Parshat Eikev: I’m Sorry, Did You Say Wear These Boxes?

I’ve been thinking about tefillin this week.  Not just because it’s in this week’s parshah, Eikev, but more because it’s summer.  In Canada, summer is the season for cottages and camping —both have been challenging this year.  So I’ve spent some time remembering summers gone by and I keep coming back to one memory when one of my sons was invited to go camping with a school friend and his family.  The friend isn’t Jewish which raised some logistical questions for us.  My husband and I decided years ago that we wanted to teach our children how Judaism enhances their lives, not restricts it.  We decided we needed to raise them with increasing awareness of how to navigate a world that doesn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat or Jewish holidays.  We wanted them to learn where Jewish law is flexible, how it can be adhered to, while still developing relationships and having experiences in the world at large.  All was going well until the camping trip invitation.

I called the friend’s mother to ask about the food arrangements (perhaps the family is vegetarian?). She told me they camp by a lake and catch fish to eat.  She asked if that was ok and I mentioned that we’re Jewish, my son keeps kosher but he would know which fish he could eat so all should be fine. She didn’t know what kosher was, she’d heard the word, but so long as my son knew what to do, she was comfortable. Great opportunity for family education on ‘Jewish living in the wild’.  My family sat down and we went over the kosher fish identifiers (scales and fins) and refreshed on the difference (kosher wise) between hot and cold food, cooked or fresh, packaged or binned and some of the ins and outs we had taught the kids before. Everything was good to go.  We started packing for the trip and my son reached for his tefillin, which he put on every morning.  That’s when it hit me.  

I asked if his friend knows he puts tefillin on.  He said his friend wouldn’t know what tefillin is, so probably no.  He thought for a moment and then asked if it would be ok to walk away from the campsite to put his tefillin on so he wouldn’t look odd to his hosts.  I told him it would probably be ok, but if they asked why he was leaving the campsite he shouldn’t lie about it.  Then I pictured him in the woods putting tefillin on and I told him not to stand in front of a singular tree and pray, find a place with a few trees grouped together but remember to face east (some of the nuanced sensitivities Jewish law has about praying to a tree, didn’t have time to explain it all to him, too busy focussing on the food thing).  Also, don’t go too far from people because campsites always have bears nearby —any bear tracks nix the whole deal!  He asked what to say if they ask what he’s doing and he can’t lie.  I came up with a blank.  He could say he’s going to pray…in the woods…away from everyone…not too close to a tree…with a book and a velvet bag…no worries…not weird at all.

All this time I thought keeping kosher would always be the challenge and suddenly the food was easy, it was the tefillin.  We get so used to it, we forget how strange it can look to others.  I enjoy watching adolescents practice putting tefillin on.  Most often the arm straps are too tight and the skin bulges.  One wonderful moment involved a boy somehow ‘tefillining’ his arm to his head and searching for his father to untie him.  Beautiful moments of passage.

You can’t help but ask why the Torah would command us to do this, as it does in this week’s parshah.  We are to place ‘these words’ on our arms and between our eyes.  From that statement onward, we develop laws and practices of how and when and what.  According to Jewish law, every component of the tefillin has to be a product of nature, mostly animals.  Tefillin is symbolic of our partnership with God and so we turn to nature to see God’s Hand in it all.  But the boxes themselves, as well as some of the stitching, must be perfect squares.  Perfect squares don’t exist in nature —that’s entirely us.  And so the union of nature and perfect squares embodies the partnership between us and God woven together.

The configuration of tying the tefillin on the arm, and its placement on the head, spells out one of the names of God.  We are literally writing God’s Name on our bodies as we put on the tefillin.  The placement on the arm symbolizes restraining our physical might to never harm the partnership.  The placement ‘between the eyes’ puts the tefillin where the soft spot of our heads was when we were born.  The front fontanel, the soft part of the skull, only hardens in the first year of life.  It symbolizes the flexibility of our minds, our thoughts, our perspectives.  The tefillin knot at the back of the head lies on the smaller fontanel at the back of the skull that hardens between the ages of 2 and 3.  In other words,  I place the symbolic commitment of my partnership with God on the parts of my skull that remained flexible even after birth.

At one point, while putting on the tefillin, it is customary to quote the prophet Hosea: “I betroth you to me forever.  I betroth you to me in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and mercy.  I betroth you to me in faithfulness —and you shall know God.”  It’s the statement of intent and commitment that we would all want to hear from our intimate partners and, in turn, be able to pledge to them.

In today’s world, some people choose to tattoo the names of their lovers onto parts of their body.  Jewish law prohibits permanent tattoos, but the desire to ‘wear’ the identity of a loved one, to clothe ourselves with them, seems very primal.  The Torah has told us there is a ritual where we can ‘write’ the name of God on us, commit ourselves to the partnership, restrain our ability to harm it and always remember to be flexible within the partnership —it’s called tefillin.

 The strange looking, hard to explain, cherished right of Jewish passage that embodies the expressions of love, partnership and commitment we would all crave.  My son’s camping trip with his friend went really well.  The tefillin question never came up, they were too busy asking why the fish had to have scales AND fins.

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 Pinchas: Both a Bang and a Whisper

There was once a Jewish bubbie who was standing with her little grandson by a beautiful seashore.  As they stood admiring the water, a huge wave came out of nowhere and carried her grandson into the ocean.  The woman turned her face to heaven and called out to God.  She screamed of the injustice of the moment and the cruelty of Divine Decree.  She cried, she begged, she bargained and she demanded that her grandson be returned to her.  Within minutes the wave returned, but this time it deposited her little grandson on the beach to stand beside her again.  The Jewish bubbie looked at her grandson speechless for a full moment, then turned her face to heaven again and called out to God: “He was wearing a hat.”

It is the embodiment of chutzpah and we love it!

The blessings God gives us are never enough.  We are grateful for what we have and then we always return to ask for more.  It is not us being selfish, it is us being biblical.

In the Torah portion this week, parshat Pinchas, we meet the 5 daughters of Zelaphchad who come to Moses with a petition for fairness.  It is not another Israelite who has treated them unfairly, it is God.  The daughters present a case that their father has died leaving no sons and now there is to be no land inheritance in Israel since the laws of the Torah only grant inheritance rights to a male.  It is an astounding moment of courage since they are challenging within a legal system that has not yet proved itself open to a challenge of any kind.

The courage they find sits on the relationship described to us between Jacob and God.  When Jacob flees his brother Esau to go live with his uncle, he dreams of God who reiterates covenant to Jacob.  According to God, Jacob is to make God his God and in return God will give him the land of Israel, many children to fill the land and God will not leave Jacob while he is on his journey.  It’s beautiful, it’s spiritual…but it’s not enough.

Jacob responds in the morning with a vow.  He states that if God will watch over him on the journey and give him food and clothes and then return him safely to his father’s home, then God has a deal!

It is biblical chutzpah.  It pushes on covenant so we (the party of the first part) advocate for what we know we need from God (the party of the second part) who is in a position to grant it.  Partnerships mean both parties give and both parties receive.  It won’t work if I’m not clear on what I expect or what I am able to give.  Jacob taught us to push on God and the daughters of Zelaphchad model to us that anyone has the right to demand what is right.  They are women, not recognized by inheritance law, standing with no power and no rights but it doesn’t matter since we are focused on these women – their show of power.

So, isn’t it interesting that within the same portion is a woman named Serah that no one pays any attention to?  She is the daughter of Asher, the granddaughter of Jacob and she is listed in the census recorded in this parshah.  She is the only woman in the list and she is counted because she’s still alive.  Shockingly, she is also listed among those who entered Egypt with Jacob as well as those who came out of Egypt with Moses.  She will now be around to enter Israel with Joshua…who is this woman?

The Torah gives us no details, but the midrash fills us with images.  She is the one who gently broke the news to Jacob that Joseph was still alive so Jacob would not succumb to emotional shock.  She is the one who confirmed Moses was the leader when the elders weren’t sure and it is she who found Joseph’s bones so Israel could leave Egypt.  Later, she settles an argument in the rabbinic academies about how the Red Sea split since she alone witnessed it.

She is the embodiment of Jewish history from the time we became a nation until… forever, since according to the Sages, she is one of the few people to never die.  She is subtle and nuanced within any text that alludes to her but she is the constant, the foundation and the endless future.

The daughters of Zelaphchad are the power of the moment but not all Jewish expressions must contain such power.

A student of mine, a Jewish bubbie, told me that she was at the Kotel in Jerusalem with her grandson who was around 4 at the time.  They stood together and her grandson asked for a book to hold.  Of course, he couldn’t read yet but everyone was holding a book so she happily handed him her Siddur.  He held it, and then started mumbling something.  This Jewish bubbie leaned down slowly to hear her grandson’s prayer and here’s what she heard him singing:

“Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.”

Not all powerful Jewish moments are modelled on the daughters of Zelaphchad, some of them are the humble whisperings of Serah, who shows us the power of our history, our spirituality and our continuity.

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 Nasso: “Is That a Gun In Your Pocket or Are You Just Glad to See Me?”

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Nasso and it got me thinking about jealous misunderstandings.  When I was studying in Israel (many years ago), I used to go out with my friends and we developed a game called ‘Flirtatious or European?’  We were usually a small group of young women sitting in a coffee shop or a bar and men would approach our table to talk to us.  Most of the men were not from North America and we quickly saw there were cultural misunderstandings running rampant.  Where we would hear certain questions as flirtatious, we would find out they were not intended that way, the man was simply from France.  Or, perhaps, a gesture of the hand, or an eyebrow raised in our direction, a crooked smile or an invitation to take a walk…flirtatious or European?  It only got more complicated if the men were Israeli, because then we had absolutely no idea how to reference what they were saying.  Casual dates would end with a man saying ‘I love you’ and only after several times were we told that there is no casual phrase in Hebrew for ‘I like you’ and so the context should inform what he means.  In my circle of friends, if a man said ‘I love you’ too soon he was never spoken to again because no one should use the ‘L’ word after two dates – clearly the mischosen translation of the word from Hebrew to English led to suspicion and mistrust of the man.

Suspicions, mistrust, misunderstandings or deliberate hunting down of ‘others’ is part of our world reality from the ancient to the modern.  I studied in Boston for many years and my proximity to Salem, Massachusetts, resulted in many trips to that beautiful city with much witch hunt history.  From Monty Python’s depiction of the witch hunts (“she’s a witch, burn her!” yelled at a woman with a carrot tied to her nose) to many Hollywood versions of this moment in history, witch hunts were official ‘trials by ordeal’.  In other words, they were there to resolve suspicions, not to punish the person.  When a court could convene with evidence (or, at least, things they accepted as evidence), it would result in a verdict and usually an execution.  But, what do you do when someone is only suspected of being a witch and it can’t be proved?  That’s when you resort to a ‘trial by ordeal’.  Let’s try drowning her – if she survives, then she’s a witch because only a witch could survive a drowning – now let’s burn her.  If she’s not a witch, she drowns (since humans actually die when they don’t have air to breath) and…well…at least we saved her immortal soul, so, too bad for her but the greater picture takes precedence.

‘Trials by ordeal’ are ancient and speak of how to get closure when you have no way to prove anything.  ‘Trials by ordeal’ were supposed to end when the rule of law took precedence.  If I can’t prove something then I can’t punish for it.  But, what happens when I can’t prove it, but I still need to live with the person?  In other words, when the suspicion of a crime committed now clouds everything about the future relationship.  How do we resolve suspicions?

This week’s parshah discusses the law of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress.  A husband is jealous of his wife’s behaviour with other men and suspects she has betrayed him (‘jealous’ is the word the Torah uses and it uses it an unusually large amount of times in this section).  The husband brings his wife to the High Priest who enacts a Jewish ‘trial by ordeal’.  She brings an offering, the High Priest dishevels her hair, mixes various things into water (creating ‘bitter waters’), makes the statement of accepting the ‘trial by ordeal’ and all its consequences to which she answers ‘amen’.  She then drinks the water.  If she is guilty, her body will bloat (actually, a bit confusing about exactly in what way but it sounds terrible whichever way we read it) and if she is innocent, she will be fertile.

Here’s what’s so unusual about this ‘trial by ordeal’:  the issue is not her guilt or innocence, it is her husband’s jealousy.  We already know we cannot prove her guilt or disprove it and therefore there is no way for this couple to move forward in their marriage.  If he wants to divorce her, he has the power to do so without any proof of any wrongdoing, so clearly there is a desire to continue the marriage, but not when one person is overcome with unresolved jealousy.  How do we close matters that need closure but can’t get there?

The Torah has repeated the word ‘jealousy’ several times but not the word ‘adultery’.  The offering she brings is said to be an offering for both her and her husband and it is called the ‘Jealousy Offering’, the challenge the husband is having.  The issue between the couple is not her actions, so much as it is the unresolved jealousy that is blocking them.  Was she flirtatious or European?

But the ‘trial by ordeal’ of the Salem witch hunts were not the same thing.  The witch hunts were there to target people and kill them in the name of some powerful authority and its desire to maintain power and status quo.  They were attempts to legitimate murder, not bring closure for moving forward.  The Sotah ceremony was a way to move past a hurtful and difficult moment toward some kind of closure and future.  But, let’s not forget, the Sotah ceremony is still a ‘trial by ordeal’ and it is the woman who is bearing the public shame of the accusation and drinking the bitter waters (not to forget everyone looking at her to see if she bloats!).  But the ceremony will resolve what could not be resolved in other ways.  Even the worst case scenario is addressed, since if she were indeed an adulterous and pregnant by another man, and she survives the bitter waters, the pregnancy would be accepted as the fertility she was promised by enduring this ordeal and now the child has a family and a future. 

Sometimes the difficulty of the ordeal is the way to move forward and secure a better future.  As a Canadian, I have watched with a broken heart what George Floyd was made to endure in the last moments of his life.  As a mother, I heard him call for his mother and everything in me wanted to answer him.  I’ve watched the anger, the violence, the protesting and the looting, but I’ve also watched the powerful moments of people in uniforms kneeling with protesters and other images where protesters and police were crying and praying together.  

Ordeals can be moments of growth or they can lead to moments of injury and chaos.  I pray that the heartbreak of what we all witnessed brings us to a place of resolution and a lasting change.  May this ordeal strengthen the world to take a necessary step forward.

Parshat Bamidbar: Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney Are Sitting in My Yard

As I’m sitting writing this blog for the Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, I happen to glance out my window into my backyard.  There’s a beautiful red cardinal pecking at my grass and behind it a black crow, also pecking.  I can’t help but notice how close they are to each other when another bird appears nearby and then a blue jay…a squirrel walks in front of them.  The squirrel is literally walking, not scurrying, not running, just walking.  The birds don’t fly away. In fact, the cardinal is now hopping toward my kitchen window.  A few weeks ago, I saw a rabbit on my porch next to my sliding door, looking in.  It’s Spring and my family has taken pictures of a young coyote exploring our yard at a leisurely pace and every morning there are little rabbits playing and hopping.  I am not exaggerating.  I honestly expect some birds to fly over with Cinderella’s dress so the mice can complete the alterations…

I believe the animals think we’ve all disappeared.  I don’t think they’re doing anything new, I think they hid all this from us.  They don’t know I’m in here watching (by the way, they’re all still there, I just looked).  I’ve been noticing the birds throughout this pandemic.  Last week I asked my husband how birds view the land.  Not physically how they see it, rather, what does it mean to them?  Their natural domain is in the air and they nest in trees so they can be close to the sky but they look for food on the ground.  Is the ground their unending buffet and do they view it that way?  If so, then it is a dangerous buffet for them because we were always outside threatening them and they are exposed to predators from above when they eat (another squirrel just frolicked past).   If that’s true, then eating has always been dangerous to birds, never the relaxed trip to the buffet we have always enjoyed.  But now, the ground is their safe and leisurely place and we’re not allowed to go to buffets anymore.

All our reference points have changed.

I like to notice these things because reference points are the rudimentary pieces of problem solving.  We tell our tiny kids that if they are ever lost, they should look for the person in the ‘helper’ uniform – the police, the firefighters, etc.  We give them reference points to solve the dilemma.  When my kids were little and still learning to get to a bathroom in time, I told them that if the house they’re in has mezuzahs, when they need a bathroom, look for the room without the mezuzah.  We use reference points all the time.  Every previous experience becomes a reference point from which to judge every future experience.  It’s how we grow.

So, what happens when the reference points are gone?  I most definitely have been noticing the birds the last few weeks.  I think it’s because I have always loved Hitchcock films, so birds behaving strangely will definitely cause me to glance over my shoulder (just making sure they’re not collecting on a jungle gym behind me as I stare strikingly off camera).

And so, the movie The Birds, becomes my reference point and I love watching them as I remain indoors, incognito. 

The reason reference points speak to us so strongly in Judaism is because in order to receive the Torah, we had to remove all the reference points we knew – we had to leave Egypt. We are taken from Egypt into the wilderness, the desert, Bamidbar, which literally means ‘in the desert’. The fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, is called ‘Wilderness’ in Hebrew. That’s not an insignificant difference because those two names are opposite points of view. The book is called Numbers because it starts with Moses taking a census of Israel, he is counting the nation. In fact, numbers are our greatest reference points. It starts with counting ten fingers and ten toes and lasts a whole lifetime as we fill the numbers of years we are each allotted. But Judaism teaches us that our lives and our worth must never be reduced to numbers and so the Hebrew does not reflect that reference point in the title. The Hebrew title presents the opposite point of view: the Wilderness. The name ‘Wilderness’ speaks of no reference points. The only defining feature of a desert is that it has no stable defining features. Israel must remove all familiar points of view to be open to the newness of Torah. Building the vision of a new world must happen without the constraints of the old. 

Once we remove the familiar we cease to be shackled by it, allowing us to entertain new ideas. For this reason, the wilderness in Judaism is not a place where we are lost, it is a place where we can entertain everything as new and make new choices without the hindrance of the old familiarities. Bamidbar guides us away from what threatens us–Egypt– toward what can redeem us–Torah. It is hard to navigate without reference points since we crave them and feel scared without them. Covid 19 is still a threat to so many in the world but we know our doors must start opening. We watch new reference points start to appear as we struggle with personal space defining as not less than 2 meters. How can we build community? How do we celebrate together and how can we support those who must not venture out still and for the foreseeable future.

This week’s parshah, which starts the book of Bamidbar, settles us into thinking of the stability we can now create in the midst of shifting sands. 

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai: Ah, To Be Fifty!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai, has a lot of information about sacrifices, vows, slaves and agricultural things.  But it briefly mentions the number 50, which is the number designated for the Jubilee Year.  I can’t stop thinking about 50.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t put too much stock in how old I am.  I’ll admit, I sometimes have to stop and do the math when I’m asked.  To be fair, I do the math when I’m asked how old my kids are as well.  I remember birth years, because they don’t change, but ages change annually so I have to do the math.  I remember occasions when I was asked how old I am and I hesitated because I was embarrassed that I had to figure it out (I always know within a year or two but they seem to be asking for accuracy).  The other person says, ‘that’s ok, you don’t have to tell me’, thinking I am embarrassed by my age when I’m actually embarrassed by my memory.  I remember things that are important to me but age has never been that important to me. Except, now I can’t stop thinking about 50.

When I turned 50, a friend of mine joked and said ‘you’re not 50, you’re 39 American’ (to anyone in the U.S. reading this, we Canadians have inside jokes about the value of our dollar as compared to the U.S. dollar …you know, the expression “another day, another 85 cents American”).  The truth is, I never take offence if someone forgets my age (my father (z”l) was never quite sure how old I was and was sometimes off by decades – neither of us cared, I guess that’s where I get it).  But, Judaism seems obsessed with numbers so shouldn’t we also be?

But, it’s not all of the numbers Judaism seems to care about, it’s only certain ones, the “Jewish” ones.  The number 1 represents God, 7 is Shabbat, 8 is days for a bris, 10 commandments, 12 tribes of Israel (sounds like the song at the Seder), 18 is life, 40 is transformation, 49 is Omer, and then… I got nothing.  What happened to 50?

A full life is represented with the number 120, but we take that as a symbolic number, since some lives are full and fulfilling earlier while others can reach 120 in an unhealthy way.  It is not the number, it is the symbol.  But everything up to 49 is not the symbol, it really is the number.  So, what happened after 49?

The Torah seems to stay away from the number 50.  We are counting the Omer now, we are told to count 7 weeks of days which will result in 49 days.  The day after that (day 50) is called Shavuot. There are 50 letters in total when we add up all the names of the Tribes of Israel.  So 50 could represent the unity of Jewish perspective, which we never actually want, so we don’t ascribe any importance to the number of letters in the tribal name count.  The ‘redemption from Egypt’ phrase is mentioned in the Torah 50 times, yet that detail isn’t in the Seder at all.  It took us 50 days to journey from Egypt to Sinai which we don’t pay much attention to either.  

It’s not that there is no importance to 50, it clearly marks important moments.  So it’s not that it doesn’t matter, it’s more that we don’t want to focus on it.  Shavuot is the holiday that will always fall on the 50th day but it is also the only Jewish holiday without a set date in our calendar.  We know it’s Shavuot because it’s the 50th day from the second day of Pesach – we counted.  Next year, we’ll count it again and the date for Shavuot will be determined by the date for Pesach.  The count produces the holiday, not the calendar.

What could be the reason for such hesitation around 50?

Actually, Judaism does show us glimpses of 50, which we peek at from 49.  A soul has 49 chambers, beyond that is the Divine Essence.  The world was created with 50 Gates of Reason but Moses, God’s closest human companion, could only cross 49 of those thresholds.  It is the number that exists in the world and yet we can never get there.  We seem teased by this week’s parshah when it tells us to mark the Jubilee year, the 50th year, with celebration and liberation for everyone and everything.

But today, these glimpses are all we get.  Today, when we get to the Jubilee Year, instead of hitting 50, we start at year 1 again – we never hit 50.

For example, in biblical time, in the Jubilee year, all land transfers nullify, all slaves are freed, all meadows must rest – everything hits ‘reset’.  The value of anything is measured by what year we’re in and how close we are to the Year of Liberation.  If I buy land in year 49 and one year later ownership goes back to the original owner, that land will cost me pennies.  Time becomes a variable in my economy.

One of the reasons stated for this is because God states that we only lease land, since we did not create it, we cannot own it.  The Torah says that we are residents with God on the land.  God is the landlord, we are the tenants and we all live together.  To remind us of this fact, land ownership transfers back and we become ‘residents by grace’ on the land.  It definitely frames the Jewish view of the world and the environment.

But, in reality, the Talmud tells us we could only celebrate the Jubilee for a very small period of time in the Biblical era.  Once we are in the era between the two Temples, we only counted the years to 50 but had no celebration or change of anything.  After the destruction of the 2nd Temple in the 1st century C.E., we don’t even count.  And so, today, there is no practice of a Jubilee year – we stopped noticing 50.

Jewishly, 50 represents everything around us that is always one step ahead of us.  The things we are yet to explore, the growth we are yet to achieve, the person we are yet to become.  Fifty is the step beyond where we are and will always remain the step beyond where we are, no matter how many steps forward we take.

And as I have shared my thoughts on the parshah and the number 50, I have come to a new conclusion.  The next time someone asks me how old I am, I will accurately answer, ‘I’m the same age you are, a Jewish 49.’

Parshat Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim: If Only I Could Sing I Could Be Holy

This week I heard government officials talk about getting ready to open our doors again.  Lots of different phases, many different scenarios and possibilities – depends on if we flattened the curve or plateaued the rise or squashed the line.  We’ll open the doors gradually, some of us but not others. Businesses will soon open to anyone whose last name starts with the letter Q…or something like that.  Essentially, it reminded me of bringing a new baby home.

Actually, our doors closed to expectant mothers long before the baby came home.  Not that long ago, women would enter their ‘time of confinement’ once their pregnancies started showing and they were not to leave their homes until they looked ‘normal’ again.  Those doors have certainly opened wide as maternity clothes now sculpt around the baby bump and hug the curves of the baby while it’s still in the womb. But opening the doors of acceptance for mothers-to-be is very different than opening the doors when the baby is born.

In my day, you brought the newborn home and the family cocooned at home as the baby got used to doing things like breathing.  Visitors were kept to immediate family who usually played short games of peekaboo with the baby (in Russian you say ‘coo-coo’ which I learned after trying to explain to my husband what the word peekaboo meant…just so we’re all on the same page…it doesn’t mean anything and can’t be explained in a foreign language)…(to be fair, coo-coo doesn’t mean anything either but we can all see I’ve let that one go…)

But I digress.  Newborn babies did not venture outside for weeks, if not months.  Outside had germs and inconsiderate people who didn’t know not to get too close.  With one of my kids, we took her out at 2 months old when a stranger approached her in her car seat, looked in and ran her fingers up and down the baby’s lips as she made burble noises.  The stranger was the one making the burble noises, I was the one gasping for air as I watched in horror. I quickly moved the baby away, back into the car, back into the house, not to venture out again for another month.

Opening doors for fashion baby bumps is not the same thing as opening doors to a vulnerable human being.  

So, I think about the Torah reading this week and how could it possibly speak to the news I’m hearing and the weeks to come.  Especially since this week there’s a double parshah: Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei-Mot describes the continuation of inaugurating a priestly class while parashat Kedoshim contains the Holiness Code.  Most of us aren’t too familiar (or concerned) with how to inaugurate a priestly class, but we are very familiar with aspects of the Holiness Code. Things like who we can and cannot have sexual relations with, as well as the verse: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.  We seem to have a mix of the ‘why would I care’ information and the ‘this is so relevant’ information. In other words, the dilemma most Jews face.

When I was growing up, I remember learning about holiness by watching all the religious movies and shows on tv.  They were all Christian. Being holy meant being a priest or a nun, and you could only be called by God if you could sing really, really well.  Bing Cosby could croon his way to faith and every nun somehow knew how to harmonize the most beautiful renditions of ‘Glo-oh-oh-oh-rious’ you’ve ever heard.  I actually thought you had to pass a singing test to be good enough for God when I finished watching ‘The Song of Bernadette’. Nuns were the only women I saw who were unfathomably gorgeous with their heads, hair and bodies covered, because if you don’t look like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, you don’t get to take your vows.  Lest we also forget that Sally Field was a nun who could fly, if she tilted her habit-hat-wings just so and one of Elvis Presley’s leading ladies really did give up fame and fortune to become a nun (great documentary called “God Is The Bigger Elvis”). This world was only for the select few and the rest of us would just have to be happy with glimpses of their world… holiness was beautiful, sensual and hidden behind the cloistered doors of Hollywood. 

I knew that Jews don’t have nuns and I fully believed Jews didn’t have priests either.  We had Rabbis. They couldn’t moonlight as lounge singers because they didn’t sing, the Cantors did that.  Christian Hollywood had no Cantors. I actually argued with people when they told me that Judaism does have priests, that’s what a Cohen is.  Absurd (I said), Blasphemy (I proclaimed)!! 

Christian holiness was everywhere.  It was special and unattainable. Jewish stuff was in the ‘why would I care’ camp and all my friends spurred each other on with ‘what a drag it is to have to (fill in with anything ritualistic)’.  Deep inside I liked the gentleness of Jewish holy things, but adolescence does not value the gentleness of very much. I quickly learned to cover up my attraction to Jewish holiness and when I learned that Judaism expresses holiness by covering things – my heart burst with joy!

The Holiness Code speaks to us of personal elevation from the mundane to the holy.  We understand that we cover holy things because they are powerful, and we must choose the moments when they are uncovered and expressed into the world.  We cover a Torah until we read from it and we cover it again between aliyahs. We cover our bodies because they are holy. The power is in the uncovering, the revelations, the interactions.  When I love my neighbour as myself, I have elevated another person to the status of my own ego because holiness is always about reaching upward and bringing someone with us.

One of the most unusual aspects of the Holiness Code for the ancient world is that it speaks of how each person can create that holiness for themselves and the things around them.  Usually holiness is reserved for the priestly class. They are the ones that need to know how to make sacrifices, how to facilitate ritual, how to create and elevate from the mundane.  Suddenly, within the ancient world, the Torah speaks of how an entire people could do it – how each individual could do it. It is a revolutionary moment.

Yet, before we delve too deeply into our personal Holiness Codes and our revolutionary endeavours, let’s remember that the first parshah we read this Shabbat is Acharei-Mot, which means ‘After the Death’.  It speaks of inaugurating the priesthood after the death of two of Aaron’s sons.  Aaron must move forward and complete what was started, devastated as he is, broken as he is.  Inaugurating a priesthood in the Jewish world of today is irrelevant to our Jewish reality but how we proceed forward toward holiness after a devastating loss is tremendously relevant.

By reading both portions this Shabbat, the message we need lies within the titles themselves.  After the hit, we move toward a higher expression. As I take social distancing walks these days, I am comforted by simple greetings I exchange with strangers on the street.  A moment of contact and good wishes. The artists and musicians offering their gifts to support others from a balcony or on a front lawn. The voluntary acts of human kindness as strangers find ways to shop for others and people continue paying workers who can no longer show up for work.  

The government has told us that soon our doors will reopen and we will all re-enter the world.  For some, it is the welcome open door of new expressions while for others it might be the gradual open door of caution and responsibility.  But for all of us, it is the open door after the hit.  

Perhaps we can take a moment to remember that the next part of the Torah reading is Kedoshim, the Holiness Code that firmly says ‘aim high’.

Sometimes we don’t want the world we left behind, sometimes we want to continue building the one we’ve been creating.

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Pooh Bear & the Pox

This week’s Torah reading is Parshat Tazria-Metzora.  It’s a double portion and it has a lot of information about how to identify sores that are oozing and contagious from sores that are passing and benign.  Yes, there are ways to know. They include whether or not a hair spontaneously grew in the middle of the sore and what colour that hair is (I’ll spare you any more details than that).  Buried in the material are relevant concepts for our world today, as is always the case with Torah…but with your permission, I’d rather not immerse myself in the details of leprosy and contagion right now.

AND HAPPILY, IT’S ALSO ROSH CHODESH!

It’s not just any Rosh Chodesh, it’s Iyar. It’s the second month of the Jewish ritual year (remember we have two new years: Rosh Hashanah, which is the universal for humanity and Nisan, which is when Pesach is, when we became the Jewish people).  Iyar is the month after Nisan so it is the second month of our year – it’s the Jewish February. January has all the excitement and hype of newness and February has…28 days. Nothing special going on in February. It’s about the number of days, really similar to Iyar.  Iyar is the month of counting the Omer as we head to Shavuot. The entire month is a month of counting, it’s about the number of days.

I have to imagine that’s why I always get funny messages about how Iyar is like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood.  Eeyore, the dismal donkey, the flatlined monotonic friend who cannot rise to the excitement of anything. 

And so, sitting at home in isolation these days, I’ve decided to explore the Jewishness of the Hundred Acre Wood.

Pooh bear is the innocent kid who goes to the Jewish after-school program at shul.  He can’t really see how much of the Jewish stuff fits into anything else, but in the end, Pooh finds that the information always speaks to him in some way.  Eeyore is Iyar (how could I resist?), the ‘goes along to get along’ person in the shul who anchors and comforts with their very presence but seems to always know what’s wrong with what they just saw. Piglet is the loyal bubbly shul goer who gets excited about everything and is always the first to arrive.  Tigger shows up at all our simchas, we’re not quite sure whose guest list he was on but he’s in every hora and kicks up the party to true joy. Rabbit heads the committees to make sure things get done. A stickler for detail, so Rabbit’s always worried about stuff we don’t usually pay attention to but, in the end, he’s the reason things run smoothly.  Christopher Robin is the gabbai who makes sure things are as they should be. Kanga is every parent and Roo is every toddler. Owl is, of course, the Sage Talmudist. And now, with Gopher the industrialist, we have a complete Hundred Acre Minyan.

They are all in our shuls, in our communities, in our schools and, of course, in our homes.  As isolation focuses us more and more toward reflection, it becomes clear that the Sages were correct when they said each person is a universe unto themselves.  I am the Hundred Acre Wood and they are all living in me.

But aside from the philosophical approach to Winnie the Pooh, the month of Iyar does have a beautiful and incredibly relevant voice in these times.  The Chassidic Masters highlighted that the acronym for ‘Iyar’, in Hebrew, stands for the verse “I am the God who heals you” (Ani ‘Yod Yod’ Rof’echa).  And our ancient texts are filled with debates about whether we should rely on only God for healing and medicines. Is it a sin to see a doctor?

The overwhelming response, and certainly the ruling in Jewish law, is that we are to seek the remedies of science and the skills of physicians.  The God who heals us does it directly within our souls and also by imbedding the knowledge of cures and remedies into the world and the ability to discover those cures into us.  In other words, seeing a doctor is part of recognizing God as the Healer.

But the texts also make it clear that we must advocate for our own health and healing.  When Hagar prays for her dying son, Ishmael, the angel first responds to the voice of the child – the one who is sick.  While our prayers support others, their prayers are the leading voices. 

So, in these trying times of challenge and virus, we support ourselves, we support others and we listen to make sure they are likewise supporting themselves.  When speaking of themselves, we want to hear their voice of self-leadership. If not, it is a moment of reaching out we should never ignore.

And now I’ve discussed Rosh Chodesh, I took a trip to the Hundred Acre Shul, had a quick appointment with God the Healer, bringing us to today’s challenge of illness and contagion…and Parshat Tazria-Metzora was, in fact, relevant.  

I knew we’d get there.