Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

This week’s parshah, Miketz, details Joseph’s life in Egypt.  Joseph is our Jewish ancestor who lives his life blending into the larger culture around him.  He holds his covenantal identity in his heart, but he appears outwardly like anyone else.  

  We love the details of the story because we all want to teach our children to do what Joseph did.  Hearing Pharaoh’s concerns, Joseph describes the job needed to solve the problem, and then applies for that job.  

  In fact, everything goes beautifully until his family arrives.  Joseph must now find a way to blend his worlds into one identity.  Creating an identity that prospers in a dominant culture is challenging enough, but it becomes even more layered when two cultures are vying for our identities.  

  Chanukah is the holiday that speaks to us of a time when we tried blending cultural identities only to find that the dominant culture around us didn’t want the blend – it wanted assimilation.  This week we celebrate recognizing that important difference as we insisted on self-defining.  Chanukah marks a time when we encountered identity questions from the outside as well as from the inside.  One of the strongest lessons of Chanukah is that we do not live isolated from other cultures, but we do not ever forfeit our Jewish core, or our right to define our own identities.  

Eight little candles that remind us of the spiritual strength that lies within each of us as we navigate a complex world of cultural offerings.

      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 Vayeshev

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, begins the Joseph narratives with all its beautiful complexities.  It begins by telling us that Joseph would bring bad reports of his brothers to his father, Jacob.  It then says that Jacob loves Joseph, and his brothers hate him. Most of the commentaries depict Joseph as privileged and spoiled —he is the favourite son who tells tales about his brothers.  But the Torah may be painting a different picture.

On the fateful day of Joseph’s kidnapping, Jacob sends him to check on his brothers.  As we follow him through his day, we see that his brothers are not where they’re supposed to be.  In fact, they’re camped by a trade route.  It begs the question of what they are doing with their father’s sheep near a trade route.  Perhaps these brothers are not as innocent as they seem.

As the story develops, we see the immorality of the brothers, including the cowardly lies that plunge their father into decades of mourning.  Given all the details, we might consider that they have been poaching their father’s sheep and selling them on the trade routes. This might be part of the ‘bad reports’ that Joseph was trying to tell his father.

The complex issues of the Joseph story start at home where he is faced with a conflict of morality.  His life journey will always centre on moments of moral choice, as do ours.  Our days are filled with moral conflicts that are usually small, but still quite meaningful.  When to speak up about something and when to let it go; when to confront and when to negotiate.  The Torah wastes no time showing us that the challenges Joseph faces appear in our lives all the time.

  There are no easy answers and no single solution to these nuanced moments

of choice.  At times we have done wrong, and stand in the footsteps of the brothers, at times we have been hurt, and stand where Jacob stood, and at times we have tried to resolve conflict, and only made it worse – we stand in Joseph’s shoes.

The power of these narratives is we see that healing can only start when each person owns the part they played and stops searching for someone to blame. 

Just another reason to cherish this beautiful narrative.

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 Toldot

This Shabbat we read parshat Toldot, and the story of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau.  It is also the Shabbat before Remembrance Day, November 11, as we remember our Canadian soldiers and veterans.  It’s interesting that these two things speak to each other with relevance for today.

The story of Jacob and Esau resonates as the story of two brothers in conflict. Jacob trades the stew he has made for Esau’s blessing as the eldest son. Esau feels betrayed when he later realizes he will not receive that blessing.  Jacob flees from his brother, Esau, who has pledged to kill him.  

       From Jacob’s point of view, the blessing was obtained fairly and legally.  From Esau’s point of view, it was a fleeting momentary decision, and doesn’t speak to the emotional reality of losing his father’s blessing.  Jacob sees the covenant while Esau sees his father’s love.  Both brothers sit in a single event with conflicting perspectives that cannot be reconciled.  It is the story of every human conflict —it is headed for war.

As we cross time from the ancient world to today, we often sit in this reality.  We struggle with warfare, aiming for peace which is often elusive.  Remembrance Day is a time for us to honour those people who risk everything to bring peace.  The Torah teaches us that peace is not a natural state, it is something to be solicited, pursued, negotiated, and fought for.  On Remembrance Day we remember the values for which someone would risk everything.  We honour the people as well as their vision.

       Jacob will eventually solicit Esau for peace.  In doing so, he will offer back the riches he has obtained, and Esau will refuse them.  The brothers are able to close the pain of the past and consider the hope of a future.

      On Remembrance Day, we remember our soldiers, veterans, and heroes.  We remember the pain of their loss, as we affirm knowing that everything they did, and everything they risk, is to consider a hope for our future.

       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 Chayei Sarah

This week, in parshat Chayei Sarah, the Torah tells us of Sarah’s passing.  Yet, when it speaks of the life of Sarah, our first matriarch, it begins with a strange phrase: “These were the lives of Sarah”.  We are struck by the plural forms. In fact, the name of the parshah, Chayei Sarah, translates as ‘the lives of Sarah’.

       Many of our commentaries offer beautiful insights into the choice of the plural.  One midrash offers the idea that all lives are connected through time, and therefore, every life is, in fact, a plural life.  It explains that when the book of Ecclesiastes said: “The sun rises and the sun sets”, the sun is understood as representing the brightness and warmth each of us brings to the world.  We’re told that before the sun sets – before we lose someone, it first rises -a new person has entered the world. The midrash points out that the Torah already told us that Rebecca, our next matriarch, was born, before it told us of the loss of Sarah.

            Rebecca is not the replacement of Sarah since people are not replaceable one with another.  The insight is for us to know that the world of relationships we build is limitless, as our relationships with others never end but build on each other.  Our lives connect with others, and when someone is lost to us, we may consider that, in time, some of the values they embodied may be found to shine in other people.  

        One opinion states that we all live many lives in our lifetime –that is why we find the plural noun here.  Sarah lived one lifetime but led many lives within that time.  During those lives, she influenced others and left an impression that stays with them.  Sarah continues to live her many lives even today.

        The eternal flow of sunrises and sunsets, as seen in the lives we live and the lives we touch, lets us know that the uniqueness of each person extends beyond anything we could contain in the singular –we need the plural.

        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 Vayera

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayera

This week’s parshah, Vayera, contains powerful concepts, not just for the ancient world but for our modern one.  We hear of strangers visiting Abraham and Sarah, and we suspect they’re angels.  Today, we often encounter people and are left with the impression they are more than they appear.  We glimpse the infinite depth that lies within each person.  Later in the parshah, Abraham argues with God about Sodom and creates a new moral dialogue.  His argument sets our understanding of how righteousness must be weighed and valued more than is evil – 10 righteous people can carry a region of thousands.  God agrees.  We also read of a desperate moment with Lot and his daughters that begins the lineage that will give us the Messiah.  We remember that sometimes the darkness of the moment can blind us to the redemption of the next moment.

   Yet, with all these tremendous perspectives, we usually focus on one element of the parshah, the binding of Isaac.  It is one of the most challenging and difficult texts we read, and we have yet to explain it in a way that sits comfortably in our hearts.  But because it disturbs us, we focus there and don’t value the positive messages in the rest of the parshah.

Sometimes in our daily lives, we experience things the same way we read this parshah.  Each day is filled with beautiful and powerful nuanced moments that positively impact how we think and feel, yet we will focus on something that disturbed us.  

  We protect ourselves by seeing what is negative, but we also deprive ourselves of seeing the positive growth in each day.  This week’s parshah invites us to broaden our views, seek the positive moments and value the change in perspectives they bring.

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 Lech Lecha

This week, we meet Judaism’s visionaries: Abraham and Sarah.  God reaches out with an invitation to take a journey: lech lecha.  It’s a Hebrew phrase that is often difficult to translate.  The first word, lech, is the command ‘go’, which we immediately recognize.  However, the second word, lecha, is out of place in this phrase.  Lecha means ‘for you’, which has generated many commentaries on how this journey will benefit them, it is a journey ‘for you’.  

But the word lecha doesn’t only mean ‘for you’, it also means ‘to you’.

It now suggests that the journey of covenant, and Judaism, is a journey of self-discovery.  At the end of the road we travel, we are to meet our true selves.  Lech lecha now translates as ‘go toward yourself’.   

For the first three generations of our ancestry, our Matriarchs and Patriarchs each embark on their own lech lecha journey that takes them to different Jewish realities.  Each of their journeys is unique.  Once Jacob, our last ancestor, lies on his deathbed, he passes it to his descendants as an inherited legacy.

Each Jewish person inherits the invitation.  Lech lecha, walk a path of unknown discoveries filled with challenges and surprises.  It is never guaranteed to be only good, but it is always guaranteed to feel right when you find your unique lech lecha path.

We sometimes make a life decision that can shape the years ahead, but the life journey of lech lecha sets our feet on a path that began long before us, and will extend far beyond us.  The future imagined by Abraham and Sarah, and the vision they bring to the world, is only surpassed by the courage of this moment as they answer God and take a first step.

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 Noah

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Noah

It takes ten generations for the world to move from Adam to Noah, ten generations to go from creation to destruction. Yet, ten generations after Noah, we will read of Abraham. Throughout the ages, Jewish commentaries have compared Noah and Abraham, as they represent such different portraits of a hero.

Noah, knowing the world will be destroyed, doesn’t argue with God – he simply obeys.  Abraham, being told a region of Sodom will be destroyed, mounts a moral argument with God about sweeping judgments.  It seems that Abraham is the model of a hero, yet Noah and Abraham are both described with the same word: ‘Tzadik’.

The Sages tell us that a righteous person, a ‘tzadik’, is someone who stands firm in their morals, no matter what is going on around them.  In other words, a hero is defined by context.  Noah is righteous because he doesn’t have blood on his hands.  He doesn’t actively save people, but he doesn’t actively kill them, which was the cultural norm of his time.  He is righteous because he is blameless.  Abraham is righteous because he moves beyond being blameless and speaks for the potential victim.  His argument with God is not for those who are suffering, it is for those who will suffer in the future.  In this regard, both Noah and Abraham stand side by side in their righteousness – they both take their cultural norms one step further.

When we think of Torah in our lives, we do not think of it as standing far from us and our culture.  On the contrary, we contextualize Torah into our lives and have it strengthen us to take even one step forward.  A hero could be someone who stays calm when others are lashing out, or someone who sees the outcome of suffering and tries to intervene before it starts, or someone who gives their time to support someone in a culture where every minute is accounted for and scheduled.  

Noah and Abraham, so distinctly different, both show us there are heroes among us all the time, we just need to understand that subtle gestures can also be heroic.

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 parashat Bereishit

Rachael’s Thoughts on parashat Bereishit

We have danced, celebrated, fasted, and prayed for weeks, as we entered the High Holidays, moved through them, and now truly begin our Jewish new year.  This Shabbat, we begin reading the Torah again with the first chapters of Genesis, parashat Bereishit.

           We read of the beginnings of the universe, the world as we know it, and the human condition.  Einstein believed that the universe is not a defined, static thing, but that it continues to expand.  Our Sages taught us that creation renews itself every day, and that the creative elements God embedded into the universe will always renew.  Our worlds of science and faith are both telling us that nothing around us stands still – everything moves toward growth and expansion.

           With that in mind, we do not read the book of Genesis again, we read it anew.  It has new things to tell us, unique perspectives we haven’t heard before.  The entire Torah begins with the word ‘Bereishit’ – ‘in the beginning’.  It begins with the letter ‘b’ (bet), the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our commentaries point out that it would be more appropriate to begin the Torah with the first letter, ‘a’ (aleph).  One reason is to show that there is always something more to know, something that pre-exists, something connected with ‘a’ (aleph) that is hidden and inviting us to explore.  But the Torah must begin with the second letter because we know we are entering a process that is already moving forward.

           Though we are careful  not to read Torah searching for endings – we engage with Torah as we search for beginnings.  Each person finds their unique starting place, knowing there is so much that exists before them – before anything they recognize.  The goal is not to unlock a mystery of the past, it is to courageously step in and enter the expansion.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Parshat Beshalach: The Obstructed View Might Be the Way To Go

Parshat Beshalach: The Obstructed View Might Be the Way To Go

There are moments in life when we stand in front of our children to protect them, and there are times when we physically stand behind them to stop them from retreating.  When they are little, our kids usually hover around our feet whenever they’re in unknown places.  They might grab onto one of our legs, and not let go as we try to walk, or they might plant themselves behind us and refuse to move.  Their positioning around us is a way for them to let us know they are afraid or insecure — they’re not usually subtle.

When we do the same thing as parents, we try to keep it subtle, we want our kids to learn to stand strongly and independently.  As an adolescent, one of my daughters would often get tongue tied when speaking to anyone of authority.  I’m sure many adolescents feel the same way, and usually it’s not a problem, but this became a challenge whenever we would travel anywhere that involved an airport or a border.  Security personnel (and border officers) are trained to notice if someone is uncomfortable around them.  It is not so much what the person is saying in answer to the questions, it is more how they are saying it.  That’s when an adolescent who is getting nervous with questions would send up red flags.  

When that daughter finished high school, she decided to spend a year studying in Israel.  Plans were made, suitcases were packed, long goodbyes with friends…and then the security at the airport.  Everything seemed fine until the El Al security officer asked my daughter why she was going to Israel.  She said she’s going to continue her education, she’s going to university.  He asked her what year she had finished.  She paused, silently counted up all her years in school, and told him she finished 12 years.  At this point I could see the problem building.  The security agent didn’t quite understand, and so he asked her ‘twelve years of what’, at which point she took a small step backward, lowered her voice and said ‘my education.’  Her step backward prompted him to step forward, her lowered voice prompted him to lean toward her –I knew this was not heading anywhere good.  As he leaned in, he asked her if she could clarify where she had spent twelve years, and why she was going to Israel.  She took another step backward and stammered.

The only thing I could do at that moment was to move to stand behind her so she couldn’t take any more steps backward — she tried, she bumped into me and had nowhere to go.  I whispered to her that she’s starting her first year of university and she repeated exactly that to the security agent.  Things resolved quickly and it became clear that it wasn’t what she was saying that was the problem, it was that she was stepping backwards and showing discomfort in talking to him at all.  The red flag of nervous retreat.

It took a few years for her to figure out how to handle her encounters with authority asking personal questions.  None of us like those questions, they are intentionally intrusive and meant to catch us off guard — it works.  When coming home from Israel at the end of the year, the Canadian Customs agent asked her how long was her trip home, did she make any stops?  She paused for a moment and said her trip was 36 hours, and no, there had been no stops.  The agent looked up from the computer, stared for a moment at her and asked for clarification.  Her sister was travelling with her, and explained that the 36 hours included the time on the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and the time on the bus to the airport as well as the wait time for the plane, in other words, her entire trip home.  The 36 hour answer was accurate and honest, and it triggered red flags because it did not reflect the mindset of the Customs agent.

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Beshalach, is filled with many of these same moments.  Israel has left Egypt, and immediately the Torah tells us that there is a direct route that God could choose to get them to Sinai but God chooses the longer route.  The worry is that they will see the Philistines, a warring people, and Israel will retreat to Egypt.  God, the parent, is anticipating that Israel will take steps backward and decides they have the time, Israel should not be rushed into a world it isn’t ready for.  God leads them elsewhere.  

Soon after, we are told that during the day, God travels in a dense cloud in front of Israel, and that during the night, God manifests in fire.  Both of these forms are always leading Israel in the wilderness.  At first glance, it makes perfect sense:  the cloud will shield the sun during the day so Israel can travel in its shade, and the fire will provide heat at night when the desert can get quite cold.  It is to protect Israel.

But given the earlier comment about rerouting so Israel doesn’t retreat, there is another reason for the cloud and the fire: they’re opaque.  At any given moment, an Israelite could look forward and see a wall of cloud or a wall of fire, but they could never see past them.  The future is too frightening, too unknown, too unknowable.  God has placed Israel behind the Divine ‘back’, not only to protect them, but to actually block their view.

Israel has just left Egypt, they can only look at the world as slaves, they have not found their footing or understood their independence.  Blocking their view of the future allows them to grow without the encumbrance of thinking they should already know who they should become.

It’s a beautiful parenting moment — when do we stand in front of our kids, when do we stand behind them, and when do we proudly stand to the side once we know they’ve found their footing.

This same daughter who had challenges answering probing questions at airports has since grown into a confident woman.  The family jokes and laughs about those moments from the past…but whenever we travel as a family, she’s not allowed to speak to any of the agents.

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Parshat Bo: Thanks But I’d Rather Be Second

Parshat Bo: Thanks But I’d Rather Be Second

Over the years, I have explained to parents and grandparents what happens when the first baby a woman has is a boy.  Everyone is familiar with the ‘bris’, the celebration Jewish people do that surrounds circumcising the baby boy.  It’s usually done early in the morning.  We can thank Abraham, the Patriarch, for that timing because he was the first Jew to be circumcised, and he always preferred doing God’s bidding early in the morning —that’s why the Sages told us that the Shacharit service (morning prayer service) is to symbolize Abraham.  So, like Abraham, we get up at the crack of dawn and rush to the ‘bris’.  The ceremony itself is not very long (thank goodness because everyone there is uncomfortable thinking about it).  After the ‘bris’ there is a breakfast served.  That’s because we are commanded to surround rituals with a meal, to emphasize that while we are engaged in spiritual expressions with God, we must never forget to ensure everyone has the basics of food – some form of bagels…and lox, of course..  Jewish spirituality must balance with the realities of this world.  

Ceremonies for naming baby girls are still open for development.  We have some very beautiful traditions in both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi world that can help parents create meaningful ritual for their daughters.  Whatever the ceremony looks like, it will be followed by a meal, and no surprise, probably bagels and lox at that one too.  I’ve often heard the baby girl’s naming ceremony referred to as the ‘bris-ket’).

When my husband was planning the ‘bris’ for one of our sons, it happened that the only mohel in town was sick.  He told us to call 1-800-BABY-BOY, which we did, and a mohel flew in from New York and performed the bris.  Globally, Jews take that eighth day bris commandment very seriously.

But, if the baby boy is the mother’s first born, the thirty day birthday will trigger another Jewish commanded event: ‘Pidyon haBen’ —‘Redemption of the Child’.  It is a lesser known ritual, but it is equally commanded in the Torah.  We buy our child out of a lifetime of service to God.

‘Pidyon haBen’ is the result of the final plague in Egypt —death of the first born.  In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we finish reading about the plagues, God’s explanation of that final plague, and its ramifications moving forward.  We usually understand that last plague as God passing through Egypt and taking the lives of all the Egyptian first born.  Except, the Torah didn’t exactly say that.  The Torah states that God will pass through Egypt and take the lives of every eldest child born in Egypt.  Worded that way, it now includes all the Jewish first born as well.  The fact that the Israelite first born shelter in homes that have blood painted on the doorposts means they are protected, it does not mean they are exempted. 

Even these days, the ‘Fast of the First Born’ that occurs right before Passover commemorates the unique positioning of these people within the Passover experience.  

Because Jewish eldest children were not exempted, they now owe every breath they take to God.  They are to live out their lives in the service of God, who owns their futures.  The Torah says we can redeem them out of this predicament.  The ceremony is called ‘Pidyon haBen’, the ‘Redemption of the Child’.

But, wouldn’t we want our child to live in the service of God?  Isn’t that an entrance to holiness?  Shouldn’t we be honoured?

We’re honoured with the concept but we’d rather our children choose their own destinies.  Starting in the ancient world, the Sages look for ways to minimize who would be obligated for a ‘Pidyon’.  It must be the child that is the mother’s ‘first opening of her womb’, so a previous miscarriage or abortion would now nullify the obligation of any subsequent birth.  The Sages rule that it must be the womb opening on its own, therefore any C-section delivery would nullify the need for a Pidyon.  If either parent is the child of a Cohen or a Levi, they don’t have a Pidyon.  That’s because Cohens and Levites were the ones serving God (when we had a Temple), —they’re the ones we redeem our children from.  But the Sages are making these laws when there is no Temple.  They are clearly trying to minimize the scope of the law when it involves limiting our childrens’ life choices.

Judaism always teaches us to temper our spiritual expressions with an understanding of the real world.  Life is always a challenge, how much more so if one is forced into a life of spiritual service when they do not prefer it.  Holiness is to be sought and found each in our own way, but we do not seek a life of only holiness or a life that sits exclusively in this world, we are commanded to seek them both.

It seems like finding our balance between our spiritual and material worlds shouldn’t be too difficult.  We generally shape our lives to be productive for our work week, spiritual retreat for Shabbat and run all our errands on Sundays.  With particular adjustments, each of us could generally find some form of balance that would work for us, and we would revisit it as needed for minor tweaks.  But these days are not our norm as we encounter the global pandemic that still challenges lives and livelihoods.  Many of us find ourselves becoming stagnant in our current reality.  It is easy to neglect our spiritual expressions as we notice every day resembles every other day.  Someone mentioned to me that every day has now become ‘Blursday’.  But the opposite reality is equally true.  We can easily sit quietly with our thoughts and our spiritual moments while we wait for the world outside our doors to change.  We can retreat from our physical involvement in the world and plan our re-entry when the vaccine is complete and the world goes back to what it was.  We forget that time and experience can only move us forward –we forget that the real world will never go backward to what was, so we favour our spiritual reclusivity. 

The Torah reminds us that even when God tells us to devote someone’s entire life to spirituality, we argue for a balance in our lives —how much more is that balance crucial for our present moment.

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