Rachael’s Thoughts on Shabbat HaGadol

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol – the Grand Shabbat.  It is always the Shabbat before Pesach, and there is much debate in our texts on how it got its name.  An interesting comment suggests that as we prepare to leave Egypt, we are given our first commandment as Jews.  We are told to separate the lamb to be sacrificed at Pesach.  We are still in Egypt, still slaves, yet being commanded to start to think as free people –to make choices.  The first choice we must make is one of identity.  Do we choose covenant and freedom, or do we choose Egypt and slavery?

This same view tells us that the moment of Jewish choosing happens when we are Bnei Mitzvah, when each of us reaches Jewish adulthood.  That is the moment we are responsible for the commandments, and for adding our voice to the choir of Jewish thinkers throughout time.  On that day we become an adult, or, in Hebrew, Gadol.  That is how this Shabbat gets its name.  We step over the threshold into the understanding of freedom and choices.  We accept that while we are commanded to obey the Torah,  it will always boil down to our free will –we choose to express ourselves through this identity.

Starting with Shabbat HaGadol, and growing in excitement as the Seders approach, we remember that our Jewish choices are there to enhance us, to enrich us, and to elevate us.    Lofty ideals, igniting concepts –one might even say stepping into the Grand Shabbat.  How better to prepare for our celebration of freedom!

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Shemini

This week’s Torah reading, parshat Shemini, begins by telling us about “the eighth day” of consecrating the Kohanim.  Amidst the routine of offering sacrifices, a horrific tragedy occurs within Aaron’s family on this day.  The problem is, there is no ‘eighth day’.

Genesis clearly outlines a seven-day cycle.  Everything that was created fits within the structure of seven days.  We learn to feel secure in the number seven —the number that represents completeness, stability, and consistency.  

So what do we do with the ‘eighth day’?

The other time the Torah focuses us onto the eighth day is the commandment of Brit Milah.  God commands that a parent circumcise their baby boy on the eighth day of his life.  It’s a ritual that is both challenging and mysterious.  Each person present at a Brit ceremony cringes and celebrates at the same time.  We experience conflicting emotions that overlap within seconds of each other.  

In this week’s parshah, Shemini, which means ‘The Eighth’, we read of Aaron losing two of his sons in a shocking and inexplicable way.  Inappropriate ritual leads to their deaths.  We do not understand what happened, as we rarely understand it when death comes from nowhere and changes things forever.  

We cannot unlock the mystery of the eighth day.  It is where we find the hidden, underlying fabric of God manifesting in the universe.  When we find ourselves in the eighth day, where the unknowns of life can take over, we appreciate the seventh day, Shabbat, even more.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Tzav

As we continue to read of biblical sacrifices, we sit today and ask how these commandments can be relevant in our current lives.  Parshat Tzav, this week’s Torah reading, outlines the sacrifices and all their details.  Eventually, Jewish history will bring the sacrificial system to a halt with the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  From then on, Judaism forbids the bringing of any sacrifices.

Yet, we continue to read of them, and we continue to mention them in our prayers.  If we are forbidden to bring sacrifices, why do we keep their details so alive?

In fact, Jewish tradition emphasizes sacrifices even more by stating that children should begin their study of Torah with the book of Leviticus, the laws of sacrifices.  One of our oldest texts explains that children begin with studying sacrifices because the goal of the sacrifices was to bring us back to a place of purity, and our children always exist in a state of purity, so “let the pure connect with the pure” and strengthen us.  

The Hebrew word for sacrifice in the Torah is the word korban.  It means ‘drawing near’.  In the ancient world we are taught to draw near to God through physical sacrifices.  Later, the Sages teach us that we can also draw near to God through studying Torah and speaking of the details of sacrifice.  The Midrash tells us that when our children learn of their Judaism, and their priceless legacy of Torah, they draw all of us closer to God.

Physical sacrifices no longer speak to our Jewish reality, but we keep them present in our religious view and our prayers.  We understand that the goal is to create a personal closeness with God and to use the power of that relationship to change the world.  

There are infinite ways to get there –watching our children learn of their ancient unbroken Jewish chain is one of those ways.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Pekudei

This week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, tells us that Moses put the Ten Commandments into the Ark of the Covenant. Both sets of tablets – the ones he broke, and the ones he delivered to Israel. The Ark of the Covenant held both the broken pieces and the whole tablets.
 
When something is broken, it cannot function as intended, and we are taught to throw it away. But when something is broken, it does not mean it is useless. Certain things can still function, sometimes to remind us of important lessons or to motivate us to find repairs. Broken things can be cautionary tales.
 
In Judaism, a core value is our commitment to Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world. We believe the world is a place filled with cracks and breakage by the very nature of how life functions. We do not walk away. On the contrary, we commit ourselves to find new and creative ways to implement a change, a healing, a repair.
 
Our eyes were meant to move from the shards of broken tablets to the whole ones and back again, always aware that the potential of each to become the other is quite real.
 
This week we’ve been watching one country try to break another. It is happening across an ocean, seemingly distant from us, but we might struggle with layered family histories in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s easy to get confused about what we feel. In these moments we listen to our Jewish values reminding us to respond with support, with donations and with our voices.
 
We remember that the Ark of the Covenant held both the broken and the complete. While we remember the harsh reality of the shattered one, our eyes would always move to the other, inspiring us to find ways of repairing so it becomes whole again.
 
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat -– our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.
 
Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Ki Tisa

Judaism and the arts have always spoken to each other in halting conversations.  The Ten Commandments forbids us graven images. We don’t have a strong history of visual arts.  In fact, we might think that art is discouraged, and perhaps the artist is to be marginalised. But is it all visual art that is forbidden, or is it the creation of an idol?

We definitely have a rich history of singing, dancing and creative storytelling –all the other major art forms.  In fact, some of our most artful quips lie in the legacy of Yiddish curses (‘May our enemies go to hell and only pack sweaters’).  

Even with our hesitancy around visual arts, the Torah this week, in parshat Ki Tisa, discusses the heart of an artist.  We meet the first Jewish artist, Bezalel Ben-Uri, and we immediately notice his name: ‘Bezalel’ means ‘In the shadow of God’, and ‘Ben-Uri’ means ‘Child of My Light’.  The artist is to feel most comfortable in the greys, in the shadows, never seeing the world as black and white.  At the same time, the artist is to see something new, a light, an inspiration.  That is what embeds into the art that is produced, the windows offered for new perspectives.

It continues to say that God inspires the heart of the artist; God is the Divine Muse.  Since God is infused into creation itself, it is the universe that becomes the inspiration.  It is the view of eternity that opens the artist.  

Judaism does not dismiss the artist, on the contrary, we are shown the potential power to inspire and to influence.  We are cautioned not to worship such power or to ignore its influence.  The artists in history have often sacrificed more than we can imagine by being so powerfully inspired.  

In fact, these layers that lie between the artist and God are so complex, we often can’t imagine their implications.  If God answers all prayers, Beethoven is not deaf and the music he gives would not change the world.  

May we always be inspired by these souls.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Mishpatim

This week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim, contains the famous phrase: “an eye for an eye”.   It introduces a list of injuries that are to be repaid with the same injury.  In the ancient world, chances are these words were taken literally, but in Jewish texts, we see that the discussion begins, almost immediately, on whether it is the actual eye, or the monetary equivalent.  

We know that, in the end, the Jewish judicial process will introduce the concept of equivalence within the law –an assessment of damages, rather than the actual infliction of damages.  But how did we become so bold as to interpret Torah in this way?

Interestingly, the discussions do not begin with a question of whether a court should be inflicting physical damage on anyone, since even imprisoning someone is taking away physical freedom.  The debate centres on whether we could actually do what the Torah has told us to do.  What if the injury is only partial –could we be sure that the court’s action would likewise only partially injure in the same way?  In other words, the Torah has told us to do something we are incapable of doing.  We view these moments as invitations to engage with our Torah and explore it from the inside.

Generally, we understand that everyone moves from the known to the unknown.  In this case, we know how we function when we are capable, and we know how we function when we are diminished, but we don’t know how that could be projected onto someone else.  We now understand that we are projecting the difference, not the injury.  We can calculate the difference.  

We also know that each generation will have its own set of ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’; Judaism shows us how the words of the Torah will teach this process to each generation, no matter where in time they are placed.  It is how we see the growth and evolution of Torah, and Jewish values, and that this growth was intended from the very beginning.  It is how we understand these laws to be eternal and forever meaningful.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Yitro

It started with a knock on the synagogue door.  The rabbi answered, saw the man looked cold, and offered him a cup of warm tea.  That is how the terrorist entered the synagogue in Texas, last Shabbat.  Our Jewish values opened the door of that shul, as a man, filled with hate, passed the Mezuzah on his way in.

We are grateful of the outcome, as we hear that no one was killed –but someone indeed was killed –the man with the gun never left the shul.  We are commanded not to rejoice at the death of an enemy because it means we failed to fight the hatred, we ended up fighting the person.  We’re grateful that no innocent lives were lost, but we know that what fueled this man continues to exist.

In this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments.  Within these commandments lie the core values of Judaism, not just the laws.  We hear that searching for God is an ongoing journey –we are searching for something singular and unique.  We are told that relationships of family, and community, are the cornerstones of all societies.  We learn that understanding the parameters of ‘what we do’, and ‘what we don’t do’, define things for us.  But the Torah also tells us that the commandments fit within our Judaism, they are not the totality of it.  We are also the children of our ancestors, the ones who taught us to invite in anyone who is in need.

The terrorist was invited to enter because he knocked on the door, and he looked cold.  He stayed for part of the service.  Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told him he is free to remain, or if he was only seeking a moment of warmth, he is free to leave, no one will be offended.  That’s when he revealed his gun.

We are commanded to offer shelter, food, and protection, to anyone in need.  Fear and hatred will not redefine who we are.  Sadly, we know to lock our synagogue doors, but when Rabbi Charlie was asked if he would again offer warm tea to a cold stranger at his door, he confidently said ‘yes’. 

I am grateful that no innocent lives were lost; I am sad that the hatred at the core could not be addressed; I am proud that as children of Abraham and Sarah, we know to always hear a request for help.  May we one day live in a world where the doors of all our shuls can be confidently left unlocked.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayechi

This week’s Torah reading, Vayechi, which means ‘And he lived,’ contains beautiful messages about life. Our patriarch, Jacob, spends seventeen years in Egypt, and we know that Joseph, his son, was seventeen years old when he was kidnapped. In essence, Jacob is gifted back the same number of years to spend with Joseph, to have a life ‘do over.’ Many moments in life present themselves to us more than once, and we can seize the chance to live them differently. We watch to see if Jacob uses the second seventeen years to parent Joseph differently.
           
Yet, one of the most powerful lessons we learn from Jacob about life happens as he prepares for his death. Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons: Ephraim and Menashe. Joseph lines them up by birth order, but Jacob crosses his arms to place his right hand on the head of the youngest instead of the eldest. Throughout Genesis, we learn that names connect to essence and inform destinies. Joseph named his eldest son ‘Menashe,’ a name that means he hopes to forget the pain of his past, while his youngest son’s name, ‘Ephraim,’ means to be fruitful in his future. One name is negative, and one name is positive. Jacob, their grandfather, crosses his arms so he becomes the conduit through which to balance the names and destinies of his grandchildren. Jacob shows us that balance is key, and that older generations teach life balance.
           
Every Friday night, we place our hands on the heads of our children and we do what Jacob did. Daughters are blessed to be as our matriarchs, and we reverse the order of the names of Leah and Rachel. Sons are blessed to be as Ephraim and Menashe, Jacob’s grandsons, and we reverse the order of their names when we say it.
           
This week, we learn two crucial life lessons from Jacob. We learn that life presents us with parallel moments of choice, moments that centre on us. But we also know we don’t secure the future through us, we secure it through the generations to come, and that the greatest blessing we can give our children, and our grandchildren, is the blessing of balance. 
 
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.
 
Shabbat shalom,
Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Vayigash

This week’s Torah reading, Vayigash, shows us Joseph’s climactic reunion with his brothers.  As a leader in Egypt, Joseph is unrecognizable to his brothers, and on hearing of Jacob, his aging father, Joseph breaks down and reveals his identity to his brothers.  

The brothers stand dumbfounded as Joseph peppers them with questions about his father.   Never once does he ask why no one came to look for him or if his father found out the truth about what happened.  Joseph inquires after his father’s health and then demands that the brothers bring Jacob to Egypt.  

When we look at Joseph’s instructions to his brothers, we find an interesting comment that seems out of place.  Joseph tells his brothers to bring Jacob to Egypt, and then says they should tell him of all the honours Egypt has given Joseph, his high station, and the grandeur they have witnessed.  We’re suddenly aware of the human moment that speaks to us all: Joseph is trying to impress Jacob.

With all of Joseph’s accomplishments, it is most important to him that his father be made aware.  Every child wants to bring a moment of pride to their parent, to hear the praise of accomplishment, to know they have taken a step forward.  Joseph has sustained hundreds of thousands through a famine, but still feels the need to know that his father, Jacob, is proud of him.

It’s these human moments that speak so strongly to us —we have all stood where Joseph stands.  As adults, we learn to measure our own accomplishments, to find the moments to feel proud of ourselves. As children, we’ve all watched our parents watching us, and learned to recognize that feeling when we see pride in their eyes.  It is the touchstone we all need to build self-confidence –we then learn how to feel proud of ourselves.  

Part of us will always indulge the child within who watches our parent for that moment.  It is timeless, as we connect with the memories of our parents for that same moment, even long after they’ve gone.

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael

Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Miketz

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Rachael