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

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 Toldot

This Shabbat we read parshat Toldot, and the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  It is also the Shabbat before Remembrance Day, November 11, as we remember our Canadian soldiers and veterans.  It’s interesting that these two things speak to each other with relevance for today.

The story of Jacob and Esau resonates as the story of two brothers in conflict. Jacob trades the stew he has made for Esau’s blessing as the eldest son. Esau feels betrayed when he later realizes he will not receive that blessing.  Jacob flees from his brother, Esau, who has pledged to kill him.  

       From Jacob’s point of view, the blessing was obtained fairly and legally.  From Esau’s point of view, it was a fleeting momentary decision, and doesn’t speak to the emotional reality of losing his father’s blessing.  Jacob sees the covenant while Esau sees his father’s love.  Both brothers sit in a single event with conflicting perspectives that cannot be reconciled.  It is the story of every human conflict —it is headed for war.

As we cross time from the ancient world to today, we often sit in this reality.  We struggle with warfare, aiming for peace which is often elusive.  Remembrance Day is a time for us to honour those people who risk everything to bring peace.  The Torah teaches us that peace is not a natural state, it is something to be solicited, pursued, negotiated, and fought for.  On Remembrance Day we remember the values for which someone would risk everything.  We honour the people as well as their vision.

       Jacob will eventually solicit Esau for peace.  In doing so, he will offer back the riches he has obtained, and Esau will refuse them.  The brothers are able to close the pain of the past and consider the hope of a future.

      On Remembrance Day, we remember our soldiers, veterans, and heroes.  We remember the pain of their loss, as we affirm knowing that everything they did, and everything they risk, is to consider a hope for our future.

       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

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.

Same Old, Same Old? Hardly!

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week and a great end of Sukkot.

At this point in the Jewish calendar, we start reading the Torah from the beginning again.  The very first chapter of the very first book: Genesis. It is a milestone and we mark it by naming this Shabbat: Shabbat Bereishit.

We read the Torah over and over again, not because it’s ‘same old – same old’, but because we search for new perspectives on things we think we already know.  We are not seeking the information, so much as we are seeking the innovation.

And so…

I thought I might explore a few things we thought we knew and maybe a few new perspectives.

It seems pretty straightforward, in Genesis, that God created man and then took a rib out and created woman.  Understood that way, man is created in God’s image and woman is, quite literally, a side effect of the process.  At least, that’s what it says in the English.

In the Hebrew, the word we translate as ‘rib’ is not so straightforward.  There is a strong reading, in ancient Jewish texts, that translates the word as ‘side’.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai specifically describes the first human being as a two-sided, androgynous being – one side male and one side female.  According to him, they were joined back-to-back and could therefore never look at the same thing in the same way at the same time. If they communicated well with each other, they would create a totality of view, if not, they would argue about what each was seeing because, in fact, they were seeing different things.

According to this reading, God puts the human to sleep and removes one side (not one rib), thereby separating male and female so they can now face each other.  It creates a partnership between the genders and not a hierarchy.

Ah, the things we thought we knew.  No more movies named ‘Adam’s Rib’ (one of my favourites), no more references to ‘women are from Venus and men are from Mars’ (thank God no one came from Pluto – we know what happened to Pluto…). A new perspective on dialogues that are incomplete unless both voices are recognized and heard.

Yet, once the word translates into ‘rib’, Rabbi Shimon’s opinion retreats into the quiet background.

But Genesis does not only give us the beginnings of the world, it also gives us the beginnings of religious law.  The first ‘thou shalt’ (be fruitful and multiply) and the first ‘thou shalt not’ (don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge), followed by the first ‘don’t blame me’ human response.

Which brings us to the question of Judaism and the commandments.

There are 613 commandments in Judaism, with the full recognition that no one can possibly keep all 613 of them.  Interesting, although we understand no one can keep them all, we still judge each other and label entire communities based on the commandments they keep.  Somehow we have concluded an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ attitude toward the mitzvot, and we can’t agree on what constitutes a penny or a pound.

We expect that if a woman observes Shabbat, she shouldn’t be wearing pants.  If a man puts tefillin on in the morning, he should be wearing a kippah all day.  The list goes on and on (remember, 613 of these things). One of the judgmental statements I’ve heard people say about someone is that they pick and choose which commandments to keep.  It is never said in a positive way.

Yet, Judaism expects us to pick and choose.  Once we say we can’t do all of them, it now necessitates that we pick and choose.  The ‘Code of Jewish Law’, the book that lists all the mitzvot, is a mistranslation of the book’s actual name: Shulkhan Arukh’ – the Set Table.  A ‘code’ means you must adhere to everything, whereas a set table invites you to take a seat and fill your plate. Only you know what to put on your plate.  If you put too much, you will overeat and make yourself sick; if you put too little, you will walk away hungry. Every now and then you will be curious to taste something new and see how it feels.  Some people like to sit at the table and watch others enjoy, though they themselves choose not to eat. Judaism invites you to the table, assures you there is a seat ready for you with a set table of soulful delicacies – who could resist?

And so, we learn to pick and choose, we learn to grow and try more, or to leave something for now, knowing it is still there for later.  The difference is, we should pick and choose with pride!

Judaism never describes a hypocrite as someone who keeps one commandment but not another.  On the contrary, the Talmud repeatedly describes a hypocrite as someone who keeps many commandments with a false nature, or worse, for the purpose of misleading others.

According to Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, Heaven will judge those who wrap themselves entirely in their tallit.  The ones who use mitzvot to isolate themselves from the suffering of others, from the world around them. That is a Jewish hypocrite. 

Things we thought we knew…new perspectives on old information.  Can’t wait to start reading Genesis again!

To Yom Kippur…and Back

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah.  With that said, the High Holidays have begun and we are approaching Yom Kippur.

A non-Jewish friend of mine asked me recently why these holidays are called ‘High’.  I immediately flashed to the Hebrew name for these holidays: ‘Yamim Hanoraim’, the Terrible Days of Dread…I decided I couldn’t tell him that…

But it definitely got me thinking about how difficult it can be to actually celebrate these holidays, when they’re filled with prayers that include: ‘who by fire’ – followed by a long list of horrible fates.  Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and deprivation of the body, something Judaism tells us not to do too often. In fact, many people won’t wear leather because it’s so soft and comfortable and we want to deprive ourselves (more on that later, it’s actually not that simple).

So, I’ve decided that we need to recapture the celebration of these holidays, and maybe one of the best ways is to visit some of the lesser known stories of great Rabbis and Sages who struggled with some of these same questions.

One of my favourite stories is of the Chassidic Rebbes who spent so much time preparing for these holidays, that they isolated themselves from their students.  Of course, this would only make their students more curious about what they were doing and a few crafty ones would follow their Rebbes to see what they were doing.

In one story, the student discovers that the Rebbe is not teaching his students because he is dressing as a peasant and going to the cottage of a single old woman in the forest.  The Rebbe would speak to this non-Jewish woman in her native tongue (meaning not Yiddish) and would do chores around her cottage. The work included chopping wood and preparing meals as well as serving her the food.  She had no idea who he was and he never accepted payment. The student hid in the woods and saw his Rebbe do this day after day. After a week or so, the other students asked if anyone knew where the Rebbe was and what he was doing to prepare for the High Holidays.  One student said that the Rebbe is so holy, he must be going to heaven and back. The student who knew the truth of where the Rebbe was going finally broke his silence and spoke. He said that he has followed the Rebbe and he can confirm that the Rebbe is not going to heaven – he is ascending even higher.

In another story, a great Rabbi would shut himself away from his students for weeks before the High Holidays and study, frantically writing for days and days.  He’d stop in order to pray on Rosh Hashanah and then begin the same routine again until Yom Kippur. Every year the same thing happened. Finally, one trusted student asked him to please explain what was going on.  The Rabbi said that up to Rosh Hashanah, he is studying Torah and writing down the promises and agreements God has made with humanity and with particular people. On Rosh Hashanah, he would include his list in his prayers and read it over and over again to God.  After Rosh Hashanah he did the same thing, reflecting on his own personal promises and agreements from the last year and he would write them down. On Yom Kippur, he would read his list in his prayers over and over again to God. Toward the end of Yom Kippur, the Rabbi would hold both lists close to his heart and say: ‘this year we have both left things unfulfilled with much work to do.  I ask You for Your forgiveness and I give you mine.’

A few years ago, I came across the writings of a Rabbi in a displaced persons camp in Europe right after the Shoah.  It was Erev Yom Kippur and the Rabbi later writes that he looked at the crowd of people assembled to hear Kol Nidre. He writes of his moment of disbelief that so many Jews gathered for Yom Kippur, having just survived the horrors of the Nazi regime.  He looked at the crowd, and through tears, he pronounced they have nothing to beg forgiveness for, they are not to fast on this Yom Kippur, they have atoned enough.

And as we prepare ourselves to go to shul for the holiday, I’d like to share the thoughts of a Sage recorded in the Talmud.  In discussing their personal prayers, one Sage shared that he considers his clothing to be part of his personal prayer. Deciding what to wear to prayer, according to him, is a decision of self-expression, as are the words of his prayer and therefore it must be a deliberate choice of clothing.

Often times we angst over what to wear to shul based on very mundane and superficial reasons.  If I wore that dress last year, can I wear it again this year? (Interesting how we think people care or would even remember what we wore last year…isn’t ego a funny thing?)

And while we’re talking about what to wear, I’d like to revisit the prohibition on leather that many people observe.  One of the ideas about prayer that we learn, is that it is not appropriate to pray for things we ourselves are not willing to give.  In other words, praying to God for compassion would be ironic, if we ourselves do not act compassionately toward others. By extension, if on Yom Kippur we are praying to God for life, remembering that our clothing is part of our prayer, how ironic if we are clothed in the skin of an animal whose life we took only so we could be more comfortable.

While Yom Kippur can certainly be looked at as the Day of Dread, the decisions of fate and destiny that scare us, there is the other side to the holiday.  The stories of spirituality and compassion that connect one person to another; the nuances of accountability that connect us to God; the moment we elevate our wardrobe to an expression of the holy.

I love exploring all of that to the heights these concepts open.  I also think I need to prepare my husband for the hours to come, standing in front of my closet, while I ask over and over: “what to wear, what to wear?”