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.

Learning To Listen

Hope everyone had a great week.  

My brother recently celebrated a birthday which got me thinking about my siblings.  I remember a moment with my brother from our childhood. I was sitting in our kitchen with my father when my brother shouted down from his room: “Hey Rach, grab me some water!”

I was very touched that my older brother would ask me to do something for him, since our relationship to this point mostly consisted of jabbing each other with our elbows at dinner because I’m a righty and he’s a lefty.  The jabbing was obviously deliberate.

So, in my innocence, I thought he was reaching out to me as someone he could rely on for water…silly me.

For anyone who doesn’t remember kitchen sinks from the 1970s, next to every faucet was a spray nozzle that would shoot a strong spray of water directly forward when the handle was squeezed.  Unbeknownst to me, my brother had wrapped an elastic band around the handle so it was depressed and ready to shoot water at whomever turned on the faucet. My brother had moments of evil genius!

But God had a different plan for him.  After he shouted to me asking for water, I immediately said ‘of course’, feeling all grown up and worthy of taking my rightful place as someone he could rely on.  But then my father told me it’s ok, he would pour the water. I watched as my father turned on the faucet. I watched as a shower of water shot out and drenched him completely and I watched it go on and on for what seemed an eternity until my father figured out what was happening and shut the water off.  

That wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard my father yell, but it was the first time I’d heard him yell a curse word over and over…it was the ‘s’ word.

My brother ran into the kitchen, saw our drenched father and went a sickly colour of grey.  Then he kept yelling at me: “I thought YOU were getting me water!!!” I just sat at the table listening to all the yelling and trying to figure out what I had done, since I actually hadn’t done anything.  

My brother and I grew very close over the years and this is one of the memories that we cherish. 

Why do I remember this incident now?  Because this week’s parshah, Vaetchanan, has the verses that contain the prayer ‘Shema’.  It is our proclamation of monotheism and it translates as: “Hear, Israel, my Master, our God, my Master is One.”  We recite it in prayer and we recite it when we go to sleep. We learn to say it out loud and tradition says to cover our eyes when we say it so our ears will hone in.

But it is not a prayer that we direct to God, it is a prayer that we direct to each other.  In fact, we clearly state ‘hear ISRAEL’, and we cover our eyes so we will, in fact, hear ourselves and each other.  It is a moment of unity and commonality that we express to each other and it stands in opposition to any of our divisive moments.  We argue over everything, as siblings do, we compete over attention and justifications, as siblings do, and we tease each other and play pranks, as siblings do, but at the end of the day we unite and affirm our loyalties and our allegiances.

When my kids were little and I would put them to bed, I often stood outside their rooms to hear if they were falling asleep.  Many times I heard them whispering to each other and I would catch the words ‘mama’ or ‘papa’. They were clearly sharing their confusion, angst and frustration about their parents, or perhaps plotting pranks of their own.

Whenever they would get me with a good one, I would wonder if that had been planned in one of their late night secret meetings.  I loved that they shared this with each other because who could better understand it all than a sibling?

Moses has outlived his siblings at this point in the Torah.  He did not have sibling moments and he did not have strong family connections.  The parshah begins with the word ‘vaetchanan’, which means ‘and I pleaded.’ Moses is referring to how he begged that God allow him to enter Israel but God refused.  In fact, God told him not to speak of it anymore, never to ask again. Moses has been told he should no longer pray to God on this matter. Our hearts should break at that moment for the complete ear-shattering silence that God is demanding.  Especially because Moses is the one teaching us to say ‘Shema’: ‘Listen’.

So when we say the Shema, perhaps at that moment we are honouring Moses by acknowledging how well he taught us to hear each other.  Perhaps God told Moses to stop pleading because maybe the moment was difficult for both Moses and God. Maybe to protect Israel and answer its needs, Moses and God endured the difficulty.  If so, our personal moment of Shema is more loaded than we ever knew.

Moses stands alone as the sole survivor of his family.  His parents are long gone and his siblings have all died.  Nature prepares us for the loss of parents but a sibling is a lateral companion, they are meant to stand with us from cradle to grave.

Back in the book of Genesis, when the Torah begins, we meet the first siblings: Cain and Abel.  It ends horribly as Cain kills Abel over the perceived love of God, the Parent. When God questions Cain about it,  Cain asks God a fundamental human question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’ and his question is left unanswered in the Torah.  

Ultimately, in this week’s parshah, in the last book of Torah, we learn to say Shema to each other.  We learn to listen to each other, for that brief moment, and to finally understand that God is the Parent, we are all siblings and we can finally answer Cain’s question by saying ‘yes.’

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.

Numbers in all the Wrong Places

Hope everyone had a great week.  

The parshah this week is Pinchas and it has some wonderfully powerful points.  We meet five sisters who challenge Moses and God on the laws of inheritance and end up carrying the day, changing the laws forever.  We see God’s reaction to a High Priest who kills a man and woman for worshipping God through their sexuality. All great stuffy, but I don’t want to talk about those.

I want to talk about the stuff in the parshah that makes us yawn and ends with raising an eyebrow at a spiritually eternal and Divine document that seems to love numbers the way the Torah does. 

In this parshah, God tells Moses to take a census of Israel in order to form an army.  Each tribe will now be listed with its original founder and every male descendant and their male descendants, and so on and so on.  In total, over 600,000, which sounds like a lot of people but it’s actually a pretty small army. In other words, every victory Israel has will never be because they outnumber the enemy. I understand the need for the final figure,  but I really don’t need the initial numbers and then every number in between…

…or do I?

To most of us, me included, numbers need to be meaningful, they need to speak to me in a plain and direct way that allows me to use them as I need.  I don’t love numbers for their own sake. My accountant loves numbers for their own sake and whenever we meet, my eyes glaze over within minutes. When he pauses, I assume he asked a question and I usually nod.  He knows me well enough that at that point he picks up my phone and turns on the recorder and explains the numbers into the phone. I will listen in bits and pieces later. God bless my accountant.

So, I need meaningful numbers.  I learned an invaluable lesson about meaningful numbers when I was a student teacher.  I was placed in an elementary school in a violent section of the city. It was filled with gangs and drugs and we were cautioned to visually check our students every morning without being obvious.  We were looking for cuts, bruises, physical abuse. Every absence was to be noted.

I was assigned to teach the class fractions.  As a student teacher, I did the classic ‘draw a pie on the board, divide it in half, divide it in quarters’ and so on.  The class was quiet as I went my merry way with my apple pie drawing. Every time I turned to look at the students, they sat quietly staring back.  I felt like I was fractions’ gift to education (yeah, ego can convince us of that in a fraction of a second…) I got all the way to one-eighths without a peep from them.  Something wasn’t right. I asked if they had questions and one brave soul put up his hand and said: ‘I’ve never had pie, do you know how to draw a pizza?’

Meaningless numbers, they’ll get us every time.

So why is the Torah insisting on the numerical details?

The numbers are important when we plug in the age-old resolution: ‘cherchez la femme’, ‘look for the woman’.   In other words, behind every mystery will stand some woman, or some issue that leads to a woman, or some man who is searching for a woman – basically, everything sources to a woman.

The Torah leaves a huge issue unresolved and that is the double matriarchy of Leah and Rachel.  Jacob only wanted Rachel but also married Leah. Leah is fertile while Rachel is loved. We have the unresolved dichotomy of a woman: is she mother (Leah) or lover (Rachel)? 

Since the Torah won’t resolve it, tradition tries to figure it out by looking at who the next leader will be.  Clearly, the model for a woman would be the one who birthed the heir. Not so fast, Leah gave birth to Judah who will give us the great king, David.  But Rachel gave birth to Joseph who was a leader in Egypt. David was a warrior king while Joseph was the great negotiator. WHICH IS OUR MODEL?!

As if that weren’t complicated enough, there is a tradition of the Messiah ben David (son of David) and also a tradition of the Messiah ben Yosef (son of Joseph).

So far, no clear answer, so as a woman, I have ambiguity of role model.  Am I to be mother or am I to be lover?

Here’s where all the numbers from the parshah come in.  Maybe the biggest tribe will be the leader and then I can resolve who is the matriarch?  Except, when you look at the census in this parshah, you see the Judah and the Joseph tribes are coming in very close in numbers.

I can’t resolve the issue.  

I believe that things in the Torah are deliberate and therefore if I can’t resolve the issue it’s because I shouldn’t resolve it.  I am to cherish both Leah and Rachel. I am to be an integrated woman balancing between ‘mother’ and ‘lover’.

In the end, the ‘eyes glaze over’ numbers in the parshah told me how Israel built its first army in the ancient world while simultaneously showing me how I find my identity in the modern world.

Now I wouldn’t give those numbers up for anything.

Thresholds

Hope everyone had a great week. I’m home from Israel and I realized I’m not a great traveller so I won’t dwell on the passive-aggressive woman sitting next to me on the flight home – it wasn’t pretty.

I had an interesting Shabbat in Jerusalem though.  I went to the Shira Hadasha minyan, which is an orthodox egalitarian service.  A few things caught me by surprise. In Israel the Cohanim bless the congregation every Shabbat.  They stand covered entirely with their Talit (looks a bit spooky). Under the Talit their arms are raised and their fingers form the letter ‘shin’ in Hebrew.  The power of the minyan is said to draw the energy of the Shechinah through their fingers and onto the congregation. It is one of the most mystically powerful moments in Judaism.  

Because it is so holy, tradition tells us not to look directly at a Cohen when being blessed.  But at Shira Hadasha, for the first time in my life, there was a Cohen standing in front of the woman’s section covered in a Talit chanting the blessing.  I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman and I had never had anyone stand in front of me doing this. Wanting to blend, I held the Siddur up to my face to cover my eyes – but I had to know.  So…I slowly moved the Siddur away from one eye and quickly glanced at the person enveloped in the Talit. My eye moved to the feet where I clearly saw the hem of a dress. It was a woman. I heard her voice and watched her sway.  Instantly, without my knowing, this woman led me to a moment of holiness. She was so close to me, she sounded like me. She was my threshold.

I thought about the parshah that Shabbat, Chukat, which is the portion we read this coming Shabbat outside of Israel.  This is the parshah when Miriam dies and Israel has no water. God tells Moses to gather the people and speak to a rock to bring water from it.  Moses, angered by the mob, hits the rock instead and as a result is told he will never enter the land of Israel. It is one of the most frustrating moments in Torah and as much as Moses will plead with God to enter the land, it will never be.

I’m struck by the fact that Moses’ fate is set so close after Miriam dies.  I’m struck by the fact that his pronouncement of death occurs through an interaction with water – these things cannot be coincidental.  Miriam’s actions as Moses’ older sister was to protect him. In fact, it is she who stood by the Nile and watched him as he floated toward Pharaoh’s daughter.  It was she who protected him from the waters that were killing all the baby boys of Egypt. She is his guardian who kept the dangerous waters at bay. She changed his destiny and as long as she is alive he is safe.  As soon as she dies, his original destiny returns and water will now be the cause of his death.

We owe everything to Miriam because without her there is no Moses.  She creates the window of time within which Moses will live his life.

I thought of a pluralistic minyan I’m working on in Toronto.  Some of the decisions about parts of the minyan are not my personal preference and I was uncomfortable.  I struggled with the question of creating an expression of holiness that might not fit the nuances of my own expressions.  But I think of these two women, one from the ancient world and one from the modern world. They both show me that at times our choices move beyond ourselves and build the doorway for someone else. 

Thank you Cohen who stood so close and blessed me.

Thank you Miriam.