This morning, perhaps being distracted by the panoramic view westward of sunrise hazels, purples and shimmer of highrise windows reflected onto urban canopy of trees, I dropped my favourite jar of Genmaicha, spilling a good portion onto my kitchen floor. “Oh, dear” I said, then saw with relief that the jar, a diamond patterned glass cylinder with a knob top, had not shattered on the kitchen’s new laminate flooring. I wasn’t sure whether the tea in the jar, or the jar itself, was the more precious.
The jar was a treasure found in the ‘Bargain Barn’ during my first few days living in the desert a few years ago. I was outfitting my coach-home’s galley-sized kitchen and needed some containers for teas and larger spice items, such as cinnamon sticks. I loved the Bargain Barn, the town’s treasure trove for items that were perfect for outfitting a desert home, left behind by those who had moved back into modern, conventional, city living. Most items were anachronisms, having been recycled into new homes many times over the decades.
This particular jar was a doppelganger for the one that had lined our kitchen countertop when I was a little girl, back in the ’50’s and ’60’s. Along with the kitschy cat plate that came with the coach, it always brought up fond memories of my mother, in her bright apron with the orange and blue ruffles, busy in the kitchen, with little me following her every move, chattering away with nonsense about what the cat was thinking or doing, and could I have a carrot, please?
These memories informed me as I selected this jar from amongst several off the shelf at the Barn. Now, what would go into it? Sugar? Cinnamon sticks? Ground Cumin or Turmeric? Or, just leave it clear and set it on the sill of the sunny kitchen window where its lacework of facets could catch the light and reflections of the trees and hummingbird feeders? I took it home to ponder.
A week or so later, I drove to a mountain town high above, but not far from, my desert home. The town centre is charming, kept in an old timey sort of way for tourists and vacationers, but mostly to supply the locals with their more rustic needs. The patchwork of shops sold ceramics, handspun wool and weaving, mountaineering and ski equipment, ice cream, candy stands, bakeries, bistros, coffee shops, a restaurant, and some exotic imports stores.
Up a flight of stairs in the centre square’s red wooden feature building, there were a few quieter shops selling Amish farm goods, wool for knitting, and an oriental imports shop. I wandered into the oriental imports shop.
It had been quite a while since I’d seen anything Asian, and I now realized how much I missed the almost ubiquitous presence of Asian culture and people back home in Vancouver, Canada. It had been my custom for decades to go to the traditional Chinatown near downtown Vancouver and shop for produce, herbs, Tai Chi clothing, shoes, swords, kitchenware, and just enjoy a day off from the suburbs, as well as attending weekly rehearsals with the Chinese orchestra and choir; now this shop reminded me of all those things that were part of where I had been.
What to buy? or to just look and take in the musty scents and pastel and black colours of kites and clothing and toys and cosmetics and toiletries. What I wanted most was tea; either Oolong or Genmaicha. Tucked away next to some brightly coloured packages of cosmetics was the tea, and I picked a lovely tin of Oolong tea and a box of Genmaicha. The proprietor nodded as she checked out the items and I realized how calm and soft everything had been in that store, even in comparison with the little mountain village, which had a hustle about it, directed at tourists to buy goods and eat goodies.
Genmaicha tea is a blend of bancha green tea and roasted brown rice. It has a nutty, slightly sweet flavor and a yellowish color; it is a popular drink in Japan. Sometimes it is called ‘Popcorn Tea’ because the toasted rice kernels look like small popcorns mixed in with the green tea leaves. Some days, for feeling a warm glow, I put a few leaves of Oolong tea into a pot of boiled water, but other days, I just want to sip and taste the toastiness of rice mixed in with a gentler flavour of green tea; sitting with genmaicha is an oasis of warmth, aroma and flavour and an excuse to rest on a busy day or lazy morning.
So, this morning, that is what I wanted: to have a toasty beverage and sit and ponder the view over the treetops outside my windows. But, alas! as I grabbed the precious latticework genmaicha-filled jar, it slipped out of my fingers and crashed to the floor, much of its contents spewn out like lava from a volcano. I could smell the toast-and-tea odour as the first indicator that the tea had spilled. The words, this is all correct went through my mind as I gazed, confused, at the floor. There appeared to my eyes to be a mess of spilled, precious tea leaves and rice. But, my reflexive action was to understand it as nothing was amiss here.
I was surprised at how my reaction was not one of disappointment or loss or grieving for having damaged something so precious to me. My reaction was elsewhere, on how all things are integrated into a whole, and that there is movement forward, even in loss, no matter how great, or small.
Putting this into perspective, no one died. Yet, if there had been a death of a loved one, the first words I would have uttered as a Jew, are: Baruch Dayan HaEmet, God is the True Judge, or Judge of Truth. Either way, we are saying that things happen, and that even in loss, there is an Ineffable Presence that will always be there and hold us dear. This morning, it was a simpler version of this belief in the inevitable and unceasing flow of circumstances: accepting that all that occurs reveals and allows for something new.
I saw, not the loss of my precious tea, or myself as clumsy and bearing blame for the loss, or my becoming old and losing capacity for self-care. What I saw was that some tea had spilled, and that it was time for that tea to spill. I had been so endeared to the precious memories evoked by the jar and idea of enjoying the tea, that it had stayed in the jar, untouched, for far too long: In fact, it was going stale because of my reluctance to use any of it.*
I felt grateful for this early morning wake up: a wake up reminder that change never ceases, and that our ability to appreciate change as growth, makes us more at peace with whatever we may encounter.
*Later on, I read that in 19th century England it was considered good luck to spill tea leaves https://twinings.co.uk/blogs/news/tea-superstitions
As the waters of the COVID-19 pandemic’s tsunami of impact recede, our world of experiences and expectations has changed dramatically since March of 2020. The familiar now has an uncanny cast to it; favourite places for entertainment, work and recreation, places of worship, and healthcare institutions look and operate unlike they ever used to, even as restrictions to access are lifted.
So many of us sat through this pandemic, chafing at the bit to go back to having things the old way, the familiar way, the way we moderns and our ancestors before us, made them.
Imagine instead, that we have been abiding together in an Ark, such as that of the Biblical Noach and the living beings he gathered into it, to weather a Great Flood. Were these passengers all imagining, in their human and non-human minds, that things would be just the same once the rain stopped?
Can you imagine yourself after this great shipwreck or tsunami, that now the waves have relaxed. You have been deposited by a gentle surf, face down upon a wet sand of some strange beach: exhausted, grateful for the solid land, confused. Yet, the landscape is not unfamiliar.
Humanity has been tossed about. Regardless of our medical and scientific experts attempting to control Nature’s child, the Novel Coronavirus, it has been an exhausting two-plus years for those of us who have thus far survived. We mourn the losses of loved ones, means of livelihood, neighbourhoods, sources of supplies and food, and importantly, patterns and rituals that we had always relied upon for comfort and support.
Our traditions were based upon these reliable things of Nature: the sunrise, the sunset, the seasons. Weather patterns of the ancient lands where our beliefs and lore were birthed, are now, too, washed over with sand and debris. We dig to find and restore them. But they, too, are covered with sand and debris, weighted down, broken in places, and entangled with seaweed.
When I lived in the remote desert of the American southwest a few years ago, my family put up a stake of money for a lovely oneg Shabbat at the synagogue I attended, in honour of a significant birthday milestone. I was to chant my bat mitzvah haftarah, the weekly reading from the book of Judges, as well as look forward to a day away at the urban synagogue. The distance there from my remote locale was an hour and a half drive, and when I awoke at sunrise to get ready for the long drive on the morning of the special day, I saw that a torrential downpour had come down overnight.
There was no word on the news or internet about a closure of the one road through town to get to a main highway. I got dressed and drove. After the first 10 miles I suspected the worst outcome caused by the storm, because so many trucks and cars were heading into town, most likely turned back due to the road being closed. But I kept on going because I had to get there to chant the haftarah and celebrate with my friends and indulge in all the goodies my family had arranged for me.
I had my little truck and had experience driving in slush and snow and unmarked roads in Alaska and as a Forest Ranger; and there was no report of a road closure, no signs on the road to go back: Just those darned vehicles heading towards me and back into town. Of course, there it was: after driving 22 of the 25 miles towards the highway the road was completely gone.
The desert had completely swallowed up the road. Wet sand, brittle bushes and cacti sat quietly, as if they had been there all along. There were two police cars, real tough Hummers, which were slipping sideways and giving up in the quicksand, almost like a pair of mud wrestlers trying to slog through to the finish. It made me feel a bit better, that I’d made it as far as they did with their fancy, high powered hemi rigs, but it was also clear that after driving 45 minutes already, then having to drive 45 minutes back to town, plus 2 hours to drive over the mountainous back route, if it was even open, I was going to miss my lovely special sabbath event.
As I drove back and passed our little desert airport, I wistfully thought about running into the terminal and commandeering some pilot who might be sipping a quiet cup of coffee into flying me out to the synagogue, which was adjacent to an airfield anyway. The energy pulsed through me to do that; but I knew the truth was, that Nature had been busy overnight; and that although I would miss out, at least my friends would be enjoying the spread of delectable food and decorations on my behalf. I was able to get a call out to one of them and let him know about the road washout. As urbanites, it may have been harder for them to visualize that it was even possible for a road could completely disappear, but when you live in the wilderness, deferring to Nature is always best.
So, what is the subject of my post, ‘Work on What Has Been Spoiled’?
As we pick ourselves up from our two-plus years of being tossed about in waves of Coronavirus and slog up the beach, now castaways looking for something familiar, we are each likely carrying old expectations of what should be happening, or how things will look and should be. I will tell you – they won’t be the same. We can try to force them to be as expected, as I had hoped to do by running my little truck through the washed away desert road to get to my duties at synagogue and my party.
The most likely outcome of such persistence in working at things that have been spoiled, is to get stuck, get mad, and very tired or fail. Or, as is becoming more the norm: we can find a “hack” (cheat); or blame someone else. As a friend put it, for the past many years we have been living in the “I Got Away With It” culture.
If these options are not appealing, that is good. Our ancient wisdom texts have lovingly preserved for us how to respond to change. We can find a new way in our new world.
An ear worm, a loop of rhythmic words, has been circulating in my brain the past few weeks: it says, “work on what has been spoiled”. In fact this is the name of one of the Hexagrams of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes. The I Ching is a two thousand year old book of wisdom from the far east which helps us understand how to determine our actions in the midst of life’s inevitable changes. From learning how to understand imagery and metaphor, rather than rely upon analytical thinking and problem solving, we can find out where we are in a situation, and thus make decisions on how to proceed.
I saw this cartoon in the New Yorker:
Yes, it’s a cartoon, and supposed to be funny. Yet, isn’t it so true. Competitive sports and higher education that were designed to challenge young minds to excel, to think outside the box and be curious and inventive and creative and courageous are now just ornaments to put on a job resumé. Physical and mental challenges are an essential part of maturation and becoming responsible and ethical; and sadly, today, challenges are often met by how one can avoid experiencing them.
Work on what has been spoiled. There is an old saying, “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. No, don’t physically abuse kids with a stick or rod! this is referring to discipline, to teaching your child to learn how to do the math homework rather than doing it for them, to be a responsible member of the educational system rather than buying admission into Ivy League schools.
Because when we do these undisciplined, unsanctioned acts, things decay, become decadent, and rot.
I once met with a patient who had acquired a life threatening infectious disease. He was hospitalized, with no friends or family. He told me that he had been raised in one of the wealthiest families in the region, spent his time partying on the family’s yachts and skiing in the Alps and Aspen; all those things that were just the norm for him. They had servants and he never had any responsibilities. Then he decided to get this cabin in the mountains and live like Jeremiah Johnson, the backwoodsman, with his girlfriend.
His health began to fail: his earlier, carefree partying days of sharing drug needles and bodily fluids with others had given him some diseases that weakened him so much that his leg broke while out hiking. His dog helped him get back to the cabin, but his girlfriend decided to leave. So, there he was, alone and very sick. Eventually some neighbours brought him into town and he was now in the infectious disease ward, with me. He said he had no skills for living: everything had been given to him with no challenges his whole life. He saw the folly of shirking the learning of basic skills for taking care of oneself all too clearly.
Recognizing where one is at, is the first step toward finding your way forward. This patient was ready and eager to begin work on what had been spoiled.
This topic is relevant to the New Year of Autumn. We get a chance, before finding ourselves lost and sick in a snow bank like this man, to reflect on what we have learned this past year, and how we can move forward better in the new one. He made mistakes, and had been raised and encouraged to shirk responsibilities: for most of his life; others were to blame for any problems or shortfalls. Now, in his solitude, he could see that he was in charge after all, not others. Saying “I can do better and want to be responsible” was the most powerful thing he could do for himself.
The Hexagram, ‘Work on What Has Been Spoiled’ is not about what has been Spoiled: it is about Work. Just as moving forward into the world after the pandemic is not about the coronavirus; it is about the honest work, without blame of oneself or others, of adapting to a changed world.
Work is hard! with guidance from our ancestors through their books of wisdom, we, too, can move forward, with awe and wonder and pride.
May your New Year be filled with growth, with wisdom from your elders, and promise for the future.
**A Special Note for 8 September: Queen Elizabeth II died today at her home in Balmoral, Scotland, after a reign of 70 years. Writing as a Canadian: she was our Queen. I saw her once about 20 years ago from only a few metres away, as she passed by during a royal visit to Vancouver. The crowd parted just as she came by, and there her countenance, with the most dazzling and awakened violet eyes caused me to blurt out “THERE SHE IS!” despite my indifference to the monarchy up to that moment. I admired her so very much after seeing how she presented herself that day. We are all sad here today.
Here was a person, inspirational in her unwavering clarity of who she was, which guided her through unimaginably complicated events throughout her reign. She remains a role model for us all.
A few weeks ago I watched a film I hadn’t seen for many years, ‘The Big Lebowski’, and with fresh eyes saw themes that helped shape how I want to approach Autumn and the upcoming Jewish New Year. The film first came out in 1998; and it was exciting to watch, with its collage of scenes and characters chock full of humour and pathos. The Jewish bits, played out so well by John Goodman, made the film an instant hit and source of many jokes amongst my Jewish friends, including bestowing the moniker, ‘The Dude’ onto one of them.
In fact, after viewing and then reviewing for professional chaplains journals, two of the other Coen brothers films, ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’, I began to see how they create films that are chock full of Biblical themes, played out by contemporary characters and situations, creating tensions between Good and Evil. Even so, I wasn’t sure this would be the case after watching the opening scene of ‘The Big Lebowski: The Dude, clad in bathrobe and sandals, is scanning the dairy case and then gulping from a carton of half-and-half; upon his arrival home, after paying 69 cents with a check for the opened milker, two thugs repeatedly flush his head into his filthy toilet. But, I was tickled by the characters, and viewed the whole film.
This time around, I was delighted: themes popped out as the opening credits rolled, along with the tune of ”Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds’ and a blissfully winsome tumbleweed obeying whimsies of breeze taking us with it over the foothills of Los Angeles, into the basin, and finally the surf of the Pacific Ocean. Then, we see Jeff Bridges, The Dude, standing in the dairy aisle as before, but now I saw what the director and camera wanted us to see: A tall, contemplative man, in sandals and a robe, bearded, with flowing, shoulder-length honey-coloured hair. A bright halo cast by the overhead lights surround him, and he has the resigned look of someone who carries a great burden on his shoulders.
The film plays out as a series of challenges to the integrity of The Dude; he is consistent and adamant that he is The Dude and nothing will change that, not for anyone, not for any reason. As a result of his resistance to mould himself to others’ needs, he, and often his car, are the recipients of threats, rage, violent acts, and meanness, often meant for others.
The Dude sustains himself on White Russian cocktails (hence the need for the visit to the dairy aisle to buy half-and-half) and ‘doobies’ a.k.a. marijuana joints: what drives him forward and gives purpose to his life is a passionate obsession for bowling. But, as a target and receptacle of the violence, fears and pain of others, he serves a larger purpose: the one constant in their lives that people can reliably turn to, no matter what is thrown at him.
Thus, the tumbling tumbleweed rolls on. A familiarly mustachioed cowpoke in a ten-gallon hat wraps up the story, leaving us with the comfort of knowing that ‘The Dude Lives’, if we ever need him.
Here’s how this gay film, a fantasy romp through vignettes of our rumpled, unemployed, alcoholic doper, fits into this sacred season of reflection and renewal.
The plot is set as the rumpled Dude leaves the dairy aisle for his bungalow, and two men jump him and begin flushing his head into his filthy toilet and then urinate on his prized oriental rug in order to get him to reveal where he his hidden some large sum of money that his ‘wife’ stole. His bowling buddies figure out that there is a very rich man, also named Jeff Lebowski in town, whom The Dude was mistaken for. The Dude visits this ‘Big’ Jeff Lebowski in order to get compensation for his ruined oriental rug. The Dude identifies himself as ‘The Dude’ and not by his birth name and steadfastly insists this who he is, and not anyone else, echoing the Ineffable/God’s self-defining name, “I Am That I Am” of the Bible. Capable of seeing others only through corporate-coloured lenses, the Big Lebowski then asks what kind of work The Dude does. The answer, that he is not employed, sends the Big Lebowski exploding into a rant, pummelling him with the epithet of ‘bum’ and yelling, “Bums will always lose. Go get a job!”
So, I began to see where we go wrong for ourselves. More often than not, we allow others to control and define who we are: our employers, our families, social media, our faith communities. And, there is good reason for letting them: these people whom we allow to exert control, due to their wealth, or social status, or titles conferred upon them, can be so frightened of our autonomy that they become violent and threatening and suggest doomsday scenarios of hell, poverty, and loneliness, if we don’t comply.
Our new role model, the Dude, likes himself, and isn’t put off by the so-called consequences of doing so. He likes the life he has created: bowling, White Russians, smoking dope, bungalow in L.A., a car that runs, and his bowling friends. No pets or spouse or dependants; just himself. Yet, others keep trying to destroy that, by urinating on his favourite rug, calling him a bum and a loser, abusing his car, taking him for a patsy in their schemes. His dream of winning in the bowling league championships are deflated when his PTSD-driven, violent, gun-waving friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) says he won’t play if it’s on a Saturday because he is ‘Shomer Shabbos‘. Friends alternate between sabotaging his plans, and crying on his shoulder over their self-inflicted problems.
So, the message, much like that of TV’s Mr. Rogers, is that we can like ourselves ‘just the way we are’; but, as the Coen brothers show us, it’s just not that simple. Like the tumblin’ tumbleweed at the start of the film, even if we roll blissfully along with the breeze, untethered and unburdened, the wind is unpredictable. It takes us to and fro, over the busy highway and hopefully safely across, along the highways and suburban roads of life, and then end our rolling in the peaceful waters at the end of the land. As The Dude moves along steadfast in his centred self-hood, everyone around him is in chaos with their attachments to money, lifestyle, greed, PTSD, and fear. The Dude knows who he is. He is so appealing to others because of that.
People are always seeking someone who will be their rock of integrity, someone they can rely upon when they are afraid or hurting, such as a friend, counsellor, or religious figure. Others suss out self-knowing dudes, those bums whom they cannot control, in order to snuff them out. Either way, the destructive obsessions of others always seem to be redirected toward and absorbed by The Dude. Somehow, he finds ways to roll with it all and continues to be who he steadfastly is.
In watching this, it occurred to me that this is what we can choose to work towards in the New Year, the release from those attachments that tie us down and cause us to succumb to the inevitable and inescapable good and bad things in life. You may see The Dude as a bum and a loser who copes with booze and dope, like the Big Lebowski did. Yet, we do find out in the end that the legless, self-made philanthropist Big Lebowski is actually a common thieving embezzler and crook. You may be affronted by The Dude’s booze and drugs as escapism. Okay. Choose other ways of sustaining yourself beside these, such as learning how to set boundaries to keep unwanted intrusions by people and events out so that you can maintain who you feel most comfortable and complete being.
The hard part, though, is knowing and believing in who you are. That comes first. How do we do that? Is there a guidebook, a map. You’ve been told to do this before: ya-da ya-da ya-da, you say, yet another New Age simple-minded, empty meme, to Be Yourself.
You do already know what to do, though. Not only hear, but heed, the little voice inside that says, “this is really you, do it” when opportunities unfold. The more often you heed rather than out-think the call, the easier it becomes. Find others who share and value being and becoming themself, too; and bring them into your social or self-growth circle; look for things that are attractive to you, such as oboe playing is for me.
At this time of reviewing the past year or years, and reflecting on what you liked or didn’t like, what you succeeded at and how you fell short, perhaps there is some virtue in considering once again, the benefits and risks of being your self. Yes, there is work and a price that comes with being yourself. But, can you really ever be someone else?
Wishing You and Yours the Best of the Autumn Season and New Year…Susan
When we think about disability, or any concept for that matter, it is from our own personal experience and perspective. For most people, that would be as an able person whose knowledge will come from others. Those others we learn from may or may not be people living as dis-abled persons. My experience of growing up as an able person, becoming an adult living with disability, and then recovering (more or less – now I’ve become a Senior Citizen!) has allowed me to see and speak from both an abled and disabled perspective.
It has also allowed me to be that much more fully present with people of all abilities, in my role as Spiritual Care provider.
A few weeks ago, the weekly Torah readings touched upon the role of the Israelite priests in great detail. The emphasis is on how the priests are intermediaries between the people and God and therefore must be free of blemish, as well as abide by certain codes of dress and spiritual focus. In the context of their era and locale, it was understood that whether it was the King or the Priest who stood as intermediary, they had to meet high standards. In some ancient societies, the king was required to perform feats of strength and endurance, and if he did not succeed, he was killed and replaced, believing that a weak king could, for example, cause the ceremonies to bring rain to fail, disastrous for the people as a whole.
The intermediary had to be a blemish-free vessel through which the Goodness of the Divine could flow and sustain the people, unhindered.
Of course, conceptual drift also takes place.
What was once a selection for leaders and divine intermediaries based upon observed purity from amongst a priestly or royal lineage, drifted towards and reinforcing a basic evolutionary and instinctive fear of ‘the other’.
This fear is not just a human artifact; other creatures have it, too. Think of the mating season battles that go on between pairs of horned rams, tooth-and-clawed lions, primates, spurred roosters (‘cock o’the walk’), the winner being the one who will sire the most vigorous offspring. Imperfect flowers may not succeed in becoming pollinated, and a queen bee emanating the wrong pheromone to her workers will be torn to bits and replaced by them.
Conceptual drifts can lose their anchoring connection with Torah and bring in their wake other disasters, as well. People who have nothing to do with priestly duties, and are different in appearance, are often shunned if not at least marginalized: they may appear different due to a dis-ability; or due to a heritage or racial difference. I think of the excuses for genocide that targets ‘others’ over the ages, such as the Nazi quest for ‘Aryan Purity’.
Social Darwinism in the 1920′ and ’30’s spawned the eugenics movement in the United States, which focused on eliminating undesirable traits from the population. Proponents of the eugenics movement reasoned the best way to do this was by preventing “unfit” individuals from having children. During the first part of the twentieth century, 32 U.S. states passed laws that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 64,000 Americans including immigrants, people of color, unmarried mothers and the mentally ill.*
When we read in our sacred texts, “Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm;…” we see how qualified and specific the instruction is, as to what and when the limitations are to be applied.
This is not a global condemnation of people who are ‘other’ or different: it is a specific and limited separation, bound by time and duty. Outside of these parameters, differences are not a limiting factor. In Torah, Aaron’s offspring could be High Priests regardless of physical differences, with a wide range of duties they could perform.
I do hope this brief discourse sparks new ideas, interest, curiosity and a desire learn more about disability, how we go about our everyday life, our beliefs, and about Torah and Jewish learning.
** Leviticus 21:17-23
I woke up at 3:50am today.
It was a dusky time, before dawn, cloud cover shadowing any light emanations from either the sun or moon, and I opened my windows to let in some night-freshened air. The familiar sounds of birds entered the windows, wafting and then entwining with the dewy fresh air. Familiar birds, Robins, House Sparrows and Finches. They were familiar, yet not so familiar. I hadn’t heard them in a long, long time.
Over the months that have become a year and a half in my current home, I’ve kept the windows shut: it’s noisy outside, with Yonge St traffic on one side and the whirring of rooftop HVAC systems on the other. Then there’s the dirt and dust that these mechanical urban denizens kick up and into everything. And then there’s the smell, usually awful, of a neighbouring apartment dweller’s cooking, coming from their kitchen vent, so conveniently located just below my most accessible window.
But this morning, this so very early morning, there were almost no vehicles on Yonge St and no one cooking next door. There was just me and the birds and the fresh air. It brought me back to an earlier time, my adolescence, when I was a Wildlife Biology student and would relish the opportunity to get up so early to go out birdwatching. And, so I did.
As I pulled off my nightgown and put on the simplest of pants, a wool t-shirt, and moccasins, a song floated into my ears, filling in and smoothing the gaps between bird chirps. It was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’:
The birds they sang
At the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
It was so very fitting. Usually, these musical ‘earworms’ of mine have a message, so I allowed it to meld with the actual birds calling in the growing dawn outside with the memories of how I once used to prepare for birdwatching, the wee hours of the morning portending auspicious and precious and sacred encounters out-of-doors.
I was so very surprised at how fast I was ready to go. These days, it could take me a half an hour to get ready just to go out and get a can of cat food and loaf of bread from down the street. Instead, there I was, all dressed, my nice lightweight monocular around my neck and clipped to the pocket of my waxed cotton down-filled jacket. Off I went.
The song now wafted along with me, in the background of my mind. What was Leonard Cohen singing about? While preparing my Leonard Cohen lectures, I recalled seeing a photo of him looking fondly out a window, trees and shrubbery just visible on the periphery of the frame. Was he listening to the birds that had inspired this song one morning, early? I understood the song so much better now.
Birds appear a few times in the Torah, performing a variety of duties and awakening the imagination to the lesson being shown by them. Most of us are familiar with the dove that was released from the Ark in order to see if the flood waters had receded enough to go out onto the dry land. Different birds are released, one being a Raven. Eventually, a bird returns with an olive branch, evidence that there must be enough of a true peace on the land to sustain a tree and its fruit. We feel joy and relief, and understand that when one endures a real or metaphorical storm of Biblical proportions, there will be a new world opened to us.
In last week’s Torah portion, there is a sacrificial rite performed that requires two birds. It is the ritual performed when someone has recovered from צרעת tzara’at, a whitish skin affliction in humans, and also of surfaces such as walls or leather. Tzara’at is almost always cured by a spiritual transformation in the Torah, for example when Moses’ sister Miriam is afflicted after behaving in a manner that seems defiant to God, and Moses pleads אל נח רפא נה לה Please God, Heal Her Now.
The ritual signifying the end of a person’s tzara’at requires two birds. One is killed and the blood is drained into a basin with water. The second bird is released but not until after being dipped into this basin with the first bird’s blood mixed with water. When I read this, I understand that what had been is now passed away, and that what will be bears the memory and essence of that past being. There is no clean and complete break from who we once were, we are the same person, but have now been released from whatever unresolved spiritual bondage it was that had been disabling us.
How we go forth is important, too. What did Noach do when he, the most righteous man God could chose to build the Ark and assemble all the pairs of creatures to be preserved in it, finally set out into the newly washed world? He got drunk, had incestuous relations with his daughters, and resumed being who he was before the Flood.
That is one way to do this stepping out into a renewed world. Right now, we are all in our third year of pandemic. We keep releasing the Doves and Ravens, but are they bringing back signs of dry land yet? It depends upon who you ask. Some people thought there was no need for an Ark in the first place, that the coronavirus pandemic was a hoax. Others believe that their is good dry land out there, because, after all, it’s been more than two years already and it’s time to get back to enjoying life – which is a desire for dry land not supported by evidence from our communities of scientific scouts.
In fact, the first day the mask mandate was lifted here in Ontario, I went out to buy a pair of walking shoes and had to drop everything and run out of the store because two people came in, wearing no masks, stood right next to the bench where I was trying on shoes, and one of them began coughing and not even attempting to cover her mouth. Just like the old days, before the pandemic. Those halcyon days, when you could cough anyway you wanted to, and never bothered to wash your hands unless they looked dirty.
We all do want to be released, if we’ve managed to stay afloat and aboard this great Ark of the Pandemic. But a few things need to happen: we need good evidence that the land is good and dry. And, we need to carry some of the essence of who we were before the Pandemic, so that we can be reminded of how to leave behind beliefs and behaviours that didn’t serve us well, and move forward.
Recently, I’ve had some conversations with friends and professional peers, where the word ‘wisdom’ has come up….
…our discussions often include the big topic of how to navigate what lies ahead as the pandemic shifts and moves forward; indeed, none of us has lived through any extended world disruption as has been caused by this current global pandemic.
We speak of our personal lives and compare how we are doing. I am doing fine, all things considered. With my own paradigm shift, brought about by a relocation to a new city in 2020, just as the pandemic hit Canada and extended sheltering at home ensued, there were no precedents of a life with former habits to compare with. Being newly settled, I had no former routines, such as favourite restaurants, school or work, or ways of making ends meet that might be disrupted; and my housing was safe and secure.
From the picture windows in my home, these days I watch life go on outside. Cars drive past, people walk dogs, meet and dine at picnic tables across the street in the park (even when it’s -10ºC), squirrels chase each other and fight over buried acorns or partners; the sun rises behind me, beautiful sunsets fill my afternoon picture window, rivers of clouds pass over, and winds blow and the moon passes through its phases – all in good order.
But, the news headlines give quite a different story. One recurrent theme is that there is a Mental Health Crisis. Attributed to the pandemic and reiterated as if a breaking story, the almost inescapable exposés and interviews focus on people struggling to live and attend school and work from home, often in close quarters, without their former ways of physically distancing themselves. Stories of lost income due to jobs that have evaporated, of small businesses having to shut down, of people not being able to pay rent, and of evictions.
We get media ‘feel good’ stories, too. There is the young man who makes air filter systems for homebound senior citizens, the young woman who goes for brisk walks in the -20ºC weather and gleefully tells everyone to get out and enjoy the weather, and volunteers manning vaccination clinics.
Reports of systemic stress include the curtailing of health care services. Elective surgeries, necessary cancer care, and even care for COVID patients are being portioned out and triaged or postponed. The high costs and impairment of health care systems are the result of health care systems not designed for the huge influx of acutely ill patients. This is also driven along by the high rate of front line health care workers who are unable to work, losses due to their becoming ill, burnout, and being attracted to less risky, more predictable jobs.
People express their angst in various ways. One person, who went to the local emergency department in their community with an infection, found a 3-hour wait just to see a triage nurse, let alone get into a queue to see a doctor. They told me they went home and treated it with a poultice recipe recalled from childhood, declaring: “We’ve gone back to Medieval times! We’re replacing medical care with folkways and home remedies!”
Other people reactivate and share their own fears: hording is particularly popular. When the announcements began about the Omicron variant, one person’s reaction was, “We’re going to run out of toilet paper, people are going to horde again, better stock up.”
Young people are particularly hit hard. I know many are doing very well, but even in my small world, I experience other who are not – acting out, with hair triggers on their rage. I consider myself a mild-mannered senior citizen, but when I take a walk and a woman half my age and twice my size shoulder checks me as she passes by on the sidewalk and then chases me, shouting, “You punched me! You just punched me!”, I have to attribute it to an unmet need to blame someone for something, no matter who or what it is. The young man living upstairs from me has taken to stomping around and slamming drawers and doors so hard that my dishes and windows rattle, as if having temper tantrums throughout the day. And then there was the woman lurking about in an underground parking garage who ran up to my car screaming, “You are a white racist, get out of here! Just because you’re white and I’m brown doesn’t mean you can park wherever you want to!”
We look to our leaders, whether politicians or high ranking medical advisors, for their expertise and guidance and regulations that should protect us from the virus and all the chaos that it causes. Sadly, many of them are becoming stymied by the ongoing modulations of virus behaviour, and hence it seems we are hearing inconsistent or vague predictions or mandates. Beyond these public appearances beginning to lose their appeal and caché, they seem to provide no clear path to follow, as if we are now in the midst of the jungle, armed only with a machete to chop out a path; if we only knew which way to chop.
And, how will we know? How will we know locally, regionally, nationally, globally, or personally, what the correct path is? And, will it be the same path for all?
Perhaps the Torah can show us how to navigate and move forward.
This Shabbat, from parashat Yitro (Jethro) in the Book of Exodus, we read of an important conversation between Moses and his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro).
In this section, Yitro pulls aside Moses, who is still the single and primary leader and guide for all of the Israelites, and gives him some sage advice. Yitro himself is a minister or priest of the Midian people, so his acumen as a spiritual leader is well-established. He has observed how being a singular figure for such a multitude is becoming an untenable role for Moses. Yitro is also aware of his own foresight, seeing what trouble will be lying ahead if this keeps up. Yitro comes from his place of background and silence, and now steps up, saying to Moses,
“You will surely become worn out – you as well as this people that is with you – for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone.”
Yitro takes further action, going beyond simply telling or retelling this headline news: his wisdom tells him it is time to give advice to Moses, based upon learned knowledge and insight. Yitro keeps it simple and direct: delegate out responsibilities. He also gives Moses a road map, and lays out the qualities for the people who Moses should choose: accomplished, God-fearing, truthful, and despising of money. These chosen representatives will be assigned locally, regionally, nationally, to settle minor disputes; major disputes will be brought to Moses to resolve.
The particulars of creating a tiered judicial system may not the exact situation relevant to how to navigate our modern pandemic. What is relevant, though, is the harkening to wisdom we are shown in this story.
First, Yitro must make up his mind, that although he is a foreigner, and a father-in-law and not Moses’ father, it is time for him to speak up. But, he does not speak meekly or in euphemisms, or offer vague suggestions, or fall flat as one of many opinions that Moses hears every day from his stiff-necked crowd of lost Israelites. Instead, Torah sets the tone by telling us that Yitro is a minister, a person of insight, of wisdom, one who knows how to apply insight for the good of others as well as themself and for those close to him.
Not everyone wears a mantle of priesthood, as Yitro did. However, we all do have our gifts or talents or abilities, and hopefully we know what they are, and which ones we do not have. This is part of personal growth. It is also the beginning of assuming wisdom. As we grow older, we leave behind the youthful and folly days of testing ourselves and others; elders have come a long way, have overcome and survived challenges, and discerned patterns of how the world works. It is our duty, as we grow and become elders, to impart this learned and processed knowledge to our offspring and future generations.
Sometimes we accept the belief that only those wearing a mantle of authority – ministers, artists, chiefs, pols and elders – have all the answers. But the truth is, Wisdom is not reserved for specially set apart or elevated experts.
It can affect mental health and self-confidence to believe that only others have the answers. When others’ views are so vague or indecisive or downright contradictory, we can filter and glean from them what works best for ourselves. Rather than feeling as if a bug stuck on a pin, swirling and twirling, gnawing and thrashing around and at others, we can trust in ourselves to grow and find novel solutions that we can live with.
Perhaps this is the time to be Yitro, or to be Moses. You know who you are in this story.
If you are Yitro and have deep insight and have navigated life’s challenges successfully, speak up, share your wisdom with others: your children, the merchant whose shelves are almost empty, in simple ways when you are out, in conversation with people you care about.
If you are Moses, accept wise counsel when you are overwhelmed, or about to become overwhelmed. Delegate your burdens to people you trust and who have navigated challenges well in the past. Take time to reflect and recall who those good people are and were in your life. This recollection of good influences, in and of itself, can open up a pathway through the jungle.
The Israelites of old didn’t have a road map, either. Thankfully, we have their legacy, through stories such as the conversation between Yitro and Moses, in the Torah.
**Just added to my Event Calendar: “There is a Crack in Everything: Leonard Cohen’s Poetry of the Soul”
Welcome! You may be thinking that this will be a discourse or d’rasha, about Jews and Music…
Or, This post is going to be about the musical, ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat;
or that it’s about Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry;
it kinda makes sense, too, that this little d’rasha might be about Jews and Music because I’m Jewish and a musician.
But, as always, we’ll go a bit deeper…
In the last several weeks’ Torah readings we read about Joseph’s long saga, from being sold into slavery as a visionary youth, to being reunited with his father, Jacob. Jacob, long ago, had been told by his other sons, that Joseph was dead, torn apart by beasts. In Truth, though, we know that Joseph had been thrown into a pit by his brothers to die, and then they spared his life and sold him as a slave to a passing caravan.
And, we know from the Torah readings of the past few weeks, that despite enduring one of the worst sorts of familial deception, which leads to a life filled with other treacheries and deprivations; in the end, it all comes out okay for Joseph and his family.
- Joseph becomes the most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh;
- Joseph, the beloved son, is reunited with his father and embraces his brothers
- There is prosperity and expansion for the Hebrews of Goshen
So, It’s all good, and that could be the end of this presentation: right??
That is because the Big Thing that I have learned over the years, the Big Thing to love about studying Torah, is how the stories in it are your stories and mine, too.
So, How is that? How could I, a Modern Day, Single, Jewish, Female, Senior Citizen, ever relate to the story of a Young, Impetuous, Man, from the days of Ancient Patriarchy, named Joseph? or to his brothers’ stories, or his father’s? After all, there are a few seemingly irreconcilable differences between myself and these characters in this story. So, here’s how:
~~Here is a way of finding personal lessons and wisdom from the Torah; it works, for me, and maybe for you, too~~
First, let’s think about so-called ‘Wisdom’ stories or texts, from any culture, and think about how far back they originated. Here are a few examples to get you started: the I Ching, Bhagavad Gita, Koran, Australian Aboriginal Creation/Dreaming Stories, Native American traditional knowledge, Egyptian Book of the Dead….
Why do humans make these sort of stories, ones that are passed down for generations, from times well before writing began that have lasted for long afterwards? Because Sages, those people of great insight who have the gifts of being able to integrate what they
personally experience and observe with what they know and have been taught, and who have a deeply ingrained commitment or sense of purpose to preserve these lessons learned from the triumphs and follies of human experience so they will be available for future generations to learn from. By creating guidebooks, including the Torah, these wise people gave their generous gifts of love, compassion, and caring to us, their offspring, so that we could have them to guide us on our journeys, too.
Sometimes these books of wisdom, including Torah, can be hard to learn from. They are generally written in a poetic or mythological voice, often as metaphor and not as exact stories with exact lessons about exact people. This imprecision thus makes it possible for a Single, Female, Senior Citizen of modern day Toronto to see herself as Joseph in the Torah stories as much as a Young Adult Man could. In fact, being lost in the exactness of the characters–such as their gender, age, or ethnicity–removes the universal lessons that our elder sages so carefully prepared for us.
So, with that in mind, with the invitation to put yourself into the heart and mind of each of the characters of the Joseph story, let us continue!
We are introduced to a person named Joseph, who from the start of his life is different from everyone else. He has visions and presence that are real to him and his father, Jacob; but only pose a grave threat and create fear in his brothers. Jacob also nurtures Joseph differently from his brothers, and in a way that is appropriate to Joseph’s outstanding gifts of foresight and intelligence. However, his siblings only see a pompous brother who receives favouring. Their fear of Joseph fuels a cruelty beyond mere sibling rivalry and competition for parental attention: Joseph is disposed of, abandoned, but not killed outright.
For the next several decades of his life, Joseph will learn use his abilities and gifts over and over again, as we all try to do with ours, in order to survive. And, in addition, Joseph must also must learn how to use his great gifts in ways so they are no longer harmful to himself. His work is to learn how to let his visionary Truths shine, so that he can lead his siblings and family through famines to prosperity and become reunited as a stronger and more concordant family clan.
And living fully in your story or Truth is your work, and my work, too. This is the story of our lives.
I mentioned universal cultural stories. Here are a few that are parallel sagas to our Joseph story:
- Gilgamesh, the very earliest found full saga. About a youth who goes out into the world, meets life-threatening challenges, sorrowfully kills the thing he loves most, and returns home. Home is the same: it is Gilgamesh who is now changed.
- The South American book of shamanic wisdom, The Four Agreements, teaches us how we are born with our Truth intact, and that we are pressured to lose our natural self and become like everyone else through cultural ‘domestication’.
- Fred (Mr.) Rogers, who told children and parents for years, “I like you just the way you are”.
- The Native American cautionary tale of the Stick, Corn, and Mud people. The Stick people support the Corn people as they grow; but, if the Corn person grows too much toward the sky (think of the young Joseph’s dreams), the Stick people who supported them will pull away, and the spindly Corn person will fall and become mired down in the Mud.
- Then there is the story of the young Chinese Kung-Fu student who keeps asking his Master when he will be granted the honour of becoming a Master—and the Master answers by handing the student yet more stones to haul.
- And, as promised, here is Leonard Cohen:
In so many varieties of ways, Leonard Cohen tells us that our purpose is to keep peeling away the veils and layers that hide our personal Truth. That our mission is always visible, yet we find ways to evade it. In his Poem/Song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep” (listen here: https://youtu.be/netfyjdNBrU) he tells us:
The ponies run, the girls are young
The odds are there to beat
You win a while and then it’s done
Your little winning streak
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep
I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed
I’m back on boogie street
You lose your grip and then you slip
Into the masterpiece
And maybe I had miles to drive
And promises to keep
You ditch it all to stay alive
A thousand kisses deep
And sometimes when the night is slow
The wretched and the meek
We gather up our hearts and go
A thousand kisses deep…**
We have indeed, just so much time apportioned to us. Those things which are most deeply entrenched and always with us, are our enduring personal, real, Truth. Cohen explains how things go our way for a while, “the ponies run, the girls are young…You win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak”. But our mission, however clumsy or challenging, is enduring–
is always there for us to master. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live your life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Does Joseph live his life ‘a thousand kisses deep’? Let’s find out.
At so many turns, Joseph could have made the expected decisions of one who has become ‘domesticated’ or succumbed to societal expectations, such as: avoiding harm from his brothers by keeping his dreams and special multicoloured coat hidden; or partnering with Potiphor’s seductive wife, making them the ultimate ancient Egyptian ‘power-couple’; he could have not revealed who he was when his brothers came to Egypt during the famine; he could also have wrought revenge and had them all executed.
But, he did not. He was a visionary and knew that there was a further destiny he had to strive towards, ‘the summon’ as Leonard Cohen would say, to deal with the ‘invincible defeat’ of who he really was and what he needed to do. Choosing to be this way, overcoming defeat by choosing his invincible nature, brought him to a new relationship with his family, one that was as correct and fulfilling as ‘a thousand kisses deep’. Our duty, according to this Joseph story, is to know that immediate victories are temporary, and those tough things about ourselves that we are willing to embrace and struggle with, engage us as deeply as the most real and passionate experience of being.
Life is full of distractions, and like everyone else, I have many! if I allowed them, distractions could take over and control all the hours and days of my life: all the many online sales with demands to buy now!; staying on top of financial and home upkeep while the pandemic weaves uncertainty into everything; navigating family and friendships; maintaining the health and wellbeing of myself and my two rescue cats; navigating the complexity of my urban environs. The list of daily tasks seems to goes on and on. And each time, before embarking on any of these items, I pause and think of the Joseph story.
Like Joseph, I have been living out a long saga that has taken me to far off places and yet still know what drives me forward; it is not the daily temptations and distractions. I have other plans: to produce writing and music. One of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who, in addition to his work at JTS, was a congregational Cantor and music composer. He told me, “If I have to stay up until 2am to get my piece written, I will. It is my responsibility and no one else’s; otherwise, it won’t get done”. I hear in his words a Joseph, doing whatever it takes to not lose the most important part of his life’s work, while living his life.
The more important work for each of us is not laid out neatly elsewhere. And the life lessons of the Joseph saga are not limited to those who are chosen for world changing missions, or are visionary, or brilliant, or male. I see the life lessons of the Joseph saga as a template for each and every one of us: how we navigate the times when we come home to ourselves: giving birth, saying goodbye to loved ones, discovering our own mortality, times of questioning and hesitation.
Go home or to your study today, and understanding this, re-read the Joseph story. Think of steps taken in your past, present or future as a parallel to how Joseph moves through his. What distractions have popped up that throw you into a pit, what job or title or too-good-to-be-true bargains have seduced you. Which of these put you into a prison, put you up on a pedestal, or allowed you to be you? And, most important, take time to remember and draw closer and more intimate with your more enduring self, the one who you knew you were, right from your earliest recollections.
If you don’t have a strong recall or sense yet, be patient. Make room for your stories by going for a walk, window shopping, a long drive in the countryside, meditating, writing a poem or prayer.
For us, the lesson is about staying the course when disruptions arise, whatever form they take. This is the lesson of Joseph, Leonard Cohen, and You.
*Full text of my D’var Torah, presented to Temple Emanu-El on Shabbat 11 December 2021, Toronto, Canada
The other night I was returning home from orchestra rehearsal. We’d had a good time together, and my energy was high and light; it was our final rehearsal before an upcoming recording session for next week.
It’s an interesting group, a traditional Chinese orchestra, with strings Pipa, Zheng and Erhu; winds Sheng and Suona, and of course the Dizi wooden flutes.
I fit in somewhere with my Western oboe, and there are cellos and double basses, too. The percussion section is a busy kitchen with all sorts of drums, chimes, gongs and cymbals.
Our music is both traditional Chinese compositions, such as ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, and also some world music. For example, we’ll be recording two Uighur pieces, ‘Alamuhan’ and ‘Dance of the Youth’. The music is all upbeat, yet has movements that express such deep pathos via the soothing warm tones of the strings and Sheng, echoed by the crying call of the wooden flutes and now also with the deeper, evocative oboe voice. You can see some of our corps in rehearsal at the Toronto Chinese Orchestra’s FaceBook page .
So, with the floating melodies of Erhu drifting me back to my truck, and the light snow falling, I headed home. Or, so I thought.
My first stop was for a snack. It was almost 10:30pm and stopping at the local Chinese supermarket after rehearsal to peruse the arrays of colourful packages along the aisles in the brightly lit market adds to my already gay feelings from the music we’d just played together.
I picked out two packages after carefully reading the ingredients, and after the checkout process, brought them neatly into my truck and opened them for noshing on the 25 minute drive home. The snow still swirled a bit, but I was glad to be on my way home to see my two cats and watch a bit of TV (usually a ‘Matlock’ rerun) before going to bed.
My GPS app got me as far as the on ramp to the highway heading west. It was closed! Darn. My app wouldn’t register the closure, and instructed me to drive in what ended up being a 360º circle back to the same on ramp. The funny thing was, I was part of a pride of other drivers who were taking the same circular route, likely given by their various GPS apps.
The joy of the rehearsal kept me feeling upbeat and positive. I tried to report the closure to my app again with no success, but this time it told me to get onto the highway and drive east. I obeyed. Oops, when it instructed me to get off, it took me to another westbound on ramp–which was also closed. Oh Snap!
I began to eat the snack more voraciously, and decided to take a timeout to fill my gas tank up. It’s a good idea to keep the tank more than half-full in sub-freezing temperatures. After negotiating all the various reward and payment cards and agreeing to a pre-payment amount, my truck tank was filled and I felt more focused on how to get home. You see, Toronto has never-ending construction–and also keeps its decisions about road closures a well-kept secret. Highway 401 Westbound was closed for the night where I needed to get on.
Now some detour signs appeared. I guess those went up while I was getting fuel.
I dutifully followed the signs. There were so many detour routes to choose from! D-6, D-9, D-11, D-14, D-16. Which would you choose? The signs were tiny and didn’t say what the difference was. After 3 times around the same loop and finding myself back at the same closed on ramp, I tried D-14 and finally ended up at the Don Valley Parkway, and on my way home. My 25 minute happy drive took 2 hours! and I was still happy.
Our rehearsal music and good cheer carried along through all the twists and turns; the route was so much like our music: happy to find the onramp; dark feelings when it was closed; then tentativeness as I followed the detour signs into unknown and not well lit parts of the city’s outskirts. Then joy at seeing other cars merging towards an onramp; and sadness that it, too, was closed. The final dash home to the finale–I’d picked the correct detour route, and joyfully cruised familiar highway home.
Music is created to tell us what life is like. I would have felt strange and alone, dissociated from the reality and familiarity of how the roads normally work, but the music and companionship of the rehearsal informed me that this is how life is, and the more we play in it together, the better it gets.
Recently, I was in a discussion about how to greet new people when they enter a faith community. I was told that here in Toronto, no one invites strangers to their homes and that the onus of invitations is on the newcomer. It begged the question: how does one feel welcomed and stop being a stranger?
As Jews, we are commanded, urged, and reminded frequently in our sacred texts and liturgies to welcome the stranger, because we once were strangers in a strange land (Egypt). And, we know what happened to our Hebrew ancestors when they were treated like strangers–400 years of enslavement. It doesn’t say anywhere that certain geographic locations are exempt from this duty.
My experience of impersonal treatment of drivers on my journey home, by closing a major highway with no signs, and then confusing ones, is one way a city can cultivate feelings of alienation and being unwelcomed. Some unidentified, hidden, civic body made the decision to close the highway without consideration to avoid leaving drivers in the lurch to fend for themselves. Or, maybe it did advertise the closure to media outlets known only to already entrenched Toronto denizens (found it now on Twitter!)
Especially during these days of pandemic, doing acts that allow others to feel seen and valued keeps our human societies afloat. The ‘each person for themself’ mentality, or the more insidious ‘I got away with it’ culture we find ourselves in, is being tested by none other than a microscopic coronavirus. Keeping each other in the dark, hoarding, and leaving new settlers to wander aimlessly contributes to the at-times chaotic manner with which we as a society make our decisions about how to navigate forward into the unknown resolution of living with the ongoing pandemic.
We don’t have to break our commitments to safety to be together. There are amazing new and revamped media platforms for staying connected with those we already know and love, and for bringing in those who we don’t yet know well, and who could be enriching our lives.
A new Pharaoh arose in Egypt after Joseph was gone, and what did he say? “Who is this Joseph? I don’t know any Joseph”. Will that be you? how will you navigate the famine-like path that takes away those things that used to feed you and I: the restaurant meals, travel, or going out to concerts films and plays? or the new supply chain shortages and the eroding of peoples’ patience in general as we face waning vaccine immunity and new virus variants of concern? Will you end up with a closed heart that leads to disaster, as Pharaoh had; or be guided by the wisdom inside haunting melodies, transcend popular myth, and take the trip home–together.
At this time of Chanukah, as the shortening of days swings back into lengthening hours of daylight, we can choose also to leave behind darkening trends that don’t serve us well, and rededicate to the light and wisdom of new personal and social paradigms.
Last week’s Torah portion, called Parashat Vayera in Hebrew, has a full and long story arc that spans from
the three guests who visit Abraham as he heals from his brit milah, or ritual circumcision, to the story of Abraham binding his son Isaac as a sacrifice, known in Hebrew as the Akedah.
Today, let’s look at the story of the Akedah, as this is a story with so many levels of interpretation, each of which provide us with rich opportunities for reflection and personal growth.
The story begins with a foreshadowing: that after surmounting several obstacles along his sojourn the the unknown land that God has promised Abraham, it is written that God tested Abraham. Hadn’t Abraham already been tested? hadn’t he already heeded the formless Voice and left behind all that he’d ever known to go forward to an unknown land; argued with God over the merits of redeeming at least some inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah; engaged his wits to gain passage through a dangerous land for a second time; become the father of Isaac with Sarah, both in their old age; and expelled his other son and concubine in order to please Sarah and establish her offspring as Abraham’s lineage? All this has already happened in Vayera. So, what new test could God have in mind?
The narrative of story line is one level of reading Torah, and it is rich with family dynamics, geography, foreign cultures, and heavenly beings and conversations.
Another level is how does the story fit into the overall picture of events. In other words, how does one event relate to the previous or the next one? do we see how they are related, and what do we learn about how events in our lives are more than random events?
In some Torah study traditions, there are two more levels with which to read the text. These would be: how we see the wisdom in each story teaching us lessons; and the fourth is to experience the ineffable and mystery contained in the story.
Let’s stay now with the third level in our Torah parashah, the level of finding wisdom, inspiration and insight. And let’s narrow our focus on just the vignette or drama of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac by Abraham, as a sacrifice.
First of all, what was God thinking here?
The Hebrew text reads: וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם
which translates, “and God tested Abraham”.
Okay, a test! But we do not know anything more than what is written. We do know what tests are, though. They are a way to see if you are staying engaged and on track, whether it is in your math class or a relationship. And we do know that as Abraham follows the instructions he received earlier, to leave behind the place he’s always known, he encounters many challenges. He endeavours to stay on track and engage with God through listening and discussion.
Think about your relationships, and which ones last, and which ones don’t. We often hear that relationships require work. But unlike our math class, we don’t have an instruction book for that.
P We observe how trusting in an inner call to action, such as Abraham heeding God’s Voice telling to leave everything behind and go forth with Sarah; taking risks by speaking one’s truth, even to God; engaging with a conflict to its resolution (Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom or Sarah laughing at the angels’ promise that she will conceive); can lead to fulfillment of promises, such as the miraculous birth of Isaac when Sarah is in her nineties.
These elements of risk-taking in a relationship bring Abraham, Sarah, and God closer. But God has one last and most risky test of character and commitment left for Abraham.
In the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, God now calls for the beloved son of the couple’s old age, Isaac, to be brought to a mountain top to be slaughtered on an altar as if he were a sacrificial animal. Besides being a ghastly request, God is actually calling Abraham to do just what the other peoples, such as Moloch worshippers, whom he’d left behind in his ancestral home, would do for their idols and gods: put their own children upon altars, as sacrifices.
In this strange and unique splitting off and separation of Abraham from all the other idolatrous peoples, God first instructs him to do just what these child-sacrificing peoples do:
“Take your son, your favoured one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”
The drama mounts as the father and son ascend to the place in the heights, punctuated by the pathos of scenes such as Isaac seeing only the kindling wood, and asking his father where the sheep is for the burnt offering. And further, without having actually been told this, Abraham tells him, “God will see to the burnt offering, my son”.
Where are you now? On the edge of your seat? I am! As my grandmother Dot z”l would say of such stories in the Torah, “…and what a great plot!”
Pause for a moment. Ask yourself what pulls you personally into this drama.
We will all have different answers to that question. Perhaps you are scared for poor Isaac, or feel rage at Abraham. Perhaps you are analyzing what sort of psychological damage could result from this threatening behaviour by a parent on their child. And why doesn’t Isaac, who by now must be an adult, go along with the perilous and confusing journey up the mountain? Or, perhaps you simply want to know how the story ends and prefer to skip all the details and who said what to whom.
Perhaps you are tapping into your own quest to understand the nature of what draws us into unknown territory, just as Abraham and Isaac do. Will Isaac/myself be killed? Will Abraham/myself actually slaughter the one thing that he/we cherish(es) most? What will happen?
We can heed the urge or impulse that moves us toward risking the unknown. We may hesitate, analyze, bargain, compromise, or ignore it altogether. We may see the danger of following an impulse as one with no guarantee of a safe outcome and balk at it. Or, the draw to risk may ignite our sense that it is the correct time for making changes and taking a new direction.
These are possibilities, and learning how and when to heed or pass on them, is our spiritual challenge.
God and Abraham have a relationship that has significant repercussions on others. Everyone is brought to the brink of destruction, to the precipice.
Isaac may die, Abraham may lose Isaac, devastate Sarah, and destroy their lives forever; and, God may lose Abraham.
Therein lies the dynamic that binds God and Abraham to this doom-laden mission. Abraham is listening–and God sees that. A ram is substituted for Isaac on the altar at the moment that Abraham raises his knife to kill him. They have all gone, with so little dialogue or discussion or analysis, to the brink together.
What was God’s test of Abraham? Certainly establishing that Abraham and Sarah have the mettle and ability to leave behind the familiar, with unshakable Faith and Trust, to navigate unknown paths which lie ahead.
What voices or calls do you heed, and by what measures can you navigate choices in your relationships?
The Jewish year is bookmarked with holidays, Holy Days, feasts, fasts, and celebrations.
Thank Goodness! Every year we know there will be Passover, Chanukkah, Tisha b’Av, and Rosh HaShanah. We can plan ahead, mark our calendars, prepare our travel plans and guest lists, and make time for personal preparation and reflection.
We also know that it is normal each year to have changes in our lives: Relationships are lost, new ones found; illnesses come and go or remain; work and finances are gained and lost; transitions to new homes, new states of health, new relationships, and new work all can happen. The unpredictability of these events does not allow them to be marked on an annual calendar in the same way as the dates for the holy days. Yet, our predictable timetable of sacred dates is related and intertwined with the natural and unpredictable unfolding of our lives.
A helpful way of explaining this intertwining comes as metaphor. Some of us best perceive concepts and ideas this way, through imagery and story. Try this:
Picture the Jewish year not moving forward as an arrow in a straight line through time, or as merely a closed circle that keeps looping around itself, but as a spiral, which both moves forward and cycles around. So, we still have our bookmarked observances that we return to, but not perpetually returning us to the same spot as we began, such as, say, in the film, “Groundhog Day”.
There are still some givens: for example, we don’t wake up on Rosh HaShanah the same person we were last year on Rosh haShanah. Looking in the mirror, you may see a few more wrinkles or grey hairs or freckles, and this may even jog your brain a bit more toward the idea that time has moved forward and you have changed.
Rosh haShanah reminds us that, before running to the phone to book Botox or hair salon appointments, try to thank the mirror for what it is showing you; that you are growing and changing. And not just on the outside, but inside, too.
This past year, the world event of the Pandemic has touched and changed the lives of everyone on the planet as a whole. So, collectively, we have all shared a life-altering experience, a sharing that is uncanny and rare. This is in addition to our normal year of personal change, and so discovering how to move forward into the New Year will have elements that are not quite the same as past years, either.
On a personal level, this past year has brought enormous change. Out of the depths of the Pandemic, came the great levelling of the social playing field for those of us who are partially or fully home-bound: Everyone became home-bound! Thanks to video conferencing platforms formerly relegated to last minute work meetings or the small pond of home-bound people who are tech-savvy, the entire world now became accessible to all through our computers and electronic devices.
Interestingly, being mostly home-bound became unnoticed and irrelevant; I could interact with people, barrier-free just like everyone else. I did things that had become too onerous over the past six years: attended synagogue and Torah study, went to concerts, played music and took music lessons, had medical appointments, and attended business meetings of all sorts–just like everyone else. No one saw my chronic illness and they would be surprised if I brought it up. Even more importantly, my self-identity as a ‘disabled senior’ changed, too; my overall health has improved with this new ability to engage with the world on par.
So, for me, life changed drastically. Thanks to the ease and abundance of telemedicine, I could have consults with doctors and other healthcare professionals that would have been impossible for me to attend prior to this past year. The same with music: I could participate in classes, made a video recording and have another lined up, took fabulous workshops and classes from such diverse places as the Metropolitan Opera, KlezKalifornia, and the International Double Reed Society. And the staying at home gave me time and energy to write and win writing awards for the past two summers. I showed up, my voice was heard, and I was a contributor alongside everyone else. And, I now am able to engage with activities outside of home once agai.
My story of successes enabled by the opening of the world during the Pandemic is not unique. I will continue to reflect upon how I and how my identity have changed. What is troubling me, though, is how we are being guided by recent news and headlines,
“Back to Normal!” “Revenge Travel” “Fully Open” “Vaccine Passports” “Welcome Back, Good to See You Again!”
While these convey the desire to you for things going ‘back the way they used to be’, certain truths are missing. Nothing goes back the way it used to be. Once you have crossed a threshold, it is crossed. All of our myths and legends and scriptures tell us that.
Think about the first saga written, about Gilgamesh, who came home to the same ramparts as when he left, yet he was no longer the lad who had left; he had overcome impossible challenges on his walkabout. Or, Moses dwelling in the desert after a soft life in the Palaces of Egypt, and when enough change in him had elapsed, he encountered the burning bush of God’s Presence. He could no longer be the common husband and shepherd.
Do we really want to go back to our habits of long rush hour commutes, wandering shopping malls, making-and-breaking-date routines, and excluding anyone who can’t keep up? Or, do we want continuity with our discovery that being outdoors and in nature is good for us, that nature needs to be protected, that our elders and the dis-abled have overcome great challenges and so are venerable role models holding valuable wisdom, and that spending time alone and in isolation away from our former distractions is how we get to know our weaknesses and our strengths.
The question here is, then: what do we gain by trying to go back to the way things used to be, what will we lose by doing so, and how have we changed?
My prayers for the New Year will include not only reflections on personal growth areas, but also discernment of ways to preserve what society has gained during this pandemic. How did my identity grow and change over the year thanks to technology, how can I support the continuation of social inclusion now that the world-at-large has developed the means to provide it, and learning how to enjoy social inclusion after many years apart from it.
Some answers will arrive in the form of the still, small, voice. And certainly, at Rosh HaShanah we can always count upon the great blasts of the Shofar to awaken and open up our ears, minds, and hearts.