Passover Selves/True Selves

Sociologist Martha Beck teaches that we have an essential self and a social self. The essential self is our personal identity and qualities, and it guides us in life purpose. The social self is what forms through interaction with others’ expectations, but also provides the skills to accomplish our life purpose. When our essential self has become hidden by others’ expectations, Beck says, we may experience boredom, numbness, disconnect and hollowness – we’ve lost our direction for this journey.

This process of reconnecting with our essential selves is a deep theme of Passover. The Sefat Emet, a 19th-century Hasidic rabbi, taught that, on Passover, our inner essence that God has given us is renewed. Throughout the year, this divine essence should be our guide. Equally true, throughout the year, our inner essence can get caked over – pun intended – with ego, worries, wanting to please others and even apathy.

Matzah is called lechem oni (poor person’s bread) because it is completely simple, without any adornment, the simple essence of bread. The Sefat Emet taught that our inner essence is also lechem oni, the simplest form of ourselves. On Passover, our inner essence has a chance to be purified and renewed. In the Torah, we are told to keep or guard the holiday of matzot. The Sefat Emet interpreted this verse as meaning to guard our own matzah self – our truest, most essential form.

To clean off, to reconnect with that essential self takes effort – probably a lot more effort than scrubbing the fridge shelves or kashering the sink for the holiday – but it’s how we can fully live the holiday. Our tradition teaches that our last taste of the seder should be matzah, which is why the afikoman, the dessert, is matzah. This Passover, let’s find out how getting back to our essential selves and our true purpose can be the sweetest reward.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

The Masks We Need

There’s a provocative mystical teaching that Purim and Yom Kippur, two seemingly opposed holidays, are actually deeply related – that Yom Kippur is, in fact, a “yom k’Purim” (a day like Purim).

There are actually many ways in which, as the Vilna Gaon explains, the holidays are like two sides of the same coin. For instance, both of them involve revealing and concealing.

Mirroring God’s hiddenness in the Purim story, Purim is a holiday of masks and costumes. Yom Kippur, in which we feel God’s presence, is a day on which we cannot hide – we don’t even wear makeup or fancy clothes; we are nothing but our most basic selves.

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Rethinking Membership Structures

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, opens with each Israelite contributing a required half-shekel toward building the Tent of Meeting.  The Torah states that “The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less” (Exodus 30:15). Other verses describe additional voluntary contributions toward building the Tabernacle.

Today, this practice has inspired many synagogues to rethink membership structures. With younger Jews feeling less of an obligation to join and scores of folks of all ages feeling alienated, the fixed-dues model can discourage potential members.

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Becoming Free Like the Wilderness

In my work on campus, I am blessed to build relationships with many different kinds of Jewish students. Some have extensive Jewish education and ritual practice. Some have one Jewish parent. Some have felt excluded due to race, socio-economic standing, sexual orientation or gender identity. Some never had a chance to learn about their Jewish heritage. Some are ambivalent.

This week’s parashah, Yitro, includes the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The Midrash wonders why the Torah was given in the Sinai wilderness. It answers that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water and wilderness. Why? Because “just as these three are free to all inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them.”

I learned this text with a diverse group of student leaders recently. Continue reading

Blessing Our Children

The first time I recited the Friday night priestly blessing, my daughter was one day old. With Shabbat descending on Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, my husband and I took this tiny, not-yet-named being into our arms and blessed her in the name of our foremothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We wished for her in that moment an eternity of God’s goodness, the best the world could give her, a future of love and righteousness. Continue reading

Reaching Out

This week, Jacob sets out toward home after 20 years away and must face his brother Esau, whom he deceived before he left. Jacob carefully approaches Esau: he gradually announces his arrival with gifts, has his servants explain to Esau that the gifts are from “your servant Jacob” and bows seven times as he approaches, so it is clear Jacob doesn’t mean to fight Esau. The approach works. Even though Esau could understandably rebuff Jacob or fight him, instead, Esau embraces his brother and kisses him, asking to know his children.

Reaching out to someone you’re not sure wants to be in a relationship with you is hard, especially if you have past difficulty between you. This is also true in reaching out across differences as communities. The Jewish community can, at times, be hesitant to form partnerships with other communities, especially those with whom we have had historical disagreements.

But as we saw in the aftermath of the murders in Pittsburgh, it is those cross-communal relationships that can bring comfort, protection and strength in difficult times. This was exemplified by the rings of peace organized by mosques and churches across the city, cards received by the University of Toronto Hillel from other faith groups on campus, presence at vigils and allies calling out anti-Semitism. I felt devastated by the tragedy, and then comforted that we are not alone.

These relationships come from hard work. We can learn from Jacob. We must approach each other by offering the gift of our care for the other group – enough care to explore our disagreements. We must approach each other with a desire to learn, to serve and to be guided, instead of assuming we know the answer. And we must be clear in our wanting to work together, building trust.

When we do this work of partnering and building a better society together, we not only draw strength in difficult times, but we are also able to celebrate our successes and joys together.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Infertility and Jewish Continuity

In this week’s Torah portion, God comes to Abraham and Sarah to tell them that they will conceive a child, even though they are, respectively, 100 and 90 years old. When Sarah overhears God sharing this news with Abraham, she laughs.

For those of us experiencing infertility, we may have lost our laughter altogether. A hope for a child can become a long, emotionally draining journey with no certain end. In the Jewish community, with such a focus on family and producing a next generation, those experiencing infertility can feel doubly isolated. And yet, one in six Jews experiences infertility.

In our community settings, we should remember how prevalent difficulty conceiving really is. At baby welcoming ceremonies, express blessings for those trying to conceive. Don’t ask newly married couples about family planning or joke about how long it’s taking. Address the stigma that still surrounds infertility by talking more about it, as an article in these pages did last month. And whenever discussing “Jewish continuity,” acknowledge that there are many ways of sustaining the Jewish community, not just biologically.

For those on fertility journeys, there is support in the Jewish community. There are increasing numbers of community organizations dedicated to supporting Jews experiencing infertility, including in Canada. New rituals and prayers have been created – for example, Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin’s collection Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope and infertility mikveh rituals by Boston’s community mikveh, Mayyim Hayyim.

A midrash teaches that when God remembered Sarah and she gave birth, people of all kinds experienced miracles, including many other barren women. My hope for our community is that one person or couple’s miracle can spread, through information, support and connection. For all on the journey of fertility, I hope that tears be replaced soon with laughter – of relief and true joy.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Taking Action for Miracles

After fasting for 25 hours, we usually want to spend the next day recuperating, drinking some electrolyte water and eating leftover coffee cake from the break-fast. The last thing we want to do is drag a pile of two-by-fours out of the garage and somehow assemble it into a hut. And yet, our tradition has it that the first thing we do after Yom Kippur is hammer in the first nail of our sukkah. Why?

The Midrash teaches that when the Israelites reached the shore of the Red Sea, they stopped. Behind them, the Egyptians were closing in with their chariots. One tribe said, “I don’t want to go in.” Another said, “Me neither.” Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav looked around, saw no one else was going and walked right into the water. Up to his waist. His shoulders. His nose. The top of his head. And only at that moment did the Israelites merit the parting of the sea. God’s miracle was ready, but it needed the partnership of faithful action.

The joy of Sukkot is in having survived the judgment of Yom Kippur. But, oddly, we celebrate by experiencing the temporary nature of life, living in an actual temporary hut. The point is to be surrounded and protected by God’s presence, even while exposed to the elements – like the Israelites were when they wandered the desert for 40 years, or like our ancestors whenever they faced uncertainty.

We hammer in that first nail right after Yom Kippur as if to say we hope for God’s embracing presence during Sukkot. And yet, like Nachshon, we ourselves must take action, to provide a place in which God’s presence can dwell. As we dwell in our sukkot, my hope is that we take faithful action toward a world in which all people can feel God’s presence and security, in which no one is at the mercy of the elements, and in which everyone can find joy.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Yom Kippur: The Near Death Experience

Unetaneh Tokef is one of the central prayers of the High Holidays. It paints a picture of God judging all creation, even the angels. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed …  who shall live and who shall die … who by water and who by fire…” Some of us reject its theology of God meting out death sentences as punishment. But for some of us, Unetaneh Tokef can feel uncomfortably real.

The good things we want might not happen. Disaster might strike, God forbid. The central words of the prayer are actually true: some of us will be here next year, and some of us won’t. We don’t know who. We don’t know why. We confront, face to face, the fragility of our lives.

More than that, we encounter death. On Yom Kippur, we change our behaviours dramatically. Some interpretations focus on the ways in which we are imitating the angels. But we are also acting out our own deaths. We dress in white shrouds – the white kitel the service leader wears is also what we are traditionally buried in. We don’t eat, we don’t have sex, we don’t bathe – we are not fully living. And then, in the very last moments of the Neilah service to conclude Yom Kippur, we recite the Shema, traditionally the last words we say before our death.

We actually enact our own deaths and come through the other side.

People who have near-death experiences often report bursts of clarity and gratitude. You might be one of those people. We are all one of those people after Yom Kippur. We get the chance to be grateful for what we have, to make time for what’s important, to hold our people close and to celebrate the wonderful things in our lives. We don’t need to wait until, God forbid, something terrible happens. We can live fully, gratefully and wholeheartedly right now.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.