Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shlach

This week’s Torah portion, Shlach, describes the twelve spies that Moses sent into Israel.  Two of them brought back a positive and encouraging report, while ten of them spoke negatively. Ultimately, this event adds forty years to Israel’s wanderings in the desert.  But amidst Moses’ great plan that went awry, we learn two important details about Judaism and ourselves.

In Judaism, we are taught to be careful with our words, as they affect changes in the world.  We are not allowed to speak badly of people, and we’re discouraged from speaking badly about anything.  We understand that we are part of humanity, and therefore it’s understood that we are not to speak badly of ourselves.  Loving our neighbours as ourselves includes the understanding that we are no better nor worse than others, and we owe ourselves the same respect we offer to others.  The spies violated this rule.

Buried in their report, the spies stated that they appeared like grasshoppers to the inhabitants of the land.  They referred to themselves as annoyances, nuisances, bugs.  But these are the people God redeemed from Egypt, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah -to demean themselves is to diminish Jewish ancestry and God’s intervention in history.  To belittle ourselves is to belittle all those who contributed to who we are.

The second lesson from this moment is that they accurately described the process of projection.  They stated that ‘we appeared as grasshoppers in our eyes, so we must have appeared as such in their eyes’.  In other words, the feeling of inadequacy originates within and is then assumed to be seen by everyone.  Self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness are things we harbour within us, and then project outwardly to others.  We conclude there is nothing else for them to see and so become our greatest barrier. We have already accepted a failed outcome.

The story of the spies teaches us how careful we must be with our words, and how greatly they influence outcomes.  But we also learn the importance of self-respect.  Each of us carries a divine spark within us.  When we choose to recognize that spark, we understand how harmful the words of the spies truly were.  We learn from their mistake by honouring ourselves and each other.

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 HaGadol

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol – the Grand Shabbat.  It is always the Shabbat before Pesach, and there is much debate in our texts on how it got its name.  An interesting comment suggests that as we prepare to leave Egypt, we are given our first commandment as Jews.  We are told to separate the lamb to be sacrificed at Pesach.  We are still in Egypt, still slaves, yet being commanded to start to think as free people –to make choices.  The first choice we must make is one of identity.  Do we choose covenant and freedom, or do we choose Egypt and slavery?

This same view tells us that the moment of Jewish choosing happens when we are Bnei Mitzvah, when each of us reaches Jewish adulthood.  That is the moment we are responsible for the commandments, and for adding our voice to the choir of Jewish thinkers throughout time.  On that day we become an adult, or, in Hebrew, Gadol.  That is how this Shabbat gets its name.  We step over the threshold into the understanding of freedom and choices.  We accept that while we are commanded to obey the Torah,  it will always boil down to our free will –we choose to express ourselves through this identity.

Starting with Shabbat HaGadol, and growing in excitement as the Seders approach, we remember that our Jewish choices are there to enhance us, to enrich us, and to elevate us.    Lofty ideals, igniting concepts –one might even say stepping into the Grand Shabbat.  How better to prepare for our celebration of freedom!

 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 Tzav

As we continue to read of biblical sacrifices, we sit today and ask how these commandments can be relevant in our current lives.  Parshat Tzav, this week’s Torah reading, outlines the sacrifices and all their details.  Eventually, Jewish history will bring the sacrificial system to a halt with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  From then on, Judaism forbids the bringing of any sacrifices.

Yet, we continue to read of them, and we continue to mention them in our prayers.  If we are forbidden to bring sacrifices, why do we keep their details so alive?

In fact, Jewish tradition emphasizes sacrifices even more by stating that children should begin their study of Torah with the book of Leviticus, the laws of sacrifices.  One of our oldest texts explains that children begin with studying sacrifices because the goal of the sacrifices was to bring us back to a place of purity, and our children always exist in a state of purity, so “let the pure connect with the pure” and strengthen us.  

The Hebrew word for sacrifice in the Torah is the word korban.  It means ‘drawing near’.  In the ancient world we are taught to draw near to God through physical sacrifices.  Later, the Sages teach us that we can also draw near to God through studying Torah and speaking of the details of sacrifice.  The Midrash tells us that when our children learn of their Judaism, and their priceless legacy of Torah, they draw all of us closer to God.

Physical sacrifices no longer speak to our Jewish reality, but we keep them present in our religious view and our prayers.  We understand that the goal is to create a personal closeness with God and to use the power of that relationship to change the world.  

There are infinite ways to get there –watching our children learn of their ancient unbroken Jewish chain is one of those ways.

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 Pekudei

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, tells us that Moses put the Ten Commandments into the Ark of the Covenant. Both sets of tablets – the ones he broke, and the ones he delivered to Israel. The Ark of the Covenant held both the broken pieces and the whole tablets.
 
When something is broken, it cannot function as intended, and we are taught to throw it away. But when something is broken, it does not mean it is useless. Certain things can still function, sometimes to remind us of important lessons or to motivate us to find repairs. Broken things can be cautionary tales.
 
In Judaism, a core value is our commitment to Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world. We believe the world is a place filled with cracks and breakage by the very nature of how life functions. We do not walk away. On the contrary, we commit ourselves to find new and creative ways to implement a change, a healing, a repair.
 
Our eyes were meant to move from the shards of broken tablets to the whole ones and back again, always aware that the potential of each to become the other is quite real.
 
This week we’ve been watching one country try to break another. It is happening across an ocean, seemingly distant from us, but we might struggle with layered family histories in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s easy to get confused about what we feel. In these moments we listen to our Jewish values reminding us to respond with support, with donations and with our voices.
 
We remember that the Ark of the Covenant held both the broken and the complete. While we remember the harsh reality of the shattered one, our eyes would always move to the other, inspiring us to find ways of repairing so it becomes whole again.
 
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 Tisa

Judaism and the arts have always spoken to each other in halting conversations.  The Ten Commandments forbids us graven images. We don’t have a strong history of visual arts.  In fact, we might think that art is discouraged, and perhaps the artist is to be marginalised. But is it all visual art that is forbidden, or is it the creation of an idol?

We definitely have a rich history of singing, dancing and creative storytelling –all the other major art forms.  In fact, some of our most artful quips lie in the legacy of Yiddish curses (‘May our enemies go to hell and only pack sweaters’).  

Even with our hesitancy around visual arts, the Torah this week, in parshat Ki Tisa, discusses the heart of an artist.  We meet the first Jewish artist, Bezalel Ben-Uri, and we immediately notice his name: ‘Bezalel’ means ‘In the shadow of God’, and ‘Ben-Uri’ means ‘Child of My Light’.  The artist is to feel most comfortable in the greys, in the shadows, never seeing the world as black and white.  At the same time, the artist is to see something new, a light, an inspiration.  That is what embeds into the art that is produced, the windows offered for new perspectives.

It continues to say that God inspires the heart of the artist; God is the Divine Muse.  Since God is infused into creation itself, it is the universe that becomes the inspiration.  It is the view of eternity that opens the artist.  

Judaism does not dismiss the artist, on the contrary, we are shown the potential power to inspire and to influence.  We are cautioned not to worship such power or to ignore its influence.  The artists in history have often sacrificed more than we can imagine by being so powerfully inspired.  

In fact, these layers that lie between the artist and God are so complex, we often can’t imagine their implications.  If God answers all prayers, Beethoven is not deaf and the music he gives would not change the world.  

May we always be inspired by these souls.

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 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