Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Lech Lecha

In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Lech Lecha, we meet our first generation of ancestors: Abraham and Sarah. We always think of them as the beginnings of Judaism, the ones who followed God into a relationship that changes them, changes their descendants, and changes the world. 

What we don’t often emphasize is that the journey to search for something more didn’t begin with Abraham and Sarah, it began with Abraham’s father, Terach. Before reading of the beginning of the Jewish journey, the Torah tells us that a man named Terach took his family, including his son Abraham and daughter-in-law Sarah, and left their home in Chaldean territory. Along the journey, Terach dies, and his family stagnates. They seem paralyzed by the loss of their father and the family journey seems to end just as it has barely begun. 

It is then that God speaks to Abraham and prompts him to ‘lech lecha’, ‘journey onward’. It is a Divine prod to continue with the vision and initiative of his father, Terach –to bring the family to new horizons. The relationship that God, Abraham, and Sarah, will form is not the relationship Terach envisioned but it is the continuation of his impulse to search beyond the usual. 

The Torah is always full of layers of meaning and timeless messages. Terach changed his family culture and envisioned what could be beyond, but his life ended. If not for God reaching out to Abraham and Sarah, Terach’s vision would have ended as well. The Torah is always full of timeless messages, and in this case, we are shown that the journey of a life takes longer than a lifetime. 

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

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Noah, tells us the story of Noah’s Ark – a story we’re all familiar with.  We know the grandeur of the problem: all of creation has corrupted and turned evil.  We know the grandeur of the solution: God destroys everything with a flood.  But within the narrative lies a subtle detail that speaks volumes to us today. 

The Torah says that the animals and people entered the ark in their designated numbers. They are referred to as pairs when they enter. Yet, when these same people and animals leave the ark, we’re told they leave in their family groupings.  In other words, the people and animals who were isolating together in the ark formed relationships and bonds while they were there.   

As nature raged outside, the ark protected those within — not just with shelter from the storm, but with the understanding that they will survive if they create strong bonds with each other.  When the destruction outside became overwhelming, it is the love and bond they developed for each other that secured difficult moments. 

The corruption that led to the flood included a preference for disconnect and ultimate autonomy from everyone and everything.  The Sages speak of a world where absolute self-interest and self-promotion became the motive and expression of everything.  The Torah contrasts that with the changing reality inside the ark.  While everything entered on its own, they quickly formed trust, family, bond, and the hope of continuity.  

After the High Holidays, I heard from many families who re-experienced the power and joy of sitting together with family members.  In some cases, it had been years since they were able to experience those moments.  The spirituality of Judaism is not just the holiness of God and ritual, it is also the holiness we create when we reach toward each other and build strong unions.   

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

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat Sukkot

This Shabbat falls towards the end of the holiday of Sukkot, the time God judges the world for rain that will fall.  When the Temple stood, there was a ceremony connected with water called Simchat Beit haShoeiva’, the ‘Joy of the Water-drawing Libations’.  The descriptions of this ceremony are astounding.  There was ongoing music, dancing, singing and Sages juggling burning torches!  The Talmud specifically mentions Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who juggled 8 burning torches at once, and never let them touch each other. 

In fact, the Talmud states that if someone has not seen the celebration of these water libations, they have not experienced joy – in other words, we don’t know from parties.   

Sukkot is a unique holiday because there are holidays within the holiday.  On the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabah, we take our lulav and etrog and walk around the sanctuary in circuits as we recite the Hoshanot.  The day marks the end of the High Holidays, as the decisions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are made, sealed, and now delivered.  It is a ceremony filled with Jewish mysticism — a step back into our ancient past.  If we watch this moment from a birds-eye view, everyone below looks like a current of water flowing round and round.  The medium becomes the message, as we pray for water, it is our bodies that express the prayer. 

For all of us who have ever danced a hora at a simcha (also called the Mayim dance), we have emulated the water libation dancing.  The words to the hora begin: ‘ushoftem mayim bisasson, mimaynei hayishua’, ‘and you will draw water in joy from the waters of salvation’ – a quote referring to Simchat Beit HaShoeiva – the Joy of the Water-drawing Libations. 

Soon we will transition out of our holiest time of the year, as we should.  We need to go back to the mundane, but if we’re lucky, we can carry some of these moments with us in the coming year.   

May we all enter a year of peace, abundance, and health.  May we dance a hora or two with the images of Rabbis juggling burning torches, and may we learn to experience joy that has no limit. 

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

  

Shabbat shalom, Umoadim lesimcha, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ha’azinu

This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, is the song Moses composes and delivers to Israel. He worries about Israel’s welfare, and the nation’s struggle with God. Moses repeatedly warns Israel never to underestimate their inclination to deny God, nor God’s response. 

At the same time, we are at the threshold of the holiday of Sukkot, the time we celebrate following God in the wilderness and learning of Divine Love and Divine Protection. It is the time we built our relationship with God. 

These two messages sit side by side this Shabbat. As Jews, we always struggle with understanding God, and the demands of our Judaism. At the same time, we celebrate that same relationship, those same challenges and demands.  

Moses’ worry is that we won’t keep the values of Torah close to our hearts. He refers to it as ‘this song’. He worries we will not teach our children to sing the song of Torah. Of all our leaders, Moses saw firsthand that if the generational chain is not well established, it can begin to disappear – Moses witnessed this in Egypt as slavery took its toll. 

Interestingly, another name for the holiday of Sukkot is ‘Zman Simchateinu’, the Time of Our Joy’. The name itself speaks directly of the message Moses is expressing. His warnings are dire, and the picture he paints is stark, but he always stresses how Torah must be inherited, taught, sung, and enjoyed. 

Through the prophets, God stated how sweet the memory is of our time together in the wilderness, when we followed God with complete trust – when we expressed ‘chesed’ to God in our youth, when we dwelled in our Sukkot.  

Moses worried we wouldn’t understand how important Torah is in our lives. When we sit in a Sukkah, we assure him we won’t ever forget. 

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

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Nitzavim

This week, we read the Torah portion of Nitzavim – Moses’ words to Israel as he knows his hours are few.  This week, we enter Shabbat, preparing for Rosh Hashanah, as we pray for what only God can give us: time.  

Moses immediately tells Israel that we are all standing together right now.  Whether we are leaders, followers, women, men, elderly, or infants, we meet in this moment, at the threshold of covenant with God.  We all stand equally.  But, Moses is not standing equally with anyone because he knows the day he will die, and he knows his prayers won’t be answered.  He stands alone inside our greatest human fears.  Yet, as always, he has so much to teach us.

Moses reminds us that at the core of everything Jewish will be God, Torah, and each other.  We will house our spiritual expressions in the teachings of Torah, and we will argue with each other about what it means.  Then Moses specifically warns us not to think Torah is a treasure buried somewhere out in the world.  It is not a search for external truth.  Moses tells us the Torah is close to us, it is in our hearts, and when in doubt, we should always look inward.

Soon, we will stand together on Rosh Hashanah, as we enter the holiest time of our year, and we will ask God for time.  We offer God our honest, internal reflections from the past year, as we experience what Moses tried to tell us.  We have a voice in our destinies, a tremendous gift, and as we gather to pray on Rosh Hashanah, we will make our voices heard.  Sometimes prayer is a whisper and sometimes prayer is thunder.  

Jews everywhere will whisper our fears to God, as we raise our voices to create the thunder of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’.  In the end, across millennia of years, we indeed stand where Moses said we would: Nitzavim hayom, “Today we stand together.”

I’d like to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, and a sweet, healthy, and happy year to come.

May we use our time of Shabbat rest to gather our resources for the holiness of Rosh Hashanah.

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Selichot

The Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah is time reserved for special prayers called Selichot.  We wait until it is late at night, at the time of ‘Ashmoret HaBoker’ – when night is ending, and the transition to dawn is beginning.  The prayers we say are apologies and admissions, as we implore God to understand our limitations.  We choose the timing carefully.

Throughout the High Holidays, we repeatedly appeal to God as our Divine Parent -we want the unconditional love and forgiveness that only a parent can give.  We choose Ashmoret HaBoker for these prayers because it is the time we are usually asleep.  In fact, our neighbours, cities, and all around us are probably asleep.  In those moments, several things are happening.  The Zohar tells us that in the calm of the night, when the transition to day is beginning, God turns toward attributes of Divine Mercy before the new day has dawned.  We appeal to God when Divine Mercy is heightened.  The second reason has to do with our relationship with God, our Parent.

As new parents, we can remember bringing our children home and keeping our eyes on them.  At first, they don’t do much, they’re not yet awake to the world, so we watch them sleep.  We form the habit of watching them sleep, and watching them breathe.  It comforts us, we are soothed by it, we bond with them as they lie asleep, not knowing this is happening.  The purity and sincerity of this non-verbal connection is unique.

As we are all made in the image of God, what is true for the image must be true for the Source.  While we are asleep, our souls and God find each other and deepen their bond.  There is no better moment for us to reach out to God, the Parent, and ask for forgiveness than in those moments when night, the time we usually sleep, is transitioning to day.

Selichot is a special time of prayer we can say either together or individually.  It is a time, in the still of the night, to reach outward and upward, to feel the child and the Parent.  Selichot is when we can immerse ourselves into the subtle nuances before Rosh Hashanah that can sometimes get lost in the grandeur of the Highest of our Holy Days.

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

Shabbat shalom,

 Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ki Teitzei

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Teitzei, starts with the phrase ‘If you go to war’, and then outlines moments and instances of choices.  Much of what is discussed are approaches we’ve already heard elsewhere in the Torah, which begs the question of why they appear here.

The question of behaviour and values is key to a Jewish understanding of how we interact with the world.  Our usual encounters become routines, and we know the standard of behaviours will serve us well.  We strive for ‘menschkeit’, a word we all know but can’t really define. We try to cultivate that within ourselves as well as look for it in others. But now the Torah has asked us a tougher question: who are we when we leave our comfort zones and face challenges.  Can we still be a mensch when turmoil surrounds us?

Jewish values are not things we develop in a moment of challenge, they are things we develop over our lifetimes that then serve us in each moment.  The Torah is not describing the conflict of warfare since it begins by discussing the war captives Israel has taken in victory, not the war itself.  The Torah describes the challenge of victory – the way empowerment can turn into entitlement.  When we look at a defeated enemy, do we still maintain our values and behave as we should?  

On a more mundane level, when we win an argument, how do we engage with the other person in the very next moment?  Whether it is a personal relationship or a professional exchange, our Jewish values must follow us into restaurants and office spaces.  The challenge is not our Jewish homes, it is ‘ki teitzei’ – when we venture out.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shoftim

In this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, Moses discusses impartial justice. For example, don’t play favourites in judicial proceedings, and don’t take bribes. In one of the warnings, the Torah says: ‘don’t recognize faces’, an interesting phrase with a latitude of meaning.

Within the context of a court proceeding, not recognizing faces is clearly saying not to favour someone you know. In other words, look only at the issue and not the person standing there. But, as we are in the month of Elul, a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the layered meaning of this phrase becomes relevant. In Elul, we are to assess our past actions, then ask and offer forgiveness to those we have wronged or who have wronged us. The problem is that when we are hurt by someone, we don’t only think of this time, we think of all times in our past when we felt wronged by that person. It’s difficult to think of our pain without thinking of a history of pain.

Given that we accumulate these hurt feelings, it’s now hard to forgive someone without being cynical and thinking it will happen again because of who they are. Now our forgiveness includes our judgments.

The Torah challenges us to approach these moments without ‘recognizing faces’. The focus shifts to the hurt and the attempt to validate and acknowledge what was done through a sincere apology. We are all creatures of habit, and we will continue to hurt others as a natural course of being human. The question is not whether we will do it again –of course we will. The question is whether other people are building biographies of pain around us that activate when they see us. The greater task is to forgive without recognizing faces.

Apologies and forgiveness stand together in a moment in time. The Talmud tells us that true forgiveness means I have let it go, I will not mention it again nor think of it. True forgiveness is a slate wiped clean ready to be written on again. It’s a level few of us achieve, but every year we are invited to do it a bit better than we did before.

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

Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Eikev

As we continue to hear Moses’ thoughts in parshat Eikev, our Torah reading this week, Moses says something that confuses us.  Moses tells Israel not to forget the past 40 years and the hardships we endured since this was God wanting to know what was in our hearts.  The confusing part is that God is omniscient, all-knowing, wouldn’t God already know what’s in our hearts, and then we could be spared all the hardship and suffering? 

It raises the tension between God knowing everything yet granting us free will.  They seem to be opposing truths that cannot coexist.  While there is no clear resolution, generally our Sages understood that God chooses not to know what we will choose, granting us the space to exercise our free will.   

The greatest gift God bestowed on us is the gift of choosing.  It is an ultimate statement of trust because I could choose to keep myself from God, to exclude God from my life, to deny.  The gift of free will is the act of trust that I will find my own unique way to God and genuinely desire that partnership. 

But why through hardship? When there are simchas in our lives, we open all the doors, as we open our hearts, to celebrate together.  When there are challenges in our lives, we narrow the scope, guard our hearts and trust only those we have chosen as our inner circle.  Moses has told Israel that God desires a presence in our inner circle.   

The strength of free will is immeasurable.  It is how we choose to shape the world around us, to form our families, to create a life journey, and to include God.  Moses has reminded us that our relationships with God are tremendously empowering, often fragile, but ultimately of our own choosing. 

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

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vaetchanan

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, has many verses we recognize from within our Siddur.  One of the things we immediately notice is the statement of Shema Yisrael, a core statement of Jewish unity and declaration of monotheism.

​Interestingly, the statement is most often translated as: Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.  But the word shema’, in Biblical Hebrew, doesn’t mean ‘hear’ as much as it means ‘understand’.  We are not telling each other to listen up, we are telling each other to try and understand this all important statement.

​Once we reframe the meaning in our minds, we start to notice how many times the word shema appears in this parshah -suddenly it’s everywhere.  Moses tells Israel that God is not ‘listening’ to his need to enter the land; Moses repeatedly tells Israel they must ‘listen’ to the commandments; Moses declares to Israel they must ‘listen’ to each other.

​​In other words, we often tell people they’re not listening to us when we actually mean they’re not understanding us.  Rather than putting the focus on the other person and their listening skills, perhaps the focus should be self-directed by asking if we are expressing ourselves in order to be understood.  If not, we should change our communication, not assume the other person has to change how they listen.

Moses has named the relationships in our lives that are key for understanding each other: God, the society we are building together, and our personal community.  Even as Moses faces his final days, he continues to lead and inspire.

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

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael