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.

Parshat Shemini: Who Knows 8 – I Thought I Did

This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, delves into all the things that happen on the 8th day.  The only problem is, there is no 8th day. I mean, of course there’s an 8th day if we’re counting from day 1 and we just keep counting, but that’s not how the Torah taught us to do things.  The universe was created in 7 days. The world revolves around 7 days. When I get to number 7 I am supposed to start again at number 1 – so really the 8th day is actually day 1 of my second group.

In fact, everything in the Torah revolves around 7 for groupings.  Now that Passover is finished, we are counting the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot.  We are told to count these days in groups of 7: seven weeks filled with 7 days each. We count the Omer by citing which week it is and which day, always aware of how the number 7 is framing our count.  We are counting up to Shavuot, we add in our counting. In Judaism we never count down to things, we always count up to them. Counting down has a sense of doom as we near the deadline (who thought up these terms?). When we count down we have a sense of dread but when we count up we have a sense of anticipation.

I recently asked an engineer why space shuttle launches count down with the phrase ‘T minus 10 seconds, T minus 9 seconds…’ etc.  I was told that T stands for the Time variable and therefore the time variable is set to 10 and the countdown will now reference that variable with the subtraction of 1 second each time.  I asked why they don’t just count down without the ‘T’, like the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He blinked a few times and said he didn’t understand my question. However, he did tell me that after the launch they switch to T plus formulas.  But even there, the T refers to the deadline for launch and so the deadline becomes the constant reference point, the ‘zero’ – except we all know there is no such thing as zero, it’s a place holder (all our math teachers were correct, we just didn’t get it till we were older).  So everything counts toward and away from something that doesn’t really exist…and we’re all fine with that?

The most I can make sense of all of this is that our physical bodies move forward with a set rate of cellular decay.  Aging is a process of our cells breaking down, not building up. Maybe that’s why we naturally gravitate toward countdowns.

But Judaism speaks to our souls as well as our bodies.  Our souls grow in strength and expression, they count up.  

All of this brings me to how Jewish text teaches us of the numbers 7 and 8.  As I mentioned, 7 frames our week and frames our holidays. Here is how the number 7 stabilizes us:

  1. The world was created in 7 days
  2. The 1st verse of the Torah has 7 words
  3. We count the Omer in 7 groups of 7 days
  4. The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches
  5. There are 7 Noahide laws guiding all of humanity
  6. There are 7 blessings for a bride and groom
  7. We mourn a loved one by sitting shiva for 7 days (the word shiva means 7)

The world was created in 7 days and we mourn a loved one for 7 days.  Life itself is framed with the number 7.

But then the Parshah says “And on the 8th day” and we are struck!  What 8th day?! And as we read further, we realize the 8th day contains irrational things.  It is the 8th day on which the Tabernacle is inaugurated, the place that embodies holy space that we created.  We take it with us as we move nomadically. It is a threshold of connection between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and another world.  It is the doorway to the irrational. But it doesn’t end there.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini (the 8th day), Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer foreign fire on the altar and are immediately killed.  We’re never quite sure what foreign fire is and we’re never quite sure what they intended because we’re all so stunned by their deaths. Ritual is supposed to be a safe place, holiness is supposed to be a haven and a relationship with God is supposed to be a protected space.  They entered all of that and were killed. We will never figure out what it all means because it will simply never make sense. It is irrational and we live with it because we have no choice.  

In the parshah we are also told of the laws of kosher animals and fish.  Again, try explaining rationally why an animal with a split hoof that chews its cud is ok but one with a split hoof that doesn’t chew its cud is not ok.  You’ll never explain it because it’s irrational.

And the irrational of 8 continues.  Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth (notice we count up from the birth, not down).  Circumcision is irrational. We do it because we are commanded to do it. Even if one argued a medical benefit, there is no medical benefit to be had by saying a bracha – it is clearly a spiritual moment.

Ancient Jewish texts list 8 genders within humanity.  If gender were rational, there would only be 2 to facilitate procreation, yet 2000 years ago the Sages were discussing 8 of them.  

The number 8, the space within Judaism where things exist and impact us but our minds will never catch up with them.  

Pesach just ended and we look forward to Shavuot – we are counting up toward the holiday.  The spirituality of Judaism is moving us toward a positive future moment and we can start to get excited for it.  We are still in our homes, Covid 19 is still not understood well enough and so the world around us has mostly shut down.  It is unrecognizable to us right now – it is the 8th day. But a beautiful Talmudic text states that all the harps of the Temple had 7 strings on them and all the soulful melodies of the Levites were played on those harps, but in the days of Redemption, the harps will have 8 strings on them.

So the 8th day is the day of the irrational, it has both positive and negative within it but it mostly has potential redemption.  It is only negative if we try to force it into the rules of the 7th day – if we fight it. We move through the 8th day often in our lives.  We need to accept it for what it is and understand that it speaks to our souls and in that way it can make us feel redeemed. We will feel it, we will never understand it.

The 8th day teaches us that our eyes are always forward.  It shows us that we are always counting up.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young…Calf

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Ki Tisa, is filled with the definitions of Jewish art.  We don’t often think Judaism is filled with artistic expressions because we’re not allowed to make graven images…or images of God…or images of things that others worship as God…so, anything.

But we forget that most of Jewish expression is actually artistic.  We don’t read the Torah, we sing it. We sit at our Shabbat tables and sing blessings for wine and bread.  We even get creative with sculptures when we braid challah – 3 strand braids or 4 strand braids or twisted or round – it seems trivial, but we all love a beautiful challah.  

We are created with artistic souls, as proved by our kids.  All children are artistic and only colour inside the lines to please the adult world.  There are no lines constraining their artistic thinking. Several of my kids decided to express their artistic passions in our home, specifically in the wall to wall carpet.  I’m not being sarcastic, I’m being quite literal. One of my daughters noticed the carpet looks different if you brush it up or brush it down. She discovered her preferred artistic medium.  The carpet of an entire floor would be used to show grand portraits of cities or people that resulted from her moving her fingers through the carpet. It was beautiful, I beamed with pride, how creative, how artistic…how tremendously inconvenient!  If anyone walked on the carpet, we risked disturbing her masterpiece and no amount of explaining could move her artistic soul one bit. We all had to walk around the edges of the rooms. Artists can be very headstrong.

One of my sons did a similar thing with pennies lined up on the carpet (he loved the colour contrast) and towers and citadels built with pennies (he preferred the 3D approach to art and I gained incredible insight as to how a Roman army would lay siege to a city).  Usually a jar of pennies was a good idea – rookie mistake. Same problem with the carpet, same problem walking in the rooms. 

I’d had enough when I walked into my youngest daughter’s room one day and noticed she was lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, creating a mosaic on her floor.  Lying next to her on the floor was a pile of her hair. I froze, stared at it for a while and finally asked her if that was her hair. Without looking up, without breaking her concentration to speak, my 6 year old daughter simply said ‘uh huh’.  Why is it not attached to your head, I asked. She told me it kept falling on her face and getting on her work so she cut it off.          

For clarity,  she had long hair that reached her hips.  She didn’t give herself a haircut, she only cut the part that bothered her, so only a chunk was missing.  I reached my ‘living with an artist limit’.  

We bought disposable cameras (…back when the dinosaurs roamed…) and I told them they could take pictures of their art and they could pay to develop the film (it’s better when the artist suffers).  I got my floors back.

We are all artists and our artistic visions have no limits – in our heads.  Judaism does not discuss limiting our creative visions but we most certainly are told to limit our creative products.  In this week’s parshah, we are introduced to directed artistic passion that brings others to inspired expressions of their own, as well as chaotic artistic passion that brings others to destruction.

While instructing Moses on how to create holy space, God introduces Moses to Betzalel, the artist that is inspired with the creative expression to form the articles of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  He has the skill and God will fill his heart with the inspiration. It is a passion project that results in artistic objects whose purpose is to move the observer from the mundane to the holy. It is the path, the journey, the window through which others can travel.  It is transformative.

But later in this parshah, Israel notices Moses is late coming down from Mt. Sinai.  We’re never quite sure how being punctual became the definition of Jewish behaviour, certainly that didn’t continue to inform our Jewish identities, yet, somehow, all of covenant is going to sit on Moses being late.  He’s only perceived as late, he’s not really late because he never said what time he’d be back…but I digress.

The mob turns to Aaron and demands he make them a god.  According to Aaron, he gathered gold, threw it into the fire and (poof) out came a calf.  It is the description an artist would give of how the art forms itself as inevitable, the artist is but the instrument.  

While God is teaching Moses how holy space is created through the inspired heart of an artist, Israel is demanding that Aaron create a profane object through mob pressure and fear.  While God shows that the creativity of an artist can transform any moment into a meaningful one, Aaron creates something that transforms those moments into ones of betrayal and chaos.  Juxtaposed examples of Jewish art and the power to transform.

Artists must express their passion, they are driven, they are inspired, but Jewish art is the result of transformative intent.  Judaism commands us to engage with Torah, its concepts, its ideas, its values. We do not read, memorize, rinse and repeat. Engagement means we creatively explore, interpret and share.  The pinnacle of text study is to create a ‘hiddush’, a newness, another doorway through which to explore a new thought, a new artistic moment. We create conceptual artwork that contains a spark of our being and we passionately debate and defend our artistic interpretations.  Pluralism is hard because we’re trying to get Picasso and Van Gogh in a room together and have each credit the other’s vision as equal to their own.

So, embrace the artist within you, celebrate your childrens’ artwork, fill your fridge with your grandkids’ beautiful drawings as they beam with pride.  When it comes from a giving heart with a transformative intent it opens the door to a new meeting place of meaning. When it feeds fear and panic, when it results from opportunistic intentions, it is the betrayal of a nation, a faith and each other.

Parshat Terumah: Angels and Demons and Shades…Oh My!

This week’s Torah portion is parshat Terumah.  It includes the details of building holy objects for the Tabernacle…the details that make many people’s eyes glaze over.  It lists colour selections and table dimensions and what gets coated in gold and what doesn’t. Because we don’t have a Tabernacle anymore, or a Temple, we don’t build these objects today and so we don’t often listen with a keen ear while this portion is read in synagogue.

But, amongst all these details is the description of the cherubim that will sit on the Ark of the Covenant.  A cherub is a type of angel. It is not a pudgy baby angel with a diaper and a bow and quiver waiting to shower us with ‘love arrows’.  It does not have rosy cheeks and a ‘cherubic smile’. By Jewish mystical accounts, a cherub is a fierce, frightening looking and not-happy-to- be-among-us type of angel.  There are two of them sculpted onto the lid of the Ark. They look down, toward the Ark and their wings are spread over them, almost touching wingtips. Almost touching, because the Divine Voice will speak from the space between – the tiny void framed by their wingtips.

Everything about it begs the question of why are there angels in my holy spaces?  Why do I keep inviting them into my world?

On Friday nights, with family gathered around our tables, we sing Shalom Aleichem.  It’s a beautiful, soulful song that frames our Shabbat meal. The phrase ‘shalom aleichem’ means ‘peace on you (plural)’ and we are welcoming the ministering angels and the angels of peace into our homes.  Verse 1 welcomes them, verse 2 beckons them to come in peace, verse 3 asks them to bless us with peace, verse 4 asks them to leave. We don’t want angels hanging around us for longer than needed.

Many ancient Jewish texts tell us that angels and demons are around us all the time and interact with us constantly.  As long as we think of angels as sweet, benevolent miracle workers, we like that they’re here. On a personal and very mundane note, I have struggled with my hair all of my life.  It is very fine. I always remember my mother putting bobby pins in my hair to keep it out of my eyes, only to have the pins float out the bottom of my hair an hour later. It’s a struggle that continues to this day.  Hair stylists have always told me I have baby fine hair. It sounds lovely but imagine being told you’re still carrying your baby weight with you all your life. A year ago, I walked into a salon and the stylist looked at my hair and told me how wonderful it must be to have angel fine hair.  He is now my regular stylist.

But, unfortunately, there really aren’t sources that tell us angels are saints.  They don’t sit on our shoulders whispering good things into our ears. Angels are messengers who do what God bids them to do – they have no free will and they are not always on our side of things.

According to the Kabbalah, angels were created before humanity was created.  That makes them our older sibling species, since God is the Divine Parent. We are the younger sibling that bothers them.  God will command some of them to protect us (Guardian Angels), just as an older sibling is responsible for its younger ones, not a cherished moment for an older sibling.  God will give us special things (the Torah) that the angels will argue they had first and don’t want to share. We overhear them say something that pleases the Parent and then we usurp it (“Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”).  We bother them.

There are positive and negative angels.  A midrash tells us that angels follow us into our homes on Friday evenings.  If they see a home of peace and readiness for holiness, the positive angels say this should continue and the negative angels must answer ‘amen’.  If they see a home of conflict and chaos, the negative angels say this should continue and the positive angels must answer ‘amen’. I’m not sure I want them in my home.

But, just as we live with our siblings from cradle to grave, we live with our angelic siblings every moment of every day.  The Talmud says there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have its angel tapping the earth above it and coaxing it to grow.  When two friends who have been apart for over a year reunite, they are to recite the blessing that thanks God for resurrecting the dead.  This is because love and fellowship create positive angels. The angel of our friendship will guard the relationship and will be nourished by it.  It takes a year apart to starve that angel, but when friends meet again, the angel is immediately resurrected, triggering the blessing.  

This week’s parshah teaches us how to create holy objects, and ultimately, to create holy space.  But we are always warned that holiness is powerful and extreme holiness is dangerous. The Cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant are keeping Israel at a distance from the power of such holiness.  The fierceness of their appearance is protecting us and they stare at the Ark, directing our focus. By spreading their wings to almost touch, they create the void in which to hear God’s Voice. Like an older sibling, they teach us about the world and how sometimes it is the spaces of silence that carry the greatest of revelations.

Parshat Mishpatim: Something’s Not Kosher in Denmark

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Mishpatim, has some very controversial and challenging laws.  Statements about witches and slaves and seducing virgins seem to fade into the background as compared with the tiny statement about not cooking a kid in its mother’s milk.

For many people, the parameters of kosher revolve around not eating pork or bacon, not eating any shellfish, and separating milk and meat.  When my kids were little, my father would tell them they were so delicious he could eat them up. One of my kids looked at him and said ‘silly Zaidy, people aren’t kosher.’  It was a sweet moment for me because my dad usually didn’t tease that way (grandparenting is a whole new way of expressing) and I got to see that my kid understood that people are animals who don’t have split hooves or chew cud.  Win/win.

But living in a community that keeps kosher creates a familiarity with something we easily forget is so foreign to others.  A friend of mine once told me about a time that he had non-Jewish colleagues over for dinner for the first time. They planned to cook a meal together.  He explained to them how his kitchen was laid out and that he keeps meat and dairy separate. Every cabinet and drawer was labelled in advance and meat and dairy were colour coordinated so things were pretty easy to navigate.  Dinner went great and while they were cleaning after and he was doing the dishes, he decided to have a moment of what he thought would be levity. He turned to his friends and said ‘Oh no! You put the dairy garbage into the meat garbage!!’  He went back to washing dishes chuckling to himself about how cute and funny he was but when he turned back around his friends were rummaging through the garbage separating the meat from the dairy. When he told me the story I started laughing and he chuckled again, this time at my reaction.  He asked me why separating the garbage was any more ridiculous to them than anything else about his kitchen.

He was right.

In fact, there are two different categories of keeping kosher in the Torah: the rational and the irrational.  An irrational law in Judaism is called a ‘hok’. That is where we find the categories of kosher animals and the list of birds we can and cannot eat.  They are irrational because left to our own devices we would never have figured out not to eat a pig. Once we can eat another living thing, why would we be limited to some and not others?  It does not lie within the realm of logic, it lies within the realm of meaningfulness and so each Jewish approach will give it meaning in different ways.  

Then there are the rational laws, ‘mishpatim’, the laws we would have derived on our own because they are the result of logical thinking.  Laws like not stealing or murdering fall in this domain. The laws in this week’s parshah fall in this domain…and so does separating milk and meat.

We mark this separation because the Torah forbids cooking a kid in its own mother’s milk.  Since we can never be sure which animal belonged to which mother, we separate all meat from milk.  The law has grown into separating our dishes, our utensils and in some communities, separating appliances as well.  But how is it logical?

There is definitely a cruelty to taking a baby animal, slaughtering it and then cooking it in the milk its own mother made.  But the cruelty only exists within us, the animals would never know. The Torah is teaching us the logical understanding of cruel concepts that embed within innocuous actions.  And that’s just the start.

The milk a mother produces is specifically there for her offspring.  Its purpose is to nourish and secure a new life. It has no other purpose and most animals become milk intolerant once their digestive systems mature.  Milk’s function is to promote life and begin the relationships of bonding and trust with another. (See my blog on Parshat Beshalach for other “mother’s milk” imagery in the Torah.)

Eating meat, according to the Torah, is self-indulgent.  Something Judaism tells us is a concession on God’s part introduced into the world after the Flood.  It is understood as more of a lust than a reasoned choice. Immediately after the Flood, the Torah lists the 7 Noahide laws, one of which is to never eat the limb off a living animal.  Humanity may eat meat but must kill the animal first. In other words, eating meat must now necessitate interacting with death.

So while milk exclusively supports life, meat must interact with death.  As Judaism often reminds us to choose life, it is now crucial that we understand the images and symbols we use everyday.

It is logical to not inculcate cruel concepts within us; to recognize that hurting anything must begin with an internal dismissal that it matters.  We would never cook a baby animal in the milk its mother made to nourish it. And growing in holiness, we would understand what we see when we see milk and what we have done when we see meat.  Both are permitted but both must be allowed to speak to us separately.

The complexities layer on top of each other so much, you yearn for the irrational laws that just say ‘do this…don’t ask because it will never make sense anyway’.  But in a parshah that discusses the logic of building a society that tries to give people rights and fairness, how subtle and humbling to see that even the baby kid should be on our minds.  

It’s not about how complicated I can make my kitchen, so much as knowing that avoiding concepts of cruelty and building clarity in my world could bring me to endless layers of meaning.  When symbols work properly, they have no limit to their meanings. I may separate my food but not my dishes or I may separate my dishes but not my sinks, or my sinks but not my dishwasher racks, or… but I could never judge someone who is so struck by the profound message of clarity between life and death that they separate it every way they can.  

The only reason we don’t separate our garbage is because, well, that would be irrational.

Parshat Yitro: Even Moses Had In-Laws

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Yitro, contains the Ten Commandments, which tends to always catch our attention.  But the parshah begins with, and is named after, Moses’ father-in-law: Yitro. It is the part of Torah that shows us the father-in-law/son-in-law relationship…and it’s timeless.

There’s an interesting dynamic that exists between fathers and daughters that I’ve watched in my own family.  I quickly learned to brush up on my Freud and then quickly remembered why I don’t like Freud. I watched with confused interest as my husband and my daughters figured things out with each new stage of maturity.  I most definitely remember that each time a new boy showed up at the house to pick up one of our daughters for a date, my husband would greet them at the door with an apple.

I kid you not, my husband would stand in the hallway by the front door with his hand open and an apple lying on his palm.  He would make eye contact with the boy and would say ‘watch this’ as he closed his hands over the apple and split it in half with his hands.  He then opened his hands to produce two perfect halves of the apple, one in each palm. Through it all, he never broke eye contact. I always thought he was showing off his martial arts training and I thought it was cute.  Apparently the boys watching didn’t think it was so cute. It seems they all read it as a message. Years later I found out from my daughters that all their friends were aware of the ‘apple thing’ and it intimidated the boys who’d witnessed it.  I told my husband that it was making them uncomfortable and he smiled a bit and said, ‘is it really?’, but the next date faced the apple.

Ah, yes, fathers and daughters.

When it comes to our in-laws, relationships suddenly become very complex.  They are parents within our marriage, they’re just not our parents. They embody knowledge of our partner that we will never have – they know who they were and who they became.  But we know who they became and who they are becoming, something their parents no longer witness moment to moment. And yet, the Torah commands us to teach our children, no matter whether or not they are young, old, married, single, parents or even grandparents.  We are to evolve into new relationships as they evolve into new stages because we are always obligated to teach them. When they no longer respond to our lessons, we are the ones who must change how we teach them. We are commanded to teach, they are not commanded to learn.

When Yitro joins Moses in the wilderness, he brings Moses’ wife and sons with him.  Moses has not called for them but Yitro decides it is enough time apart. He does not accuse Moses of anything, he simply reunites him with his wife and sons.  It is hard to discuss personal family matters between father-in-law and son-in-law so action is what is needed. They speak all night about the events of Egypt and God, and since Yitro is the High Priest of Midian, this is akin to talking shop.  

The next day, Yitro watches Moses at work and critiques his process.  After all, Yitro knows what it is to lead a people and he’s watching Moses devote his entirety to leading Israel and has nothing left for his family life.  That’s when we remember fathers and daughters.

Yitro tells Moses to delegate, to build a system of appeals that will free Moses from this crushing burden (…and maybe get home…).  Yitro has no vested interest in making Moses the best leader of the Jewish people, but he does have a vested interest in getting Moses to find room in his life for his family.

The only problem is that the system Yitro suggested was one of privilege – only the important people would end up in front of Moses.  For a foreign leader, that has worked, but for the vision of covenant, that would be a betrayal. So Moses sets up a system of challenges rather than privilege.  The cases that are too challenging for a lower court would bump up to eventually come before Moses. He will solve what others could not, regardless of the importance of the participants.  It is this system that we inherit which is why, much later in our history, King Solomon will adjudicate a case with two prostitutes standing before him each claiming motherhood over a single baby.

Once Moses has taken the idea from Yitro and shaped it into what he needs…he sends Yitro home.  Moses will keep his focus on the people and his family life will suffer. Moses will not raise his sons as leaders and he will eventually live apart from his wife.  If Moses were to find a work/life balance, Israel would suffer. If Moses is always monitored by Yitro, his father-in-law, he would insist on sending Moses home at the end of the day.  Choices must be made and Yitro is sent home.

It’s an extremely delicate balance when a relationship between two men exists only because they are bonded to the same woman.  Not enough credit is given to that relationship. Jewishly, we praise the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law who brought us defining concepts that include “whither you go, I will go”.  That relationship speaks so loudly and clearly that we all but ignore that men may not express their interactions the same way.

Yitro will protect his daughter and mentor his son-in-law while bringing his grandsons to their father.  The Jewish people are better off because Yitro spoke with familial authority to Moses. He was the only person in Torah to ever speak as a parent to Moses and it gives us a glimpse into how complex that relationship can be.

To the fathers-in-law and sons-in-law all around us, I tip my hat to you for navigating these nuances as often as you do.  I support you in any hallway you choose to stand with every apple you hold in your palm.

Parshat Beshalach: The Miraculous, Wondrous, Unimaginable, What-cha-ma-call-it

A while ago I saw a funny cartoon (I think today it’s called a meme though I still don’t understand why we can’t just keep calling it a cartoon…) that I thought speaks beautifully of our era.  It generally goes like this: two rabbits sitting on a park bench and the caption reads: ‘Life Before Google’. One rabbit says to the other, ‘I wish I knew more about the history of rabbits’ and the other rabbit says, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.’   Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate how everything is at our fingertips and communication is but a few clicks away. When my husband is late getting home, I admit I have said to him: ‘if only there were a handy little device in your pocket that could help you let me know.’

So, I can’t help but wonder if there is any excitement left in the unknown.  Do we feel that things are beyond our reach conceptually? Could we ever be the rabbits on the park bench?

One of the great moments of mystery is when we explain to our kids that they’re going to have a sibling.  I remember understanding never to tell a child that we love them so much, we just couldn’t wait to have another.  It’s like telling your spouse you love them so much you couldn’t wait to be intimate with someone else. It sounds logical but it’s a terrible thing to communicate.

Whichever way we told our kids about a new addition to the family, I am always struck by the things kids filled in because we neglected to address their perspective.  Some of my kids assumed that the new baby would live with my parents. Friends of mine mentioned their kids thought the new baby would come home with its own mother because they didn’t agree it could share theirs.  Other friends mentioned that they dropped their daughter with her grandparents on the way to the hospital to deliver the new baby. After coming home with the baby, the daughter refused to visit the grandparents for a long time, afraid the parents would pick her up with yet another new baby.  When we think we know everything about something we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, we are suddenly struck with understanding how little we really know.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Beshalach, Israel leaves Egypt and starts to complain about not having food.  God sends manna from heaven. The description of manna is that it’s off-white, moist, spoils easily, it’s flavour changes person to person although it always looks the same.  The Sages tell us that the way God sends the manna and feeds Israel is a means of building trust between God and Israel. In essence, the Torah is describing mother’s milk.  

It also fits the context in that Israel, as a people, were just born by walking through the dry canal of the Red Sea and now they want to nurse and bond.  In fact, later in the Torah, Moses will get angry with God and say he no longer wants to ‘nurse’ the people. Remembering that Israel left Egypt with full supplies of everything they need, including cattle, it completes the image of a newborn in a household filled with food but unable to access any of it.  The newborn needs a special food relationship that nourishes and builds trust.

But while the imagery is familiar to us, it is completely unknown to Israel.  The Torah says they wake up in the morning, look outside and see the ground covered with this stuff, at which point they exclaim: ‘what is that stuff?’, in Hebrew: ‘maan hu?’, in transliteration: ‘manna’ and in translation: ‘It’s manna’.  And that is how we get the word ‘manna’ that literally means: the ‘what is that?’ (the word what-cha-ma-call-it comes to mind).

We are so baffled by it, that we perpetuate the name that embodied the wonderment.  And yet, it is the Divine expression of what goes on naturally between the females and babies of every mammal in creation.  We’ve taken it for granted to the extent of not recognizing it when we see it in our parshah.

The Torah shows us that wondrous things occur around us constantly.  With our phones in our pockets, and seemingly unlimited access to everything through our electronics, we can still be the rabbits on the bench.  Abraham Joshua Heschel used to teach that we should opt not to ask God for success or power, but choose instead to ask God for wonder. It sits around us all the time, it’s a matter of perspective.