach is from the same family as Moses, so who does Moses think he is? The one attribute the Torah has told us time and again about Moses is that he is humble.  He can’t answer Korach, he ends up falling on his face in submission.

Korach is gaining popularity because at that moment it’s easy to believe Moses failed in his mission.  He led the people to the land of Israel but will not bring them in.  They are all destined to die in the desert, so maybe Moses just didn’t get the job done and it’s time to try different leadership.  What is forgotten is that getting everyone into Israel was never part of Moses’ job description–it was an expectation with no foundation.

At the burning bush, God commanded Moses to help get Israel out of Egypt and to Sinai.  He did that.  He was also told that all of Egypt should understand that God is a universal and unique Being.  The midrash says Moses did that as well.  Bringing the nation into the land was not on the list.

While at first glance it’s easy to be upset with Korach (after all he was trying to lead a rebellion against Moses), we should also consider that people have just been told they are going to die in the desert. Frankly, it would make sense that they believe Korach and that Moses has failed them as a leader. We shouldn’t be surprised that Korach acted the way he did, we should be surprised with Moses’ inability to face him. Moses, the man who stood up for a beaten slave, befriended God, survived Sinai and brought laws most of the world still lives by–this man couldn’t face a pushy cousin?

Moses’ humility kept him from saying anything and so God, Moses’ best friend, stepped in and took control.  Judaism is uncomfortable with extremes and extreme humility is no exception.  It becomes a limitation to Moses’ leadership.  This entire incident with Korach is a one time learning opportunity for Moses. It is a warning that should only happen once. Hopefully Moses can push past his limitations–push past his extreme humility–for future moments.

What do we takeaway? Not that we align with either Moses or Korach–we are not choosing sides since it’s obvious that Moses is the trusted leader. Korach’s mistake was that he remedied his dissatisfaction by pulling others toward destruction and doom–he is not the leader we seek. We continue to look towards Moses. We see that even leaders can be blind to their own boundaries and get in the way of connecting with those in their group. Moses’ limitation results in our growth. In this story, Moses is actually teaching us important lessons about leadership. Just as he was forced by God to learn from his experience, we are lucky to likewise learn from it. As a professor, I was blind to my own limitations, and this parsha helps me realize that I was missing unique, opportune moments with my students. 

My student kept in touch with me for a few years after.  She returned to her town but chose to live and teach in a school outside of her community.  She thanked me for the safe space and the good memory she holds of sharing her personal truth.  I feel good that she remembers it that way but I can’t ever think of it without remembering that I allowed my moment of confusion to overshadow her moment of authenticity.

We only see Moses’ limitation–his extreme humility–because it is mirrored by Korach’s extreme arrogance. LIkewise, I recognize being held back by my own boundaries because of my student’s bravery to break hers.  

I wonder how many other Moses/Korach moments pass us by.