Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayechi

This week’s Torah reading, Vayechi, which means ‘And he lived,’ contains beautiful messages about life. Our patriarch, Jacob, spends seventeen years in Egypt, and we know that Joseph, his son, was seventeen years old when he was kidnapped. In essence, Jacob is gifted back the same number of years to spend with Joseph, to have a life ‘do over.’ Many moments in life present themselves to us more than once, and we can seize the chance to live them differently. We watch to see if Jacob uses the second seventeen years to parent Joseph differently.
           
Yet, one of the most powerful lessons we learn from Jacob about life happens as he prepares for his death. Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons: Ephraim and Menashe. Joseph lines them up by birth order, but Jacob crosses his arms to place his right hand on the head of the youngest instead of the eldest. Throughout Genesis, we learn that names connect to essence and inform destinies. Joseph named his eldest son ‘Menashe,’ a name that means he hopes to forget the pain of his past, while his youngest son’s name, ‘Ephraim,’ means to be fruitful in his future. One name is negative, and one name is positive. Jacob, their grandfather, crosses his arms so he becomes the conduit through which to balance the names and destinies of his grandchildren. Jacob shows us that balance is key, and that older generations teach life balance.
           
Every Friday night, we place our hands on the heads of our children and we do what Jacob did. Daughters are blessed to be as our matriarchs, and we reverse the order of the names of Leah and Rachel. Sons are blessed to be as Ephraim and Menashe, Jacob’s grandsons, and we reverse the order of their names when we say it.
           
This week, we learn two crucial life lessons from Jacob. We learn that life presents us with parallel moments of choice, moments that centre on us. But we also know we don’t secure the future through us, we secure it through the generations to come, and that the greatest blessing we can give our children, and our grandchildren, is the blessing of balance. 
 
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 Vayigash

This week’s Torah reading, Vayigash, shows us Joseph’s climactic reunion with his brothers.  As a leader in Egypt, Joseph is unrecognizable to his brothers, and on hearing of Jacob, his aging father, Joseph breaks down and reveals his identity to his brothers.  

The brothers stand dumbfounded as Joseph peppers them with questions about his father.   Never once does he ask why no one came to look for him or if his father found out the truth about what happened.  Joseph inquires after his father’s health and then demands that the brothers bring Jacob to Egypt.  

When we look at Joseph’s instructions to his brothers, we find an interesting comment that seems out of place.  Joseph tells his brothers to bring Jacob to Egypt, and then says they should tell him of all the honours Egypt has given Joseph, his high station, and the grandeur they have witnessed.  We’re suddenly aware of the human moment that speaks to us all: Joseph is trying to impress Jacob.

With all of Joseph’s accomplishments, it is most important to him that his father be made aware.  Every child wants to bring a moment of pride to their parent, to hear the praise of accomplishment, to know they have taken a step forward.  Joseph has sustained hundreds of thousands through a famine, but still feels the need to know that his father, Jacob, is proud of him.

It’s these human moments that speak so strongly to us —we have all stood where Joseph stands.  As adults, we learn to measure our own accomplishments, to find the moments to feel proud of ourselves. As children, we’ve all watched our parents watching us, and learned to recognize that feeling when we see pride in their eyes.  It is the touchstone we all need to build self-confidence –we then learn how to feel proud of ourselves.  

Part of us will always indulge the child within who watches our parent for that moment.  It is timeless, as we connect with the memories of our parents for that same moment, even long after they’ve gone.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayeshev

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just another reason to cherish this beautiful narrative.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Chayei Sarah

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayera

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayera

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Lech Lecha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on parashat Bereishit

Rachael’s Thoughts on parashat Bereishit

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Parshat 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!

C’est La Guerre

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week.  My week was filled with classes winding down and celebrations winding up.  My weekly Torah and Mussar classes are taking a break for a few weeks and, as Chanukah is approaching, some of the schools and shuls are starting to have Chanukah inspired events.

In one of those moments, I was walking through the halls of a Jewish day school in Toronto. I had the pleasure of standing next to a line up of kindergarten kids waiting to go out for recess.  They must have just finished a class in Torah, since they were all talking about God speaking to Abraham and Sarah. They were wondering what language God was speaking. Intrigued, I stood a little closer.  One of them said God spoke Hebrew and English. They all agreed and stood quietly for a minute. Then one kid said they forgot one language that God was speaking. They forgot that God was speaking French to Abraham.  I stood quietly as they all agreed that, yes, of course, God was speaking French!

The kids ran out to recess and I was left in the hallway wondering how, on earth, they had such unanimous agreement that the Almighty Creator of the Universe was speaking French to Abraham and Sarah.  Then it hit me clearly. God was speaking Hebrew, English and French because we teach them Hebrew, English and French. For non-Canadian readers, quick reminder that Canada has two official languages: English and French. Both are taught starting in elementary school.  The beauty of the conversation in the hallway was that six year olds were reflecting what we all feel: why would we learn something if it’s not relevant to us?

So, I can’t help but think about a moment in this week’s parshah, Vayishlach.  We read the text where Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed Israel. It’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s mystical…but when’s the last time you wrestled with an angel and got a new name?  How is it relevant to me in anything I do?

But, the Torah doesn’t say Jacob is wrestling with an angel, it says he’s wrestling with ‘a man’.  Jacob, himself, isn’t sure who he’s wrestling with and, in the end, concludes he wrestled with God.  Hosea, the prophet, says the man was an angel and we have accepted Hosea’s understanding. There are midrashim and commentaries that discuss which angel Jacob struggles with, while others explore the idea that Jacob is actually wrestling with himself – we are witness to a primal, internal struggle of identity and transformation.  And there lies the relevance.

The incident occurs the night before Jacob meets his twin brother, Esau, after years of estrangement.  Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright and will now face Esau and be held accountable for his actions.  Everything is on the line and Jacob must now confront his past. He struggles with the entity no one is able to name.  

There are moments in all our lives when we face things we’ve done in the past. Choices we ourselves may not fully understand or be proud of.  Things that occurred in the past, yet somehow lay in wait for us in future moments. Things we continually revisit and struggle with. It doesn’t matter if the moments are embodied within an external angel, or within our internal subconscious, because the wrestlings with these moments are real.  In fact, we have all been Jacob on a dark, quiet night, struggling with an unknown being.

And then the resolution is powerful.  The ‘angel’ blesses Jacob with a new name: Israel.  The word itself is explained as struggling with God and humanity with the ability to prevail.  It is an understanding of the nature and strength of the man, and the nation, who will bear that name.  But the word ‘Israel’ is also the initials of all the ancestors: the 1st letter is for Yitzchak and Ya’akov, the 2nd for Sarah, the 3rd for Rebecca and Rachel, the 4th for Abraham and the last for Leah.  In Judaism, names are essence and so the essence of our ancestors lies within the name of our people, within our identities. It is who we all have been and where we all come from.

But the very same word speaks of the future and authenticity of how we express.  The word that tells us who we were is the same word that tells us we have the strength to be anything in the future.  We have been blessed with the strength to argue and defend the journey we choose, even if the argument is directly with God.

In that light, the text in this week’s parshah is possibly one of the most relevant.  In our dark moments, when we face ourselves and our unknown beings of struggle, we remember that we will always meet who we were, we will struggle, and then we will move forward to continuously shape ourselves into who we choose to be.  The blessing is in the struggle.

So, who am I to deny that in the midst of some ancient moment of angst and doubt, Abraham or Sarah turned to God and asked why things have to be so hard.  Maybe in the complexity of an ancient Divine explanation of the metaphysical workings of the universe…maybe somewhere in that moment… maybe God spoke French.