Cities of Refuge

What does a City of Refuge look like to you? is it a stone walled primitive city, a refugee camp in a third world country, an internal place where you go to be alone, to hide, to find peace or reconciliation, or safety? Or a place to go to chill out when stuff goes awry?

Cities of Refuge are the topic of last week’s Torah portion, Numbers chapters 34-35, or Masei. These are designated places to go for asylum for someone who has inadvertently killed another person. Why is this in the Torah, and why in these chapters? Let’s look at the topic from Judaism’s four levels of Torah study, or PaRDeS, used by Jewish scholars.

The acronym PaRDeS comes from the first letters of four words, Pshat (the literal meaning of the text), Remez (its allusions), Drush (the homilies that can be derived from it), and Sod (its mystical secrets)[i].

imagesIn Hebrew, the word pardes means garden. It is believed the root of the word, paradise, too.

Let’s look at cities of refuge with these four levels:

Pshat, the Torah portion describes how cities are to be located in the new country. To accommodate what has been formerly a mass of wandering peoples, a city must have a designated place for those who have inadvertently committed murder. Why? Historically, justice was done in a literal way, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. This was accepted law and suitable means of justice for nomadic societies. A more compassionate need to protect those who inadvertently kill someone needed to be established when movement stopped and people became tied together in cities: Imagine that you accidentally dropped a load of bricks on someone and then their designated avenger came to kill you, according to law. The confinement of city life would also mean close living quarters within its walls. The pshat understanding is that the innocent could leave their home and travel to another city for safe dwelling, something new for the settling tribes.

Remez suggests this alludes to something more tangible, the institution of community safe havens, transition houses, and identity change programs. It further alludes to our emulating the nonjudgmental protection of the Shekhinah when bad things happen to good people, a reminder of the always available Love of a Higher Power. It alludes to the settling of the people in a homeland and the need to realign values and laws.

Drush is a derivation of the word d’rash, or a homily. The moral lessons of the city of refuge are those that we can apply to our own lives. How often have you sought refuge from mistakes or criticism, taken a timeout from a relationship, a leave of absence from work or school? The lesson is to take regular time aside for daily self-examination, for looking at mistakes as part of being human, and ways to make amends to oneself or to another.

We are encouraged to find a way to come home to ourselves. The Torah is encouraging us to do this by telling us to create cities of refuge in our personal country of dwelling.

Sod is the mystery. How do these cities of refuge help, after all? Are they an escape from reality, can they become an addictive retreat from responsibilities?

These cities of refuge actually have tight boundaries and restrictions on the user: according to text, once claiming refuge, one cannot leave until the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, has died. No one can buy your way out, buy you as a slave and take you out, and you cannot leave on your own to return to family and home. The refuge city is a prison in many ways, much like the incarcerated singer in Johnny Cash’s song who laments how the train whistle is making him crazy, knowing that there are people traveling on the train while he sits stuck in prison. One can choose to take refuge, but there is a fine line between what is refuge and what is prison. The same could apply to things we do ourselves, things that begin as a welcomed comfort or diversion from troubles, but become confining in themselves if used beyond their healthy limits.

And who is this High Priest? The pshat might imply this is the Kohen Gadol of the Jerusalem Temple, and it may well have been understood that way. The literal translation of kohen gadol is also ‘great priest’. Is it possible that the Great Priest resides inside our own selves, in the form of a controlling ego?

How often does our pride protect us after committing an inadvertent mistake? In fact, the painful feelings might even feel as bad as if we’d committed a murder? The results are often denial, procrastination, avoidance, stagnation, bodily aches and pains. We find ourselves adrift, unable to connect with family, friends and work. A friend says his way of coping when such self-critical feelings arise is to ask himself, ‘but did anyone die?’ How are your resources or means of vanquishing your imprisoning tactics?

Finding ways of releasing ourselves from our own created ego-refuge ‘city’ requires engaging in practices such as prayer, meditation, mindfulness, aimed at a metaphorical death of our ‘great’ ego: we are released from the bondage of overextended pride or denial. This is hard work, well worth the reward of return to liberation.

We can again become priests of wisdom, yielding hardness into humility, making amends, forgiving ourselves, and returning to the lightness of our souls and others in wholeness and Shalom.

The City of Refuge, is it that far from where you live?



Women of Purim

Purim is next weekend. For some, it’s the holiday excuse to dress up, be silly, an listen to the whole Megillah–literally: and we’re required to become so drunk that we can’t tell the heroes’ names from the villain’s in the story.

The story of Purim is called the Book of Esther. Growing up, I learned that Esther and her uncle Mordechai, were the heroes, and that Queen Vashti, King Ahashverosh and Haman were the bad guys. I loved eating the hamentaschen Haman’s Ears pastries, and twirling a loud grogger when Haman’s name was read in the Megillah to blot out the sound. Usually by the time the long night of reading and noisy silliness was done, it was getting late; I’d be ready to eat one last hamentaschen and want to go home to bed.

 This annual ritual was something we did outside of our secular lives. The holiday was not relevant or even mentioned at grade school, as I recall. Yet, it was so big in my synagogue and family life. Our family photo album has pictures of my father dressed as for Purim in a costume that looked suspiciously the same as the one I wore at about his age, around 8 years old.

Me and Dad PurimAs we often say in Judaism  לדור ודור  from generation to generation.

My ideas about who the heroes were or weren’t have shifted. What I heard as a little girl was that Esther was the good, beautiful queen, who replaced Vashti, the wicked disobedient one. Lesson: be beautiful and cooperative or you will be banished. Esther was rather passive, and it was her uncle Mordechai who had the instincts and push to urge her to save the Jewish people. It appeared that she had no reason to ‘out’ herself as Jewish to King Ahashverosh. It was Mordechai’s urging that caused her to step aside from her wealth and position, to petition the King with her beauty and good cooking to help her people.

The ploy was a success, and the condemned Jews were able to prevail.


Now I see a re-write of this story, especially on this rainy Vancouver International Women’s Day. Vashti was a disappointment in the story because she would not display her charms publicly to her King’s drunken banquet guests and his public. Perhaps like many of us women, she believed she was more than a rack to display a diadem from.


In fact, the King’s advisors saw that, and told him to get rid of her, lest all the women of his kingdom follow her example and become disobedient. So he banished her, to maintain order in the households of the kingdom.

The Purim story is not called the Book of Vashti, though, it is the Book of Esther. We are left with that scenario as an aside, and Vashti’s disobedience is seen only as important in that it creates the opportunity for Esther to enter the scene and later be able to help her Jewish people as a Queen.

I admire both women. Vashti makes a risky personal decision in emancipating herself from degrading treatment by her husband. Esther makes a risky public decision to use her charms and position to save her people. They both could have chosen to be passive and continue to enjoy abundance and comfort.

Yet, ironically, one has been vilified and the other celebrated. For women, saying No seems to have much worse consequences than saying Yes, even in the context of heroism. As little girls and boys that was what we learned.


Have things changed much? I am older now and can choose who my role models are. I like Vashti because she needed to draw a line in the sand for herself and women. She was so committed to this that she sacrificed her own welfare. It was not in vain though. Her piece of the story remains in the Book of Esther. Clearly it was important; her story could easily have been scrubbed out by early redactors. Her actions are those of a true leader and voice for freedom and from oppression. Look who else set the stage by saying No, some of whom did not survive to see the fruit of the seeds they planted in history: Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Benazir Bhutto, Harriet Tubman, and today, Malala Yousafzai.


Things haven’t changed much. We still meet resistance if we need to say No. I admire Vashti and see her as a role model. She tells us, ‘Say it if it’s the right thing to do, maintain your self-esteem and that of others who need your voice’. I wonder where Vashti went? Perhaps she became just another invisible single woman, lost in the crowd, past her prime, alone. Maybe she found a place of belonging somewhere new. Her legacy remains for us to learn from.



Esther is also my role model; for how to do the right thing, even if you don’t really have to. Yes, Mordechai did have to urge her on, but then again, he set her up as a comfortable queen for Ahashverosh. Realizing that her wealth and status truly did put her in the best place to appeal on behalf of the Jews of Shushan, she decided to put her wealth to a purposeful use beyond herself. What she models is how one can transform from being insulated and comfortable, to seeing our abundance as the very means to reach out and make a difference for others. Sometimes it takes the outer voice, symbolized by her uncle Mordechai, that calls to us to reach out and make a difference.


Whether by inner convictions, such as Vashti shows us, or outer directors, such as Esther’s, both show us that women have strength and power.

We need not remain hidden, or only in supportive roles in the background behind men; the Book of Esther tells us that we have the power to make a difference, if we are willing to step out and speak, write, sing or perform our truth.



The Ki Tissa of Recovery

When we allow release to come, we find ourselves on the same sojourn through the wilderness our ancestors took; and if we allow ourselves to open to our potential, we may find the strength and maturity we so hope to develop along the

Ki Tissa is the section of the Israelites’ journey from Mitzrayim that takes us further along our way through the wilderness of discovery and formation. We leave Mitzrayim, Egypt, much like adolescents or runaways, with belongings slung hastily over a shoulder, barely wanting to look back.

Predictably, as soon as the thrill or high or novelty wears off, we are homesick for the familiar place, where our short memories recall fish and leeks to eat, and security.

As a loving parent who sees their maturing offspring lose focus, God finds that it is time to take a census, a time for our people to be counted and accountable for themselves to their Higher Power. It is time to say, Count me in, I’m my way to independence and responsibility, no longer to be kept and managed by our Egyptian overseers.

Part of becoming independent is surrendering to a Higher Power, of recognizing where our boundaries and limits of what we can realistically control lie. Here, in Ki Tissa, God instructs us to surrender what we can, to build the Mishkan. But, God does not instruct us all to do this in the same exact way: God, or our personal Higher Power, knows that we are not all the same, not all of the same talents, gifts, and abilities.


What we learn in Ki Tissa, is that those for whom surrendering material items is their best offering, are to do so, and they bring gold, silver, copper, fibers and pelts;

and those for whom surrendering their creative talents is their best offering, are to do so. They are instructed by God on how to smith, weave, sculpt and build the Mishkan from these materials.

emastorah.blogspot,comHow do we understand this message?

One way is to take an account of who we are, and what our realms of abilities and being are, and what are not.

Another way is to let go of trying to be like someone we are not, or try to control how someone else is; maybe a family member or co-worker comes to mind. In recovery, we let go, and surrender to what our Higher Power asks or instructs of us.

We can let go, to leave others in God’s hands,

When you are on your way in the Wilderness of Uncertainty,

Who will you answer as when others or your Higher Power call to you? How will you take inventory of who and how you have been, and where you see yourself now?

This is the message of Ki Tissa.

Bo: What a Plot!

The reading for last Shabbat was parasha Bo, which is the 10th chapter of the 2nd book of the Torah, which is called Shemot in Hebrew, or Exodus in English.

Imagine it is Kabbalat Shabbat, here is my d’rasha for you, about Bo:

Has anyone seen the film, ‘The Ten Commandments’?

Anyone seen it…lately?

Ok. Well, I ask because yesterday was my grandmother’s birthday, z”l,

and her favourite movie was…The Ten Commandments!

as I was studying the parasha for tonight’s drasha

I could almost hear her voice kvelling,

She would say, “What a movie!! Such wonderful costumes, and acting…

AND–WHAT A PLOT!!!   Grandma Dot


Yes, Grandma, what a plot, indeed. And, then I started to wonder what it was, besides the fact that it’s THE TORAH, that makes this story have such a “great plot”?

 I began to read the first line, and some answers started to come to me:


“God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants for the purpose of putting my signs in their midst. And so that you will tell into the ears of your children and the children of your children how I raised you up from Egypt and of my signs which I put in their midst, and they will know that I am YHVH.'”


What dramatic opening lines. Wow. COME to Pharaoh. Not GO to Pharaoh, because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the heart of his servants. Not his servants’ hearts. But the heart of his servants.

So, God is beckoning Moses toward Egypt, with the suggestion that God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart,

as a way for God to show God’s Might and Power,

and to escalate the tension between the Pharaoh and his people:

as his heart hardens, so does their desire close for more punishment from the plagues.


What is meant by heart?

My Biblical Hebrew teachers taught us that in Tanakh times, the HEART was the where one’s will resided. They didn’t know what the BRAIN did, except maybe make the limbs and bodily functions work.

So the WILL of the Egyptians was also becoming hardened and closed off.

The grand purpose of all this was to create a platform for raising the stakes between Pharaoh and Moses

so that God would need to manifest greater and greater powers,

through the signs, or plagues,

and thus once and for all, be shown as God Most High and Powerful to all of Egypt. And

cccindy.comThis was to be told right into the ears of Moses’ children, and their children,

for all the generations of Israelites to come.

So that they will know that God alone is YHVH.


I think some of the appeal of this story line, that makes it such a good plot, as my grandmother would say,

Is that this dynamic happens not only in this one Biblical story,

But in our own lives, communities, and even world events. Sometimes, an idea or action that helped protect us from harm can go awry and go too far:

On the personal level, can you recollect times when you just kept resisting hearing someone’s needs or advice, and kept finding ways of ignoring obvious signs of seriousness until it was too late?

Or a community that ignores the needs of its poorest residents to the extent that the needs builds up and create an overwhelming housing and mental health services problem to contend with;

Or the hardening of hearts that at various times in history has led the world to a scary international escalation of terrorism, wars and arms

 One thing God is telling us in this passage

is that we can get ourselves into trouble by running around

creating great plots and

ways to avoid letting in what our opened hearts

we know is the truth.


With this story, we can remember,

through telling it year after year,

That God comes along with you

And is greater than any Pharaoh’s hardened heart.


My grandmother always encouraged me to be my best, and part of that is having the privilege to study Torah and remember that God is greater than Pharaoh.

Grandma Dot







Who Made Miracles שעשה נסים

Tonight I kindled the Chanukkah lights for the seventh night in a row.


At my hospital work, I had a full day of attending calls to visit patients and led a group in our hospital’s psychiatry department. I realized that now I’ve gone and done it; I am officially a ‘working stiff’, as my grandmother, who was the breadwinner in her household and marriage, used to call herself.images


It’s been over 30 years since I last worked full time. Many of my friends are either beginning to retire from employment, counting the days, or have begun independent practices of whatever their working career was. Myself, I am just beginning to re-enter the work force while I complete my professional education.


Today was a day of real work. I recently finished my fourth and final unit as a student Clinical Pastoral Education, now ahead lie nine months of clinical residency; time to spend time integrating and serving in the work I have trained for, as a Spiritual Health pambg.blogspot.comPractitioner, sometimes called a Chaplain.

Tonight, the kindling of lights meant more to me than ever before. As a milestone of education has passed, I now see that more milestones lie ahead on the horizon. As I light the seven candles in my urban condo window, I remember the story of the people long ago who would not give up their identity and practices in order to fit in with their foreign overseers’ wishes. I remember what a miracle it was to persevere and succeed in regaining their prized spiritual tabernacle, and how the simplicity of the contents of a found cruse of oil could symbolically extend the light of success beyond the ordinariness of a single night.

This has been and will continue to be an ever revealing and paradigm-challenging trajectory on a ship that pulls me along through space and time.

I chose to formalize as work what I do so well naturally: my former life of creative time and Jewish values and observance are now forever altered. I’ve stymied my preference to march to the drummer of my inner calling and outer cultural heritage in order to meet the scheduled production of easing spiritual distress and enhancing medical healing my work requires. Like the Maccabees, my inner life though, has started to rise up and challenge the administrator who dictated the need to repress creativity and subjugate it to writing reports and playing other peoples’ music.



I called a friend for comfort, and I’ll admit, a kick in the pants. He said, ‘play your oboe and write’. I’ve been getting these lectures for several weeks now from friends, both my outer world companions, and internal voices. It’s so easy to let it all go and slip into the frame of work, yet as an artistically gifted co-worker said to me, it becomes toxic if you stop creating and keep it all inside.

The Compassionate Oboe

The Compassionate Oboe



I’ve missed you all, my readers, my keyboard, my blog, and my oboe.


I had a dream that a famous Jewish musician came to play music with me. Here I am, back on board. All the orchestra Christmas music stayed in its folder this evening, and I played my circle of 5ths, embouchure and tone exercises, and gifted myself with release in my own bath of freigish veygeshryn’.


The work won’t go away, there will always be patients and seekers to visit, a ceremony to create, another memory to honour, a co-worker to support. That is my chosen work; I now see it is not a substitute for visiting myself; creating my own ceremonies and memories, and sharing love and mutual support with friends.

As I remember my promises to myself, my prayer is to not lose myself along the way ahead, and I thank God for this Chanukkah time of remembrance and rededication.