Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tazria- Sanctity in Women

Isha ki tazria v’yalda zachar v’tam’a shivat yamim kimei nidat dotah titma… Ushloshim yom ushloshet yamim teisheiv bidmei tahara … V’im n’keiva teileid v’tam’a shvu’ayim k’nidatah v’shishit yom v’sheishet yamim teisheiv al d’mei tahara.
A woman who gives birth to a male, seven days she shall be tamei as [she is] during her menstrual period… And 33 days she will remain in blood purification…. And if she gives birth to a female, she shall be tamei two weeks, as during her menstruation and 66 days she will remain in blood purification.
In the previous parasha illuminated holiness through what we eat. Parshiyot Tazria-Metzora focus on what happens when our bodies become tamei, usually translated as impure. The discussion of childbirth at the start of Tazria has at led to accusations of misogyny throughout the centuries. Why is this here before a discussion of the treatment of skin disease? Why is time following the birth of a daughter twice the period following the birth of a son?
The placement is not as important as the second question. Placement comes after a section dealing with impurity following to deaths of Nadav and Avihu. In the moment the issues surrounding contact with a corpse had to be addressed. While death removes the neshmah, the soul, from its vessel that is the body, the body remains holy and must be cared for with respect. Its status, however, has changed, and with that anyone who comes in contact becomes tamei. Tamei is not so much impure as taboo, which in its full meaning is beyond forbidden including sacred. Even the Kohain Gadol in performing the ultimate purification ceremony, the red heifer, becomes tamei in performing this ritual.
While seemingly the opposite of death childbirth is similar in its status. Once she reaches the age of menstruation a women carries within her the potential for life beyond her own. Each month, as that potential leaves us, women become tamei. A fetus is not considered life in Jewish law, but the potential for life encapsulated in the woman’s body. With childbirth that potential leaves the woman’s body, turning her to a state of niddah, the same state as following menstruation. But birth is not menstruation. With birth the potential is gone from her body, but a new being has entered the word. The woman has not just had potential within her, but has felt that potential grow into a life, has felt its movement, and understood the meaning of this beyond her own body. With the change of this budding life to new being, the loss to the woman’s body is much more significant.  The new soul is now separate from her. For this she remains in a state of damei tahara, blood purification, no longer tamei, she is also not herself and not ready to resume regular activity. With the birth of a daughter this period is doubled. The new mother has not only given birth to a child, but a child that carries within her the same potential for life, doubling the loss. It is not a sign of misogyny, but rather a symbol of the strong matriarchal roots Judaism maintains.

Zen in Nature

I witnessed the most amazing sight this morning.

On the edge of the grass by the road were two grackles.  Both were small, clearly young.  One grackle was busily pecking at the soil right by the curb, digging up clumps, searching again and again for his breakfast.  Clumps of soil were flying, but no matter how much effort he put out, there was no reward.  The second grackle sat nearby, within inches of the first, eyes closed, seemingly settled in for the long haul.  Then, without warning, the second grackle rose, took one step to the soil's edge, and poked in his beak drawing a worm the length of his body from the soil.  A quick change of his grasp on his prize, the second grackle flew away, leaving the first to his frantic search.

An interesting lesson.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Caught & Released

Additional information-  It seems that my story was slightly off about Jesse.  Nora actually did get out of the house.  Jesse ran back inside to retrieve the cat treats.  Gandalf tried to follow when Jesse slammed the inner door, locking himself on the porch.  Thankfully Nora responded to the treats so Jesse didn't have to leave the house.

Best part of the story... Jesse understands how funny this is.  The morning following I reported the incident to our carpool (including a friend from school), then I blogged about it.  Jesse is fully aware of this and accepts it.  My revenge for being awoken at 1:00 AM is to tell the world.

Jesse's catch & release program isn't over.  Tonight he asked me to help get a spider into his jar.  After a few reminders to unlock the doors as he stepped outside (this time fully clothed), Jesse, convictions intact, had released the spider back into the free world.

Parashat Shemini- Mourning Takes Time & Effort

Vayomer Moshe el Aharon ul’Elazar ul’Itamar banav rosheichem al tifra’u uvigdeichem lo tifromo v’lo tamutu v’al kol ha’eidah yiktzof.
And Moshe said to Aaron and to his sons, Elazar and Itamar, “Do not bare your heads or rend your clothes lest you die and anger strike the whole community.

The position of leader brings with it many limitations. We see this throughout Moshe’s life, from his relationship with his family to his own death. After his personal encounter with God at Har Sinai, Moshe is also physically separated, his face covered with a veil whenever in public.

In parashat Shemini, Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, burn “strange fire” to God, causing their deaths. Moshe instructs two nephews, non-priests, to remove and bury the bodies. Aaron and his remaining sons are instructed not to display signs of public mourning lest it effect all of B’nei Yisrael. As spiritual leaders of Israel, Aaron and his sons must continue with business as usual, their personal feelings, their necessary mourning set aside for private time only.

The week of shiva, followed by the hodesh and the shannah of Kaddish, are extremely important to the process of mourning. The tearing of one’s clothes, a physical expression of grief, is meant to begin the physical catharsis that continues through the year. Shiva, in the best of circumstances, continues this process. The mourners are given time to ignore normal day-to-day needs in favour of focusing upon the process of mourning, sharing memories of the deceased and giving into the rollercoaster of emotion. The communal support during shiva, which in the most closely knit communities continues through the hodesh and the shannah, allows the mourners to share and process this emotion and gradually return to community life.

Aaron and his family are denied this opportunity. All too often individuals and families in the public eye are critiqued for their reactions to emotional events. Their every action is reported on news and gossip shows. If they are too emotional they are criticized for their inability to “hold it together,” and if stoic for not caring enough. Leaders and personalities are not characters in a reality TV show. They are real people with needs for privacy and the ability to share emotions within their own communities without reports of their every action like hockey scores.

Parashat Vayikra- Kiddush HaShem

Vayikra el Moshe vayidabeir Hashem eilav meiohel moed leimor. Dabeir el b’nei Yisrael v’amarta aleihem...
And God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them...

It’s been a difficult week for Jews in France and around the world.  The brutality of the tragedy that occurred in Toulouse shocked the Jewish community and the world.  We are beginning the month of Nisan, a month in which public mourning is forbidden.  Divrei Torah are substituted for eulogies.  There are changes to funeral services. Yet, this is also the month is which we celebrate Pesach, the ultimate, “They tried to kill us; we survived; let’s eat” holiday. It’s a theme that spreads throughout our celebrations, and perhaps connects to this week’s parasha.

Vayikra is the Levitical book.  It is filled with material for the Levi’im, and yet it is included in the Torah to be read publically to the entire community.  Questions of why God included Vayikra abound.  I believe the answer is in the name- Vayikra, and He Called.  The text is clear, God calls Moshe to speak with him, but the meaning is so much greater.  In speaking to Moshe, God speaks to all of us. We are told often that we are to be an Am Kadosh, a holy people and a community of priests.  As such we are also to be an Or LaGoyim, a light to the nations, but this is also rendered as Or HaGoyim, a light among the nations.  We are called upon as a community to shine, sometimes in joy, and sometimes in tragedy.

Nisan is also the month in which we observe Yom HaShoah  u’G’vurah, called in English, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The date is chosen for its connection to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but the Hebrew name and it’s placement in Nisan speak volumes.  Yom HaShoah- the Day of the Holocaust, u’G’vurah- and the heroism.  We must focus on our ability to overcome tragedy in our lives and emerge victorious, marching out of the depths of the sea, a holy people.

May the memory of the seven who murdered in France this past week be for a blessing, and may God comfort their families and friends among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Catch & Release

Raising teens is an adventure, often an adventure in shopping as they outgrow their clothes regularly and inhale all the food in the house.

The latest adventure was one in animal husbandry.  

Jesse has always hated spiders, but being a born environmentalist, he hates killing them more.  With a basement room, many spiders seem to enter every spring and fall.  When this happens Jesse has a policy of catch and release.  Last night was no different.

At about 11:00 Sean & I went to sleep thinking Jesse had done the same.  At 1:00 AM I was awakened by a knocking.  I am very attuned to any unusual noise in the house.  I'll sleep through fire truck sirens, but a cough will wake me every time.

So  was immediately awake from this knocking.  I thought to ignore it, but there it was again, just a little louder.  I stumbled to my bedroom door and called quietly, "Who's knocking?"  In response comes a pleading "Eema..."  

"Where are you?" 
"I'm locked on the porch."

I stumble down the stairs holding the railing and the wall (I do not wake easily), and open the door to the (enclosed) porch.  In comes Jesse in his underwear and a cat.  The other cat was pawing at the door from inside.

It seems Jesse had been up well past any appropriate time, and had seen a spider crawling near his bunk bed.  He caught the spider in a special jar he keeps for the purpose, and had gone to the porch to release it.  As he did so he realized the cats were coming to see what he was doing.  Worried that they might get outside, especially at night (they are indoor and backyard cats), he went to close the internal door, but had neglected to unlock it.  In the end, Nora got through while Gandalf was trapped inside.  Jesse managed to release the spider with Nora on the porch with him, but quickly realized he had a problem.  He was unable to get back in.  He was trapped on the unheated porch (It was about 6 C/ 42F) in his underwear.  Oh, did I mention the porch is almost fully windows?!

There he was, caught and released.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Instant Connectivity- I Don't Got It

I logged onto my personal email today.  There were 93 new messages, very few junk.  One message needed an answer three days ago.  This is a problem.  No matter how many times I tell people "If you need to reach me now, please call" they don't.  Yes, I am connected.  I have multiple emails at work and at home.  I do have a cell phone.  I have a profile on Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace.  I have not checked MySpace in three years.  LinkedIn sends me an email if I get a message, and I try to log into Facebook two-three times a week.  I check my work email three days a week.  Those are the days I am at the office.  If I miss a day of work I miss a day of email.  I try to check my personal email on the other days.  I work a full day followed by running children here, there, and everywhere.  At night, the choices are chores & housework, spending real time with my children or husband, catching up on my tv shows, or checking email/etc. Email rarely wins. 

My cell is an old flip phone.  I like it.  It's like a Star Trek communicator.  I can't check email on it.  I especially like that.  I don't know how to check my work email from home.  I like that.  It all helps my part-time position stay part-time, and my full-time parenting stay manageable.  Yet people who have known me for years persist in sending emails that need to be answered NOW. 

My dictionary defines "now" as "at the present moment.  I guess NOW will have to be when I catch up to the world, but that certainly isn't now.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

End of Pesach- Witnessing History

Vayikach Moshe et atzmot Yosef imo ki hashbei’a hishbi’a et b’nei Yisrael leimor pakod yifkod Ehlohim etchem v’ha’alitem et atzmotai mizeh etchem.
And Moshe took the bones of Joseph with him for he had surely sworn the children of Israel saying, “God will surely remember you and you shall carry my bones from here with you.”
Dor l’dor.  Judaism is a religion of connection from generation to generation. Even after 400 years in Egypt, even after Joseph had been forgotten by the Egyptians, we remembered. Serach bat Asher was one of the girls among those who entered Egypt with Jacob and his family.  Serach bat Asher was also among the women who left Egypt. Midrash tells us this was the same woman. It was Serach who came to Moshe while the Israelites were preparing for their departure to tell him where to find the bones of Joseph and the incantation to raise them. Later Serach visits the great yeshiva in Babylon.  She listens outside the window to the lessons, but upon hearing the teaching she enters the yeshiva and describes to the Rabbis and students what she saw leaving Egypt.  We are taught that even today, Serach bat Asher roams the earth to teach us what we have forgotten.
In Egypt, when a new ruler arose, it was the custom to erase the previous history and rewrite it as if the new ruler had always been in power. Judaism does not erase its history.  Judaism does not rewrite its truth. We are taught to learn, to study, and to seek the truth. There must be a continuity from generation to generation, and our elders stand for us as witnesses to what came before. Like generations of women from Sarah, Rivka, and Rachel and Leah to the righteous women in Egypt, Serach stood to witness and to teach.

The Hunger Games

I don't usually jump on the bandwagon.  I like to be sure it's worth my time.  Sometimes it works.  I bought a three book Harry Potter set to keep for when Jesse was ready to read them (He was two at the time).  Within a month of them being on the shelf I had read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and was hooked.  That was okay since I had two more and Goblet of Fire was due out in a few months.

Sometimes it's harder.  I started watching Lost in season three. (What is it about threes?)  It's Ezra Moses' fault.  I was staying with the Moses family  while visiting Montreal when I was ECRUSY director and Ezra was the president.  Ezra refused to work while Lost was on, and I spent the whole episode looking the show up on ABC's website so I could figure out what was happening.  There were two episodes back to back and I was hooked.  Not all was lost.  The SciFi channel ran seasons 1-3 over the hiatus, and by season 4 I was up to date.

On to the Hunger Games.  I was textbook shopping at Batner Books in August, and I decided to ask the clerk at the store to recommend books for my kids.  I wanted something "worthwhile."  At first everything he recommended we already owned, but finally he suggested The Hunger Games.  According to him, they were worth the read (and the hype).  I came home and read it myself first (on the clerk's suggestion).  It was worth every bit of hype.  I was drawn in and cared about the characters as I was with Harry Potter (although the comparison ends there).  Jesse read it in a matter of days, and spent weeks begging for the next.  I quickly ordered Catching Fire and Mocking Jay. 

When they arrived I selfishly made Jesse wait as I inhaled the text.  We were sad to see the series end.  Recently Gavriel and Keren discovered the series.  It's not a series I'd recommend for 10-12 year olds, but the books are in the house.  Gavi was into book two and Keren almost finished with The Hunger Games when I discovered what they were reading.  It's sparked a lot of discussions at the table, in the car, when they should be in bed, and almost anywhere else.  Never has a book (or series) held Gavi's attention and devotion like the Hunger Games series has.  He generally reads a bit, goes on to something else, comes back for more- maybe.  Gavi read The Hunger Games in less than a week, Catching Fire in three days, and Mocking Jay in the same time.  Keren was slightly faster, although she did have to wait for Gavi to finish.

Today the four of us went to the movie. (Sean had a funeral.)  I agonized over whether to take Gavi and Keren, but on the strength of our discussions (and reviews stating the violence was intense, but not graphic) I decided to take them.  We watched an early matinee.  It was an excellent film adaptation.  Once out of the theater discussion began... "They changed this..."  "They left that out, but I think it was important."  "That's not how I pictured Cinna."  "Really, that was exactly how I pictured Cinna."  Conversation continued until we got home, then Jesse had a friend over, and Gavi and Keren had karate, but I imagine the discussion will continue over the next few weeks.  As for me, I reread the series last month in anticipation of the movie.  Now that I've seen it, I plan on reading it again.  That'll be three times in a year.  I guess this bandwagon was worth the ride.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Catching Up

So I've caught up with my drashot, with the exception of Vayikra, which I can't find.  I still have much to do.  My time in Israel was wonderful.  I wanted to transcribe the notes I kept, but after all this time it's unlikely.  It's hard to believe that it was three months ago.  History was made,  although only time will tell if it made an impact.  The trip left me in amazement of how far tnua Masorti has come in a short time.  The amazing piece is the energy with which they approach everything.  We must have been that way coming out of seminary, but it's hard to know when it's you.

Very special during my time in Israel was the time I spent with my cousins.  With love to all my cousins, Wayne, as the oldest, was somehow special.  I treasured the time I spent with him and Lilach in Boston.  We wandered through Harvard Square, ate David's Cookies, and visited Brandeis and Tufts.  Being back with them it's like we haven't been apart.  We spent a lot of time laughing and sharing stories.  It's always wonderful to share memories and perceptions of our grandparents who are no longer with us.  It was also wonderful meeting Roi.  His energy is amazing, and exhausting.  It never seems to end.  We hit it off, and enjoyed each other's company.  It's wonderful knowing Wayne & Lilach are changing his life, making it better.  It's an amazing mitzvah, but there's also love and concern.  He's come so far, and they'll help him go as far as he can.  It made me appreciate the safe place we create for out children to explore and wander and dream in an open yet protected environment.  Even now, my eldest cousin is still teaching me.

You Can't Scare Us We're Stickin' With The Union

 U’shmartem et hadavar hazeh l’hok l’cha ulvanecha ad olam.
And you shall observe this thing as an edict for you and your children forever.

V’haya ki yomru aleichem b’neichem ma ha’avodah hazot lachem.
And it shall happen that your children shall say to you, “What is this service to you?”

Pesach is my favourite holiday. How can it not be? It is the holiday of freedom.  It is the day on which b’nei Yaakov became Am Yisrael. It is the day most deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche.
I hail from good Socialist Zionist stock; raised on the music of the labour movement in English and Hebrew.  Holidays were a connection to generations of freedom fighters, to the union leaders of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, and to those generations of Jews willing to stand up to oppression from the time of Mitzraiyim until today.  Pesach was the greatest of all.  We sang slave spirituals and labour songs.  We recited a poem called “The Greatest Walkout Ever Known.”
These ideals were thoroughly embedded by the time my own children were born. They learned Woody Guthrie lyrics alongside the Shema. We smiled every time Jesse sang out “You can’t scare me I’m stickin’ with the union!”
Over time Keren moved on from Woody Guthrie’s “Songs to Grow By” to Alice Cooper.  The Beatles are a huge favourite of Gavi’s, and Jesse has discovered classical music.  Still, Pesach is the time we return to our roots.  We are again singing “When Israel was in Egypt land- let my people go…” and “For the old man is a comin’ for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd. 
We do this because God took us out of Egypt saying to us that we shall follow the mitzvot, especially those regarding the treatment of others, because we were once slaves in Egypt. This is the meaning of this service to us. We understand. We’re not afraid to stand up to tyranny and injustices, and we’re sticking with the union that binds us as a community and a nation throughout history and into the future.

Shabbat HaGadol- the Great Shabbat

The Shabbat prior to Pesach is called Shabbat Hagadol, The Great Shabbat. Traditionally it was one of the two Shabbbatot when rabbis would give a long sermon in preparation of the hag. The Shibolei Haleket, Zedekiah ben Abraham Anaw, 13th century scholar, wrote this was the reason it was called gadol, because the rabbis would speak for so long. However, the traditional reason given in Midrash, and backed up by scholars throughout the centuries, refers to this Shabbat as a time when those Israelites who had been drawn into Egyptian practice returned to Judaism.
Although it is said that the Israelites never gave up their Hebrew names or practices, and maintained a separate community even while in Egypt, after generations of settlement in Egypt many Israelites had begun to take on Egyptian practices, including the worship of certain animals. One of those sacred animals is the lamb. On Shabbat Hagadol the Israelites received the mitzvah to prepare the pesach, the lamb for sacrifice. For days the lambs were secured to ensure they were prepared and ready. Once they received this mitzvah, the Israelites abandoned their worship of animals, and returned to God. But even beyond their return to God, the Egyptians were helpless to stop the slaughter of the animals. The Tur reports this was a nes gadol, a great miracle, giving the name to the Shabbat prior to Pesach.
The Pri Hadash, a commentator on the Shulchan Arukh, writes that the Israelites’ willingness to fulfill the mitzvot given to them, especially this first mitzvah, was like the moment when the Israelites went from being like children to being like adults, going from katan to gadol.
Interestingly, Pesach is still a time when Jews connect with God and the mitzvot. The Pesach seder is the most observed Jewish ritual in the world. More than 80% of Jews around the world attend some form of the seder. It is still a time when we aim to connect with God and with the general community, a time when we seek to exert our generational connection to our history and the continuity of the Jewish community.
I join with Sean, Jesse, Gavriel & Keren in wishing you a hag kasher v’sameach, a kosher and happy holiday, celebrating our creation, history, and continuity as a Jewish community. 

She Never Ceases to Amaze Me

Keren is amazing.  Her self-assuredness impresses me daily.  On Mondays and Wednesdays I kick-box while she's in karate class.  She's a brown belt, and slightly scary.  I can hear her yell over the music and through the closed door.  She's louder than the rest of her class combined.

Keren loves the stage.  She's recently discovered Les Mis.  She loves the song Castle on a Cloud, sung by Cosette.  Recently she heard that Les Mis is coming to Toronto.  It is, but it's not scheduled yet.  Then she heard they're looking for a Cosette.  She's decided she wants to audition.  Turns out they're not auditioning for Cosette, but that doesn't really matter.  It was the pronouncement that was impressive.  She makes a decision, and she sticks with it.  She is poised and self-assured, and all together impressive.

She never ceases to amaze me.

Parashat Vayakhel-P’kudei - What's Work Got to Do With It?

Sheishet yamim tei’a’she melacha uvayom hash’vi’i yiyeh lachem kodesh Shabbat shabbaton lAdonai…
Six days you shall melacha, and on the seventh you will have a holy day, a Shabbat of rest to the Lord… (Shemot 35:2)
When discussing Shabbat people often say to me, “But I don’t understand why I can’t do that.  I find it relaxing.” We have fallen into the trap of trying to understand halakhah in English terms. “Six days you shall work, and on the seventh you will have a holy day, a Shabbat of rest to the Lord.” It’s the word “work” that gets us in trouble.  There is a common Italian phrase “Traduttore traditore.” It means the translator is a traitor. In every translation there is a commentary, an interpretation of the text that cannot fully encompass the original meaning of the words. While it’s true that the word melacha means work, all work is not created equal.  Melacha refers to a very specific category of work. In English we have the word “work,” but in Hebrew we have melacha, avodah, peulah, esek, la’amol, and even asakah. Each of these refers to a type of activity. While it is true that in English we speak of work and of rest when referring to Shabbat, in Hebrew we say “tei’a’she melacha” to do melacha, and only melacha.
According to the Sages, there are 39 categories of melacha.  Each of these categories refers to an act related to the construction of the Mishkan. Once we have moved beyond these categories, any action is permitted on Shabbat.  The common example I give is you may carry a couch up and down you stairs, but you may not carry a feather outside your home without an eruv. We are a people of rule and of law. However, it is said that for everything God forbade, there is something permitted. Each Shabbat there are 39 categories of work, and all their sub-sections, which we cannot do, but there are so many other activities we can do. By forbidding the creative actions involved in the building of the Mishkan, God has taught us that despite the importance of the work we do daily, there are activities and values beyond it that must come first. Even when we were building the Mishkan, the dwelling place for God’s presence on earth, when Shabbat came, all melacha ceased in order to allow us to maintain our being in the image of God, resting and renewing on Shabbat, a Shabbat for us and for God. It maintains and keeps us.  As Ahad Ha'am said, “more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”

Ki Tissa- A Mitzvah for Everyone

Zeh yitnu kol ha’oveir al hap’kudim machatzit hashekel b’shekel hakodesh esrim geirah hashekel machatzit hashekel t’rumah LaShem... He’asher lo yarbeh v’hadal lo yam’it machatzit hashekel…
This is what everyone entered into the record shall give- a half-shekel according to the sanctuary weight- twenty gerah to the shekel- a half shekel as a gift to the Lord… The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel…

Everyone shall pay- The half-shekel offering that is set in Parashat Ki Tissa is set low enough that every person could have a part in the creation of Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. This became the centre of the Israelite camp. It is an opportunity for everyone, no matter his/her economic standing to have an equal share in the support of the community. The mitzvot given to us are intended for all of us. Whether the mitzvah is Shabbat, kashrut, or machatzit hashekel, it must therefore be attainable by all of us.
This idea is carried into the rules of tzedakah. Each person, no matter his/her financial standing must give tzedakah. Unlike g’milut hasadim, which are specifically acts, tzedakah refers to a monetary gift. Even the poorest person, who him/herself receives sustenance, is supposed to give something back. It’s an incredibly empowering idea, that no matter how bad things seem, you too must give something to another, even if it is only half a shekel.

In fundraising, organizations often go after their big donors forgetting the smaller donors. When this happens, thousands of dollars are lost along with the connection these individuals have to the organization and the community. On the other hand, many charities are sustained by the almighty penny; the change that no one wants to bother with is dropped into the pushke. One congregation I know invited everyone to participate in their High Holyday appeal. Every person’s name who donated before start of Rosh Hashanah was printed on large posters hung in the synagogue lobby. More posters were added before Yom Kippur. It wasn’t the most beautiful collection of donor plaques, but the sheer number of participants was awe-inspiring. People who had never been able to afford to see their name hanging in the shul stopped to read the lists and find their names. Children pointed out their own names to their parents and their friends, and everyone who walked past those posters held their head a little higher that year.

Machatzit hashekel- it’s not a lot, but when we bring them all together they can build a community of which we can all be proud.

Parashat T’tzaveh- The Eternal Light in Our Life

V’ata t’tzaveh et b’nei Yisrael v’yikchu eileikha shemen zayit zakh katit lama’or l’ha’a lot ner tamid. B’ohel moed michutz laparokhet asher al ha’eidut ya’arokh oto Aharon uvanav mei’erev ad boker lifnei Hashem chukat olam l’dorotam mei’eit b’nei Yisrael.
And you shall command the Children of Israel to bring to you clear oil from beaten olives for lighting the ner tamid. In the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the [Ark] of the Pact , Aaron and his sons shall set them up [to burn] from evening until morning before Hashem; it is a statute for the Children of Israel for all time.

The Ner Tamid, which is the menorah, burns in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain, where all of Israel came to speak with God. This flame is a ner tamid, an eternal light, burning continuously as a symbol of Hashem and His covenant with Israel. The continuously burning flame of the Ner Tamid is a symbol that has resonated with individuals and communities for centuries. Fire gives off warmth and light, creating comfort and enhancing vision. Mishlei (Proverbs) says, “Ner mitzvah v’Torah ohr; Mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light.” Light is a tool and an inspiration. The Ner Tamid allows us sight in the dark, both actual and theological. In the glow of this light we can fulfill God’s covenant; we can come together as a community; we can reach inside ourselves, and work to communicate with the Divine.

Talmud Bavli in Niddah teaches the midrash that in utero a light shines above the head of the embryo. This light illuminates the world from end to end. During this time the soul learns all of Torah. 

This Ner Tamid continues to burn in our lives. The menorah is the symbol of the Jewish People and the modern State of Israel.  The Ner Tamid illuminates our sanctuaries. Our holy days are begun and ended with flame, as are our lives. Our learning as individuals and as a people continues to connect us to that first light in our lives- the ner tamid that burned for our people in the wilderness, for each of us in utero, and throughout our lives in our connection to our congregation, the Jewish community, and the people Israel.

Parashat Terumah- Hiddur Mitzvah

Vayidabeir Hashem el Moshe laimor: Dabeir el b’nei Yisrael v’yikchu-li t’rumah mei’eit kol-ish asher yidbenu libo tikchu et t’rumati (Shmot 25:1-2)…. V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham (25:8)
And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Tell the children of Israel to bring Me a gift (t’rumah), from every person whose heart moves him, you shall accept My gift…. And build for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within it.
The word “bring me/v’yikchu li” literally means take, stressing the uniqueness of tzedakah given freely.  One who gives receives something in return. This something may not be material, yet it is tangible. But beyond the noble cause of tzedakah, in which the entire community has a part, the materials collected a special and unique. T’rumah, gifts, specifically refers to materials set aside for a holy purpose. What follows is a list of beautiful and valuable materials: gold, silver and bronze, gems, richly coloured yarns, valuable skins, woods, oils and spices. These are the to be used in the construction of the Mikdash, the Tabernacle which traveled with Israel in the wilderness. Could the Mikdash have been created from simple wood and cloth? Of course, but there is a purpose to the beauty.
When Israel crossed Yam Suf, they say, “Zeh Eili v’anveihu; this is my God, and I will glorify him.” (Shemot 15:2) Midrash explains that God cannot be made more glorious, but we glorify God by seeking to glorify the mitzvot. A beautiful environment adds to the mitzvah. It is a means to build upon the mitzvah. The Mikdash must be a place significant and special for the Israelites. It must be a place to which the people are drawn. This idea of fulfilling mitzvot in the most beautiful way is hidur mitzvah, but hidur mitzvah goes beyond this.  Skylar, a blogger about conversion, writes that hidur mitzvah allows individuals to become invested in the mitzvot in a personal way. We are not meant to lose ourselves in a mitzvah, but to immerse ourselves within it. A wonderful example of this is our beautiful aron, our ark in the sanctuary, which was dedicated by and for Hazzan Charles. Within our sanctuary our beautiful aron draws the eye and the intention. It helps us to focus our t’fillot and serves as a beautiful centerpiece for our congregation.
V’yikchu-li t’rumah mei’eit kol-ish asher yidbenu libo tikchu et t’rumati…. V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham. Bring Me a gift (t’rumah), from every person whose heart moves him, you shall accept My gift…. And build for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within it.
Together we build our world and our community to create a beautiful dwelling place where we can meet God.

Mishpatim- Before its time

While the Aseret Dibrot, in parashat Yitro, are the beginning of revelation to the Israelites at Sinai, and proclaim the basic tenets of society, parashat Mishpatim seeks to declare the details- proclaiming equality, fairness, derekh eretz, and g’milut hasadim. These are the ideals that made, and continue to make, the Jewish community unique in its time.

“…nefesh tachat nefesh. Ayin tachat ayin shein tchat shein yad tachat yad regel tachat regel…. V’chi yakeh ish et ayin avdo o-et ain amato v’shichatah lachafshi y’shalchenu tachat aino.”
“…a life for a life. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, leg for a leg…. And if a man hits the eye of his male slave or female slave, and he destroys it, he [the master] shall let him [or her- the slave] go for his eye’s sake.” (Shemot 21:23-26)

Equality in the Torah is not based upon wealth or stature, as in the Code of Hammurabi (Babylonia c. 1772). Humans, all humans- male or female, rich or poor, free or enslaved have worth. While slavery is an accepted fact in society at the time of the Torah, human beings are not property to be beaten without care to damage. They have the right to protection and safety.

“Ki tifga shor oyivcha o chamoro to’eh hasheiv t’shivenu lo. Ki tireh chamor sona’acha roveitz tachat masa’o v’chadalta mei’a’zov lo azov ta’azov imo.”
“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass wandering, you must surely return it to him. If you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden, and would refrain from helping it up, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” (Shemot 23:4-5)

A fair and equal society cannot just be based upon alliances, but on this sense of equality and fair play. We are expected to act with derekh eretz not only for friends and neighbours, but also for our enemies. Often when our Sages spoke about our actions towards others the reason for these norms of behaviour  was tikkun olam. This is the true meaning of tikkun olam, of fixing the world. These are the norms by which we must live if we are to create a world in which individuals rights and equality are guaranteed to all.  These are the ideals declared in Mishpatim, and throughout the Torah.

Parashat Yitro- Accepting the brit

There are many midrashim about how the Israelites came to accept the Torah. Some are positive; others less so, some even seem to contradict.
When Israel stood tachtit hahar, under the mountain*, God lifted the mountain and held it over the heads of the Israelites, threatening to bury Israel if they did not accept. (*Shmot 19:17)
Did we accept the Torah without hesitation or only through fear?  Some say it had been Israel’s destiny to accept Torah no matter what?
When God came to Israel to offer the Torah, God asked, “What will you give me in return?” “Our ancestors will be our guarantors,” said Israel, but God rejected this. “Our prophets will be our guarantors,” said Israel, but God rejected this as well.  Finally Israel said, “Our children will be our guarantors,” and this God accepted.
Torah and Judaism are not merely about our ancestors or our prophets, but about our future.  It is the connection dor l’dor, generation to generation that makes Judaism special and ties us all together as Jews.
God went to many people in the world with the Torah.  But each time the people would ask what was in it before agreeing to accept God’s word.  Then God came to the Israelites.  “Will you accept My Torah,” asked God. “Na’aseh v’nishma; we will do and we will understand*,” answered the Israelites. (*The Israelites say na’aseh to God twice. Shmot 19:8- “All that God has said we will do.” Shmot 24:4, Mishpatim-“We will do and we will understand.”)
Na’aseh- we will do. The Israelites accept the Torah prior to standing under the mountain. Na’aseh- we will do, in the future- for all generations with our children as our guarantors. Na’aseh- we will do- every one of us together, as a people and a community.
And God spoke to Moshe, “…the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever*.” (Shmot 19:9) L’olam- forever- for all generations. How can it be that a promise can be made by one generation for all generations forever? It is said that all generations stood at Sinai together, all Jewish souls, whether past, present, or future, those born to Judaism and those who choose it- accepting the yoke of Torah together.
Today we will stand as we read the Aseret Dibrot, the Ten Commandments, accepting again, as we did in the past and will again in the future, the mitzvot and the brit, the covenant with God.

Judaism's Best Mitzvah

Okay, it's been too, too long since I've been blogging, and I will try to get my drashot and more up soon.

Tonight I got to perform Judaism's best mitzvah.  Your not supposed to have a favourite mitzvah.  They're all equally important.  Still, I have a favourite, and my favourite mitzvah is mikveh.  Once a month, plus on a few special occasions I take time for me and God.  Another good part, God lets me focus on myself. Before I go to the mikveh I take 1-2 hours of me time.  Sometimes I take an entire evening to myself, sometimes I split the time.

Last night I took the time to give myself a reverse mani/pedi, taking off all my nail polish and taking care of my feet and hands.  Tonight I took some private time before prepping.  To got to mikveh you must first be fully clean.  It's a state of ritual and mental purity not cleanliness.  Teeth, hair, skin all must be clean.  It's nice to spend the time just taking care of me.

Then, it's off to the mikveh.  I go to the Sephardic Kehilla Centre, which is about two minutes from the house.  I'm in, a few more minutes for me, and into the mikveh.  It's bathtub warm and even when standing I feel as if I'm floating.  Dip once, bracha, dip a second time, yehi ratzon, dip a third.  I always take a extra minute in the mikveh.  I just enjoy the warmth.  I stand by the holes where the mikveh waters kiss the pool waters.  You can feel the cool water flow in from the mikveh pool.

After I recite the "Prayer Before Immersion."  Yes, I do recite it in the wrong order.  I'm a rebel.  The prayer asks for God's will in creating harmony between me and my husband, that we should appreciate each other, respect each other, and build a life and a family that will endure.  I enjoy this tekina (a traditional woman's prayer); it expresses a hope for the ideal that marriage can be, a true partnership built on love and mutual respect.  To think that this tekina with these ideals has been around for at least a century, maybe more, is inspiring to me.

Sean has a different take on mikveh.  For him it's erotic, but you'll have to ask him about that.  The Rabbis understood this.  For them mikveh wasn't about purity; it was about separation between a husband and wife creating desire and ensuring they were, at least one time a month, just like the day they were married.

I also leave the mikveh refreshed.  It doesn't matter how long the day has seemed, how hectic or frustrating, I emerge from the mikveh smiling, rejuvenated.  I attribute that to the few minutes I spend fully immersed in the water, the time I give to God.

A moment with God, a month of peace and romance.  Definitely the best mitzvah of all!