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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Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

Parshat Toldot: “Truth Be Told” is Actually an Oxymoron

This week, in one of my online classes, we had a fascinating discussion about Judaism and multiple truths.  In Judaism, we have many debates about whether there is such a thing as absolute truth, or can various truths co-exist without having to determine which is…truly true?

It’s actually difficult to mount a Jewish argument for absolute truth, since our ancient texts clearly describe revelation at Sinai, our Jewish defining event, as one where 600,000 people gathered and heard 600,000 different things — all of them the result of the same revelation experience.  Text after text tells us that absolutes could only apply to God, the human domain is a space of relativity.

To take it even further, the ‘truth’ of a moment is usually decided by the authority in charge, and not the actual truth that might be proved.   As an educator, I learned of a case where a high school English teacher put a poem on the final exam.  The students were asked to write an essay on the central theme expressed.  One student wrote an essay that was returned with a barely passing grade and the teacher commented that although they had discussed a theme, it was not the central theme.  The student wrote to the author of the poem and included the exam question, their answer, and the teacher’s response.  The author supported the student’s reading of the central theme.  When all this was brought back to the school for evaluation, the school decision backed the teacher and dismissed the author.  The ‘true’ answer was what the teacher had taught in class, not the author’s stated truth about the poem.

Once I learned of that incident, any time my kids would ask me a question about their homework, I would always begin my answer by saying: ‘are you asking me this because you’re wondering about it, or are you asking me because you’re studying for a test?’  I felt it important to teach my kids that truth has a context.

Over the years, my kids have brought multiple truths to my attention as they encounter them on social media.  By multiple truths, my family has included what Neils Bohr (famous Jewish Nobel Prize winning physicist) observed: “Sometimes the opposite of a fundamental truth is another fundamental truth”.  (It helps when scientists echo what ancient Jewish texts have said all along…but I digress.)  Social media has fun challenges about multiple truths.  For instance, the famous ‘is it blue or is it gold’ dress:

Some people genuinely see this as a white dress with gold, while others genuinely see a blue dress.  Apparently, they’re both correct.

Or, for the math lovers among us:

Due to the order of operations, there is legitimately more than one answer to the equation.

But I’m not referring to misunderstandings, like this one:

  • though you can’t help but love the student who does that…

Nor am I referring to a ‘made-up truth’ that is the result of denial, like every toddler who blames their sibling for the spilled juice, even though all siblings are at school at the moment…

Jewish multiple truths refers to the honest perception a person has of what they consider the truth, which is then offered in the open arena of Jewish discussion so others can expand their thinking of what they thought was their truth.  Multiple truth encourages humility within us, since everything I think I believe is now open for listening to someone else’s view — it might also be true.  

In fact, there are so many examples of this in Torah, it’s a challenge to list them.  Several of them occur in this week’s parshah, Toldot.  One of the main instances of multiple truth surrounded Rebecca and Isaac in how they built their family.

Rebecca is pregnant but feels something is wrong — too much activity in her womb.  She seeks an answer from God and is told that what she is feeling is two nations that are struggling within her.  She is also told that the elder will serve the younger.  She trusts this answer completely, to the point that after her children have grown, she will actively deceive her husband so that the younger one (Jacob) gets the covenantal blessing.  Total trust in God, no questions asked.

Isaac, however, has a different experience of the world.  The Torah says that he has bonded to his son Esau because Esau is a hunter (Jacob makes vegetarian soups).  It makes perfect sense that Isaac bonds to the son who hunts, the son who uses a knife to provide food for him.  It’s not a coincidence that Issac, whose father Abraham placed a knife to young Isaac’s throat years before…on God’s orders…now bonds with his son who uses a knife to protect and provide.  What was a threat from his father is now the security from the son.  

It’s also not a coincidence that Isaac barely ever speaks to God and God mostly leaves Isaac alone.  According to Isaac’s world view, the relationship with God could turn on a dime, so best not to open too many doors.

Rebecca and Isaac are married and are the second generation of Matriarch and Patriarch.  One trusts God fully and gives herself over to that truth, while the other backs away and bonds with the non-covenantal son.  Both their truths are correct.

There is a beautiful midrash that discusses how before God created humanity, God threw Truth to the earth where it shattered into infinite shards.  After humanity is created, each person embodies within them one of the shards of truth, and together, when we listen, we reveal more and more, and grow.  We discuss and debate so we can combine shards of truth and learn of a greater picture.

As the Jewish people, we are a diversity of view and opinion which each of us believes is truly what Judaism means to us.  We learned this approach at Sinai, and we celebrate it as foundational.  

As one rabbi put it: Just because I’m right doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Parshat Chayei Sarah: A Blessing on Your Head…I Think

Two old men are sitting on a park bench together one afternoon watching the people walking by (stop me if you’ve heard this one).  A group of young girls stroll by chatting.  One old man leans to the other and says ‘I can’t believe how short their skirts are, you can see everything, including their pupiks!’  The second man turns to his friend and says, ‘I agree! What a bracha…I mean a broch!’

For non-Yiddish speakers, the punchline is the second man saying ‘what a blessing…I mean a disaster!’

As much as we believe that a blessing would be a universal thing, the truth is that blessings are usually quite subjective.  They are layered with assumptions and expectations that we then project onto each other almost without thinking.  When I was growing up, if I was at a wedding it would be only polite for women to wish single women ‘Mirtzem bi-you’, (God willing this should happen to you).  The assumption is that every woman would want to be married and that single women should not feel envious of the bride because we have prayed that God should make her a bride soon.  We don’t say that so much anymore, I hope that’s because we have understood that blessings have the power to communicate more than we intended.

Judaism views blessings as double edged swords.  The very general, non-specific ones are great.  We bless each other with happiness and long life.  I have had occasions to sit with family members discussing insurance policies a few times over the years.  Most of those occasions involved insurance agents who were Jewish (once it was a friend of ours who is a Lubavitch Rabbi).  The conversation took much longer than it needed to.  Life insurance discussions would always involve following any example with ‘you should live to 120’; disability insurance policies were explained with every other sentence being ‘you shouldn’t know from this, not you, not your family, not anyone we know’.  After signing the policy with our friend, the Lubavitch Rabbi, he reminded us that he is also a sofer (scribe) and set aside time to check all our mezuzahs.  Once, I sat in such a meeting with a non-Jewish insurance agent —I couldn’t do it.  I kept wanting to say ‘God should keep us all safe and healthy (amen)’.  

Blessings are powerful and empowering moments we offer each other, but we’re not often taught how to do that.  When someone sneezes, we may offer the traditional ‘God bless you’.  Historically, that is not because we are worried the sneeze indicated they were getting sick, but because during the instant of sneezing they were left unaware and that’s when Satan can enter the soul.  We protect them by invoking God’s name.  The Hebrew sneeze response, ‘livriyut’, means ‘to health’, more of a Jewish response —the offer of a blessing.  Even when we say goodbye to each other, most of us forget that the word ‘goodbye’ is a short form for the original phrase ‘God be with ye’, the blessing we offered each other before departing and encountering danger on the roads (God forbid).  In Yiddish, the traditional parting phrase is ‘zei gezunt’, ‘be healthy’ —another blessing offered to each other.

While we all exchange and feel positively about the general blessings we offer each other, the specific ones are when it can get tricky.  Offering the blessing of an upcoming marriage to a single woman assumes she would want that for herself; offering the blessing of children to a woman who has suffered a recent miscarriage is well intentioned but often times painful to the recipient.  There is an art to crafting a blessing, but most of us are not taught the technique.

In this week’s parshah, Chayei Sarah, the upcoming matriarch, Rebecca, has chosen to leave her home, her family, and marry Isaac, sight unseen.  Her family offers her a blessing: “May you become (the mother of) hundreds of thousands and may your seed inherit the gates of their enemies.”  It’s a beautiful blessing, who wouldn’t want hordes of descendants and to inherit gates of enemies?  If I inherit their gates, it means I outlived them.  I didn’t have to battle them, I simply endured longer than they did —I waited them out.  What could be the problem?

The midrash points out that this blessing is a double edged sword.  For me to inherit the gates of my enemies, I must accept the inheritance and claim their cities.  What if they don’t live near me?  What if I don’t want what they had?  What if their things are a constant reminder to me of the suffering experienced at their hands?  What if I want to close that chapter, feel relieved that they’re gone, and never have to think of them again?  Why would I want their past constantly in my present and speaking into my future?  What if I don’t think it’s a blessing?

Then the midrash points out that these sentiments were also expressed to the patriarch, Isaac.  Now what has been offered to Rebecca is her own legacy of blessing to bring to her marriage.  She will not fulfill her future by trying to find ways to enter the blessings of Isaac.  That’s what happened to Sarah, that’s how Abraham ended up with Hagar, fathering Ishmael.  

Between the first generation of ancestry and the second generation, we watch the balance of blessings be introduced between patriarch and matriarch.  The blessing sits in the balance.

It’s not so easy to bless each other.  We must always be careful of nuance, personal preferences and the appropriate opportunities to offer someone our most heartfelt prayer of something beautiful.  We’ll never learn the skill if we don’t take a risk and start offering a blessing to each other.

May we all stay healthy and well, and may God bring wisdom to those seeking cures and vaccines.  Amen.

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Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

Parshat Vayera: But It Was Just a Glance

We’ve all had the experience of driving somewhere and noticing traffic is slowing down for no apparent reason.  Eventually it becomes clear that there’s a traffic accident ahead.  Everyone slows down, traffic crawls but most of the traffic bottleneck is not caused because of the actual accident but because everyone is slowing down to look at the accident.  Exactly what are we all looking for?

It is one thing to slow down because something unusual has happened on the road and you want to be cautious with your driving, things might be obstructing your lane.  Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.  Usually it is that driving has momentarily turned into a spectator sport.  We are watching the accident, taking in the vehicular damage and noticing if there are any injuries.  Helping someone who needs it might be our original intent in slowing down but, if help has already arrived, why are we still slowing down?  We have become spectators.

There is a German word, ‘schadenfreude’, which describes the pleasure someone derives from the suffering of another.  It refers to the passive pleasure, not relating to anyone who causes the suffering of another – ‘schadenfreude’ refers to the spectator.  It is not someone who is curious or questioning what is happening, it is the person who knows there is suffering and wants to observe from the peripherals, feels pleasure for knowing they are better off at this moment.  It is a dark side of the human condition.

I remember being in Israel when I was a student and sitting in a ‘monit’, a public taxi car, travelling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  Along the highway there was an accident where we could see cars stopped on the grass between the inbound and outbound lanes.  There were also people lying on the ground and a few people sitting there.  No one was moving.  Our taxi pulled over to the side of the road as did all the cars driving in both directions but no one got out of their cars.  I was confused about what was happening and I asked the driver if we were getting out to help.  He said, ‘not yet’.  We waited a few more minutes, as did everyone else in all the cars that had stopped.  I asked the person sitting next to me why no one is getting out to help and he said we’re all waiting to make sure it’s real.  It took me a minute to understand that what we were all seeing could actually be a trap — an ambush — to draw in as many civilians as possible before the actual attack occurs.  In other words, use our compassion for each other as a weapon against us.  Another dark side of the human condition.

A friend of mine told me a story a few years ago about his motorcycle trip through the Galilee in Israel.  For anyone who’s travelled those roads, you know they twist and turn through the mountains, sometimes with no shoulder or little space between the narrow road and the deep valley drop at the side.  My friend was riding his motorcycle on one of these roads as several cars were trying to pass him because he wasn’t going fast enough.  The roads are narrow and each car that passed him squeezed him closer to the edge of the pavement, onto the gravel and, eventually, off the road and down the steep incline into the valley below.  He told me all the cars immediately stopped and everyone suddenly ran down into the valley, each identifying to the other whether there was a medic among them, perhaps a doctor.  He said everyone immediately drew on their first aid training (this is Israel) and he was quickly secured, checked, assured he would be ok and help was on the way.  His injuries were minor and he profusely thanked everyone who came to his assistance.  Then it occurred to him that these were the same people who had run him off the road in the first place.  His gratitude turned to anger turned back to gratitude turned back to anger…  The grey side of the human condition.

The Torah parshah this week, Vayera, tells us of the story of Lot, his family and the citizens of Sodom and Gemmorah.  As God is destroying the region, Lot, his wife and his two daughters are being escorted to safety by an angel.  The one thing they have been told not to do is to not look backwards at Sodom.  Just as it looks like all is well for them, Lot’s wife turns to look over her shoulder at the city she has left behind, Sodom.  She is turned to salt.  In all of Torah and all of Jewish text, this is the only time that happens.  It is both powerful and baffling.  Why the strong instruction not to look back?  How is it so severe that it will cost her everything, her very life? 

The problem with looking back on Sodom as it is burning is that everyone in Lot’s family is already safe.  Lot’s wife is turning from the vantage of safety to watch the suffering of others.  She does not plead for them, she does not bargain or cry out, she stands and observes.  She has become the spectator.  The ethics of Sodom would support the passive observation of the suffering of others as a pastime but Judaism does not.  Lot’s wife is turned to salt, the ancient world’s substance for preserving things.  She is forever preserved in her choice of ethics.  By watching others suffer, taking no stance against it, while enjoying her safety, she has preserved the ethics of Sodom.  We should not focus on her as being punished but as sending the message that these dark sides of the human condition should stay in the fires of Sodom.

There are some places in the world today where someone is obligated by law to stop and help someone in distress.  Other places do not legally obligate anyone to stop.  Interestingly, there are places which do not obligate anyone to stop, but if you choose to stop, you are now obligated to help.  Part of this is to prevent the misunderstanding that could occur when someone sees someone else stopping to help.  I would assume the person who has stopped will help and therefore I don’t need to stop.  I would assume the person who has stopped will call 911 and therefore I don’t need to call 911 — resulting in nobody calling 911.  Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a benefit of this law could be that we don’t build a culture of passively watching another’s suffering.  

Unfortunately, traffic accidents are common on our roads.  We will slow down to preserve safety and we should watch to make sure help has arrived.  Once we know that has happened, Judaism then tells us to put our eyes forward and allow people who are vulnerable to have their privacy and their dignity in this moment.  Let Lot’s wife stand and stare.

Have you ever wondered what all these books Rachael refers to are? Been curious about the differences between them and what they’re each used for?

Join us on November 17th for a shiur event – a 45 minute class presented by Rachael – to learn the answers to these questions. Information and registration can be found on our Learning Page.

Parshat Lech Lecha: Trick or Treat…A Tough Choice

Parshat Lech Lecha: Trick or Treat…A Tough Choice

This coming Shabbat is Halloween.  A time of ghosts and goblins and scary stories.  In fact, here is my scary story for this Halloween:

2020 

(–couldn’t resist)

Halloween is an interesting time for the Jewish community.  I remember the principal of my Jewish day school coming into each class every year and telling kids they should not go out for Halloween.  I was taught it was a Christian holiday that was celebrated by hateful people who would hide behind masks and start pogroms.  He painted vivid pictures of Jews hiding in basements until Halloween was over and that it would break his heart if any Jewish kids from his school would engage in this horrible holiday (we have definitely mastered the ‘Jewish continuity through guilt’ pedagogy…). 

When I had my own kids, the question of Halloween came up.  As a day of spooky stories and ghosts and goblins, I always revisited my thoughts on Halloween. As much as I have always loved ‘B’ horror movies and all things spooky scary, I just couldn’t get past that whole Christian pogrom thing.  And then, listening to the radio one day, I had an epiphany.  I tuned-in to a talk show discussing why Halloween was such a great holiday.  Several speakers discussed that they are connected to Halloween because it is one of the few holidays that has nothing to do with religion.  To them, Halloween is completely secular, a celebration of the dark side and the mystery around us.  I gasped, how could they not know this is a Christian holiday?  That’s when I realized that I, a Jewish woman, had taken upon myself the religious memory of another faith.  If others don’t remember the hatred Halloween could embody, why was I holding on to it?  Is it not better to have that kind of holiday move toward secularization?  Should I not be helping it along so that it would never again occur to anyone to use Halloween as the ‘mask’ of their hatred?

I decided to let go of my burden of Christian memory and take my little one out on Halloween.  Now I was faced with explaining why it was ok to approach strangers’ doors (something I had taught her she should never do) and ask for candy (something I had most definitely drilled into her she should never accept from a stranger).  I taught her the phrase ‘trick or treat’ and when she asked me what it meant I explained to her that if they don’t give her a treat she can now play a trick on them (but I was trying to teach her not to be mean to others) and I realized the problems of Halloween were larger than the Jewish thing.  

As Jews, we have always been tasked with how to encounter the cultures around us.  If they do not ‘other’ us, should we ‘other’ them?  Is anything that once had some connection to another religion now off limits, no matter what cultural evolutionary changes have occured?  Technically, January 1st is a Christian holiday, it is the day Jesus had his bris (8 days after Christmas) and entered covenant.  Would we now say that since it has its roots in a Christian moment, no Jew should recognize or celebrate New Year’s Day?

Interestingly, there are clues to these questions in this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha.  God has told Abraham and Sarah to begin a journey with God. Great promises are made and they accept.  As soon as they arrive in Israel, there’s a famine and they need to leave to search for food.  They go to Egypt.  Afterwards, we are told that Abraham’s clan has grown too large to accommodate both his own wealth and the growing wealth of his adopted son, Lot.  Abraham tells Lot to choose a neighbouring region and settle there.  Lot chooses Sodom because it has plush land and strong economic growth possibilities, but the Torah tells us that the culture of Sodom is evil.  It doesn’t take long before Lot’s life is in jeopardy.  The region erupts into civil war and Lot is targeted and taken hostage.

We choose the cultures we live in.  Lot chose economics over morality and grew wealthy at the expense of always looking over his shoulder.  After saving Lot’s life, Abraham turns to God and asks how he can be sure that the wonderful Divine promises will really come true (to be fair, there was a famine, a civil war and a hostage rescue so far).  God and Abraham enact ‘the covenant between the pieces’, a mystical ritual to ‘sign’ the first draft of covenant.

Abraham did not learn about signing covenants from God.  God had communicated everything as a promise secured by God’s word — Abraham wants God to sign on the dotted line.  That was something Abraham learned from his home culture that he now imports into Judaism.  Abraham was told to leave his past life behind but that did not include leaving positive cultural lessons behind as well.  

Throughout the ages, we have developed a keen filter about Judaism and the cultures we live among.  We decide what gets through the filter, and Judaism has been enriched throughout the millennia by the positive choices we’ve made.  When a culture prioritizes morality over wealth, we are well within the teachings of Abraham and Sarah, and when it prioritizes wealth over all else, we have made Lot’s choice.

In some Jewish communities today, I still hear the ongoing debate about ‘to Halloween or not to Halloween’.  It’s not an easy question.  In the modern world, religious holidays can move toward secularization before they might fade from our culture.  We’re privileged to live at a time when we can recognize what is happening, and actively choose if, and how, it might enter our Jewish homes.

It’s a tough choice…but, at least it’s not a scary one.

Parshat Noah: Zen & the Art of…Wait, Was That My Phone?

Every now and again I look at my kids and marvel at how different they are from me.  They are, of course, their own individual persons, but they come from me, and they carry my DNA in their cells which will pass to their children…so how different could they really be?  But, we all know, my DNA sitting inside their cells does very little to shape them in my image.  Even so, over the years, I have tried doing things with each of them that they have suggested, and since it clearly interests them, I hoped it might interest me as well.  One of these moments was the day I tried hot yoga.

One of my daughters explained to me how much she loved it and I need to go with her so I could love it too.  She remembered that I used to be very involved in yoga exercises but she forgot that I overheat easily and prefer cold climates to hot ones.  The moment we entered the yoga studio I knew I’d made a mistake.  As everyone gathered for the class, the temperature was only slightly tropical so I thought it might be ok until I was told the temperature would be turned up every few minutes.  The instructor introduced herself (her name was Blossom…I kid you not) and she explained to everyone how vital it is to leave the world outside the studio.  This space is about our breathing, said Blossom, it is about relaxation and letting go, so all electronics are to be outside the studio.  She said it with a smile, a glow, an ethereal glint in her eye.  

The class started, but within 10 minutes I had overheated and wondered if Blossom would mind if I poured my water bottle over my head. I could do it quietly, no one would need to know and everyone was already so drenched in sweat I wondered if anyone would even notice the puddle…but then IT happened.  The woman on the mat next to me had her phone on vibrate and…yes…it vibrated with an incoming call.  I barely noticed it, but Blossom immediately appeared out of nowhere and gone were her smile, her glow, her ethereal glint in the eye.  This was Blossom Imperial Guardian of Hot Yoga.  “GET THAT PHONE OUT OF HERE!!” (the capital letters aren’t because she yelled but because the bite in her tone was worse than if she’d yelled).  The woman guilty of the phone violation apologized but Blossom was having none of her apologies – not until the phone was gone and the woman with it.  Once the offending woman was exiled from the hot yoga paradise, Blossom’s smile reappeared as she floated from mat to mat to encourage our relaxation.  I only lasted a few minutes longer, I needed to recover from the heat but mostly I needed to recover from Blossom.

Interestingly, I usually think of my hot yoga experience when we read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Noah.  We know the story so well, Noah built the ark that God told him to build, he put animals and plants in it and God flooded the world destroying everything except what was in the ark.  The grandeur of the narrative easily overtakes the nuances.  

The Torah states that the world had become ‘corrupt’ and that’s why God decided to destroy it.  The Sages question what kind of corruption could have warranted such a Divine response.  One of the answers is that everything had denied its true nature and chose to express other than what was its genuine expression.  According to this midrash, you could plant corn but the earth would decide to grow wheat instead, or an apple tree would decide to grow pears.  Everything in nature denied its authentic true core and tried to be something else – something it saw someone else doing.  The world became a place of imitation and superficial gestures, it had redefined itself.  

Chaos was returning to the world because the uniqueness of each creation was being denied, and the singular, distinctive nature of each voice was missing.  God created a world of authenticity but the world itself had erased that authenticity to produce blended chaos and a facade filled with impersonators.

After the flood, the world changes.  The seven Noahide laws are introduced, and free will gains parameter.  The ground can no longer choose to grow corn when I plant wheat and an apple tree cannot prefer to grow pears.  Likewise, although I have free will, I cannot become something other than my authentic self, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking I can.  

We often know things about ourselves and believe we have accepted who we are, but then we don’t follow through to the next step — the celebration of who we are.  Part of what I should celebrate is how easily I overheat and how detrimental an encounter with Blossom can be to me.  Part of what Blossom should celebrate is how easily she can go from ‘Zen’ to ‘superhero – defender of the tranquility’.  

What we should all celebrate is how magnificent the world is when we feel proud to be authentic.  It seems to be the Divine Plan.

If you would like to learn more about this story in the Torah and Rachael’s commentary on what truly took place, consider joining us this spring for Reserve Me An Aisle Seat Please: A Look At Noah’s Ark.

If you would like to know what happens before the ark, The Garden of Eden: The Best of Times and The Worst of Times begins November 3rd. If mindfulness is more of interest, Mussar: Finding Empowerment and Healing the World begins November 4th.

More information on our Learning Page.

Parshat Bereishit: Happy Anniversary!

I, like most people in the world at this moment, am spending more time at home.  One of the things I’m doing is cleaning out closets and looking in old boxes that have been stored away.  In one of those boxes, I came across a gift I had given my husband on our first anniversary.  It was a mirror for his keychain.  One side had the mirror, but the other side had the gift: the message I wanted to communicate.  It said: “I didn’t say it was your fault, I said I was going to blame you.” 

Over the anniversaries, I have continued to gift my husband little mementos of my ‘truths’.  For a few years he liked white chocolate, but I would buy him dark chocolate and leave it in his pocket with a note that white chocolate is really chocolate that is confused about its self-identity and I could not support such thinking.  He has since developed a taste for dark chocolate.

I also found a small wooden plaque in the box that says: “I love you more today than yesterday –yesterday you really ticked me off!’  I’m a strong believer in clear communication.

Anniversaries are often celebrated as milestones of past events, markers of history.  But, they can also be opportunities of focused growth and insight beyond what we thought we knew from before.  Reading the Torah every week is no different.

This Shabbat, we start reading the Torah again from the beginning with parshat Bereishit.  Genesis, the beginning, Adam, Eve, snake, trees, disobedience and accountability are all introduced to us as we learn of the human condition.  Yet, when we look closely at the text, we start to notice that certain details are missing that we all assumed were there.

We usually understand that God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.  Except, Eve wasn’t created when God forbid eating from that tree, only Adam was commanded not to do that.  Maybe, we assume, what’s commanded for one is commanded for all, except Jewish law doesn’t work that way.  Also, the commandment to be fruitful and multiply was given to Adam before Eve was created and Jewish law holds that for that reason men are commanded to have children while women are not.  That’s why the legal Jewish discussion surrounding birth control always asks whether we are discussing it for a man or for a woman, since they do not have equal obligation to that commandment.  In other words, if the commandments before Eve was created are only obligatory on Adam, why do we assume Eve broke a commandment by eating from the Tree of Knowledge?

We not only assume she broke the commandment, we go further and lay ALL the blame on her.  She brought death into the world, since God said that the day Adam eats from the Tree of Knowledge he will die.  Over time, this idea gets linked to a woman’s menstruation — she will have a monthly reminder that it is because of her that blood is shed in this world.  There are some communities that slap a young girl across the face when she has her first period.  Let me be clear, there is no justification for this within Judaism, but young girls have been slapped across the face globally, and within various faith and secular communities, for generations.  The shame of spilling blood has been branded onto the cheeks of girls in a horrible custom of blame.  

Interestingly, Adam was told that because he ate the fruit, he would have to toil the earth for food, but there’s no custom to hit a man in the face when he brings in his first harvest.  Somehow, Eve has been held as more accountable than Adam even though she never received that particular ‘thou shalt not’ in the first place.

The constant blame attached to the woman would lead us back into the text to see if, perhaps, Eve was as guilty as history has made her.  The Torah states that when God responded to Adam, Eve and the snake for what each had done, God is very specific with only Adam and the snake.  God tells the snake: “because you have done this thing”, and God tells Adam: “because you ate of the tree”, but when God addresses Eve, there is no mention of what exactly she has done.  There is no ‘because you…’ statement addressed to Eve, she is just told of the changes that will now occur.  It is informational not accusatory.  The Torah has neither obligated the woman, nor punished her, for anything specific that happened in the Garden, but throughout time, millions upon millions of girls are taught to pay Eve’s price and bear her shame. 

In fact, if we’re looking for who to blame for all of it, it seems no one is ready to accept accountability for anything.  When asked what happened, Eve tells God that the snake enticed her.  The snake isn’t asked anything, he’s already proved himself a liar, and you don’t ask a proven liar to testify to anything since you are setting them up to lie again–that’s on you.  When Adam is asked what happened, he tells God that ‘the woman YOU gave me…’ which is an incredibly bold way of saying that, in fact, the whole thing is God’s fault since it was God’s idea to create Eve, who was enticed by the snake, who was also God’s idea.  So, if God’s looking for someone to blame…

We thought we knew that story inside and out.  Adam and Eve eat, are punished, are exiled and we learn about sin, repentance and accountability for our actions from then on.  Except, the Torah never says they sinned, it isn’t blaming Eve for anything, no one is accepting any accountability and the only one humanity blames for anything is God.  Exactly which story did we think we knew?

We live in a world that fills us with ideas, traditions, artwork and ‘truths’ that claim to be from the Bible.  The first chapters of Genesis contain one of the most commonly known narratives in Torah and yet, on close reading, it might not be saying what we thought all along.  Starting to read the Torah from Genesis this Shabbat is the Jewish anniversary of our Torah study year.  It is not an anniversary where we hit ‘repeat’ to read it again, it is the anniversary to read it anew.

If you would like to learn more about this story in the Torah and Rachael’s commentary on what truly took place, consider taking The Garden of Eden: The Best of Times and The Worst fo Times. The next course begins Tuesday November 3rd. More information on our Learning Page.

Parshat Nitzavim: It’s My Song To Sing

A few years ago, I decided to get adventurous with my cooking and bought cedar planks for fancy salmon cooking.  The planks needed to be soaked in water for some time before using them and so I carefully put them to soak overnight.  I realized, when I got into bed, that I had not told my husband there were cedar planks soaking in the kitchen, and since the next day was garbage day – without question those cedar planks were going to end up in the recycle bin and my dream of cedar infused salmon filets was over.  I woke my husband and mentioned that there’s wood soaking in the kitchen, it shouldn’t be thrown out.  He said ok.  I asked if he heard me, he said ok.  I asked if he could tell me what I just told him…he said ok.  I decided to catch him in the morning before any damage was done.

The next morning, I woke up and mentioned the cedar planks to him once I saw he was truly awake.  He told me he didn’t know what they were and had already taken out the recycling, but he was happy to retrieve them, since nothing gets picked up for about an hour.  I got dressed, went downstairs and saw the wood was not back in the kitchen, my husband was having coffee and I could hear the recycle truck approaching on our street.  I quickly shouted, ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and my husband immediately put his coffee down, jumped up, ran out the door and saved them.  What I didn’t notice was my teenage daughter was in the room watching this happen.  As my husband ran out of the house, she looked at me and shouted, ‘What the hell does that mean?!?  Should I drop and roll???  What just happened?!’  I later heard her telling her siblings: ‘I can’t explain it.  Mum walked into the room and yelled ‘cedar planks’ and papa dropped everything and ran out of the house –it made perfect sense to them.  Actually happened, I couldn’t make this stuff up.’

The phrase has now entered our family lexicon.  When something is pressing and needs immediate attention, we just raise our voice and proclaim ‘Cedar planks! Cedar planks!’ and we stop what we’re doing to listen and attend.  It makes perfect sense to us…it also looks strangely quixotic to anyone else.

Every family has their vocabulary of experiences that create phrases that are meaningful to them and opaque to anyone else.  The explanations won’t work, it is the result of shared experience.

As Jews, we have done the same thing by creating the shared experience vocabulary of a people.  ‘Rosh Hashannah is so early this year’ is meaningful to a Jew but to someone who does not share the experience it is a confusing statement – how is it early or late if it’s a calendar event?  ‘Seder madness’, ‘Pesach politics’, ‘being Jew-ish’, ‘being a mensch’, ‘raising a l’chaim’, are all examples of phrases that have immediate meaning and can’t really be fully explained with their nuances. 

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Nitzavim, is Moses knowing his final moments are imminent.  He is sounding more desperate in an effort to make sure Israel can handle what is coming.  He repeats, in various ways, that if Israel strays from God, nothing good will result.  It doesn’t matter how many times the people assure him they got the message, he will repeat it nonetheless, with increasing images of doom and destruction.  If they don’t see the sense of the matter, maybe fear will protect them.

Then Moses tells the people that two paths lie before them: life and death.  We are commanded to choose life (interesting that it’s a commandment, which means it needs intention and action).  Toward the end of his message, Moses refers to the song that he is writing and that everyone must learn the song and teach it to their children.  The song must be in their mouths and always available and meaningful.  Moses writes it, teaches it and beseeches everyone to sing it and teach it for shared singing.  The song is to keep us united and protect each other.

The ‘song’ is understood by the Sages to be the Torah.  We study it so it can become second nature for us.  We teach it to our children so it will stabilize them.  It is poetic and melodious and joyful.  The song is the place we all meet and recognize, how sad if we turn it into the place of judgment and discord. 

The High Holidays are approaching quickly, and we might not all be sitting together in our shuls as we have in years gone by. But wherever we are, we know that we can share the same song and it will always speak to us in that Jewish moment.  This year, my kids will be blowing shofars in my yard and for me that is part of my Jewish song.  It connects with the songs I’ve inherited and the ones I’ve created.  It is a call to history, to repentance, a pull on my heart with the immediacy of the day.  It is my personal ‘cedar planks!’