Parshat Nitzavim: It’s My Song To Sing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C’est La Guerre

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week.  My week was filled with classes winding down and celebrations winding up.  My weekly Torah and Mussar classes are taking a break for a few weeks and, as Chanukah is approaching, some of the schools and shuls are starting to have Chanukah inspired events.

In one of those moments, I was walking through the halls of a Jewish day school in Toronto. I had the pleasure of standing next to a line up of kindergarten kids waiting to go out for recess.  They must have just finished a class in Torah, since they were all talking about God speaking to Abraham and Sarah. They were wondering what language God was speaking. Intrigued, I stood a little closer.  One of them said God spoke Hebrew and English. They all agreed and stood quietly for a minute. Then one kid said they forgot one language that God was speaking. They forgot that God was speaking French to Abraham.  I stood quietly as they all agreed that, yes, of course, God was speaking French!

The kids ran out to recess and I was left in the hallway wondering how, on earth, they had such unanimous agreement that the Almighty Creator of the Universe was speaking French to Abraham and Sarah.  Then it hit me clearly. God was speaking Hebrew, English and French because we teach them Hebrew, English and French. For non-Canadian readers, quick reminder that Canada has two official languages: English and French. Both are taught starting in elementary school.  The beauty of the conversation in the hallway was that six year olds were reflecting what we all feel: why would we learn something if it’s not relevant to us?

So, I can’t help but think about a moment in this week’s parshah, Vayishlach.  We read the text where Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed Israel. It’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s mystical…but when’s the last time you wrestled with an angel and got a new name?  How is it relevant to me in anything I do?

But, the Torah doesn’t say Jacob is wrestling with an angel, it says he’s wrestling with ‘a man’.  Jacob, himself, isn’t sure who he’s wrestling with and, in the end, concludes he wrestled with God.  Hosea, the prophet, says the man was an angel and we have accepted Hosea’s understanding. There are midrashim and commentaries that discuss which angel Jacob struggles with, while others explore the idea that Jacob is actually wrestling with himself – we are witness to a primal, internal struggle of identity and transformation.  And there lies the relevance.

The incident occurs the night before Jacob meets his twin brother, Esau, after years of estrangement.  Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright and will now face Esau and be held accountable for his actions.  Everything is on the line and Jacob must now confront his past. He struggles with the entity no one is able to name.  

There are moments in all our lives when we face things we’ve done in the past. Choices we ourselves may not fully understand or be proud of.  Things that occurred in the past, yet somehow lay in wait for us in future moments. Things we continually revisit and struggle with. It doesn’t matter if the moments are embodied within an external angel, or within our internal subconscious, because the wrestlings with these moments are real.  In fact, we have all been Jacob on a dark, quiet night, struggling with an unknown being.

And then the resolution is powerful.  The ‘angel’ blesses Jacob with a new name: Israel.  The word itself is explained as struggling with God and humanity with the ability to prevail.  It is an understanding of the nature and strength of the man, and the nation, who will bear that name.  But the word ‘Israel’ is also the initials of all the ancestors: the 1st letter is for Yitzchak and Ya’akov, the 2nd for Sarah, the 3rd for Rebecca and Rachel, the 4th for Abraham and the last for Leah.  In Judaism, names are essence and so the essence of our ancestors lies within the name of our people, within our identities. It is who we all have been and where we all come from.

But the very same word speaks of the future and authenticity of how we express.  The word that tells us who we were is the same word that tells us we have the strength to be anything in the future.  We have been blessed with the strength to argue and defend the journey we choose, even if the argument is directly with God.

In that light, the text in this week’s parshah is possibly one of the most relevant.  In our dark moments, when we face ourselves and our unknown beings of struggle, we remember that we will always meet who we were, we will struggle, and then we will move forward to continuously shape ourselves into who we choose to be.  The blessing is in the struggle.

So, who am I to deny that in the midst of some ancient moment of angst and doubt, Abraham or Sarah turned to God and asked why things have to be so hard.  Maybe in the complexity of an ancient Divine explanation of the metaphysical workings of the universe…maybe somewhere in that moment… maybe God spoke French.

Same Old, Same Old? Hardly!

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week and a great end of Sukkot.

At this point in the Jewish calendar, we start reading the Torah from the beginning again.  The very first chapter of the very first book: Genesis. It is a milestone and we mark it by naming this Shabbat: Shabbat Bereishit.

We read the Torah over and over again, not because it’s ‘same old – same old’, but because we search for new perspectives on things we think we already know.  We are not seeking the information, so much as we are seeking the innovation.

And so…

I thought I might explore a few things we thought we knew and maybe a few new perspectives.

It seems pretty straightforward, in Genesis, that God created man and then took a rib out and created woman.  Understood that way, man is created in God’s image and woman is, quite literally, a side effect of the process.  At least, that’s what it says in the English.

In the Hebrew, the word we translate as ‘rib’ is not so straightforward.  There is a strong reading, in ancient Jewish texts, that translates the word as ‘side’.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai specifically describes the first human being as a two-sided, androgynous being – one side male and one side female.  According to him, they were joined back-to-back and could therefore never look at the same thing in the same way at the same time. If they communicated well with each other, they would create a totality of view, if not, they would argue about what each was seeing because, in fact, they were seeing different things.

According to this reading, God puts the human to sleep and removes one side (not one rib), thereby separating male and female so they can now face each other.  It creates a partnership between the genders and not a hierarchy.

Ah, the things we thought we knew.  No more movies named ‘Adam’s Rib’ (one of my favourites), no more references to ‘women are from Venus and men are from Mars’ (thank God no one came from Pluto – we know what happened to Pluto…). A new perspective on dialogues that are incomplete unless both voices are recognized and heard.

Yet, once the word translates into ‘rib’, Rabbi Shimon’s opinion retreats into the quiet background.

But Genesis does not only give us the beginnings of the world, it also gives us the beginnings of religious law.  The first ‘thou shalt’ (be fruitful and multiply) and the first ‘thou shalt not’ (don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge), followed by the first ‘don’t blame me’ human response.

Which brings us to the question of Judaism and the commandments.

There are 613 commandments in Judaism, with the full recognition that no one can possibly keep all 613 of them.  Interesting, although we understand no one can keep them all, we still judge each other and label entire communities based on the commandments they keep.  Somehow we have concluded an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ attitude toward the mitzvot, and we can’t agree on what constitutes a penny or a pound.

We expect that if a woman observes Shabbat, she shouldn’t be wearing pants.  If a man puts tefillin on in the morning, he should be wearing a kippah all day.  The list goes on and on (remember, 613 of these things). One of the judgmental statements I’ve heard people say about someone is that they pick and choose which commandments to keep.  It is never said in a positive way.

Yet, Judaism expects us to pick and choose.  Once we say we can’t do all of them, it now necessitates that we pick and choose.  The ‘Code of Jewish Law’, the book that lists all the mitzvot, is a mistranslation of the book’s actual name: Shulkhan Arukh’ – the Set Table.  A ‘code’ means you must adhere to everything, whereas a set table invites you to take a seat and fill your plate. Only you know what to put on your plate.  If you put too much, you will overeat and make yourself sick; if you put too little, you will walk away hungry. Every now and then you will be curious to taste something new and see how it feels.  Some people like to sit at the table and watch others enjoy, though they themselves choose not to eat. Judaism invites you to the table, assures you there is a seat ready for you with a set table of soulful delicacies – who could resist?

And so, we learn to pick and choose, we learn to grow and try more, or to leave something for now, knowing it is still there for later.  The difference is, we should pick and choose with pride!

Judaism never describes a hypocrite as someone who keeps one commandment but not another.  On the contrary, the Talmud repeatedly describes a hypocrite as someone who keeps many commandments with a false nature, or worse, for the purpose of misleading others.

According to Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, Heaven will judge those who wrap themselves entirely in their tallit.  The ones who use mitzvot to isolate themselves from the suffering of others, from the world around them. That is a Jewish hypocrite. 

Things we thought we knew…new perspectives on old information.  Can’t wait to start reading Genesis again!

To Yom Kippur…and Back

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah.  With that said, the High Holidays have begun and we are approaching Yom Kippur.

A non-Jewish friend of mine asked me recently why these holidays are called ‘High’.  I immediately flashed to the Hebrew name for these holidays: ‘Yamim Hanoraim’, the Terrible Days of Dread…I decided I couldn’t tell him that…

But it definitely got me thinking about how difficult it can be to actually celebrate these holidays, when they’re filled with prayers that include: ‘who by fire’ – followed by a long list of horrible fates.  Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and deprivation of the body, something Judaism tells us not to do too often. In fact, many people won’t wear leather because it’s so soft and comfortable and we want to deprive ourselves (more on that later, it’s actually not that simple).

So, I’ve decided that we need to recapture the celebration of these holidays, and maybe one of the best ways is to visit some of the lesser known stories of great Rabbis and Sages who struggled with some of these same questions.

One of my favourite stories is of the Chassidic Rebbes who spent so much time preparing for these holidays, that they isolated themselves from their students.  Of course, this would only make their students more curious about what they were doing and a few crafty ones would follow their Rebbes to see what they were doing.

In one story, the student discovers that the Rebbe is not teaching his students because he is dressing as a peasant and going to the cottage of a single old woman in the forest.  The Rebbe would speak to this non-Jewish woman in her native tongue (meaning not Yiddish) and would do chores around her cottage. The work included chopping wood and preparing meals as well as serving her the food.  She had no idea who he was and he never accepted payment. The student hid in the woods and saw his Rebbe do this day after day. After a week or so, the other students asked if anyone knew where the Rebbe was and what he was doing to prepare for the High Holidays.  One student said that the Rebbe is so holy, he must be going to heaven and back. The student who knew the truth of where the Rebbe was going finally broke his silence and spoke. He said that he has followed the Rebbe and he can confirm that the Rebbe is not going to heaven – he is ascending even higher.

In another story, a great Rabbi would shut himself away from his students for weeks before the High Holidays and study, frantically writing for days and days.  He’d stop in order to pray on Rosh Hashanah and then begin the same routine again until Yom Kippur. Every year the same thing happened. Finally, one trusted student asked him to please explain what was going on.  The Rabbi said that up to Rosh Hashanah, he is studying Torah and writing down the promises and agreements God has made with humanity and with particular people. On Rosh Hashanah, he would include his list in his prayers and read it over and over again to God.  After Rosh Hashanah he did the same thing, reflecting on his own personal promises and agreements from the last year and he would write them down. On Yom Kippur, he would read his list in his prayers over and over again to God. Toward the end of Yom Kippur, the Rabbi would hold both lists close to his heart and say: ‘this year we have both left things unfulfilled with much work to do.  I ask You for Your forgiveness and I give you mine.’

A few years ago, I came across the writings of a Rabbi in a displaced persons camp in Europe right after the Shoah.  It was Erev Yom Kippur and the Rabbi later writes that he looked at the crowd of people assembled to hear Kol Nidre. He writes of his moment of disbelief that so many Jews gathered for Yom Kippur, having just survived the horrors of the Nazi regime.  He looked at the crowd, and through tears, he pronounced they have nothing to beg forgiveness for, they are not to fast on this Yom Kippur, they have atoned enough.

And as we prepare ourselves to go to shul for the holiday, I’d like to share the thoughts of a Sage recorded in the Talmud.  In discussing their personal prayers, one Sage shared that he considers his clothing to be part of his personal prayer. Deciding what to wear to prayer, according to him, is a decision of self-expression, as are the words of his prayer and therefore it must be a deliberate choice of clothing.

Often times we angst over what to wear to shul based on very mundane and superficial reasons.  If I wore that dress last year, can I wear it again this year? (Interesting how we think people care or would even remember what we wore last year…isn’t ego a funny thing?)

And while we’re talking about what to wear, I’d like to revisit the prohibition on leather that many people observe.  One of the ideas about prayer that we learn, is that it is not appropriate to pray for things we ourselves are not willing to give.  In other words, praying to God for compassion would be ironic, if we ourselves do not act compassionately toward others. By extension, if on Yom Kippur we are praying to God for life, remembering that our clothing is part of our prayer, how ironic if we are clothed in the skin of an animal whose life we took only so we could be more comfortable.

While Yom Kippur can certainly be looked at as the Day of Dread, the decisions of fate and destiny that scare us, there is the other side to the holiday.  The stories of spirituality and compassion that connect one person to another; the nuances of accountability that connect us to God; the moment we elevate our wardrobe to an expression of the holy.

I love exploring all of that to the heights these concepts open.  I also think I need to prepare my husband for the hours to come, standing in front of my closet, while I ask over and over: “what to wear, what to wear?”

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.

The Beautiful Places I Don’t Want To Go

Hi all,

Hope everyone had a great week.  This coming weekend is the start of the Hebrew month Elul, which means the High Holidays are around the corner – and as daunting as it is confronting our mortality at the High Holidays, a close second is encountering all the family politics, shul decisions and meal prep…what was God thinking?!

But Elul is the month before the High Holidays and it’s a wonderful month of transition.  The word itself is often seen as an acronym for the verse: “Ani ledodi vedodi li”. That’s the verse many brides say under the chuppah when giving a ring to their groom.  I said it years ago under the chuppah, I think, though, to be honest, that hour is a bit of a blur in my memory. I remember circling my husband right after getting under the chuppah.  I remember thinking I’m weaving our souls together to create a new spiritual entity and I would be with him for the rest of my life and was I crazy and did we really think this through enough and honestly how solid were the plans we made and maybe we should talk about this some more and I’m not sure that’s the music that should be playing right now.  As I was walking around him, deep in my moment, I realized I had no idea how many circles I had actually completed. I passed in front of him, locked eyes with him through the veil and he quietly said: ‘that was 5’. 

So, I said that verse under the chuppah as my declaration to him.  The verse from Song of Songs, ‘Ani ledodi vedodi li’ is often translated as: ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’.  That’s actually the wrong translation and anyone who knows me knows I am a stickler for translations. The phrase in English implies ownership, I belong to my beloved and my beloved belongs to me.  It raises a two-fold problem: not only do I not want to belong to anyone else, but I certainly don’t want to own anybody – too much responsibility. I don’t even consider that I own my children and I actually made them from scratch.

Here’s how the verse actually translates: “I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.”  It’s a verse said by the woman about her lover.  It is a declaration of support and loyalty – it is not a declaration of ownership.

In fact, elsewhere she says: “My beloved is for me and I am for him, he shepherds among the lilies,” yes, lilies, not roses (I say this because it’s always translated as roses).  In biblical Hebrew that word means ‘lilies’, it’s only later in Hebrew that it means ‘roses’.  

Why do I care, you ask?  Because lilies are poisonous, so she’s not saying her beloved is so deep and romantic (roses), she’s saying he leads her into beautiful, dangerous places.  Though, interestingly, she never goes there to look for him. She knows that’s where he is but she doesn’t feel the need to follow him there.

How does all of this relate to Elul, the month whose name stands for ‘ani ledodi vedodi li’?   It is not only the month I explore my relationships, it’s also the month I reflect on my personal relationship with God.  In this analogy, God is my Beloved. And yes, as the High Holidays approach I realize that God can lead me into beautiful and dangerous places.  When the thought of the mortality of those I love dawns on me, I can sometimes dwell on it and it will grow inside me, it can paralyze me, the fear can be overwhelming and it becomes poison to me.

So I choose not to follow my Beloved there.  I create my High Holiday filters so I can enjoy the holidays without being overwhelmed.

The Sages have taught us many times that Torah truths can often be heard in the words  of children and I was lucky enough to see this profound truth unfold at the park the other day.  A 4-year-old girl was at the park with her twenty-something aunt (I know these people). The aunt was enticing the little girl to go on the big slide.  The girl said she doesn’t want to. The aunt told her several times that there’s nothing to be afraid of and that at the top of the slide she could see the whole park and lots of things she can’t see from the ground.  The aunt said she would even go with her so it wouldn’t be scary. The girl kept saying ‘no thank you’ to each offer. Finally, the little 4-year-old looked directly at her aunt and said: “I know that I can do it, I just don’t want to.”

So happy Elul everybody.  Enjoy time to consider who are the beloveds in our lives, who has our backs and whom do we protect.  At the same time, consider the unique nature of everyone’s journey and maybe the beautiful places they enter that we prefer not to explore.

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.’