Parshat Ki Teitzei: Is It Really Blowing in the Wind?

The world is now functioning online in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few months ago.  Work, school, shopping, entertainment, social encounters and shul are now part of our online existences.  It’s been an incredible learning curve for me.  When I first started shopping online, I allowed the ‘shopper’ to make replacements to food items that were out of stock.  I ended up with several non-kosher products my family couldn’t eat, and so began the weekly bag of food that I gave to my neighbour, the Anglican minister.  I shopped for clothes that weren’t exactly what I thought, patio furniture that never arrived, electronics that glitched and television channel subscriptions that I forgot would renew after the two week trial period.  I started to build my Facebook page for online social interactions, but once my friends group grew, I became too intimidated to actually post anything.  Online living has become the country I now live in, never having planned the trip.

I remember first learning of what ‘online’ meant through music sharing and something called Napster (for those of you who remember what that is, I don’t need to explain, for everyone too young to know about it, essentially we got to look at other people’s playlists and download anything they had that we wanted -it was a world where everyone was innocent and didn’t feel they were violated by you having access into my private computer files…we have since learned better).  At first, it didn’t occur to the average person that we were all infringing on copyright laws.  Then it didn’t occur to us that the artists who created all that wonderful music would never be paid for their genius.  When all these issues came out, the argument I kept hearing was that ‘if it’s in the air, it’s free.’  Radio waves, actually, any waves, once put into the air shouldn’t belong to anyone, so technically I can grab what I want out of the air.  I mean, how can you license the right to use air?

Napster was sued, people were charged, education took place and we understood that online still has protocols, legalities and decency of ownership and acknowledgments.  

We used to think the same thing about water.  When I was growing up, only science fiction described a world where people would pay money for water.  It comes from the ground, or falls from the sky, why would we pay for that?  If it’s in the air, it’s free.  Does a country own the air above it?  If so, how far up?  At what point is it outer space and ownerless?  Who decided how far a country’s border rights extend into the oceans?  If we call it ‘international waters’ does that mean all nations own it or no nations own it?

It’s a tricky concept, the idea of understanding how ownership and economics can play into the natural world we all need and share.  We’re still trying to figure it out, while the Torah introduces a perspective on all this that is unique in its understanding of nuance and human bond.

In this week’s portion, Parshat Ki Teitzei, the Torah discusses what a labourer is entitled to, in terms of ‘eating on the job’.  When someone is working in the fields of a landowner, the worker is entitled to eat the raw produce from the land, but cannot take any of it home.  In other words, until the produce of the land begins its economic journey (wheat being milled or olives being pressed, etc.), it is part of what the land gives the world and therefore the worker is entitled to share.  Once it begins its transformation into processed goods for market, it now becomes a commodity, owned by the corporate owner.

The picture in the Torah is one of ownership and balance.  Some of us own things, some of us produce what others own, some of us sell what others produce and on and on.  At some point, we must all find a moment of equalization and participation in understanding that raw materials from the earth remind us that only God truly owns the world and we impact it with the permissions the Owner has granted.  The harvesters can eat from the grapes being harvested while they are in their hands (and it’s lunchtime so they do not take time they are paid for and compound it by eating the inventory – Mishnah’s got that one covered).  Workers should not be hungry while they collect food, but food that moves from the earth to the processing plant is now owned and must not be eaten by another.

The Torah tells us that working to feed others should not leave me poor and hungry, but those who hire me to work there should not be my family’s personal food bank.  There is a balance to be struck between what nature gives us, what we put into it and how we enjoy the benefit of it.

I don’t know if the world will ever return to its pre-online realities.  Will shopping ever look the same?  I hope, one day, we can sit together in a beautiful concert hall and enjoy the full body experience of an orchestra.  If we do, the music will fill us, the notes will float in the air for everyone sitting there to enjoy.  If I worked in that concert hall and helped bring about that reality, the Torah would absolutely allow me to pause in my work and enjoy the beauty of the sound, as it would also always prohibit me from recording it to take home —even if the last note resonates and hangs in the air.

Parshat Mishpatim: Something’s Not Kosher in Denmark

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Mishpatim, has some very controversial and challenging laws.  Statements about witches and slaves and seducing virgins seem to fade into the background as compared with the tiny statement about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.

For many people, the parameters of kosher revolve around not eating pork or bacon, not eating any shellfish, and separating milk and meat.  When my kids were little, my father would tell them they were so delicious he could eat them up. One of my kids looked at him and said ‘silly Zaidy, people aren’t kosher.’  It was a sweet moment for me because my dad usually didn’t tease that way (grandparenting is a whole new way of expressing) and I got to see that my kid understood that people are animals who don’t have split hooves or chew cud.  Win/win.

But living in a community that keeps kosher creates a familiarity with something we easily forget is so foreign to others.  A friend of mine once told me about a time that he had non-Jewish colleagues over for dinner for the first time. They planned to cook a meal together.  He explained to them how his kitchen was laid out and that he keeps meat and dairy separate. Every cabinet and drawer was labelled in advance and meat and dairy were colour coordinated so things were pretty easy to navigate.  Dinner went great and while they were cleaning after and he was doing the dishes, he decided to have a moment of what he thought would be levity. He turned to his friends and said ‘Oh no! You put the dairy garbage into the meat garbage!!’  He went back to washing dishes chuckling to himself about how cute and funny he was but when he turned back around his friends were rummaging through the garbage separating the meat from the dairy. When he told me the story I started laughing and he chuckled again, this time at my reaction.  He asked me why separating the garbage was any more ridiculous to them than anything else about his kitchen.

He was right.

In fact, there are two different categories of keeping kosher in the Torah: the rational and the irrational.  An irrational law in Judaism is called a ‘hok’. That is where we find the categories of kosher animals and the list of birds we can and cannot eat.  They are irrational because left to our own devices we would never have figured out not to eat a pig. Once we can eat another living thing, why would we be limited to some and not others?  It does not lie within the realm of logic, it lies within the realm of meaningfulness and so each Jewish approach will give it meaning in different ways.  

Then there are the rational laws, ‘mishpatim’, the laws we would have derived on our own because they are the result of logical thinking.  Laws like not stealing or murdering fall in this domain. The laws in this week’s parshah fall in this domain…and so does separating milk and meat.

We mark this separation because the Torah forbids cooking a kid in its own mother’s milk.  Since we can never be sure which animal belonged to which mother, we separate all meat from milk.  The law has grown into separating our dishes, our utensils and in some communities, separating appliances as well.  But how is it logical?

There is definitely a cruelty to taking a baby animal, slaughtering it and then cooking it in the milk its own mother made.  But the cruelty only exists within us, the animals would never know. The Torah is teaching us the logical understanding of cruel concepts that embed within innocuous actions.  And that’s just the start.

The milk a mother produces is specifically there for her offspring.  Its purpose is to nourish and secure a new life. It has no other purpose and most animals become milk intolerant once their digestive systems mature.  Milk’s function is to promote life and begin the relationships of bonding and trust with another. (See my blog on Parshat Beshalach for other “mother’s milk” imagery in the Torah.)

Eating meat, according to the Torah, is self-indulgent.  Something Judaism tells us is a concession on God’s part introduced into the world after the Flood.  It is understood as more of a lust than a reasoned choice. Immediately after the Flood, the Torah lists the 7 Noahide laws, one of which is to never eat the limb off a living animal.  Humanity may eat meat but must kill the animal first. In other words, eating meat must now necessitate interacting with death.

So while milk exclusively supports life, meat must interact with death.  As Judaism often reminds us to choose life, it is now crucial that we understand the images and symbols we use everyday.

It is logical to not inculcate cruel concepts within us; to recognize that hurting anything must begin with an internal dismissal that it matters.  We would never cook a baby animal in the milk its mother made to nourish it. And growing in holiness, we would understand what we see when we see milk and what we have done when we see meat.  Both are permitted but both must be allowed to speak to us separately.

The complexities layer on top of each other so much, you yearn for the irrational laws that just say ‘do this…don’t ask because it will never make sense anyway’.  But in a parshah that discusses the logic of building a society that tries to give people rights and fairness, how subtle and humbling to see that even the baby kid should be on our minds.  

It’s not about how complicated I can make my kitchen, so much as knowing that avoiding concepts of cruelty and building clarity in my world could bring me to endless layers of meaning.  When symbols work properly, they have no limit to their meanings. I may separate my food but not my dishes or I may separate my dishes but not my sinks, or my sinks but not my dishwasher racks, or… but I could never judge someone who is so struck by the profound message of clarity between life and death that they separate it every way they can.  

The only reason we don’t separate our garbage is because, well, that would be irrational.

Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week.  This morning I woke up a little more stiff than usual.  There’s snow on the ground, I thought, there’s pressure in the air.  Maybe I slept in a strange position or maybe I twisted awkwardly yesterday…

…or maybe it’s the result of waking up a day older.  In the words of that famous rock and roll visionary legend: ‘what a drag it is getting old.’

Actually, I believe that age is a state of mind (as the cliche goes).  Though I’m the first to admit that I believe this because I often forget how old everyone in my family is, so as age affects my memory, I opt to believe it’s a state of mind – and round I go.  

The movement forward, the aging process, the journey of a life.

In this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, we are introduced to a journey that will seed covenant and begin the Jewish people.  God approaches Abraham to accompany God toward…? He is told they are moving toward a place God will show him, in other words, an unknown destiny.  That means he doesn’t know where he’s going, so he won’t know when he gets there – a journey of life.

Not once does Abraham ask ‘are we there yet’, as none of us would ask that question of our life journey, though we always try and imagine the next stage.  I remember being a little girl and getting so excited as every birthday approached because I was getting closer to being a grown up. I remember thinking that when I become a grown up, everything will make sense.  Grown ups have it all figured out and never feel confused. I couldn’t wait to join that club. The journey of life is realizing I’m still waiting to find that club and ultimately understanding that this elusive club doesn’t exist.

Hundreds of years ago, a Protestant minister wrote about his belief that children blame themselves for everything that goes wrong because they understand that the world is run by adults.  Everything wrong in the world must be the result of demons (thinks the child) and if the adults are responsible, then the adults are demons and the world is run by the devil. But, if the child blames themselves for all the problems, then the world, which is run by adults (who are now angels) is a safe place.  Children must blame themselves and think they are the sinful ones or they will never believe the world could be a safe place.

But we know the child is wrong, the world is a confusing and often painful place and it has been impacted tremendously by terrible people.

So it seems that the words of Mick Jagger ring sadly relevant – what a drag indeed.

But then a curious and quirky moment of Torah catches my attention.  

Sarah and Abraham are about to enter Egypt and they are both in their 80s.  Abraham worries that Sarah will be taken into Pharaoh’s harem because of her beauty.  In fact, she is indeed taken into the harem because of her beauty. We all pause and wonder if 80 years old means something different in those days.  What is the average age of the women in this harem?

And then I remember the cover of a newsmagazine I saw years ago.  It was the face of a woman in her 80s, her face, etched with wrinkles, looked like a roadmap of her life.  The headline indicated she was an African woman and considered the most beautiful woman in the region. The article discussed how beauty was defined by life experience and not youth.  In a second I understood that anyone would be honoured and flattered to be chosen by this woman as a partner since she had so much experience she could quickly discern who was an exceptional partner.  Beauty is in the gathering of experiences – the more wrinkles the more beautiful.

Of course Sarah would now be in the harem.  Imagine what the challenges of an uncharted relationship with God would do to her countenance, to her eyes.

The Torah unapologetically shows us that getting older is getting more beautiful because wisdom is beauty.

And so we read of their journey with God, with each other and with the people around them.  As Jews we are taught that everything begins with Lech Lecha, God approaching Abraham to take a journey.  Interestingly, we disconnect this parshah from what happened immediately before it. Abraham did not begin a journey, it is his father, Terach, who began the journey.  His father took the whole family and left the Chaldeans and began a journey of discovery. Then, in the midst of the journey, Terach died and the family stagnated. They dwelled in the place of his death and did not move forward.  That’s when God approaches Abraham and tells him he must journey forward. It is both a statement pulling toward movement as much as a statement objecting to stagnation.

It’s a parallel concept to Shabbat.  We are equally commanded to be productive for 6 days as we are commanded to refrain on Shabbat.  The positive and the negative balancing each other.

So when I wake up stiff in the morning and the words from Mick Jagger enter my mind, I stretch and get the blood flowing.  I remind myself that I can hum the tune and smile at the words, but getting old only gives me more insight to the new travels I will begin.

Abraham and Sarah dislodge themselves, late in their lives, and begin their journey from where Terach left off.  Every Jewish person inherits their own version of the ‘lech lecha’ journey, but we do not set our feet on a newly created road made just for us.  If we glance backward we will see the road has been paved behind us. Abraham and Sarah continue the journey begun by Terach.  

God has told them they must never stagnate as we learn that the journey of a life takes longer than a lifetime.

Fear of ‘The Button’

Hope everyone had a great week.

I had an interesting moment this week. I realized that I am afraid of computers.  Actually, to be honest, I’m afraid there’s a hidden ‘delete’ button somewhere that will activate when I am trying to do something else.  Some kind of ‘control’, then press the ‘capital R’- spell my name – button that will erase everything I’ve been working on. I do not come by this fear lightly.  

Years ago, I was working in a Jewish organization where 30 people were sitting in cubicles in one big room.  It was my first day and I was setting up my work space (I like to personalize things and I get very sensitive to the objects in my surroundings).  I noticed that when I pulled my chair closer to the keyboard, my foot banged on the computer box under my desk. I crawled under the desk to move the box closer to the wall and give myself more leg room.  As I was moving the computer, a cable from the computer loosened – which I only realized when I heard that terrible noise of a droning hum powering down and then silence. The silence lasted a few seconds and then the whole room exploded as 30 people shouted: ‘WHAT HAPPENED?!?’  

Luckily, I was still under my desk because people started moving quickly from computer to computer to see if everyone had lost power, and subsequently, all the documents they’d been working on.  All 30 computers were dead.

My supervisor came into the room and saw me under my desk.  She asked what I was doing and I explained that my knees needed more space.  By this time I was standing up and I noticed the chaos in the room. People were scrambling and my supervisor asked about another worker and was told she went for a walk to calm down.  I found out later, she had been working on a grant proposal online for 3 days and if she logged off, the site kicked her off without saving any of her work.

I also subsequently found out that all the computers on the floor were plugged into my computer, to save money on wiring each of them independently.  Yes, it was a fire hazard. Yes, it was ignored until that moment. A hidden positive: now it would be fixed. However, it made no difference to me. I still owned that terrible moment.  As I revisit this now, I can still taste the adrenaline.

So I am left with a fear of the hidden ‘button’ on a computer.  I have concluded that I am not a technology person. I know it is an emotional conclusion and not a rational one, but it makes no difference.  The conclusion about myself limits me, scares me and creates false boundaries. But I am in good company…Moses did that too.

When Moses meets God, at the Burning Bush, God tells Moses to go speak to Pharaoh and Moses replies by saying: ‘I am not a man of words’, he is not an ‘ish devarim’.  The word ‘devarim’ means ‘words’ or ‘things’ or even ‘stuff’.  We don’t know why Moses thinks of himself that way, but it proves to be an incredible limiting factor for him.

When he went out of the palace and saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, Moses strikes and kills him.  A man of words might have commanded him to stop, especially considering Moses is part of the royal family.  But because he does not see himself that way, he does not behave that way.

Later, Moses will climb Mt. Sinai to get the Torah.  He brings down what will be known as the Ten Commandments.  But in Hebrew, we call them the Ten Utterances (Aseret haDibrot), a form of the word ‘devarim’.  The Ten Statements, ten of the things Moses said he couldn’t do.  The man who is not a man of words will bring ten statements to the world that will change humanity forever.

And he still doesn’t see it.

Ultimately, Moses will stand in front of a rock that God commanded him to speak to, but he will hit it. He is still in Egypt in his mind, he is still facing the Egyptian bully.  He refuses to accept that he has become a ‘man of words’ and so he cannot speak to the rock, he must hit it. Egypt must never enter Israel and so Moses will die in the desert.

Before he dies, Moses recites an entire book of the Torah: Devarim.  We begin to read it this week. We call this book Deuteronomy, which in Greek means ‘Second Law’, because the Ten Commandments are recited again in this book.  But in Hebrew it’s called Devarim, meaning ‘words’, or ‘the things in his head that will now gain expression’. Everything in this book speaks of Moses’ perspective and his processing of events.  They are his memories and his fears and the book ends with a beautiful song he has composed.

The Midrash asks why this book is included in our Torah if it is the product of Moses, rather than dictated by God.  The Sages respond that this book is offered by Moses as a prayer and God accepts it and answers: ‘Amen’.

In his last moments, Moses understands that his life had defined around a limitation he imposed and could not exceed.  We all do the same thing to ourselves repeatedly and pray to find those moments of realization.

So, I decided that maybe I’ve been unfair to myself.  Maybe I could be a technology person. I experimented with something safe…the TV remote control.  I noticed my husband was watching tv, but then I noticed that although he was holding the remote control, there was a second remote in the other room.  I picked up the second remote, quietly stood outside the room where my husband was and pressed the volume button until the sound muted. I watched his confusion as he reached for the remote next to him and increased the volume.  I then decided to change the channel. His face was priceless as he went into the settings menu to try and figure out what was going on. I had never felt such power – this moment was magical (any married person knows what I mean).

By the fourth time, my husband discovered what I was doing because I was laughing too hard to keep quiet.  I had crossed the threshold and saw the joy technology could bring to my life.

I still cringe when I remember that moment under my desk from years ago.  I still have a moment of hesitation about hidden buttons on the computer, but I also accept that I am a person who can ultimately pull the plug and liberate myself.