Our Wisdom Keepers

As we know, when Pharoah finally let the Israelites go, they lacked time for their dough to rise. But curiously, we find in our parashah that “Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, for [Joseph] had adjured b’nei Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you” (Ex. 13:19).

After 430 years, the Jews come back for Joseph to bring him home. How did anyone remember where Joseph was buried after so long? The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael elaborates: It was Serah bat Asher who showed Moses the way.

Serah bat Asher is named in the Torah both in the list going down to Egypt and in the list standing at Moab after the Exodus – a span of 500 years! She becomes in the midrash a character of wisdom and ancient secrets: the secret of redemption was given to Abraham, passed on through the patriarchs until Joseph, who told it to his brothers. Asher told Serah. When all those generations later Moses arose, it was Serah who could recognize whether he was the true redeemer or not.

Leaving Egypt, Serah tells Moses that the Egyptians buried Joseph in a metal coffin at the bottom of the Nile. Moses writes the name of God on gold and throws it in the Nile, conjuring Joseph and his coffin by evoking God’s promise of redemption. The coffin rises, and Moses brings it with them—the Mekhilta later says Joseph’s bones are carried even beside the Ark of the Covenant.

From earliest times, we Jews have known what it is to be separated from our history, our people, our places. To be buried far from home. To not remember where we’ve put our most valuable things, lost to the generations. Yet among us are the secret keepers, the wisdom holders. Like Serah bat Asher, we must listen to their stories, to hear where we come from. Sometimes they can also point us where we are going—toward redemption. Who are yours?

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Jacob’s Blessing in a Time of Antisemitism

I was talking with my brother-in-law last weekend while we watched our kids play. We just heard the news about the attack on a Monsey Chanukah party. What can be done? Is this new or very old antisemitism? How do we keep our children safe?

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, concludes Jacob’s life, in which he gives blessings to his sons. But in a few short verses at the beginning of Exodus next week, we flip from a family story of relative safety to a dangerous time for the Jews of Egypt. A dramatic turn: Joseph practically commands Egypt and then, upon his death, the Jews of Egypt are swiftly suspected and enslaved.

This year has felt swift and disorienting to me. Continue reading

Ascending and Descending the Rungs

One of the first books I read as I began to learn more about Judaism as an adult was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s “God was in this place and I, i did not know,” a beautiful book of commentary on the story of Jacob’s ladder, of spirituality and deep reading. A Reform rabbi and mystical teacher, Kushner’s books open up Jewish mysticism for liberal Jewish communities.

In the story, Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau after tricking him, and along the way he lies down to sleep. In his dream, he has a vision: “A ladder, standing on earth, its top reaching the heavens. And behold: angels of God, going up and going down on it. And behold: God is standing on it…” (Genesis 28)

I hadn’t had much experience with deeply reading Jewish text and discovering the many voices inside it. I remember being struck by Kushner’s prologue. Continue reading

The Joy of Sukkot Can Linger

This Sukkot was harder for me than most. Something about the Monday-Tuesday holiday calendar maybe, with its accompanying brutal schedule of meal cooking, holiday, Shabbat, day off, and holiday again, several times over. I didn’t have much joy in Sukkot at the beginning, which is called by the rabbis of the Talmud “zman simchateinu,” the time of our joy. It’s connected to the joyful abundance of bringing in the harvest and the knowledge of having been forgiven by God.

As a parent of two small children, with two full-time working spouses, work stress, the worry of whether we’ll ever be able to afford a house in Toronto, the concern about the end of Western democracy, etc., I’ve honestly been low on joy for a few months now. Continue reading

Returning to Roots

During the closing service of Yom Kippur, we imagine the gates of teshuvah, repentance, closing. There is a tradition, though, that the gates remain open through Sukkot. We continue eating honey on our challah through the end of Sukkot, too, connecting these holidays together.

What an opportunity. Now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are completed, with their accompanying flurry of meal preparation, synagogue services, family visits, time away from work and school, we still have time. Sukkot is called “zman simchateinu,” the time of our joy. Which joy?

This year I took a somewhat foolish trip to Montreal for a few days, returning to Toronto a few hours before Rosh Hashanah began. My husband and I were attending a friend’s wedding and took the opportunity to revisit our old haunts. Continue reading

Revealing the Heart: The Work of Teshuvah

It can be a challenge to do the work of teshuva, of repentance and personal change, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays. For some of us, it’s connected directly to our feelings of shame about how we have acted. Sometimes, that shame makes us runs from our misdeeds instead of confronting them.

As the renowned sociologist of shame Brene Brown explains, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists­­we’re so easy to keep quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” Being able to talk about what we are ashamed of with a trusted friend or therapist brings light to that darkness, and enables us to then take steps to rectify the situation. Continue reading

Facing the Emerging Future, Together

We hear this week Moses describe pleading with God: “‘O Lord God … Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah… Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.’”

After devoting his life to bringing the Jewish people out of Egyptian slavery, helping them become God’s people, sacrificing and cajoling and leading, it has always seemed cruel to me that Moses must die before reaching their destination, the Land of Israel.

Working in generational change within our community, I lately see it differently. Continue reading

Responding to #MeToo as a Community

Parashat Nasso contains two unusual passages, one right after the other: the Sotah and the Nazir. The Sotah ordeal is as follows: If a jealous husband suspects his wife of adultery, only God can accurately adjudicate this he-said-she-said situation. The husband brings his wife and a grain sacrifice to the priest, who exposes her hair in humiliation and has her swear her innocence. The wife drinks curses dissolved in water. If she’s guilty, something horrible happens to her womb. If she’s innocent, she conceives a child by her husband. Later, the Talmudic sages determined that the necessary conditions warranting the Sotah ordeal were near impossible to satisfy. Still, this situation of enacting a woman’s humiliation simply on the word of a man who has power over her can be disturbing to a contemporary audience. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading