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

Rosh Chodesh Adar: I Think I’m Sad That You’re Happy

Rosh Chodesh: I Think I’m Sad That You’re Happy

Happy Adar everyone!  Today and tomorrow are the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar.  Happy, happy, joy, joy, is what the Talmud tells us occurs in the month of Adar.  We are to find our happy and express our joy.  It is the only month where Judaism tells us to feel a certain way all month long.  

Adar is the astrological sign of the Jewish people, say the Sages.  It is the sign of ‘Dagim’ (fish, Pisces), and covenant promises that we will be as abundant and bountiful as fish that swarm and thrive in the oceans.  Some Jews wear beautiful artistic renderings of fish jewelry as a sign of good luck — this is why.  So we are to wear a smile and find joy all through Adar…but what about all the bad things that happened in Adar?

In ancient Persia, Adar is the month that was chosen by Haman to slaughter each and every Jew.  The fact that it ends well doesn’t change the fact that the Jews of that time were threatened by a government intent on their extinction.  Horrific plans were made, edicts were sent out, armies were ready, and Jewish parents chilled at the possibility that there might not be a tomorrow for their children.  Am I to forget their terror as I celebrate the outcome?

Following Adar is the month of Nisan, the month of Passover.  That means that during Adar, the Jews in Egypt were in the midst of the plagues, facing an unknown future, with death and the screams of suffering all around them.  Are their moments of terror erased?

Moses, our greatest leader, and our greatest advocate, dies on the seventh day of Adar. Is my joy meant to blind me to this loss, the leader who gave us everything?   Like any month of any year, Adar can be filled with moments of challenge and anguish that could anchor us in darkness…if we so choose.

I remember years ago, I was teaching grade one as a student teacher, and I was in the classroom with the kids on the last day of school.  They were excited that school was ending, and summer was beginning, but they were sad that school was ending, and summer was beginning.  One little girl arrived in the morning already crying.  I tried to comfort her and tell her that everything is ok because summer will be fun, and in a few short months everyone will be back again.  She just looked at me and cried.  I listed some fun things that can happen only in the summer.  She cried some more.  I tried to get her to join the class activities, but nothing I said or did could slow her tears.  I turned to the host teacher and asked for some advice.  The teacher told me that today is that girl’s birthday and her mother explained to the teacher that the child is overwhelmed and doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad.  The teacher was giving her room to work it through.  The hope was that she would eventually remember that at the end of the day her mother was bringing birthday cupcakes for everyone.  

That day and the dilemma it presented has stayed with me since then.  How does a six year old navigate the day when she is equally happy and equally sad?  How do any of us authentically honour the conflicting emotions within us?  To tell her to only be happy, because today is her birthday, is to undervalue that there is legitimate sadness to saying goodbye to her friends.  Of course, conversely, to focus only on the end of the year is to forget that her birthday makes the day joyous.  We’re the teachers, how do we teach that one?

There’s a powerful tradition practiced by a small group of Jews that speaks exactly to this point.  The tradition is mostly unknown to the majority of the Jewish people because it is practiced by a group of people who prefer to remain anonymous, the Chevrah Kadishah.  This is the group of Jews who prepare, care for, and bury someone who has passed away.  On the seventh day of Adar, the day Moses died, they fast and then they feast. 

The fasting is to remember that this is the day when Moses died, alone on a mountain, with only God at his side.   Ultimately, every person faces death alone with only God at their side, but we always try our utmost to make sure that they are tended to and buried with Judaism all around them.  We do this without ever expecting that they thank anyone because they have already passed away so clearly there is no expression of gratitude forthcoming.  We consider it to be the greatest act of chesed that we could ever do for each other.  Moses taught us that.  

And yet, when Moses died, there was no one to tend to him, no one to bury him.  The man who taught us the meaning of chesed, acts of human kindness that expect no gratitude in return, this man had no one to extend chesed to him when he needed it.  The Chevrah Kadishah spends that day in sadness and regret.  They fast.

But, as the day is ending, the fast is broken with a great feast and celebration.  That is because the seventh of Adar is also the day Moses was born.

Two events representing the two extremes of life occurred on the same day.  Moses’ birth, the celebration of life, should have been celebrated first, since it occurred first.  Moses’ death, the threshold away from life, should be mourned afterwards.  In other words, chronologically, the Chevrah Kadishah should celebrate first, and then fast.  But Judaism is not about historic chronology, it is about meaningfulness.  Two events representing two polar extremes happening on the same day.  Now the choice is ours.

The Sages aren’t telling us that bad things didn’t happen in Adar because we know they did.  They are telling us that we need to learn how sadness must resolve into joy, how suffering must resolve into growth, how threat must resolve into opportunity.  

Adar is here, and finding our joyous expressions must be sincere.  The sadness and challenges didn’t disappear, life is not a fairy tale.  The joy of Adar is not a description of its every moment, it’s a description of our arrival.  That little girl was correct to cry at the end of grade one, and her mother was brilliant to make sure the day would end with a cupcake.

This week’s Parsha is Mishpatim. If you would like to read Rachael’s reflections on this parsha, please read last year’s post: Something’s Not Kosher In Denmark.

A new 4-week course begins on February 24th! More info here: https://www.rachaelscentre.com/learning/classes/#myths

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

I, like so many others, am at home during Ontario’s provincial lockdown.  My home now consists of five people (some of our kids are back in the house from university).  Five people in one home, all adults, all family, all with shared history and family experiences.  This lockdown should be a breeze, I mean, how different could we all be?

Generally speaking, most things run smoothly, but that is after we went through designating spaces in the house.  The tv room can’t be the hobby room, because some of the hobbies are loud (one of us has a loom) and some hobbies involve relentless pounding noises (one of us has decided to learn how to tan leather), while others are trying to focus on playing chess.  We finally agreed that the news updates should only happen on the tv in the kitchen, because the big tv is in the family room which has been designated as Switzerland — neutral territory so no news allowed.  Making that decision was not easy, since it sparked a spirited debate on whether Switzerland was truly neutral, and is anything in the world truly neutral, either by politics or by nature.  Some of us volunteered to cook, while others volunteered to clean (we decided to head to the self-defined chore system), which worked…until the people cooking communicated they didn’t mean every time and every meal.  Likewise, we had not defined whether the cleaning group could enter someone’s private house space in order to clean, or is everyone responsible for their own personal space.  

The other day, my daughter walked into the room and asked if anyone had given any thought to dinner.  The cleaners and the cookers all looked at each other, and the room went silent.  We are trying to be so respectful of everyone we have actually stalemated ourselves in certain moments.

It took years of ongoing discussion to modify our family model as we’ve grown and changed, but the usual model isn’t working anymore because anything we enjoyed doing outside has now struggled to find its place inside.  We did not account for needing a political model that would address our home reality.  When the children were growing up, our house was a dictatorship — my husband and I were the decision makers.  Temper tantrums were waited out and never gained the upper hand (we both agreed we don’t negotiate with terrorists).  The kids were taught that their opinions would always be heard, but life experience would empower their view, so the more life experience, the more weight to the opinion.  But our little oligarchy lost much of its force each time another child attained ‘adulthood’, as well it should.  And now, we are five adults together in the house searching for a political model.

Together we have discussed the differences between republics and democracies (decided neither will truly work for us).  Then we watched the political struggles in the United States, and our discussions gained many layers.

As a Canadian, I am mindful that we have a parliamentary system and a multicultural view.  Although we are close neighbours to the United States, we are distinctly different.  I watched a mob attack the Capital building in Washington, and could only imagine how my American neighbour might feel.  I could only imagine the shock and the heartbreak.

But after watching all the news reports and the videos, I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot, with different eyes.

The book of Shemot (Exodus) begins with a list of names of Jacob’s descendants who came to Egypt.  After the names of his sons, it tells us that seventy people had all come from Jacob, and had all descended to Egypt.  Over the years, I have looked at the commentaries and opinions on why we need that information, since it seems more appropriate to the book of Genesis –all the people listed are long dead.  Then I thought of my current household.

We are all one family but we are all distinct in every way.  The number ‘seventy’ in Judaism represents all peoples and all nations.  It reflects the totality of diversity contained under the common umbrella of humanity.  Jacob, the single patriarch, had produced a clan of total diversity, and then they all entered Egypt, a tyrannical empire.  It is of no great surprise that they are noticed and viewed as a threat.  It is not the people that are threatening, it is the model.

While the text is detailing the names of everyone (the book itself is called Shemot, which means “Names”), pharaoh will always remain without a name.  In fact, we are told the old pharaoh died and a new pharaoh arose, and we still don’t have a name for either one of them.  The Torah will always refer to the king as “pharaoh”, because this model of leadership does not value the distinct individual, and so no name is attached.  History will continue to perpetuate our understanding of that model through the development of the title.  The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt was Ptolemy XV Caesar (nicknamed Caesarian) who reigned with his mother, Cleopatra.  It is from his name, Caesar (named after Julius Caesar) that the title persists into the word Tsar (Czar) and Kaiser.  They are all words that track back to ‘Caesar’, which tracks to pharaoh.  

Interestingly, the Torah never gives Moses a title, we are always on a first name basis with him, but we never know pharaoh’s first name, only his title — two distinct models of leadership.  As the leadership model is forming with Moses, the model of the people is also forming.  All of Israel must learn how to retain their distinct voices while sharing a common vision of the future.  The Israelite slaves who leave Egypt will struggle with this their entire lives as they expect Moses to behave like a pharaoh and tell them what to do.  They never quite understand that without distinct and different opinions, we do not learn discourse or dialogue, and we cannot learn resolutions.  They always speak to Moses as a mob, and when we speak as a mob we return to Egypt.

There is a wonderful story from the village of Chelm, that Jewish place where the logic could be sideways but the insights are always there.  One night, a great fire is raging in the village.  The rabbi gathers everyone together for a blessing.  He addresses the village and says he will now lead them in a blessing of gratitude.  Everyone asks how he could possibly think of gratitude at this moment.  The rabbi responds that without the illumination from the fire, they could not see where the buckets are to put it out.

No one wants the fire, but when it happens, do we want to focus our eyes on the damage of the fire and blind ourselves by its glow? Perhaps the preferred choice would be to search for what it has shown us that we didn’t realize we should always have valued.

As I get ready for Shabbat, I listen to the sound of the loom, the silence of the chess game and the tv turned to the news in my kitchen.  The balance of a working political model is always delicate, and should never be underestimated.

Parshat Re’eh: One to Fly the Heavens

For years I had an arrangement with my kids that if I’m driving them somewhere they have to play DJ and only put on music they think I’ll like.  It’s a win/win since I get to hear all the great music and they had to research my favourite musicians and which genres I prefer.  There was one song that was lovely and soothing but I had to nix it from the playlist because it’s too soothing for driving –it would lull me into a trance.  It’s called Three Wishes by The Pierces and the lyrics I really like brought beautiful images to explore:

You want three wishes

One to fly the heavens, one to swim like fishes

You want never bitter and all delicious

And a clean conscience and all its blisses

You want one true lover with a thousand kisses

You want soft and gentle and never vicious

And then one you’re saving for a rainy day

The proverbial 3 wishes, the magic Genie who will grant those magic secrets of our heart, the fantasy of wish fulfillment that Freud named and we all primordially desire.

It seems to never go away.

I recently asked some young people what they would wish for if they had 3 wishes.  The usual exclusion applied — you could not wish for more wishes.  

I had some interesting responses:

One person wished for an end to the pandemic, international communication, and youth.

One person said they’d have to think about it, they’d get back to me at some point.

One person said they’d want infinite resources, infinite time, and because that was all they’d ever need, they’re donating their third wish to charity.

No one wished for happiness.

King Solomon was once asked by God what he would like as a Divine gift and he asked for wisdom.  The Sages praised his choice, saying wisdom would grant him anything else in life he could desire, wisdom would find the way to achieve it.

Even King Solomon didn’t ask for happiness.

But when you ask any parent what they want for their child, they would all, undoubtedly, say they want their kids to be happy.  So, why do we want it for those we love but not for ourselves?

When we celebrate a life milestone Jewishly, we celebrate a ‘simcha’, which means ‘happiness’.  Quite literally, planning any simcha translates as ‘we’re planning the happy’.  I send out invitations so you can join my happy and no matter what life may throw at me, I don’t postpone my happy once it’s planned.  We’ve witnessed Covid simchas proceed as planned, once scheduled, even though every detail about the event has changed, but the date usually won’t.  Happy is not to be delayed.

I also asked the same group of young people why they would choose to have Judaism present in their lives.  Why get married with a chuppah?  Why recognize a Jewish holiday?  Why put a mezuzah on your house?  I got varied and unique responses, but when I asked them if they did any of that because it made them happy to do it, only 1 person said yes…after thinking about it for a while.

We have so many Jewish expressions for being happy, but we don’t internalize how important that is within Judaism and within the Torah.  We want to get the commandments ‘right’, we want to celebrate holidays without upsetting family members who are Jewishly traditional or putting off family members who are Jewishly liberal.  We set the bar for Jewish holidays at hoping no one walks away offended and let’s all say a communal prayer that the drama stay outside the gathering.

It’s so interesting, given this week’s portion, parshat Re’eh.  It’s a daunting Torah portion.  Moses is getting ready to die and he’s addressing Israel with a warning about blessings and curses.  He reviews EVERYTHING he can think to say: don’t worship idols, keep the holidays, here are the details of the holidays, don’t worship idols, don’t eat blood, remember to tithe, don’t worship idols…

It’s exactly what we’d expect him to say:  do what God wants and you get blessings, go astray and you get curses.  The surprise isn’t in the information or the instruction, it’s the thing we hardly notice: the number of times Moses tells us to be happy.

On six separate occasions Moses commands us to be happy.  The first time he refers to being happy because we have food.  The second time we should be happy with family and friends.  The third time it lists food, family and friends and the works of our hands.  The fourth time it includes everything up to then, while we embark on a pilgrimage to meet our fellow Jews.  The fifth time it refers to the holiday of Shavuot and now includes foreigners, widows and orphans.  The sixth time it tells us to be happy in our holidays, includes everyone mentioned before and ends with declaring “And you should be oh so happy”.

Each time, we are to bring our happiness to God when we visit and remember, it’s not nice to come empty handed, always bring a gift.  

Moses uses the language of commandment to discuss our happiness.  It is not something we wish for, it is something we choose.  It starts with recognizing we have what we need — food — and it builds from there to family, to friends, to nation, universally and transformatively.  Things don’t make me happy, I choose the happy, but happy does not create rose coloured glasses.  It is happy within a world that is challenged and filled with suffering.  My obligations are not diminished by my happiness, they are simply met more fully when I choose to smile.

Moses has done what every parent would hope to do: remind us of our commitments, our obligations, our responsibilities, and then command us to find ‘the happy’, or we will grow to resent it.  As the High Holidays start to approach and we question how this year will look, it is so crucial to hear Moses remind us that the challenges will never go away so why focus there, the part we can fulfill, no matter what, is to look forward to celebrating another Jewish holiday in a way that makes each of us uniquely happy.

So why not have it all?  In a challenging moment, I could list how many things have gone wrong with my electronics in the last 24 hours…or…close my eyes and imagine I can fly the heavens, swim like fishes, find I’m covered with a thousand kisses as I save a last wish for a rainy day. 

Parshat Va’etchanan: If I Could Walk In Your Shoes I’d Have Bigger Feet

One of my daughters told me about a book club she recently organized.  She didn’t mean to organize it, it just ended up that way.  It wasn’t even her idea, it was the result of a friend telling her that isolation was getting to her and she couldn’t take any more virtual relationships —she needed “real.”  And so the idea of an actual book club, where people sit together (socially distanced) in one place (outside) and share thoughts on a book (since they are socially distanced, they will be sharing these thoughts with 4 neighbours who are also in their yards) was born.  

The idea was great, but within a few days, her friend told her she was having difficulty finding friends to bring.  All of her friends were busy reorganizing their lives, working from home, streaming media on their devices, too overwhelmed to commit to an actual meeting together once a month, or to pledge to finish reading the book.  My daughter (continuing to feel compassion for her friend who wants the “real” experience) found a friend who agreed to find more people. (She told me the second person she found is the sister of the first person since it was indeed a challenge to get someone to agree to an actual “real” obligation these days).  Soon, friends were finding friends and a book club was formed.  Everything went fine and just as they were getting ready to meet for the first time, one month away, the friend tells my daughter she’s not sure she can be there because she had to go to the United States for an important event and when she gets home she will have to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  My daughter reminded her that the book club has been organized for her.  The friend assured my daughter she could be there…virtually.  “Just plug in your laptop in the backyard and zoom me in,” said the friend.  

As my daughter was telling me this story I started laughing, at which point she told me that she’s not sure how she got into this position but she is now leading a book club (she didn’t want) with a friend, a ‘sister’ and multiples of people (she’d never met) hosting them in her backyard with a computer plugged in for all the neighbours to share in this “real” experience she suggested while trying to help a friend.  I couldn’t stop laughing, the only thought in my head was that this book club should come with only one rule: we never talk about book club (for anyone who’s seen the movie Fight Club, that rule will make sense —for anyone else —it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something to watch because you’re not currently in a book club.  If you’re in a book club, it’s also a good book).

Compassion and empathy for others can get all of us into a labyrinth of strategic planning and twists and turns that often lead us to places we never planned.  In fact, we often use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as if they are synonyms — they are not.  While Judaism acknowledges the nuances of difference with all of these terms, it doesn’t name them all, but it does show, by example, what the differences are.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who helps a colleague rise from his sickbed.  After a discussion on the advantages of suffering (which the sick person concludes isn’t worth the price), the rabbi extends his hand and leads his friend to health.  Soon after, another rabbi falls ill and the now recovered rabbi visits his sick friend.  They also explore the depths of suffering but now the sick rabbi is beginning to pull his friend into the realm of despair along with him.  His friend remembers how he was helped to health and so he asks the bedridden rabbi if there is value to this moment of suffering.  The sick rabbi responds that he doesn’t want this suffering and the friend extends his hand and leads his colleague to health.

Sympathy is when I feel bad for you, empathy is when I realize I have been in your place and I can help you.  The first is an emotion that churns within me, the second is my insight that leads me to act.  When we sympathize with each other, we can be pulled into the dark moments of those we are trying to help; when we empathize with each other, we can find ways out of the darkness together because one of us remembers the road out.

In this week’s parshah, Va’etchanan, Moses is pleading with God to be allowed to enter the land of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear his anguish and even more difficult to read that God has told Moses to stop asking for it —essentially telling Moses that this particular prayer will not be answered and it’s hurtful so the request must stop.  Sympathy for Moses will lead us further into our personal theological questions of our relationship with God.  It should lead us there.  But Moses goes on to teach empathy.

Moses immediately instructs Israel that they must always be kind to strangers because we must always remember we were strangers in Egypt (sympathy) and that God led us out of that predicament to freedom (empathy).  If I only feel compassion towards someone who is suffering, I have misunderstood the point of the full statement Moses made.  I have been the stranger, I have been the slave, I have been the victim who stands alone, so I can now recognize this predicament when I see it in someone else.  Because I have a model of how to be redeemed from that horror, I can extend my hand and lead the stranger out.  I am commanded to be empathetic toward someone and not to only feel sympathy for them.  Every time we are told we were strangers in Egypt, we are immediately told that God brought us out.  It is a full model of moving from sympathy to empathy.  It is the way things will change.

My daughter now leads a book club of strangers in her backyard.  I imagine them sitting together and sharing new perspectives, without the audio lag of an online portal.  It started with a friend reaching out to another friend and a way to share some new perspectives sitting with real people amidst a global pandemic.  The answer seemed simple: let’s read some books together.  

We’ve all had our moments lately where we are ‘done’ with Covid and not sure what to do.  We all sympathize with each other and think of the now popular government slogan to remember “we are all in this together”, which only reinforces that we are all sharing the predicament.  I think we’re ready to empathize with each other and find the insights to move from sharing the predicament to enjoying the next step.  I can’t help but think of a rabbi, two thousand years ago, who extended his hand to a colleague and said ‘I’ve been where you are, I can show you the way out.’

Parshat Devarim: How Do I Ask How?

I’ve been thinking about the world that used to be and the person I was within it.  In fact, I’ve lived through a number of ‘worlds that used to be’. When I was growing up, there were distinct lines of casual and formal.  Casual was what happened at home and formal was anything outside.  At home, we could wear ‘play clothes’ and not worry about getting them dirty; school had a uniform; outings had party clothes.  If we went out for dinner as a family, I would have to wear a dress.  If I was invited to a birthday party, I would likely have to wear my party dress and if the party was my own birthday party then I got to wear the dress with the crinoline.  My party shoes were shiny and I could only wear ‘play clothes’ to…play.

There was most certainly the larger world outside filled with strangers, and the smaller circle of my world filled only with family and a few friends.  Any adult was called ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ or Miss (Ms was introduced only later in my youth and was only for radical feminists who burned their bras – interesting fact, no one ever had that famous public bra burning event because apparently they couldn’t get a permit to ignite a public open fire – they cut their bras with scissors…it was a ‘bra scissor cutting’ event, which I guess doesn’t have the same impact as ‘burning’ and so we just decided to revise history (a lot of that going on these days)…but I digress…except I have had my moments, as an adult, trying to ignore the pain my bra is causing me and eyeing the scissors with longing – the radical feminist within us all!)

Back to my memories of worlds gone by.  The few times I took an airplane trip as a child, the dress with the crinoline came out with the shiny shoes.  My sister and I were often dressed the same for anything formal –she’s older, so I loved it and she very much did not, apparently in this ‘world gone by’ children were not meant to have autonomous identities, they were meant to show the world their parents knew how to dress them the same.  Oh yes, there was also no hint of any security measures needed for anything at any time.  Once when I was really little I remember we went to Israel and had to get a cholera vaccine to come home.  In hindsight, this is a memory remnant of an Israel with cholera, another world gone by.  We got the cholera vaccine and all I remember is the stewardess (not flight attendant) who kept banging into my vaccinated little girl arm every time she walked by.  I remember not sleeping on the plane because I had to track where she was at any given moment.  I was too little to understand cholera or vaccines but not too little to understand there are people in the world who carelessly hurt others so I tracked her with my eyes.

And then I think of the next world change I saw.  9/11 changed everything and now Covid 19 has changed things again.  Maybe there’s something about the ‘1’s and the ‘9’s, I’m sure Jewish kabbalists have endless layers of meaning to explore there – the 18s are great but the 19s…not so much.

And now I have shared with you the ‘stuff’ in my head that has all flashed in my mind within the last minute or two.  It’s what happens to all of us and it is the name of the new book in the Torah we are starting to read this Shabbat: Deuteronomy, which in Hebrew is titled Devarim, “Stuff”.  It is a book filled with the stuff in Moses’ head as he knows time is running out and he will die within weeks.

Moses starts speaking and within a few verses we hear him use an unusual word: ‘Eichah’, which literally means ‘how’, but it is always associated with the book of Lamentations, which in Hebrew is titled ‘Eichah’.  It is a book that describes the destruction of Jerusalem, the horror of our lowest historical moment.  The prophet, Jeremiah, writes the book Eichah as a lamentation where we look around and ask ‘how did that happen to the world’, but when Moses uses this same word, he is using it differently.  Moses remembers that he turned to God and asked ‘how am I supposed to bear these people?!’, a very different ‘eichah’.

So we enter our text through two different versions of ‘eichah’ –one used by Jeremiah and one used by Moses.  This Shabbat is the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day on which we mourn Jewish suffering and the loss of our Temples –the day we read the book of Eichah.  How interesting that we hear Moses utter this same unusual word in the parshah this week.  When we line up the two ‘eichah’s we notice the two perspectives of the question we should always ask.  The first question is from the book of Lamentations as it asks ‘How did Jerusalem lay so abandoned?’  In other words, how did the world around me get so unrecognizable, so steeped in trouble, so isolated?  

The second question comes from Moses asking God how he can bear these people.  It becomes my second ‘how’ question.  How can I bear the other person?  Do I hear their nuances and respond with an act of human kindness, or are they burdens that weigh me down?  Moses’ question to God is a genuine question from a man raised as royalty who must now bear the weight of a people incapable of anything.  How can I bear you?

But if we only focus on ‘eichah’ regardless of whether it’s Moses or Jeremiah saying it, we are left to lament a world gone by and the challenge we present for each other.  The key lies in the word immediately following ‘eichah’.  In the book of Lamentations, the prophet bemoans the city of Jerusalem and the verb that follows is in the past tense, “how Jerusalem had sat desolate and alone”.  In this week’s parshah, when Moses asks God about the people, he uses the word ‘eichah’ and the word right after it appears in the future tense, “how will I carry them?”.  When we ask ourselves the ‘how’ questions, we easily set up a pull into lamenting a world gone by, a world filled with ‘Mr’s and ‘Mrs’s and shiny shoes and crinolines.  But if I ask myself the question Moses asks, how can I help carry you forward, how can I bear you along with myself as we move into the future, ‘eichah’ becomes the question of opportunity.

And so we start reading the book of Devarim, the stuff in Moses’ head, the insights, the anger, the regret and the digressions.  And with it all, it never ceases to amaze me how he never fails to teach us something, no matter which world we’re in.

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Parshat Chukat/Balak: My Brother from Another Mother

This week’s Torah reading is a double parshah: Chukat and Balak.  Balak is the outstanding narrative of a foreign prophet, a talking donkey and the opening prayer of our Siddur.  Chukat is about paradox and irrational realities…and the deaths of Miriam and Aaron.  As fantastic as is that talking donkey, I can’t get my mind off losing Miriam and Aaron.

Maybe it’s all the Covid numbers that get reported everyday or maybe it’s summer and the sun is shining but things feel different. I’m not exactly sure why but I keep thinking about Miriam and Aaron.  Not the strong figures of leadership the Torah presents, rather the nuanced moments and the midrashic portraits.

Miriam, Aaron and Moses are the powerhouse of leadership in Judaism.  They’re three siblings with totally different realities.  In today’s world, siblings are most often defined as sharing the same parents.  But in the ancient (and up until very recent) world, siblings were children sharing a household.  I was once going through some old family photos with my mother.  I saw a picture of a group of children standing together posing with snowballs.  I asked my mother what the picture was about, she said that her father posed her and her siblings with the snow because it was rare to have snow in Safed.  But I realized she said ‘siblings’ and there were most definitely too many kids in that photo.  

I recognized one little girl as a cousin.  I asked my mom about her.  

Here’s her answer: ‘Yes, she’s a cousin, but I think of her as a sister because she spent so many years with us growing up. Her parents were caught behind borders in the war so she ended up staying with us for years.’

So what was to be a family visit with a cousin turned into years of siblinghood.  I asked her who the other little girl was, and my mother said, ‘That’s my Yemenite sister.’  My response was to stare and blink. My mother asked if I wanted to see her wedding picture and flipped to a picture of a young woman in traditional Yeminite clothing.  I finally managed to ask how she acquired a Yeminite sister.  She told me they’re not actually blood sisters, but this young woman came to live with them, stayed for most of her childhood until she married.  They always called themselves sisters.

Lest we think this is a Sephardic family dynamic, I remember the same thing happening with some of the stories my father told me about the shtetl he came from.  We were visiting distant cousins and my father was explaining how we were all related.  I lost track of it after the third time I heard him say ‘They’re not really brothers, they just grew up together because there were too many kids in their house.’  I asked him if it was common for people to give their kids to relatives and he said yes, a shtetl was like a large family.

So whether Ashkenaz, Sephardic, or blends of different communities, Jewish families are always defined by the unities we create and the households we open to each other.  But even when raised in the same household, the word ‘sibling’ is descriptive of the relationship, not the personhood.  The same household will always produce unique individuals, each with their individual strengths and chosen connections.

None of this is new, it’s how we were meant to see Miriam, Aaron and Moses.  Miriam – the oldest, the guardian – is always described to us as uniquely different from Aaron – the middle child, the peacemaker – and both distinctly different from Moses – the baby, the prince.  

Miriam is the oldest of her siblings and right from the start she protects her younger brothers.  She is the one who guards Moses while he is floating in a basket on the Nile and she is the one who is responsible for uniting Moses with his birth family so he could bond with them.  These moments describe a little girl stepping forward to speak to a princess of Egypt to save her baby brother.  We never recognize her courage — we should.

Speaking of the babies in Egypt, there is an unusual midrash that describes how the Israelite women secretly delivered their babies in the fields and hid them so the Egyptians wouldn’t kill the babies. According to this midrash, when these infants cried from hunger, wanting to nurse, the rocks around them would bring forth milk so the babies could eat, calm themselves, stop crying and stay safe.  Rocks in a field can appear like breasts, and the midrash describes this beautiful collaboration between the females and the earth to secure life in an empire that glorified death.  Why are we so concerned with this midrash?  Because the image of the rock as giving the waters of life continues with Miriam.

The Sages tell us that there is a giant rock that is rolled alongside the holy objects in the desert.  When Israel would make camp, each tribal leader would use their staff to draw a line in the sand from the rock to where their tribe was camped.  Once 12 lines were drawn, the rock would fill the lines with water and all of Israel drank fresh water in the desert.  The rock was referred to as ‘Miriam’s Well’.  As soon as Miriam dies, we are told Israel complains to Moses that they will die for lack of water — the well has dried up.

God tells Moses to gather the people at the rock and speak to it so it will bring water (again).  The image is that Moses should console the rock, comfort it, since its waters have dried up, perhaps it has cried itself dry over losing Miriam.  Instead, Moses gathers everyone at the rock and succumbs to the pressures of the people and does the unthinkable, he hits it!  

God’s reaction is extreme since God’s view is universal.  God tells Moses he will never enter the land of Israel because of hitting the rock.  It is not any rock, it is Miriam’s Well, it is the embodiment of the rocks of Egypt that saved all those babies and partnered with all those desperate mothers – it is the symbol of life when only death defined each moment.  Hitting the rock is an affirmation of Egypt and an assault on Miriam’s legacy.  As a result of Moses’ hitting the rock, it brings water, so the problem has been solved, but unfortunately, the moment was lost and the wrong message was delivered.  God tells Moses that his leadership now has an expiry date attached. 

Not long after all this, God tells Moses to go with Aaron and Aaron’s son onto a mountain where Aaron will die.  After placing all of the priestly garments on Aaron’s son, Aaron quietly passes away and the nation cries for him.  You can’t help but notice no one cried when Miriam died, they just complained that now they don’t have water.  Why no tears for Miriam?

It seems that the progression of their deaths and the peoples’ reaction contains the lessons of their leadership.  Miriam provided the safety and the water.  It was brought to the people and they did not have to find their own solutions.  All the images are of babies and nursing and guardianship.  No one can cry for her because they haven’t learned that they can provide water for themselves.  In other words, if all the water came because of Miriam, then how can they manufacture tears?  By the time Aaron dies, they have somehow learned that the answers lie within themselves and they should not expect them to come from anyone else — now they can make tears, supply water, sustain themselves and be ready to enter the land.

What caused the shift?  Aaron’s son is the only difference.

Of the three siblings responsible for getting us out of Egypt, only Aaron will pass his role to his child.  He is the symbol of continuity and growth.  The Torah tells us that Moses is told to put Aaron’s clothes on Aaron’s son and we watch continuity establish itself.  When we see continuity, we see empowerment and with empowerment comes independence – with independence comes Israel’s ability to make tears.

The midrash explains this beautifully when it comments on God telling Moses to take Aaron and his son up the mountain.  The Sages say “take him with words of comfort and consolation” (the words that should have been spoken to the rock).  The Sages continue by saying that Moses comforts Aaron by saying; ‘how complete you must feel, seeing your crown removed from your head and placed on the head of your son – something I will not be privileged to see.’  

Miriam teaches us guardianship, Moses teaches us law and Aaron teaches us continuity.  They will die in the order they were born – Miriam first, Aaron second, Moses last.  It completes the picture of these three and I can’t help but think of the people my parents viewed as siblings because they lived together and enriched their lives.  I’m reminded of how many times people have said to me that they view a close friend as a sister or a brother, unaware that they are describing ancient realities.  Miriam, Aaron and Moses, three siblings who each deserve their moment and recognition of how they each enrich us every time we read of them.

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Parshat Yitro: Even Moses Had In-Laws

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Yitro, contains the Ten Commandments, which tends to always catch our attention.  But the parshah begins with, and is named after, Moses’ father-in-law: Yitro. It is the part of Torah that shows us the father-in-law/son-in-law relationship…and it’s timeless.

There’s an interesting dynamic that exists between fathers and daughters that I’ve watched in my own family.  I quickly learned to brush up on my Freud and then quickly remembered why I don’t like Freud. I watched with confused interest as my husband and my daughters figured things out with each new stage of maturity.  I most definitely remember that each time a new boy showed up at the house to pick up one of our daughters for a date, my husband would greet them at the door with an apple.

I kid you not, my husband would stand in the hallway by the front door with his hand open and an apple lying on his palm.  He would make eye contact with the boy and would say ‘watch this’ as he closed his hands over the apple and split it in half with his hands.  He then opened his hands to produce two perfect halves of the apple, one in each palm. Through it all, he never broke eye contact. I always thought he was showing off his martial arts training and I thought it was cute.  Apparently the boys watching didn’t think it was so cute. It seems they all read it as a message. Years later I found out from my daughters that all their friends were aware of the ‘apple thing’ and it intimidated the boys who’d witnessed it.  I told my husband that it was making them uncomfortable and he smiled a bit and said, ‘is it really?’, but the next date faced the apple.

Ah, yes, fathers and daughters.

When it comes to our in-laws, relationships suddenly become very complex.  They are parents within our marriage, they’re just not our parents. They embody knowledge of our partner that we will never have – they know who they were and who they became.  But we know who they became and who they are becoming, something their parents no longer witness moment to moment. And yet, the Torah commands us to teach our children, no matter whether or not they are young, old, married, single, parents or even grandparents.  We are to evolve into new relationships as they evolve into new stages because we are always obligated to teach them. When they no longer respond to our lessons, we are the ones who must change how we teach them. We are commanded to teach, they are not commanded to learn.

When Yitro joins Moses in the wilderness, he brings Moses’ wife and sons with him.  Moses has not called for them but Yitro decides it is enough time apart. He does not accuse Moses of anything, he simply reunites him with his wife and sons.  It is hard to discuss personal family matters between father-in-law and son-in-law so action is what is needed. They speak all night about the events of Egypt and God, and since Yitro is the High Priest of Midian, this is akin to talking shop.  

The next day, Yitro watches Moses at work and critiques his process.  After all, Yitro knows what it is to lead a people and he’s watching Moses devote his entirety to leading Israel and has nothing left for his family life.  That’s when we remember fathers and daughters.

Yitro tells Moses to delegate, to build a system of appeals that will free Moses from this crushing burden (…and maybe get home…).  Yitro has no vested interest in making Moses the best leader of the Jewish people, but he does have a vested interest in getting Moses to find room in his life for his family.

The only problem is that the system Yitro suggested was one of privilege – only the important people would end up in front of Moses.  For a foreign leader, that has worked, but for the vision of covenant, that would be a betrayal. So Moses sets up a system of challenges rather than privilege.  The cases that are too challenging for a lower court would bump up to eventually come before Moses. He will solve what others could not, regardless of the importance of the participants.  It is this system that we inherit which is why, much later in our history, King Solomon will adjudicate a case with two prostitutes standing before him each claiming motherhood over a single baby.

Once Moses has taken the idea from Yitro and shaped it into what he needs…he sends Yitro home.  Moses will keep his focus on the people and his family life will suffer. Moses will not raise his sons as leaders and he will eventually live apart from his wife.  If Moses were to find a work/life balance, Israel would suffer. If Moses is always monitored by Yitro, his father-in-law, he would insist on sending Moses home at the end of the day.  Choices must be made and Yitro is sent home.

It’s an extremely delicate balance when a relationship between two men exists only because they are bonded to the same woman.  Not enough credit is given to that relationship. Jewishly, we praise the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who brought us defining concepts that include “whither you go, I will go”.  That relationship speaks so loudly and clearly that we all but ignore that men may not express their interactions the same way.

Yitro will protect his daughter and mentor his son-in-law while bringing his grandsons to their father.  The Jewish people are better off because Yitro spoke with familial authority to Moses. He was the only person in Torah to ever speak as a parent to Moses and it gives us a glimpse into how complex that relationship can be.

To the fathers-in-law and sons-in-law all around us, I tip my hat to you for navigating these nuances as often as you do.  I support you in any hallway you choose to stand with every apple you hold in your palm.

Parshat Bo: Even God Makes a Mess of Things Sometimes

I was helping someone move into their new home this week.  They pre-warned me that I would be walking into a mess. Lots of boxes, lots of chaos, piles of things waiting to be organized.  I thought of my life and whether or not being in the midst of a mess bothers me. I decided…it depends.

I always have a mess in my car.  I consider my car a big purse on wheels.  If I were stranded somewhere for a while, I could exist on what is in my car – pillow, blanket, dental floss, lots of books and…yes…emergency popcorn.  It is a purposeful mess, in that I know where everything is and why it’s there. To others, it’s messy, to me it’s organized chaos. If you move anything around in my car, I won’t understand where and why you put ‘that thing’ where you did, so I will now be confused. Once, years ago, I got into my car one morning only to find it had been broken into.  Nothing was taken (I never leave valuables in my mess). How did I know it was broken into? The thieves left piles of things they had gone through searching for anything worthwhile. My stuff is never in piles – that’s how I knew. For neighbourhood statistics, I reported it to the police who kept asking if there was any damage to anything. I finally had to admit that the thieves left it neater than they found it.  Not my best moment.

When we encounter a mess, it is our inclination to tidy it or find ‘method to the madness’.  We don’t ever intend to create chaos. It’s actually really difficult to do.

Have you ever intentionally tried to make a mess?  I don’t mean have you ever ended up with a mess, but have you ever tried to make a mess?  Most often, a mess is the result of trying to do something else.  It’s easy to make a mess when you try to cook something, or when you’re trying to fix something.  I can’t actually think of a situation when the goal is to make a mess and nothing else. In fact, we usually ask people not to leave a mess behind them – our goal is anti-mess.

We come by this honestly, so much in Judaism is about ordering chaos. Whether it’s the beginning of Genesis, where God is ordering chaos, our prayer book, a Siddur (which translates as ‘Order’), or the Seder (‘the Order’) at Pesach, our model is to organize everything around us.  Even our texts are formatted on each page so there is order to the commentaries. We are never presented with disarray.

So, if everything is about ordering chaos, we come to this week’s Torah reading, parshat Bo, we read about the plagues God brings to Egypt, and we have to ask…what’s going on?  If the goal is to get us out of Egypt, surely God can do that in an instant without bothering anyone. Sitting on the wings of eagles comes to mind. In other words, why have plagues?

Maybe Egypt needs to be punished for what it did.  Except, God never mentions punishing Egypt as a goal when he enlists Moses to lead.  In fact, we are so bothered by the plagues that during the Seder we take wine out of our cups when we recite them because we are reducing our joy.  We are troubled by those plagues enough that we have to ask: why have them?

If we go back to the job God describes to Moses, we notice that there are two parts to it.  The first is the one we all know: get Israel out of Egypt. The second goal is the lesser known one: all of Egypt must know that God is God.  Basically, change Egypt’s world view. Get Pharaoh to acknowledge that he, in fact, is not a deity and they’ve had it wrong all along. When Moses insists to God that he doesn’t want the job, I believe he’s rejecting the second goal.  When you’re dealing with a powerful God, the first part of the task is easy. It’s when you’re dealing with people’s attitudes that the task becomes unimaginable. How can Moses possibly change Pharaoh’s mind?

And so God proceeds to undo creation in Egypt.  Each plague will remove another element of the creation of the world, and Egypt will be plunged back into primordial chaos.  For example, the first thing created in Genesis is light. It lasts for three days as a unique light of creation that the Sages describe as light that can be felt.  Undoing this light results in the plague of darkness in Egypt. The darkness lasts for three days and is described as a darkness that is heavy upon the person. It can be felt.  

But the most obvious example of God’s message is the last plague: the death of the first born.  The opposite of God creating the first person. The undoing of life. God breathed life into Adam and God will pass through Egypt taking the breath out of every first born.  

The message now becomes: only the God who created the universe would know how to undo it.  God is deliberately putting chaos back into Egypt with the goal of having them realize God is the One who created it all.  The plagues trouble us because they weren’t meant to speak to us and, in the end, they don’t.

Judaism is a model of order from chaos and organization from disarray, but not all of God’s messages are meant for us. The Torah always lets us know that God has relationships with all people and all beings.  How humbling to realize that the redemption from Egypt, the pivotal moment in creating the Jewish people, is framed with unique and monumental events that were never meant to speak to us.