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 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

Chag Samaech for Tu B’Shevat

Chag Sameach! 

In the ancient world we needed to know how old are the trees and the vegetation.  That way we would know when we’re allowed to harvest from nature for eating and sacrifices, and when we need to leave things alone.  In our modern world, we continue to celebrate this holiday and its perspective on knowing when we can take from nature, when we can share from nature, and when we need to take a step back and not intrude.  We plant trees and we garden on Tu B’Shvat, and in some communities there is a Tu B’Shvat Seder (festive meal) that includes eating from the 7 species of Israel while mixing white and red wines to create the colours of the earth.

Please feel free to click the link below for great insights into Tu B’Shevat as well as fun, meaningful ways you and your family can celebrate.

Dr. Rachael Turkienicz’s video on What is Tu B’Shevat?

Dr. Rachael Turkienicz’s video on Tu B’Shevat: Not the Jewish Arbor Day

Dr. Rachael Turkienicz’s video on The 7 Species of Tu B’Shevat

Dr. Rachael Turkienicz’s video on  A Little Insight on Tu B’Shevat for Rosh Chodesh Shevat

How to Celebrate Tu B’Shevat in the dead of winter

From Kveller.com

9 Ways to Celebrate Tu B’Shevat with kids

From pjlibrary.com

https://pjlibrary.org/beyond-books/pjblog/january-2013/ways-to-celebrate-tu-b-shevat

Tu B’Shevat – new year for the trees

From chabad.org

https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/615205/jewish/Tu-BiShvat.htm

9 symbolic ways to celebrate Tu B’Shevat 

From jscreen.org

Tu B’Shevat coloring pages

From aish.com

https://www.aish.com/h/15sh/mm/52826512.html

Tu B’shevat crossword puzzle

From ourjewishcommunity.org

https://www.ourjewishcommunity.org/wp-content/pdfs/tu_b_shevat_crossword.pdf

Tu B’shevat word search

From ourjewishcommunity.org

https://www.ourjewishcommunity.org/wp-content/pdfs/tu_b_shevat_wordsearch.pdf

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

This week’s parshah, Miketz, details Joseph’s life in Egypt.  Joseph is our Jewish ancestor who lives his life blending into the larger culture around him.  He holds his covenantal identity in his heart, but he appears outwardly like anyone else.  

  We love the details of the story because we all want to teach our children to do what Joseph did.  Hearing Pharaoh’s concerns, Joseph describes the job needed to solve the problem, and then applies for that job.  

  In fact, everything goes beautifully until his family arrives.  Joseph must now find a way to blend his worlds into one identity.  Creating an identity that prospers in a dominant culture is challenging enough, but it becomes even more layered when two cultures are vying for our identities.  

  Chanukah is the holiday that speaks to us of a time when we tried blending cultural identities only to find that the dominant culture around us didn’t want the blend – it wanted assimilation.  This week we celebrate recognizing that important difference as we insisted on self-defining.  Chanukah marks a time when we encountered identity questions from the outside as well as from the inside.  One of the strongest lessons of Chanukah is that we do not live isolated from other cultures, but we do not ever forfeit our Jewish core, or our right to define our own identities.  

Eight little candles that remind us of the spiritual strength that lies within each of us as we navigate a complex world of cultural offerings.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

And So This is Purim!

And So This is Purim!

(Sung to the tune of John Lennon’s: “And So This is Christmas”…because it’s… Purim!)

And so this is Purim,

And what have we done?

Another year over

And a new one’s just begun.

Let’s wear our Zoom filters

And don our Zoom masks

Let’s drink a L’chaim

And swig from our flasks

But party in private

No large Shushan feast

We increase our ‘happy’

But the parties decrease

So a very merry Purim

Take a moment to notice

We came close to disaster

But they couldn’t quite smote us.

(okay, not proud of that last rhyme but…it’s Purim so I can take rhyming liberties).

Today is Purim and we’re supposed to switch things up, listen to the Megillah, boo at Haman, and remember that being a Jew in exile means standing on the shifting sands of politics.  This year, of all years, we don’t need Purim to teach us about how crazy the world can get.  This year, we look for deeper messages of the holiday that can speak to us right now.

This morning, on my online weekly coffee discussion, we looked at the Megillah, and its message of privilege.  This year I saw it clearly, while every other year it sat quietly in the text waiting for its moment.

The Megillah begins with a portrait of complete privilege: the king is hosting endless feasting and debauchery for his invited privileged guests.  The description is surprising in its excess and the midrashim add details that complete the picture of privilege.  Within this setting, Queen Vashti is told to appear.  At this point, the story will unfold as an ongoing introduction of decreasing privilege.  The queen, who has little choice, refuses, and is ‘gotten rid of’.  The advisors have told the king that if his ultimate power (privilege) is challenged, then all wives will challenge their husbands — those of lesser power (privilege) will begin to question their standings, and challenge the rung above them. Esther is chosen as queen , and will gain privilege, but only as long as she hides who she is, Mordecai has told her she must hide her identity because he knows that knowledge of her people will rob her of any power she might attain.  Esther can blend, she can pass, she lives the life of the imposter.

The stand-off between Haman and Mordecai plays out the same way.  In fact, every detail from that moment onward speaks of a switching of privilege — the doors that open, the safety that privilege provides, and the redefinition of the society when it is challenged.

In the final moments of the narrative, the Jewish people (previously on the bottom rung of the ladder, facing a genocide) are allowed to arm themselves, and deliver a pre-emptive strike against those who had already armed against them.  It is the eleventh hour reversal.

Up to this moment in the Megillah, Esther and Mordecai tell us of the events of their time, but they have not yet weighed in on what we should do because of it.  Only in the last verses of the Megillah do they tell us to read their story every year, make it a day of joyous festivities and send presents to the poor.  In other words, hear their cautionary tale, remember it is a repeating story of hatred and privilege, combat the sadness of that fact with the expression of joy, and fight the reality of privilege by reaching out to anyone in need.  Try to equalize our society by sharing what is ours, and creating a bond across the strata of power.

I’m not sure that even Esther and Mordecai could have known how relevant their message has become. This year I read the Megillah with joy, and I add a measure of gratitude.

Happy Purim and shabbat shalom!

Check out Rachael’s revamped video for Purim:

Rachael hosts Food For Our Neshama, Coffee For Me Friday mornings from 10-10:30am ET on Zoom. The link is on our homepage.

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’.

The Sixth Candle: I Need a Hero

One of the festive songs of Hanukkah is ‘Mi Yimalel’ – ‘Who Will Speak Of’.  Not to take anything away from our classic ‘Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel’, Mi Yimalel is a bit more layered in describing what it is we are celebrating.

When we speak of Hanukkah and the Maccabees, we often talk about the war they waged and the victory of the few over the many.  It is the stuff of fantasies. Unfortunately, outside of discussing a war, we often only think of oil, fried foods and dreidels.  Is the sophistication of Hanukkah sitting in a celebration of warfare?

The song ‘Mi Yimalel’ asks who will speak of the mighty deeds of Israel.  It then proceeds to state that every generation needs a hero who can lead everyone.  It concludes by saying that in our day all Jews must unite and stand together.

As Jews, we don’t celebrate a war or the killing of an enemy.  We celebrate heroes, leaders and the brave people with vision who unite us when we so easily divide ourselves.

Hanukkah celebrates the understanding that brave leaders with strong Jewish grounding can bring us to a place where we can overcome insurmountable odds.