Standing Together

Hi everyone

Hope the week was good.  My thoughts this week moved between the Torah portion and the upcoming High Holidays.  Then, I realized how much they speak to each other. This week’s parshah is Nitzavim and it starts with Moses as he declares to Israel: ‘Here you all stand’ – all of Israel standing before God, and I can’t help but think of the High Holidays.

Nitzavim – here we all stand.  We bring with us the truth of who we are, in all our strengths and our weaknesses.

Moses stands facing his imminent death and Israel stands looking at an unknown future – here we all stand.

Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of our Jewish new year, is not always remembered as our Day of Judgment.  However, another name for the holiday is: Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. God makes decisions about humanity that will then be sealed on Yom Kippur.  I find myself caught between the daunting aspects of the holiday and the celebration of sitting with my family.  

We stand together under the umbrella of Rosh Hashanah, with its major Divine decisions that sit above us, while we celebrate with each other down below.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have dipped a piece of apple in honey, only to have the apple slip from my fingers into the honey bowl. It’s not like I could ignore that I just dropped my apple into the communal honey, but digging my fingers into the honey to retrieve my apple will only make it worse. The truth is, I actually don’t like honey.  I love the concept of honey, the sweetness that comes as a result of the collective hive; the purity of it, the solid/liquid hybrid of it; the fact that it will inevitably end up in some little person’s hair… I love it all.  The only thing I don’t like is the taste.

So I celebrate that the holiday revolves around honey, because for me it represents the wonderful, funny, and symbolic things that are less than perfect.

I remember, as a little girl, anticipating hearing the shofar.  My teachers emphasized how important it is and my parents always made sure I came into the sanctuary especially to hear it.  I also remember hearing it and thinking a cow was baying at the moon. I didn’t find it a strange sound, strange would be an understatement.  I found it weird and jarring. The sound of a shofar is an acquired taste. But the more I acquire it, the more I love it.

The midrash tells us that the sound of the shofar is the matriarch, Sarah, crying and sobbing before God.  She believes her son has been killed and so she cries, and then she sobs and then she hyperventilates and then she screams the most gut wrenching and soul wringing scream imaginable and those are the sounds of the shofar.  They are strange, they are soulful and jarring and I love them.

The Rabbis also tell us that the physical sight of the shofar is our remembrance of the patriarch, Abraham.  He brought the vision of a partnership between God and humanity to the world. He contracted his relationship with God to create an eternal inheritance for the Jewish people – and it cost him everything.  He lost his wife, Sarah, and the relationship with his son, Isaac. His communication with God, toward the end of his life, is all but non-existent. What he gave the world is priceless, while the price he paid is unimaginable.  The bent and curved appearance of the shofar is the bent and curved back of Abraham as he bears the price he paid.

I celebrate that the shofar brings me to my ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, in their glory and their humanity.  I celebrate that they continue to lead us, through the shofar. It is magnificently strange and its sound is beautifully imperfect, as are we all.

Whether it is spelunking for my apple in the caverns of the honey bowl, or surrounding myself with everyone who makes the decision to go to shul, Rosh Hashanah will bring me to a moment of celebration.  Yet, with all that, the most powerful spiritual moment will lead me back to this week’s parshah, as I remember Moses’ declaration:

Here we stand.

May we all be inscribed for a year of life, health, peace and sweetness.

To Dream My Impossible Dream

Hi everyone,

Hope everyone had a good week.

I had a week reflecting on fantasies and fairy tales.  I started watching a series about fantasy creatures and the dystopian world they are fighting to survive in.  I believe in fantasies and fairy tales.

To be clear, I don’t believe they’re real, I believe in them.  I believe we create them and then treat them as reality. That makes them very powerful.  I remember the perfect birthday present I ever received as a little girl was a toy spinning wheel.  It had red legs and a brown wheel. I got it as a present at my birthday party where I wore a beautiful dress with a crinoline underneath.  My party shoes were black and shiny with a bow and the dress had white beads on it. And though it is one of my best and favourite memories, I’m not sure if any of it is actually real (though my mother confirmed I once got a spinning wheel and seemed to love it – I think she said I slept with it). 

I love my fantasy moments because they are created by me, shaped by me and I can revisit them at will.  I revisit the first moments I met my newborn children. They were handed to me and birds were singing, the rainbow ended right above us and they smelled so beautifully like my husband and me.  Nothing else about the reality of the moment: the medical stuff, the staff rushing around, the lights, the beeping sounds, nothing about all of that enters my blissful fantasy moment.  

And, unfortunately, I can easily create my worst nightmare.  It will have no limits to the pain, the threat, the unending fear that only I would know how to create for myself, because only I know what will hurt me the most.  No theoretical hell to come could surpass what I could put myself through if I built my own personal one and no heaven afterlife could give me the joy of my fantasy moments.

I believe in fairy tales because I know we make them real.

But, they are the definitions of our personal extremes and deep down we know that both of these extremes could never happen.  We live our lives between our utopia and our dystopia. Jewishly, we know our minds can take us to our extremes and so the Torah and all of our texts always tell us: ‘choose joy’.  

This week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, paints a utopian image of the world if we follow covenant and build the society of values that Judaism outlines.  It is pure bliss, health, prosperity and affluence – we will want for nothing. Conversely, if we stray from covenant and betray the core of who we are, the picture of a cursed world that the parshah describes is bone-chilling.  Moses splits the people in two and while one half describes the horrific curses, the other half must answer ‘amen’ in agreement. Then we do it again with the blessings.  

Yet, the most surprising part of all of this is that both the rewards and punishments are described as implementing in this world.  In other words, if we do good, we are not rewarded with a blessed world to come, a wonderful afterlife. On the contrary, we are blessed with a world here that we would want to live in.  If we destroy everything we stand for, we are not punished with the eternal fires of hell – we are punished by having to live in the hell we created.  

The parshah outlines both a utopia and dystopia and neither one is real.  They are the extremes we have the power to create in our lives with the choices we make.

I used to be afraid of the pictures painted in this week’s parshah.  Would God really deliver the hell that is described? But then I realized we don’t need God to do it, we’ve done pretty good all by ourselves throughout history.  But equally powerful is the reality of the blessings we can create and the world it would bring.

God created the world we live in but we work with God to continue as partners.  We are instrumental in renewing creation every day that we live. We learned that in this week’s parshah, we heard it, we understand it and we answered amen.

Can I Leave My Jewish at Home?

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a good week.  I was reading this week’s parshah, Ki Teitzei, and how it discusses who you are when you venture out of your home, your community and your comfort zones.  In fact, Ki Teitzei means ‘when you venture out’.

It made me think of questions like whether someone is comfortable showing their identity in the world at large.  Would you wear a Magen David on the outside of your shirt? The parshah tells us that we need to carry our identities with us wherever we go.  When an Israelite soldier is attracted to a war captive, he must allow her time and space to mourn her previous identity. Then he can marry her and she gains full rights as his wife.  Her identity has changed and he remains true to his Jewish identity and its code of ethics.

In today’s world, we’re always sensitive to anti-semitism and the line between the public and the private.  The Torah can tell us that we must be firm in who we are, no matter where we are, but that is far easier said than done.  A few years ago, my family and I vacationed in rural Texas at Christmas time. We didn’t know it was rural Texas, we thought it was a suburb of Austin.  It seems that Texas has quite a bit of open land, so what they consider a suburb is what I would consider ‘the bush’.

But, we only realized that when we arrived at the lovely cabin on the lake…in the middle of nowhere.  There were neighbouring cabins we could see here and there. When we walked around the lake we came across a pick-up truck parked with fishing gear, extra clothes and what looked like a rifle or two.  As it was December, we definitely noticed all the Christmas decorations and lights around us. In fact, the trees in the forests by the highways were decorated as well. It had the appearance of Christmas tree forests that were growing already decorated. 

Living in the city, we’re quite comfortable with the Christmas decorations around this time but we didn’t realize that we are also comforted by the diversity that surrounds us.  There was no diversity in this ‘suburb’ in Texas. And so, we had “the” discussion of what happens if we run into a neighbour who might ask about our lack of Christmas doo-dads. Some of our answers ranged from ‘we’re not Christian right now, but thank you so much for asking’ to ‘airlines are so inconsiderate with your luggage these days, am I right?’  We never considered explaining that we’re Jews.

Let me be clear, no one had made us feel unwelcome or was anything but warm and friendly.  People in the shops, market, on the road or by the lake were all open and lovely. No one ever asked us about our religion but they always wished us a merry Christmas and we always thanked them and wished them the same.  

The question of who we are when we leave our homes, pass the mezuzah on our door, and enter the world, is a real and daily question.  How do we navigate multiple identities? When Superman wants to hide his identity, he puts on a suit and glasses and apparently no one is any the wiser.  But when Clark Kent sees crime happening, why does he have to change into his Superman suit? Why can’t Clark Kent save the innocent? Superman’s vulnerability isn’t kryptonite, it’s someone finding out that he leads two lives – God forbid someone finds out that at home he lies around in a cape and tights.

I made a new friend this summer.  This woman is a devout Christian and her church is central in her life.  We shared time together and enjoyed each other’s company and humour. The more she talked about her church, the more I worried about whether it would matter that there was no church in my life.  She asked me if faith was important to me and I toyed with the answer: ‘airlines are so inconsiderate with your luggage these days, am I right?’ Instead, I made eye contact and said that religion is very much a part of my life, I’m a Jew.

She couldn’t have been more thrilled.  She saw faith as one more thing we had in common.

The parshah this week challenges us about our identities.  Who are we when we go to war? Who are we when we encounter vulnerable people?  Are we ever willing to re-identify our children as criminals and who are we when there are no witnesses to our actions?

But long before we get to those extremes, we can sit every morning with our coffee, think about the day ahead and ask ourselves who we are when we shut the door behind us.

Open Wounds

Hi everyone,

Picture it:

A dead body found outside city limits with no witnesses and no one to blame.  It means no government is taking responsibility for the crime and no one is attending to the body.  No CSI team is sent and no police tape will cordon off the crime scene. In a very short time, the animals will claim the area and the victim will be forgotten forever.  A crime with a suffering victim and no closure in sight.

And now you have the picture painted in part of this week’s parshah, Shoftim.

Ok, I’m being a bit Hollywood dramatic, but only a bit.  The problem mentioned in the Torah is, in fact, a dead body between cities and no one owning the problem.  But whenever there is suffering involved, the Torah has made it clear that it cannot go unanswered – it must come to a close.

And so we arrive at discussing closure in our lives.  It’s nice when things tie into neat parcels with beginnings and endings.  Whenever something new occurs in our lives, we say a ‘shehecheyanu’, the blessing that acknowledges our gratitude for arriving at that new moment.  But, we don’t say ‘shehecheyanu’ for new things that don’t have endings. For instance, we don’t say a ‘shehecheyanu’ when we get married or at our first intimacies because we intend those relationships to last unendingly.  The blessing is for those moments that have closure: like the beginning of a holiday that will end in a week.

And though we know some things end, that doesn’t mean we’ll find closure.  Closure involves picking up the loose thread and tying it to something.  

But it’s not that simple, because if the loose thread involved our getting hurt, then we might revert to that primal element within ourselves that wants the person who hurt us to be hurt back. 

I saw this play out years ago when I was waiting for a flight at the airport.  I watched two kids playing at the gate. They were clearly brother and sister, around 6 or 7 years old.  The longer we waited, the less they got along (shocker). After about an hour, their now aggressive playing ended with the little boy crying and running to his mother.  Through his tears he told his mother that his sister hit him. “So now I have to hit her back, right? And I have to hit her HARDER, right?”

His words were brilliant.  Of course, she should feel what he felt, so he should hit her back.  But isn’t there a price to be paid for initiating the violence, and shouldn’t there be a deterrent built in to prevent future preemptive hitting – so he should hit her harder.  

His point was driven home to his mother when she told him she would talk to his sister about it immediately.  His response: “TALK to her??? Aren’t you going to YELL at her?!?!”

And there it is: the moment we confuse closure with justice.

And now it’s helpful to go back to that dead body in the Torah.  There will be no justice because there are no witnesses and no possible way to solve the crime.  But having no justice does not mean we cannot have closure. The Torah instructs the two closest cities to measure their distance to the body and the closest one assumes jurisdiction.  Then there is a ceremony performed to symbolically punish the guilty party and bury the dead. It is symbolic justice but effective closure.

But not everything can tie up so meaningfully.  Most of our moments are complex relationships with other people involved.  We feel the loose thread of conversations we didn’t have or injustices that were left unaddressed.  How can we find closure when the other person doesn’t know how wrong they were? If they only realized we were right, then we could finally close the matter.  And, again, we confuse closure with our fantasy of justice and so we go round and round.

How to break the cycle?

I think about the Torah’s statement of symbolic closure.  Once we realize we are not the ultimate Judge and therefore justice alludes us, we can begin to entertain symbolic closures.  There’s a great Yiddish saying that translates as: ‘not everything I think needs to be said; not everything I say needs to be written; not everything I write needs to be sent’.  There are stages of expression and I can choose one for closure.  

So, maybe we go somewhere private and say what needs saying, or maybe we write a letter and destroy it when we’re done.  Closure means we acknowledged our ‘jurisdiction’ and finish the loose thread.  

So…picture it:

A dead body found outside city limits with no witnesses and no one to blame but no longer a hanging thread and now it’s a model for the unfinished moments we all carry.

Learning To Listen

Hope everyone had a great week.  

My brother recently celebrated a birthday which got me thinking about my siblings.  I remember a moment with my brother from our childhood. I was sitting in our kitchen with my father when my brother shouted down from his room: “Hey Rach, grab me some water!”

I was very touched that my older brother would ask me to do something for him, since our relationship to this point mostly consisted of jabbing each other with our elbows at dinner because I’m a righty and he’s a lefty.  The jabbing was obviously deliberate.

So, in my innocence, I thought he was reaching out to me as someone he could rely on for water…silly me.

For anyone who doesn’t remember kitchen sinks from the 1970s, next to every faucet was a spray nozzle that would shoot a strong spray of water directly forward when the handle was squeezed.  Unbeknownst to me, my brother had wrapped an elastic band around the handle so it was depressed and ready to shoot water at whomever turned on the faucet. My brother had moments of evil genius!

But God had a different plan for him.  After he shouted to me asking for water, I immediately said ‘of course’, feeling all grown up and worthy of taking my rightful place as someone he could rely on.  But then my father told me it’s ok, he would pour the water. I watched as my father turned on the faucet. I watched as a shower of water shot out and drenched him completely and I watched it go on and on for what seemed an eternity until my father figured out what was happening and shut the water off.  

That wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard my father yell, but it was the first time I’d heard him yell a curse word over and over…it was the ‘s’ word.

My brother ran into the kitchen, saw our drenched father and went a sickly colour of grey.  Then he kept yelling at me: “I thought YOU were getting me water!!!” I just sat at the table listening to all the yelling and trying to figure out what I had done, since I actually hadn’t done anything.  

My brother and I grew very close over the years and this is one of the memories that we cherish. 

Why do I remember this incident now?  Because this week’s parshah, Vaetchanan, has the verses that contain the prayer ‘Shema’.  It is our proclamation of monotheism and it translates as: “Hear, Israel, my Master, our God, my Master is One.”  We recite it in prayer and we recite it when we go to sleep. We learn to say it out loud and tradition says to cover our eyes when we say it so our ears will hone in.

But it is not a prayer that we direct to God, it is a prayer that we direct to each other.  In fact, we clearly state ‘hear ISRAEL’, and we cover our eyes so we will, in fact, hear ourselves and each other.  It is a moment of unity and commonality that we express to each other and it stands in opposition to any of our divisive moments.  We argue over everything, as siblings do, we compete over attention and justifications, as siblings do, and we tease each other and play pranks, as siblings do, but at the end of the day we unite and affirm our loyalties and our allegiances.

When my kids were little and I would put them to bed, I often stood outside their rooms to hear if they were falling asleep.  Many times I heard them whispering to each other and I would catch the words ‘mama’ or ‘papa’. They were clearly sharing their confusion, angst and frustration about their parents, or perhaps plotting pranks of their own.

Whenever they would get me with a good one, I would wonder if that had been planned in one of their late night secret meetings.  I loved that they shared this with each other because who could better understand it all than a sibling?

Moses has outlived his siblings at this point in the Torah.  He did not have sibling moments and he did not have strong family connections.  The parshah begins with the word ‘vaetchanan’, which means ‘and I pleaded.’ Moses is referring to how he begged that God allow him to enter Israel but God refused.  In fact, God told him not to speak of it anymore, never to ask again. Moses has been told he should no longer pray to God on this matter. Our hearts should break at that moment for the complete ear-shattering silence that God is demanding.  Especially because Moses is the one teaching us to say ‘Shema’: ‘Listen’.

So when we say the Shema, perhaps at that moment we are honouring Moses by acknowledging how well he taught us to hear each other.  Perhaps God told Moses to stop pleading because maybe the moment was difficult for both Moses and God. Maybe to protect Israel and answer its needs, Moses and God endured the difficulty.  If so, our personal moment of Shema is more loaded than we ever knew.

Moses stands alone as the sole survivor of his family.  His parents are long gone and his siblings have all died.  Nature prepares us for the loss of parents but a sibling is a lateral companion, they are meant to stand with us from cradle to grave.

Back in the book of Genesis, when the Torah begins, we meet the first siblings: Cain and Abel.  It ends horribly as Cain kills Abel over the perceived love of God, the Parent. When God questions Cain about it,  Cain asks God a fundamental human question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper’ and his question is left unanswered in the Torah.  

Ultimately, in this week’s parshah, in the last book of Torah, we learn to say Shema to each other.  We learn to listen to each other, for that brief moment, and to finally understand that God is the Parent, we are all siblings and we can finally answer Cain’s question by saying ‘yes.’

Fear of ‘The Button’

Hope everyone had a great week.


I had an interesting moment this week. I realized that I am afraid of computers.  Actually, to be honest, I’m afraid there’s a hidden ‘delete’ button somewhere that will activate when I am trying to do something else.  Some kind of ‘control’, then press the ‘capital R’- spell my name – button that will erase everything I’ve been working on. I do not come by this fear lightly.  

Years ago, I was working in a Jewish organization where 30 people were sitting in cubicles in one big room.  It was my first day and I was setting up my work space (I like to personalize things and I get very sensitive to the objects in my surroundings).  I noticed that when I pulled my chair closer to the keyboard, my foot banged on the computer box under my desk. I crawled under the desk to move the box closer to the wall and give myself more leg room.  As I was moving the computer, a cable from the computer loosened – which I only realized when I heard that terrible noise of a droning hum powering down and then silence. The silence lasted a few seconds and then the whole room exploded as 30 people shouted: ‘WHAT HAPPENED?!?’  

Luckily, I was still under my desk because people started moving quickly from computer to computer to see if everyone had lost power, and subsequently, all the documents they’d been working on.  All 30 computers were dead.

My supervisor came into the room and saw me under my desk.  She asked what I was doing and I explained that my knees needed more space.  By this time I was standing up and I noticed the chaos in the room. People were scrambling and my supervisor asked about another worker and was told she went for a walk to calm down.  I found out later, she had been working on a grant proposal online for 3 days and if she logged off, the site kicked her off without saving any of her work.

I also subsequently found out that all the computers on the floor were plugged into my computer, to save money on wiring each of them independently.  Yes, it was a fire hazard. Yes, it was ignored until that moment. A hidden positive: now it would be fixed. However, it made no difference to me. I still owned that terrible moment.  As I revisit this now, I can still taste the adrenaline.

So I am left with a fear of the hidden ‘button’ on a computer.  I have concluded that I am not a technology person. I know it is an emotional conclusion and not a rational one, but it makes no difference.  The conclusion about myself limits me, scares me and creates false boundaries. But I am in good company…Moses did that too.

When Moses meets God, at the Burning Bush, God tells Moses to go speak to Pharaoh and Moses replies by saying: ‘I am not a man of words’, he is not an ‘ish devarim’.  The word ‘devarim’ means ‘words’ or ‘things’ or even ‘stuff’.  We don’t know why Moses thinks of himself that way, but it proves to be an incredible limiting factor for him.

When he went out of the palace and saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, Moses strikes and kills him.  A man of words might have commanded him to stop, especially considering Moses is part of the royal family.  But because he does not see himself that way, he does not behave that way.

Later, Moses will climb Mt. Sinai to get the Torah.  He brings down what will be known as the Ten Commandments.  But in Hebrew, we call them the Ten Utterances (Aseret haDibrot), a form of the word ‘devarim’.  The Ten Statements, ten of the things Moses said he couldn’t do.  The man who is not a man of words will bring ten statements to the world that will change humanity forever.

And he still doesn’t see it.

Ultimately, Moses will stand in front of a rock that God commanded him to speak to, but he will hit it. He is still in Egypt in his mind, he is still facing the Egyptian bully.  He refuses to accept that he has become a ‘man of words’ and so he cannot speak to the rock, he must hit it. Egypt must never enter Israel and so Moses will die in the desert.

Before he dies, Moses recites an entire book of the Torah: Devarim.  We begin to read it this week. We call this book Deuteronomy, which in Greek means ‘Second Law’, because the Ten Commandments are recited again in this book.  But in Hebrew it’s called Devarim, meaning ‘words’, or ‘the things in his head that will now gain expression’. Everything in this book speaks of Moses’ perspective and his processing of events.  They are his memories and his fears and the book ends with a beautiful song he has composed.

The Midrash asks why this book is included in our Torah if it is the product of Moses, rather than dictated by God.  The Sages respond that this book is offered by Moses as a prayer and God accepts it and answers: ‘Amen’.

In his last moments, Moses understands that his life had defined around a limitation he imposed and could not exceed.  We all do the same thing to ourselves repeatedly and pray to find those moments of realization.

So, I decided that maybe I’ve been unfair to myself.  Maybe I could be a technology person. I experimented with something safe…the TV remote control.  I noticed my husband was watching tv, but then I noticed that although he was holding the remote control, there was a second remote in the other room.  I picked up the second remote, quietly stood outside the room where my husband was and pressed the volume button until the sound muted. I watched his confusion as he reached for the remote next to him and increased the volume.  I then decided to change the channel. His face was priceless as he went into the settings menu to try and figure out what was going on. I had never felt such power – this moment was magical (any married person knows what I mean).

By the fourth time, my husband discovered what I was doing because I was laughing too hard to keep quiet.  I had crossed the threshold and saw the joy technology could bring to my life.

I still cringe when I remember that moment under my desk from years ago.  I still have a moment of hesitation about hidden buttons on the computer, but I also accept that I am a person who can ultimately pull the plug and liberate myself.

The Oy of Peoplehood

Hope everyone had a great week.


This week’s parshah, Matot-Masei, might as well be titled: ‘oy’. It talks a lot about war and
booty and prisoners and revenge. All I can say is to remember we are never commanded to do
that, we are reading about warfare in the ancient world – it’s a slice of hell.
But there’s a defining moment in there that talks about two tribes telling Moses they prefer to
live outside of Israel and not set up their homes within the borders of the land.
Every time I read this section, I am taken with the fact that from the moment we had a nation
of Jews enter the land of Israel, we had a group within the nation saying that life in Israel is not
for them. In other words, there are no Israeli Jews without simultaneously having Diaspora
Jews.


And now I arrive at today.


I am the generation born into a world where there is a modern state of Israel. I can’t imagine a
world without Israel, though my parents lived in a world that produced the Holocaust so that
answers that question.


But I struggle with the relationship Jews in Israel have with Jews outside of Israel and visa versa.
I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to do ‘peoplehood’. Our realities are so vastly different and
while we share Jewish history and culture, those of us outside of Israel have mastered living in a
different culture as we layer our identities. Where can we connect?


A few weeks ago, I visited Israel. There were days I struggled with what I saw and there were
days of such connection words fail. At one point, while talking with an Israeli about Judaism,
they listened to my views and then said, ‘so you’re a Reformit.’ I was a bit confused and
explained that I am not a Reform Jew as some of my Jewish choices wouldn’t fit that
community. They explained that I seem liberal, but I also keep commandments, so I have to be
‘a Reformit.’ I could see there were no other categories of Judaism possible in this discussion,
so I said nothing.


By the way, this week’s parshah clearly states what the Talmud later repeats as a Jewish
precept: silence is agreement. I said nothing and therefore chose to agree with him at that
moment. You choose your battles.


My thoughts go back years ago to when I was saying Kaddish for my father. I was also leading a
trip to Israel at that time and was strategically finding a minyan every morning so I could say
Kaddish. We were in Tel Aviv for a few days and I found a minyan in a small shul on a main street not far from my hotel. It was a group of men on their way to work stopping in quickly to
pray. It was ten men with no rabbi or chazan leading them.


The first day I walked in, I went to the women’s section which was on the same floor as the
men, a pretty flimsy mechitzah that allowed us to see each other and hear each other. They
definitely knew I was there because I had to climb over all the stalked chairs, tables and books
filling the women’s section. Actually, I was happy to find a place where I could sit alone with
my thoughts, so I didn’t mind the clutter.


One morning I was delayed and ended up running to get to the minyan in time. As I ran in, the
men were already finished and were putting away their Tefillin, ready to go to work. I
remember standing there and saying: ‘you’re finished??’, in English and then starting to cry.
These were not quiet, subtle tears. I mean sudden, anguished sobs. It was the first time I had
missed Kaddish all year and I didn’t expect the pain I was feeling. The men stopped and one
man asked me what happened. I told them I was saying Kaddish for my father but now I missed
it.


In Hebrew, I heard some of them ask each other why I’m saying Kaddish, don’t I have brothers.
One man quietly asked if it was allowed. Only one man asked the group who I am. All of these
comments were happening at once as these men are standing there, late for work, watching a
strange foreign woman crying.


The man who first spoke to me said to the group, ‘she’s saying kaddish. She needs a minyan, so
no one is going anywhere.’ Before I knew it, they all put down their Tefillin, stood around me in
a circle while one of them handed me a Siddur and said ‘Read!’ The page was already opened
to Kaddish and I quietly recited it as they all answered me.
That was peoplehood.


I have no doubt that most of them walked away confused by what I was doing. I’m also pretty
sure some of them agreed to be there so I would stop crying. The reasons don’t matter, we
created holiness together and fulfilled an ancient intent of unity.
O this week’s Parsha, when the tribe of Reuben tells Moses they don’t want to settle in Israel,
Moses argues. Actually, Moses threatens them. They stood their ground and the two sides
worked out a mutually agreeable arrangement. It strained the relationship of peoplehood then
and by the end of the book of Joshua it almost causes a civil war. The challenge of
understanding our peoplehood remains with us today and we inherit the challenge honestly.


A few weeks ago, when I was in Israel, I argued with some people I met and after I left, I missed
it. Like any family visit.

Everything Is Fine Until the Animals Talk Back

Hope everyone had a great week.  I heard some wonderful stories this week I’d like to share, especially because they tease out a beautiful message in this week’s parshah. 

One of my sons was on vacation and met an iguana that was hanging around his room.  He told me how he planned to have the iguana eat out of his hand by the end of the two weeks.  He explained to me that iguana’s display certain behaviours when they feel threatened or cornered.  He detailed the behaviours he was watching for.  I realized my son speaks ‘iguana’ and wondered whose genes he inherited. 

He planned where and how he would meet and greet the iguana everyday and how he would advance his plan to interact.  His wife showed me a video on her phone of their last day on vacation as the iguana came to my son and ate from his hand.

I am in awe. 

Please understand, I have no desire to communicate with an iguana. Reptiles make me nervous.  I take no comfort when I’m told they’re more afraid of me than I am of them because that just means now they feel trapped and I’m the bigger threat. I am more the school of thought that says ‘as long as we don’t see each other we won’t scare the living daylights out of each other’ – fair is fair – and most reptiles smell my philosophy all over me and thankfully leave me alone.

But I was still in awe.

And as wonderful as the iguana story is, because it’s so unusual, the second story is also great for the opposite reason, it is so common.  It involves a clown fish and her clown fish mate.  My only exposure to clown fish is from the movie Finding Nemo and it definitely doesn’t do them justice.  Ms. CLOWN FISH (and I deliberately capitalize that), dominates Mr. clown fish in every way.  He eats and sleeps when she gives him permission and in return, she protects him – she is larger and basically organizes and rules his life.  She is Clown Fish Queen!

I was told that when these fish first meet, the female will bump the male with her nose, and he must then vibrate in response.  Apparently, she is asking if he accepts her as dominant and she demands he vibrate to indicate yes.  If he does not vibrate, she kills him.  Interesting system.

Why am I sharing these obscure stories?  Because they speak directly to this week’s parshah of the foreign prophet and the talking donkey.  This week’s parshah is Balak and in the parshah, Balak, the King of Moab, hires Balaam, a foreign prophet, to curse Israel.  Much as he tries, Balaam cannot curse us because God has made it clear to him that we are blessed.  He tries repeatedly and fails each time.

In fact, in one attempt, his donkey refuses to walk because she sees an angel blocking her way with an outstretched sword.  Balaam doesn’t see the angel.  After beating her, the donkey speaks to Balaam and explains about the angel and only then is he able to see it.  Yes, this is in the Torah.

I am fascinated with how animals play into the lives of foreign prophets or prophets headed to foreign lands.  Balaam and his donkey are the most obvious example but when the prophet Jonah tries to avoid delivering a prophecy to a foreign land, a whale swallows him, shelters him and ultimately delivers him where he needs to be.

These instances of extraordinary natural interactions are only a few indications of what the Sages tell us about the vision of creation.  According to the midrash, all of creation shares a common language but most of humanity has forgotten it.  The water in the clouds and the water in the earth speak and coordinate how to feed the grass and trees. The rain will limit itself to only penetrate so deep since the waters in the earth will only rise so far.  That way, little roots are fed and giant roots are fed in perfect balance. 

Unfortunately, the Sages believe we have made ourselves deaf to this language and over time, we have stopped hearing it.  There is a midrash that describes how we cut fruit bearing trees because we no longer hear them cry for the loss of their fruit, their children, but apparently their cries fill the world. 

In its original vision, we believe creation embodies unimaginable diversity of species who all connect, communicate and collaborate toward balance.  Yet so much of that has gone astray and it becomes so disheartening but then I think of my son and the iguana and the language of the clown fishes and the angel and the donkey. 

In fact, it is Balaam, the foreign ill-intentioned prophet, who ultimately blesses Israel and says, “Ma Tovu” – How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.  Every siddur begins with these words and tradition says we should speak them as we enter any shul.  But we’ve taken that even further.  Jewish gatherings and summer bonfires are filled with people swaying, arms on each other’s shoulders, singing Ma Tovu.  Kids are taught to sing it in rounds, and we take it as a moment of unity and harmony.

The Torah teaches us that God speaks with everyone and the Sages remind us that the wise one is the one who learns from every person.  As summer surrounds us and we are filled with the sounds of nature everywhere, what a beautiful message this week to take even a few seconds and listen to the sounds around us and remind ourselves that it is, in fact, a language.          

How beautiful and humbling are the words of a foreign prophet.

Thresholds

Hope everyone had a great week. I’m home from Israel and I realized I’m not a great traveller so I won’t dwell on the passive-aggressive woman sitting next to me on the flight home – it wasn’t pretty.

I had an interesting Shabbat in Jerusalem though.  I went to the Shira Hadasha minyan, which is an orthodox egalitarian service.  A few things caught me by surprise. In Israel the Cohanim bless the congregation every Shabbat.  They stand covered entirely with their Talit (looks a bit spooky). Under the Talit their arms are raised and their fingers form the letter ‘shin’ in Hebrew.  The power of the minyan is said to draw the energy of the Shechinah through their fingers and onto the congregation. It is one of the most mystically powerful moments in Judaism.  

Because it is so holy, tradition tells us not to look directly at a Cohen when being blessed.  But at Shira Hadasha, for the first time in my life, there was a Cohen standing in front of the woman’s section covered in a Talit chanting the blessing.  I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman and I had never had anyone stand in front of me doing this. Wanting to blend, I held the Siddur up to my face to cover my eyes – but I had to know.  So…I slowly moved the Siddur away from one eye and quickly glanced at the person enveloped in the Talit. My eye moved to the feet where I clearly saw the hem of a dress. It was a woman. I heard her voice and watched her sway.  Instantly, without my knowing, this woman led me to a moment of holiness. She was so close to me, she sounded like me. She was my threshold.

I thought about the parshah that Shabbat, Chukat, which is the portion we read this coming Shabbat outside of Israel.  This is the parshah when Miriam dies and Israel has no water. God tells Moses to gather the people and speak to a rock to bring water from it.  Moses, angered by the mob, hits the rock instead and as a result is told he will never enter the land of Israel. It is one of the most frustrating moments in Torah and as much as Moses will plead with God to enter the land, it will never be.

I’m struck by the fact that Moses’ fate is set so close after Miriam dies.  I’m struck by the fact that his pronouncement of death occurs through an interaction with water – these things cannot be coincidental.  Miriam’s actions as Moses’ older sister was to protect him. In fact, it is she who stood by the Nile and watched him as he floated toward Pharaoh’s daughter.  It was she who protected him from the waters that were killing all the baby boys of Egypt. She is his guardian who kept the dangerous waters at bay. She changed his destiny and as long as she is alive he is safe.  As soon as she dies, his original destiny returns and water will now be the cause of his death.

We owe everything to Miriam because without her there is no Moses.  She creates the window of time within which Moses will live his life.

I thought of a pluralistic minyan I’m working on in Toronto.  Some of the decisions about parts of the minyan are not my personal preference and I was uncomfortable.  I struggled with the question of creating an expression of holiness that might not fit the nuances of my own expressions.  But I think of these two women, one from the ancient world and one from the modern world. They both show me that at times our choices move beyond ourselves and build the doorway for someone else. 

Thank you Cohen who stood so close and blessed me.

Thank you Miriam.

The ‘Holiness Competition’ Fallacy

            Welcome to the renewal of my blog.  It’s been a few years since I posted anything and I’m excited to get back to sharing my thoughts.  Right now, I’m in Israel for a week, some personal stuff and some work meetings.  The trip got off to a roaring start when I got to the airport and lost an earring I was very fond of.  I had a very comfortable seat on the plane but accidentally managed to get gum on my headphones which then stuck in my hair.  After we landed, apparently some innocuous machine prints out your tourist visa, a small piece of paper that no one tells you is important and will save you taxes.  Needless to say, I lost that piece of paper getting into the taxi and didn’t have it for the hotel, so I was charged taxes as an Israeli, the default visa.  Jet lagged, exhausted, confused about the time difference, I went to bed hoping everything would be better in the morning.  Unfortunately, in the middle of the night I was awakened by a very large cockroach in the bed.  I was done.  Zionism will only take me so far…

            A few hours later I sat quietly enjoying an Israeli breakfast and the incredible flavours of the fruits and vegetables grown in this country.  I felt a bit better.  I went with my daughter to Ben Yehudah street and we shopped for a purse.  I walked into a store and tried on a bag that goes across the body and noticed the strap in the front is cutting a tight line between my breasts.  It was clearly not designed for a woman but the bag was so comfortable.  I turned to my daughter and asked if it looked funny.  She was laughing too hard to answer.  There were three other women there including the store manager.  The other women were clearly very observant and I was standing there in pants and no wig. 

            But I was beyond caring about my appearance and tired from no sleep.  I boldly asked them if the strap drew too much attention to ‘the girls’.  They asked if I meant my breasts and I said I did.  For a moment they were quiet so I turned to each of them with a front view so they could give me an honest opinion.  The store manager said she often wondered about women who buy these bags and how they wear them.  One of the women said she’s seen so much worse while the other woman said she liked it and ‘the girls’ seemed okay.  With everyone staring at my chest we forgot about my exposed hair and my pants.  Or maybe it never mattered to them in the first place.

            The lost earring, the gum in my hair, the missing visa and even the midnight cockroach didn’t matter anymore.  My thoughts went to the parshah this week, Korach.  In it, Moses’ leadership is challenged by his cousin, Korach.  Ultimately, Korach and his followers are literally swallowed by the earth.  A plague is sent by God against Israel and Moses tells Aaron to offer a sacrifice.  When he does, the Torah says “he stood between the dead and the living and he stopped the plague.” To me, this is Aaron’s greatest moment. 

            The issue is huge.  The problem with Korach and the people was their determination to create divisions of holiness within the people.  They presumed to speak for God, rather than to God.  They claimed to be as holy as Moses, as spiritual and as worthy.  They introduced the ‘holiness competition’ into the nation – who can outdo whom in this holy race – the one who ends up closer to God wins. 

            Rather than competing with each other in an effort to be holier than our neighbour, the Torah reminds us again and again that it is our individual and unique voices that are needed.  Since God is an Infinite Being, we are invited to explore infinite roads and relationships with God.  The Torah guides us with boundaries but allows us to define the content of our spirituality. 

            Now, as I walk around Jerusalem, I no longer see the differences in the Jews on the street with worry about conflicting views – I’m enjoying the sight and sound of our differences.  The women in the purse shop responding to me in a mundane moment as we each stood there with our differences. I see one nation of individuals, I feel the potential of our diversity and the importance of Jewish pluralism.

            I can’t wait to shop again.