Parshat Lech Lecha: Trick or Treat…A Tough Choice

Parshat Lech Lecha: Trick or Treat…A Tough Choice

This coming Shabbat is Halloween.  A time of ghosts and goblins and scary stories.  In fact, here is my scary story for this Halloween:


(–couldn’t resist)

Halloween is an interesting time for the Jewish community.  I remember the principal of my Jewish day school coming into each class every year and telling kids they should not go out for Halloween.  I was taught it was a Christian holiday that was celebrated by hateful people who would hide behind masks and start pogroms.  He painted vivid pictures of Jews hiding in basements until Halloween was over and that it would break his heart if any Jewish kids from his school would engage in this horrible holiday (we have definitely mastered the ‘Jewish continuity through guilt’ pedagogy…). 

When I had my own kids, the question of Halloween came up.  As a day of spooky stories and ghosts and goblins, I always revisited my thoughts on Halloween. As much as I have always loved ‘B’ horror movies and all things spooky scary, I just couldn’t get past that whole Christian pogrom thing.  And then, listening to the radio one day, I had an epiphany.  I tuned-in to a talk show discussing why Halloween was such a great holiday.  Several speakers discussed that they are connected to Halloween because it is one of the few holidays that has nothing to do with religion.  To them, Halloween is completely secular, a celebration of the dark side and the mystery around us.  I gasped, how could they not know this is a Christian holiday?  That’s when I realized that I, a Jewish woman, had taken upon myself the religious memory of another faith.  If others don’t remember the hatred Halloween could embody, why was I holding on to it?  Is it not better to have that kind of holiday move toward secularization?  Should I not be helping it along so that it would never again occur to anyone to use Halloween as the ‘mask’ of their hatred?

I decided to let go of my burden of Christian memory and take my little one out on Halloween.  Now I was faced with explaining why it was ok to approach strangers’ doors (something I had taught her she should never do) and ask for candy (something I had most definitely drilled into her she should never accept from a stranger).  I taught her the phrase ‘trick or treat’ and when she asked me what it meant I explained to her that if they don’t give her a treat she can now play a trick on them (but I was trying to teach her not to be mean to others) and I realized the problems of Halloween were larger than the Jewish thing.  

As Jews, we have always been tasked with how to encounter the cultures around us.  If they do not ‘other’ us, should we ‘other’ them?  Is anything that once had some connection to another religion now off limits, no matter what cultural evolutionary changes have occured?  Technically, January 1st is a Christian holiday, it is the day Jesus had his bris (8 days after Christmas) and entered covenant.  Would we now say that since it has its roots in a Christian moment, no Jew should recognize or celebrate New Year’s Day?

Interestingly, there are clues to these questions in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha.  God has told Abraham and Sarah to begin a journey with God. Great promises are made and they accept.  As soon as they arrive in Israel, there’s a famine and they need to leave to search for food.  They go to Egypt.  Afterwards, we are told that Abraham’s clan has grown too large to accommodate both his own wealth and the growing wealth of his adopted son, Lot.  Abraham tells Lot to choose a neighbouring region and settle there.  Lot chooses Sodom because it has plush land and strong economic growth possibilities, but the Torah tells us that the culture of Sodom is evil.  It doesn’t take long before Lot’s life is in jeopardy.  The region erupts into civil war and Lot is targeted and taken hostage.

We choose the cultures we live in.  Lot chose economics over morality and grew wealthy at the expense of always looking over his shoulder.  After saving Lot’s life, Abraham turns to God and asks how he can be sure that the wonderful Divine promises will really come true (to be fair, there was a famine, a civil war and a hostage rescue so far).  God and Abraham enact ‘the covenant between the pieces’, a mystical ritual to ‘sign’ the first draft of covenant.

Abraham did not learn about signing covenants from God.  God had communicated everything as a promise secured by God’s word — Abraham wants God to sign on the dotted line.  That was something Abraham learned from his home culture that he now imports into Judaism.  Abraham was told to leave his past life behind but that did not include leaving positive cultural lessons behind as well.  

Throughout the ages, we have developed a keen filter about Judaism and the cultures we live among.  We decide what gets through the filter, and Judaism has been enriched throughout the millennia by the positive choices we’ve made.  When a culture prioritizes morality over wealth, we are well within the teachings of Abraham and Sarah, and when it prioritizes wealth over all else, we have made Lot’s choice.

In some Jewish communities today, I still hear the ongoing debate about ‘to Halloween or not to Halloween’.  It’s not an easy question.  In the modern world, religious holidays can move toward secularization before they might fade from our culture.  We’re privileged to live at a time when we can recognize what is happening, and actively choose if, and how, it might enter our Jewish homes.

It’s a tough choice…but, at least it’s not a scary one.

The Oy of Peoplehood

Hope everyone had a great week.

This week’s parshah, Matot-Masei, might as well be titled: ‘oy’. It talks a lot about war and
booty and prisoners and revenge. All I can say is to remember we are never commanded to do
that, we are reading about warfare in the ancient world – it’s a slice of hell.
But there’s a defining moment in there that talks about two tribes telling Moses they prefer to
live outside of Israel and not set up their homes within the borders of the land.
Every time I read this section, I am taken with the fact that from the moment we had a nation
of Jews enter the land of Israel, we had a group within the nation saying that life in Israel is not
for them. In other words, there are no Israeli Jews without simultaneously having Diaspora

And now I arrive at today.

I am the generation born into a world where there is a modern state of Israel. I can’t imagine a
world without Israel, though my parents lived in a world that produced the Holocaust so that
answers that question.

But I struggle with the relationship Jews in Israel have with Jews outside of Israel and visa versa.
I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to do ‘peoplehood’. Our realities are so vastly different and
while we share Jewish history and culture, those of us outside of Israel have mastered living in a
different culture as we layer our identities. Where can we connect?

A few weeks ago, I visited Israel. There were days I struggled with what I saw and there were
days of such connection words fail. At one point, while talking with an Israeli about Judaism,
they listened to my views and then said, ‘so you’re a Reformit.’ I was a bit confused and
explained that I am not a Reform Jew as some of my Jewish choices wouldn’t fit that
community. They explained that I seem liberal, but I also keep commandments, so I have to be
‘a Reformit.’ I could see there were no other categories of Judaism possible in this discussion,
so I said nothing.

By the way, this week’s parshah clearly states what the Talmud later repeats as a Jewish
precept: silence is agreement. I said nothing and therefore chose to agree with him at that
moment. You choose your battles.

My thoughts go back years ago to when I was saying Kaddish for my father. I was also leading a
trip to Israel at that time and was strategically finding a minyan every morning so I could say
Kaddish. We were in Tel Aviv for a few days and I found a minyan in a small shul on a main street not far from my hotel. It was a group of men on their way to work stopping in quickly to
pray. It was ten men with no rabbi or chazan leading them.

The first day I walked in, I went to the women’s section which was on the same floor as the
men, a pretty flimsy mechitzah that allowed us to see each other and hear each other. They
definitely knew I was there because I had to climb over all the stalked chairs, tables and books
filling the women’s section. Actually, I was happy to find a place where I could sit alone with
my thoughts, so I didn’t mind the clutter.

One morning I was delayed and ended up running to get to the minyan in time. As I ran in, the
men were already finished and were putting away their Tefillin, ready to go to work. I
remember standing there and saying: ‘you’re finished??’, in English and then starting to cry.
These were not quiet, subtle tears. I mean sudden, anguished sobs. It was the first time I had
missed Kaddish all year and I didn’t expect the pain I was feeling. The men stopped and one
man asked me what happened. I told them I was saying Kaddish for my father but now I missed

In Hebrew, I heard some of them ask each other why I’m saying Kaddish, don’t I have brothers.
One man quietly asked if it was allowed. Only one man asked the group who I am. All of these
comments were happening at once as these men are standing there, late for work, watching a
strange foreign woman crying.

The man who first spoke to me said to the group, ‘she’s saying kaddish. She needs a minyan, so
no one is going anywhere.’ Before I knew it, they all put down their Tefillin, stood around me in
a circle while one of them handed me a Siddur and said ‘Read!’ The page was already opened
to Kaddish and I quietly recited it as they all answered me.
That was peoplehood.

I have no doubt that most of them walked away confused by what I was doing. I’m also pretty
sure some of them agreed to be there so I would stop crying. The reasons don’t matter, we
created holiness together and fulfilled an ancient intent of unity.
O this week’s Parsha, when the tribe of Reuben tells Moses they don’t want to settle in Israel,
Moses argues. Actually, Moses threatens them. They stood their ground and the two sides
worked out a mutually agreeable arrangement. It strained the relationship of peoplehood then
and by the end of the book of Joshua it almost causes a civil war. The challenge of
understanding our peoplehood remains with us today and we inherit the challenge honestly.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Israel, I argued with some people I met and after I left, I missed
it. Like any family visit.