Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat Bereishit

This is Shabbat Bereishit, the Shabbat when we start reading the Torah from Genesis, the Shabbat of beginning.

We finished the book of Deuteronomy as we learned of Moses’ death.  The Torah describes Moses’ last instant of life as an exhale.  Moses and God, two best friends, are alone in this human moment as Moses exhales his final breath and God inhales it. 

And then we immediately begin the book of Genesis, the description of God creating the first human beings.  Once the body has been formed, God breathes life into the person –God exhales and the human being inhales that breath.  By connecting the end of Torah to the beginning of Torah, we understand that we exist on the shared breath of God and humanity.  As Moses exhales, God inhales, and as God exhales, we inhale.

Breathing is so natural to us, so involuntary, we don’t think of the holiness of each breath.  The cycle of reading Torah, and connecting the end to the beginning, has many meanings.  It is not just the philosophical statement that there is no end and no start to the layers of Torah, it is also the realization that the end informs the beginning.  It is a statement that everything is truly connected.

In a world governed more and more by social media and online communications, it’s easy to become passive and disconnected from each other.  Genesis reminds us that the vision of creation is a world of relationships and connection, the shared breath, the spiritual empowerment.  We do not read Torah again, we read Torah anew.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ha’azinu

This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, is the song Moses composes and delivers to Israel. He worries about Israel’s welfare, and the nation’s struggle with God. Moses repeatedly warns Israel never to underestimate their inclination to deny God, nor God’s response. 

At the same time, we are at the threshold of the holiday of Sukkot, the time we celebrate following God in the wilderness and learning of Divine Love and Divine Protection. It is the time we built our relationship with God. 

These two messages sit side by side this Shabbat. As Jews, we always struggle with understanding God, and the demands of our Judaism. At the same time, we celebrate that same relationship, those same challenges and demands.  

Moses’ worry is that we won’t keep the values of Torah close to our hearts. He refers to it as ‘this song’. He worries we will not teach our children to sing the song of Torah. Of all our leaders, Moses saw firsthand that if the generational chain is not well established, it can begin to disappear – Moses witnessed this in Egypt as slavery took its toll. 

Interestingly, another name for the holiday of Sukkot is ‘Zman Simchateinu’, the Time of Our Joy’. The name itself speaks directly of the message Moses is expressing. His warnings are dire, and the picture he paints is stark, but he always stresses how Torah must be inherited, taught, sung, and enjoyed. 

Through the prophets, God stated how sweet the memory is of our time together in the wilderness, when we followed God with complete trust – when we expressed ‘chesed’ to God in our youth, when we dwelled in our Sukkot.  

Moses worried we wouldn’t understand how important Torah is in our lives. When we sit in a Sukkah, we assure him we won’t ever forget. 

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

Shabbat shalom and Chag Sukkot Sameach, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Nitzavim

This week, we read the Torah portion of Nitzavim – Moses’ words to Israel as he knows his hours are few.  This week, we enter Shabbat, preparing for Rosh Hashanah, as we pray for what only God can give us: time.  

Moses immediately tells Israel that we are all standing together right now.  Whether we are leaders, followers, women, men, elderly, or infants, we meet in this moment, at the threshold of covenant with God.  We all stand equally.  But, Moses is not standing equally with anyone because he knows the day he will die, and he knows his prayers won’t be answered.  He stands alone inside our greatest human fears.  Yet, as always, he has so much to teach us.

Moses reminds us that at the core of everything Jewish will be God, Torah, and each other.  We will house our spiritual expressions in the teachings of Torah, and we will argue with each other about what it means.  Then Moses specifically warns us not to think Torah is a treasure buried somewhere out in the world.  It is not a search for external truth.  Moses tells us the Torah is close to us, it is in our hearts, and when in doubt, we should always look inward.

Soon, we will stand together on Rosh Hashanah, as we enter the holiest time of our year, and we will ask God for time.  We offer God our honest, internal reflections from the past year, as we experience what Moses tried to tell us.  We have a voice in our destinies, a tremendous gift, and as we gather to pray on Rosh Hashanah, we will make our voices heard.  Sometimes prayer is a whisper and sometimes prayer is thunder.  

Jews everywhere will whisper our fears to God, as we raise our voices to create the thunder of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’.  In the end, across millennia of years, we indeed stand where Moses said we would: Nitzavim hayom, “Today we stand together.”

I’d like to wish everyone a Shabbat shalom, and a sweet, healthy, and happy year to come.

May we use our time of Shabbat rest to gather our resources for the holiness of Rosh Hashanah.

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shoftim

In this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, Moses discusses impartial justice. For example, don’t play favourites in judicial proceedings, and don’t take bribes. In one of the warnings, the Torah says: ‘don’t recognize faces’, an interesting phrase with a latitude of meaning.

Within the context of a court proceeding, not recognizing faces is clearly saying not to favour someone you know. In other words, look only at the issue and not the person standing there. But, as we are in the month of Elul, a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the layered meaning of this phrase becomes relevant. In Elul, we are to assess our past actions, then ask and offer forgiveness to those we have wronged or who have wronged us. The problem is that when we are hurt by someone, we don’t only think of this time, we think of all times in our past when we felt wronged by that person. It’s difficult to think of our pain without thinking of a history of pain.

Given that we accumulate these hurt feelings, it’s now hard to forgive someone without being cynical and thinking it will happen again because of who they are. Now our forgiveness includes our judgments.

The Torah challenges us to approach these moments without ‘recognizing faces’. The focus shifts to the hurt and the attempt to validate and acknowledge what was done through a sincere apology. We are all creatures of habit, and we will continue to hurt others as a natural course of being human. The question is not whether we will do it again –of course we will. The question is whether other people are building biographies of pain around us that activate when they see us. The greater task is to forgive without recognizing faces.

Apologies and forgiveness stand together in a moment in time. The Talmud tells us that true forgiveness means I have let it go, I will not mention it again nor think of it. True forgiveness is a slate wiped clean ready to be written on again. It’s a level few of us achieve, but every year we are invited to do it a bit better than we did before.

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

Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Eikev

As we continue to hear Moses’ thoughts in parshat Eikev, our Torah reading this week, Moses says something that confuses us.  Moses tells Israel not to forget the past 40 years and the hardships we endured since this was God wanting to know what was in our hearts.  The confusing part is that God is omniscient, all-knowing, wouldn’t God already know what’s in our hearts, and then we could be spared all the hardship and suffering? 

It raises the tension between God knowing everything yet granting us free will.  They seem to be opposing truths that cannot coexist.  While there is no clear resolution, generally our Sages understood that God chooses not to know what we will choose, granting us the space to exercise our free will.   

The greatest gift God bestowed on us is the gift of choosing.  It is an ultimate statement of trust because I could choose to keep myself from God, to exclude God from my life, to deny.  The gift of free will is the act of trust that I will find my own unique way to God and genuinely desire that partnership. 

But why through hardship? When there are simchas in our lives, we open all the doors, as we open our hearts, to celebrate together.  When there are challenges in our lives, we narrow the scope, guard our hearts and trust only those we have chosen as our inner circle.  Moses has told Israel that God desires a presence in our inner circle.   

The strength of free will is immeasurable.  It is how we choose to shape the world around us, to form our families, to create a life journey, and to include God.  Moses has reminded us that our relationships with God are tremendously empowering, often fragile, but ultimately of our own choosing. 

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

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vaetchanan

This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, has many verses we recognize from within our Siddur.  One of the things we immediately notice is the statement of Shema Yisrael, a core statement of Jewish unity and declaration of monotheism.

​Interestingly, the statement is most often translated as: Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is One.  But the word shema’, in Biblical Hebrew, doesn’t mean ‘hear’ as much as it means ‘understand’.  We are not telling each other to listen up, we are telling each other to try and understand this all important statement.

​Once we reframe the meaning in our minds, we start to notice how many times the word shema appears in this parshah -suddenly it’s everywhere.  Moses tells Israel that God is not ‘listening’ to his need to enter the land; Moses repeatedly tells Israel they must ‘listen’ to the commandments; Moses declares to Israel they must ‘listen’ to each other.

​​In other words, we often tell people they’re not listening to us when we actually mean they’re not understanding us.  Rather than putting the focus on the other person and their listening skills, perhaps the focus should be self-directed by asking if we are expressing ourselves in order to be understood.  If not, we should change our communication, not assume the other person has to change how they listen.

Moses has named the relationships in our lives that are key for understanding each other: God, the society we are building together, and our personal community.  Even as Moses faces his final days, he continues to lead and inspire.

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

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Devarim

This week, we begin reading the last book of the Torah, the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy in English).  Devarim recants things we’ve already read, but now it’s told from Moses’ point of view.  We’ve been waiting since the book of Exodus to hear what Moses thinks about his life, and we finally get a glimpse.  He is not a happy man. 

He starts his memory from the time they left Sinai, when he noticed God had fulfilled a covenantal promise by making Israel into a great nation.  ‘So great,’ says Moses, ‘that I told you then I wouldn’t be able to carry all of you with all your problems.’  From that point onward, we hear Moses own responsibility for some things, and blame Israel for others.  It’s a very sobering version.   

We hear the honesty of Moses’ voice as he struggles with what he knows are his final days.  When he finishes his address to Israel, he knows he will die, and so there is nothing to be gained or lost, there is only the opportunity to be heard.   

But that is everything. 

When Moses first meets God, at the burning bush, Moses says he is not a man of words, he will not be listened to or believed.  This self-perception of inadequacy haunts him throughout his leadership.  Aaron is there to support him, as is Miriam, because he always feels he is not good enough to be heard or believed. 

While we are feeling the heaviness of Moses’ fate, the pain of not entering the land of Israel, we should not lose sight of this tremendous gift he is granted in these last days.  Moses is speaking from his heart, and he is listened to, and he is believed.  In fact, several millennia later, we are still reading his book, listening to him, and believing every word. 

We could not imagine our Torah without this last book, the words of Moses, deemed as holy as every other book of Torah. Every year, we read it, we hear him, we understand his human moments, and we give our greatest leader what he deserves –our appreciation and ongoing respect.  The book of Devarim may not give us new information, but it gives us the unfiltered voice of Moses, and his deserved last word on the matter. 

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

  

Shabbat shalom, 

Rachael 

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Matot/Masei

This week, we read a double portion from the Torah, the chapters of Matot/Masei.  Included in these chapters is a request from two tribes to live outside of Israel.  It raises the ongoing question of whether Jews must live in Israel or can we choose to live elsewhere.

The tribes of Reuven and Gad argue that their livelihoods are better suited to the land they saw before entering Israel.  Just as the daughters of Zelophehad previously argued to change the laws of inheritance so they could acquire land in Israel, these tribes now argue to change the law, so they do not have to acquire land in Israel.  Right from the start, Israel presents a challenge to us where some of us will do anything to be there while others would not.

In the end, Moses strikes a deal with the tribes. They may live outside of Israel if they help acquire the land and ensure that the rest of the nation can live there safely.  Once that is accomplished, they may return to their homes outside of Israel.  Everyone agrees, and it seems to work well until we are told, a generation later, that there are now challenges of common identity when it comes to everyone’s children.

These ancient questions never resolve.  The relationships we all have with Israel are always complex.  They include understandings of identity, politics, ethics, religion, family, and peoplehood.  Everything we’re taught not to discuss at work or at parties.  The strength of the portion in the Torah is the honesty with which everything is raised, discussed and agreed, while showing us that resolutions will be momentary –each generation will face its own Israel challenge.

The last few years we’ve all had our plates full of health concerns, financial changes, and new societal norms.  We’re still in the midst of understanding much of what the world looks like now.  Through it all, Israel, and our relationship with it, may have faded into the background of our lives.  This week the Torah reminds us that even if we do not live there, the commitment, the oneness of nation, and the responsibility to its welfare must never fade.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Pinchas

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we see opposite arguments sitting side by side.  We meet five outstanding sisters who bring an argument of fairness to Moses.  They state that since their father died without leaving a son, the laws of inheritance do not apply, and their family name and legacy will be lost.  Their argument is based on the underlying assumption that a covenant with God sits on an ethical foundation of fairness.  Moses presents their case to God, and God agrees with the women, changing the inheritance laws in Israel forever.  It seems their argument of covenantal fairness prevails.

But then, immediately, we hear of Moses’ death sentence.  God tells Moses to climb to the top of the mountain and see the land of Israel but know that he will never enter it.  Moses responds with a plea to appoint a leader for the people so there is continuity –it is unfair to leave them without a leader, even for a moment.  Coming immediately after the sisters and their successful argument for fairness, we are shocked to hear of what will befall Moses.

The two opposite texts highlight an ongoing tension we all have in our Jewish lives: my needs as an individual and the needs of a community.  There are times when our spiritual needs seek privacy and isolation –indulgence in our own thoughts.  Yet, we are commanded to build community and join a minyan.  Some people have shared with me that sometimes it is the distraction of being around others that actually blocks their spiritual moment.  Judaism keeps us balancing on the line between the individual and the community, we are not to serve only one, we are to harmonize them both.

In fact, we are given tools to engage outwardly at times, and to disconnect and journey inward when we choose.  Some people cover their eyes with their Tallit at certain moments, others may cover their face with their Siddur – we all cover our eyes during Shema.

The five sisters argue for personal fairness, and they are successful.  Moses argues for fairness for the people, and he is successful.  It is we who cannot switch our thoughts to consider that what the people need may present as unfair to what the individual needs. Clearly, the new generation of Israelites need Joshua as a leader, Moses could lead a generation of slaves, not a generation of freeborn.  

Whether it is something as grand as leadership and legacy, or something as personal as how many times we go to shul, the question of balancing the personal and the communal is always a delicate balance of fairness and fulfillment.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Chukat

In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Chukat, we read of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and Moses’ death sentence when he hits the rock.  We are always troubled by reading of the loss of these leaders but we don’t often reflect on the loss of them as siblings.

    Throughout the book of Genesis, we are introduced again and again to siblings with issues.  It starts right at the beginning with the first brothers, Cain and Abel, and then continues through with Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and all his brothers.  The first question a sibling ever asks God is when Cain asks: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God does not answer the question.

    Throughout Genesis, we are shown the lives of people who do not feel they are responsible for their siblings.  The book ends with brothers selling a brother into slavery, the entire family following him into Egypt, resulting in the enslavement of the Jewish people.

    But, as we are told of the despair of the people, we are introduced to another set of siblings: Miriam, the oldest, Aaron, the middle child, and Moses the baby.  Pharaoh targets the baby boys  which places Moses’ life in danger.  Moses’ mother tries to protect him by placing him in an ark on the Nile, but it is Miriam, his sister, who stands guard at the banks to guard him.  Miriam is the one who courageously speaks to the daughter of Pharaoh and arranges to have Moses nursed by his mother in his Jewish home.  In that moment, Miriam changes the picture of siblings in the Torah forever.

    When Moses grows up and stands before the burning bush receiving his life mission from God, he expresses fear at the thought of confronting Pharaoh.  God tells Moses that his brother, Aaron, is already on his way to meet Moses and support him.  Aaron will stand by his brother’s side for the rest of their lives.

    These three siblings, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, will have the usual angst that siblings will always experience.  They will argue, they will compete, they will become estranged, they will reconcile, but they will always live inside their sibling relationship.  

When Miriam guards her baby brother at the Nile, she is answering Cain’s question through her actions.  She has decided to become her brother’s keeper.  Because of Miriam’s decision, Moses has a window in which to live his life.  Aaron will follow along this path with his big sister, and together they give us the leadership we hold as our model.

    While Genesis shows us the challenge of the sibling relationship, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, show us its rewards.  The 14th century Jewish philosopher, Ralbag, stated that although siblings may not be as good company as friends, it is siblings who are more likely to respond in times of challenge.  Miriam, Aaron and Moses taught us more than they ever imagined.

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

   Shabbat shalom,

   Rachael