Beshallah - on crossing, on complaining, and on Christian/Jewish theologies

In this parshah we have the very famous crossing of the “Red Sea” - as most people know it. Most scholars today call it the “Reed Sea.” The people are rushing away from Pharoah who decided to chase the Israelites to get them back. The commentator Ibn Ezra wonders why the people didn't turn around and fight (the numbers, we are told, are about 600,000 Israelites to 600 of Pharoahs soldiers). This is also about the “slave mentality” that the Israelites need to get rid of. Jewish interpretation of the text typically holds that the Israelites needed the wandering in the desert to slough off the slave mentality. It's not that Egypt and Israel are so far from each other (they're not) that it should take 40 years of wandering. It's that there needed to be a generation born in freedom who could find success in the “Promised Land.” This is a troubling interpretation – do we really believe some people are so badly damaged by past abuse or injustice that they cannot be redeemed? The hopeful side of this understanding of the wandering is that it has often been the case that the descendents of Jews who suffered were able to prosper. This was true of the children of those who were expelled from Spain, for example, and settled in places like Amsterdam. It is the experience of many children of Holocaust survivors. It is the experience of people who came to North America as poor immigrants and have children who are very wealthy and successful. There are all kinds of mystical associations we have for the parting of the sea. A Kabbalistic Rabbi once told me that there were not only huge walls of water on either side of the Israelites but also that on the walls of water were fruits and other things. This was to signal the ultimate majesty of God and the fact that this was in no way a “natural” occurrence but a divine miracle. This addition to the story reminds us that Jews throughout the generations have added in details like this to embellish our stories (stories usually get embellished in their retelling), and make them consistent with their theology/world view. However the seas part in the narrative, we know what happens: the Israelites make it across but as Pharoah's army follows them they are subsumed.

You would think this would lead to a period of rejoicing, but what follows is really a series of complaints from the people to Moses. Can we consider this the origin of Jewish kvetching? They've already complained that they are going to be killed by the Pharoah's army. Then they complain there is no water, so Miriam draws water from the well. But then they immediately complain of hunger, so God sends his “manna from heaven.” Still unsatisfied, they once again complain again about the lack of water. Finally, once they are no longer thirsty, they are attacked by Amalek and once again worry about war. There is an interesting pattern to these problems: war, water, hunger, water, war. The palendromic effect is also a cycle. Just as last week we had the first mention of Rosh Chodesh, reminding us of the cycle of the moon, here we are reminded that life is full of more difficult cycles as well. The text is certainly saying that the people should learn to trust that God will provide for them. Humanistic Jews can reflect on the highs and lows of human existence and draw the opposite lesson: we need to rely on ourselves and our communities to solve our problems.

Miriam becomes an important character because it is she who leads the people to water. Moses delivers the people from Egypt, but Miriam is also the salvation of the people because of this water. Many people put a “cup of Miriam” filled with water on their seder table to remember the women of the story and Miriam's contribution specifically. As the people worry about starvation, some complain to Moses that it would have been better to serve in Egypt than to starve in the wilderness. It's worth thinking about contemporary ways in which this choice is ours. Many of us “slave” at jobs that do not fulfill us for fear that otherwise we would wither/starve. What is our choice? Do we brave the unknown even when it is risky but when it may promise a better life? Again, this is what many of our families did in immigrating to lands unknown. Do we choose to remain where we are, figuring that known suffering is better than the unknown? The story makes it clear that this “slave mentality” is the wrong way of thinking. But I think we can find more compassion for people who stick with what is safe – particularly as we do not expect to be given “manna from heaven,” but know that we have to put bread on our tables ourselves. The text does challenge us, however, to take risks and to be brave in the pursuit of our own happiness.

The final incident of this parshah is Amalek's attack. His army approaches and Moses sends Joshua to build an army to fight. Moses, meanwhile, climbs up the Mount and holds his hands up. When his hands are up the Jews are winning. When he lets them fall Amalek gains the advantage. Ultimately, exhausted, his hands are held up by Joshua (the chief warrior) and Aaron so that the Jews can win the day. Jewish commentators suggest that this is either Moses channelling God, or that Moses' hands in the air are a reminder to the people about the miracles they have seen – the Reed Sea, the water, the manna, and to remember that God is on their side. This is what gives them the strength to win. Christian commentators find Christ imagery in the scene. When Moses' hands are being held up in what can be described as a “T” position, it resembles Christ on the Cross. In Christian theology, this moment unites Moses with Jesus; Moses as the deliverer of the people prefigures the messiah. It is interesting sometimes to notice that the details of the text have been used by so many competing cultures to bolster their own theologies. There is the theistic Jewish view, the Christian view, and we can also find a Humanistic view: whatever the reason Moses' hands need to be held up, it is important to note that he can't achieve his task alone. The arms being held up are a reminder that there are times in which we all need to be held, supported, bolstered by our community. Aaron was the voice for Moses and Yahweh, Joshua is good at making war, Moses is good at leading the people, but none can do their jobs without the others and without the support of their whole community behind them.

The parshah ends with a paradox. Amalek's name is never to be spoken again (his attack so brutal) yet we are to remember this moment forever. This is one of many examples in the text in which the Jews are commanded to both remember and to forget. We repeat Amalek's name to remember the incident, even though it should be blotted out. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi`s book Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory points out that there are frequent references to remembrance in the Bible. We are commanded to remember God and his promises to remember his people. The paradox of memory concerning Amalek gets used in all kinds of ways. I was recently attending a panel on Child Soldiers in Africa that mentioned this moment from Exodus. We can think of similar horrors, particularly the Holocaust, that are too horrible to remember but impossible to forget. We have a duty to remember, but trauma cannot be completely assimilated in the mind or the memory. This is a key paradox for the Jewish people as we are constantly struggling with this tension between forgetting and remembering our history.

Bo - On Reparations, on Ra, and on Rosh Chodesh

In this parshah, we have the eighth and ninth plague (locusts and darkness). The plagues are narrative signs of Yahweh's power (in the story his “wonders” are a way to convince the Egyptians that the Israelite God is more powerful than their own Gods), so that the Israelites – living in amongst “idol-worshippers” will learn to trust Yahweh. They are also signs to the Egyptians that Yahweh is powerful and his people will win the day. This is the way most religious people understand the plagues. But Humanistic Jews do not take the plagues literally and do not take them as a sign of any God's power. So what do they represent to us as literary symbols? They represent the worst of all possible horrors that could happen at that time to those people. They do represent the power of nature and its forces – even in the past few years we have been witness to terrifying and crushing natural disasters (some claim these are not so natural but brought on by climate change and therefore are human acts of devastation). It is hard to imagine freedom coming out of such horrors. And I think the plagues remind us that there are clear winners and losers in the Exodus story. Of course we celebrate that any slave might win their freedom, but it is useful to think here about the innocent Egyptians too. In any political rift there are good people who fall on the “wrong” side from the point of view of the victors and of history, and who are victims of their own leadership. It is important to feel compassion for their suffering as well. In this week's section Moses once again asks Pharoah to let the Israelites leave, and this time he replies that the men can go. Commentators suggest that Pharoah thinks that the men are not truly leaving, but are going to pray to their God outside of the city walls. But Moses makes clear that he is also going to bring the women and children too – a sign that prayer is not the objective. The Exodus is not about the ability to pray – something for which the women could (would) be excluded – but rather it is about the ability to be a people. Women become very important in this parshah for reasons which will be clear when we think about Rosh Chodesh (the new moon). God tells Moses that he is about to get the Jews out, but then there is a break in the narrative action and God tells Moses to tell the people to ask their neighbours for objects of silver and gold. There are many interesting reasons commentators offer for this. One is that these will serve as reparations for the years of slavery. Another is that by gathering the courage to ask their neighbours for gold (who may refuse, /may act violently, or may turn to violence to get the items back later), the Israelites are beginning to slough off their “slave mentality” and demand what is rightfully theirs. This is the first step in becoming a people capable of self-governance. These items will later be used to build both the Golden Calf and the Ark. Religious interpreters take this as a sign of human free will; our resources can be used for building something terrible or something beautiful. A Humanistic interpretation can draw on the same metaphor – we have the capacity to choose to be and do good or not; it is entirely in our hands.

We have an interesting mention in this parshah about how, prior to the slaying of the first born, no one would harm the Israelites and not even a dog would bark at them. Why the dogs? One reason is to suggest that the Jews were being completely protected at this time. Another interesting answer is that the writer(s) of this moment in the text were cognizant of devaluing Egyptian Gods, many of whom resembled animals, including a dog. If the dogs are on the side of the Israelites it serves as a symbol of the superiority of the Jewish God and the lack of potency of the “false” ones. This also becomes important in this parshah because it discusses Rosh Chodesh. The most powerful God in Egypt was the Sun God Ra. By emphasizing the importance of the moon, and by setting the Jewish calendar according to its rhythms, the text encourages the Israelites to move away from Egyptian sun-centred theology towards what is now Jewish theology.

This parshah contains the first biblical mention of Rosh Chodesh. God tells Moses, in the company of Aaron, that there should be a monthly celebration of the moon. Rashi notes that Aaron is present for this conversation as an honour for his help in creating the plagues. It is also important because it creates the first “Beit Din” - a model for rabbinical authority and judgments that have settled disputes Jewishly/Halachically until today. Rosh Chodesh becomes a women's holiday for many reasons, including our associations with monthly cycles. Women in many cultures are associated with the moon. Sometimes this is about the menstrual cycle. Sometimes, less flatteringly, it is because the sun gets associated with logic and the moon with a “lunatic” element that is often applied to women. What is true is that when women lived closer to nature they would cycle with the moon. The time of the “red tent” (women had to be separated from the rest of the group during menstruation) would have followed the lunar cycle. As Anita Diamant makes clear in her famous novel, the red tent can be seen as a time for women's rest, togetherness, and spiritual renewal. The mention of Rosh Chodesh here, just as the people are about to leave Egypt, also signifies renewal.

Just as the moon waxes and wanes, Jewish history is made up of the textures of exile and return, bondage and freedom. Rosh Chodesh continues to be a time to think of renewal. It is like a mini-Yom Kippur that happens each month, giving us the chance to focus on our goals, on who we want to become and what we want to accomplish in the month ahead. The Exodus story is a story of renewal and rebirth – fertility metaphors are therefore apt. The parshah ends with the terrifying tenth plague – the death of the first borns. The death of children is the ultimate signifier for destruction and death. But what follows in the story is the ultimate signifier for birth and life. Pharoah not only allows the Israelites to leave but actually casts them out. The Jews are born anew. It is the time for the rebirth and the renewal of the people.

Va-era: On exile, on El Shaddai, and on Exodus as metaphor

In Va-era most of the “magic” of the story is revealed. God creates the plagues and Egypt is terrified. Many contemporary historians, theologians, and archaeologists have tried to historicize the plagues. In spite of their efforts, it seems unlikely that all of a sudden the water turned to blood (but people claim a reddening of water through soil absorption is possible). Frogs falling from the sky have been explained through bizarre meteorological phenomena, and so on. While I can understand the desire to prove that the story is "true," it is the magic of the story that I find compelling. The book of Exodus has such incredible narrative power. The Exodus story leaves no historical/archaeological evidence. What it leaves is an extremely important story that serves as the cornerstone of Jewish culture. And the way this story has lasted is through its exceptional plot devices – such as the plagues. What we have here is terrific creative writing – not terrific/terrifying natural/supernatural phenomena. There is a difference between “fact” and “truth” in narrative. We can learn a lot about history, for example, through reading historical fiction. Not every word must be “true” in order to capture the mood or experience of a particular historical event. While the Exodus story is not fact, it does speak a certain truth about Jewish identity. We have experienced exile and disenfranchisement, and we have also found hope and new lands that accommodate us. We have survived as individuals and as a community. The Exodus is our fundamental story – even if it is not fact, it is true to us in real ways. One of the things the narrative can tell us about history is what stories our ancestors thought would be important for the creation/sustenance of a community. This story has indeed been part of Jewish survival – the Passover seder is something that Jews around the world have practiced for millenia. This is something historical that binds us that is rooted in fact.

In this parshah the God-character refers to himself as “El Shaddai” - a name he used in Genesis when forming the covenant. Jewish scholars wanting to believe in the truth of the bible have suggested that this naming is important because here in the Exodus story we see God keeping his earlier promise to guard and proliferate the people. Again, this is not “true,” but is great literary criticism. We now have many scholars who have shown that the different names for God are part of strands of different writers of the bible that were redacted into a (mostly) coherent narrative. Again, throughout our early ancestry this story was looked at, added to, revised, and passed down. This history of narrative is a very important historical event for us as Jews, even if the story itself is not.

A friend of mine who is not Jewish once told me that her father used to read her the bible as a literary text and what bothered her most was that God hardened Pharoah's heart to prevent him from letting the people go. Why would the God, wanting his people to be free, do this? Why not let Pharoah follow his initial impulse to free the Israelites? There are many possible answers for this part of the story and I'll offer a couple that I find compelling. Maimonides suggested that Pharoah's sins were so great that God took away his ability to repent as harsh punishment. God “hardening” the Pharoah's heart was thus not specifically to block the Israelite departure but rather to show that our humanity is a reward we get from God. What I like about this is the focus on humanity as something to treasure. The Pharoah shows us how much one can suffer through one's own indifference to others. Others scholars have suggested that the Israelites would not have appreciated freedom unless its cost was high. If they had been allowed to leave easily they may not have valued the deliverance to the promised land nor the land itself. Some even suggest that the people needed to see the danger of a dictator so they would create a more open political society themselves. These all have value in terms of human lessons we can learn from the story.

The plagues all have their terrible effects on the Egyptians – and many Humanistic Jews find that we cannot celebrate the suffering of the Egyptians. There are some lovely humanistically-oriented interpretations of how the plagues would have badly affected the Israelites as well as the Egyptians – thus blurring the boundary between “us and them” in the story, and reminding us that the suffering of some should prevent the joy of all.

I wrote this commentary in Jerusalem a couple of years ago. The week of this parshah, I was standing with the women of the wall – a group of feminists who have been transgressing gender codes and praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem since 1988. They read from the Torah (for this they move – it is still illegal for women to do this at the wall), and push the boundaries of both feminism and orthodoxy. Standing at that incredibly meaningful historical and cultural site, a woman gave a lovely Dvar Torah (commentary) about how the plague of Darkness reminds us to find the light wherever we are. The oppression of women, she was saying, continues to be a plague amongst and affecting contemporary Jews. This unreasonable blindness to the necessity for equality illustrates the darkness of our own day. We must work to find freedom, and with it to find the light of reason, understanding and compassion.

Each time Moses asks Pharoah to “let my people go,” Pharoah's heart is hardened and he says no. The repetition of “Let my people go” serves as an important refrain in this story and others. Michael Walzer's book Exodus and Revolution elucidates how oppressed peoples besides the Jews, such as Southern Black slaves, have found solace and hope in the biblical Exodus story. The song “Let my people go” is an example of how the Jewish Exodus story became part of the American struggle for freedom on the part of subjugated people of colour. Walzer sums up by saying there are three lessons we learn from Exodus. 1) Wherever you are it is probably Egypt. 2) There is hope for redemption/a Promised Land. 3) The only way to get there is by holding hands and marching (I once heard this last point explained instead as “The only way to get there is through the Wilderness”). Although we are not at the point of the biblical story yet where the Jews are allowed their freedom, Walzer's claims resonate with the Plague of darkness. There are times that seem overwhelmingly bleak, but we do our best to make positive change in the world; we can find hope and find community. This is how we turn darkness into light.

Shemot - on birth, the burning bush, and bloodlines

In the beginning of the book of Exodus we have a sense of how things progressed since Joseph. The Israelites have proliferated and, instead of dominating the land, are now subjugated within it. Most are familiar with this story from Pesach haggadot, popular films, etc. The text tells us that the midwives are responsible for such healthy numbers of Israelite children. When Pharoah decries that Israelite first born sons be killed, the women refuse (both the mothers and the midwives). This is because, the texttells us, the women fear the wrath of God more than the Pharoah. Perhaps it is also because the women love their children more than they fear death. The midwives who deliver Moses, Shifrah and Puah, are the unsung heroines of the story. Many feminist haggadot and Jewish scholars have recuperated them in tellings of the Exodus story. Moses is not the only one to “deliver” his people. The story of Exodus is a story of rebirth – an emergence from slavery to freedom. Birth and rebirth become important themes in the unraveling of the story.

Those wont to look for themes of justice in the text tend to focus on Moses' objection to the exploitation of labour. While of course many see this as a sign that he somehow knew he was an Israelite, or somehow had more sympathy for the Israelites than others of his class and culture while living in the Egyptian palace, his objection is not necessarily on the basis of nation but rather on the basis of simple human values. He objects to the degradation of others. This is a sign that Moses is right for the job of delivering his people. We too must remember to object when others are harmed or hurting – not just people similar to us in class, culture, or other category. All humanity is deserving of respectful treatment.

The text in Shemot involves some fantastic storytelling. Those who study archetypes in literature are likely familiar with the quest narrative. No such narrative is complete without a damsel in distress. In the Exodus story we have several damsels – Tziporah and her sisters – who are harassed/attacked at the well. Moses saves the women and, as is typical for the hero of the quest narrative, gets the girl. While this is obviously a one-sided portrayal of women, Tziporah is a very important character. Tziporah, a Midianite, provides us of an example of someone who can intermarry into the Israelite “tribe” and be very concerned with its welfare, without having been born into it. The Tanakh gives us examples of healthy and successful intermarriages (even as it forbids intermarriage in other sections). For those who have culturally mixed families, we can look to Tziporah as a heroine. Tziporah also brings Moses to her father Jethrow who counsels him and, in many ways, spiritually trains him to be up to the job of deliverer. Of course the story ultimately names God as the deliverer, but we should notice that Jethrow's teachings and encouragement give Moses the strength to fight his fight for justice and freedom. We can learn from this that we may encourage and guide one another towards whatever may be our goal, our deliverance, our “promised land” - whatever that may look like for us as individuals.

The “burning bush” is an important literary symbol for the everpresence of God. What can it mean to humanists? An ever-burning passion or love? Humanity – which also sees destruction but continues to exist and thrive? The constant “light” and “fire” that guide our struggles for justice? All of these are possibilities. When Moses meets the God-character in the form of the burning bush he is told “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” translating roughly to “I am what/that I am.” Religious Jews understand this phrase to capture the enigmatic and all-encompassing nature of God. But it is also a sign to Moses that he must be who he is as well. Some of us, like Moses, are leaders. Some of us are creators (artistic creation, procreation, etc.). Whatever feature some look to in a God-figure can also be found in the burning light of the human spirit and experience. Hope is fundamental to our continued struggle to improve our condition. The “promise” need not come from on high. We have work to do and, in being all that we are, we rise to meet our challenges.

God tells Moses that he will perform wonders which will convince the Egyptians that he means business. God turns Moses' staff into a snake. He turns water into blood. One doesn't have to be Freud to read some sexual/gendered meanings in those particular symbols. That aside, what does the magic mean? For some it does prove the existence of God. For most, this is a narrative aspect of the story (particularly attractive to children). Freud and many later psychoanalytic critics discuss “looking for signs and wonders” - in our dreams, in our slips of the tongue, in what seem like coincidences. We see the “signs” we wish to see. We believe “wonders” when they confirm our pre-existing world view. But we may miss “signs” as well. A sign that someone we love is in pain. A sign that we are not really fulfilled in our work. We have a pharmaceutical industry devoted to getting us to ignore the real, natural signs that tell us if we are on the right path. Like the Egyptians who ignore Moses' magic, we ignore the signs that tell us what is right for us, sometimes to cope but sometimes to our peril.

I will end with two aspects to this parasha that most people do not mention. The first is that Moses has a speech impediment which is why his brother Aaron does all the talking when they meet the Pharoah. There is a mishnaic explanation for Moses' speech problem (relating to a test he is given as a baby to see whether he is in fact an Israelite. He is offered to eat something sweet or something made of hot gold. God guides him to lick the hot gold so he will be spared suspicion. His burnt tongue is the cause of his later impediment). But we can learn other lessons from the speech aspect of the story too. Firstly, many of us have hurdles to overcome – some have exceptionalities in terms of learning or expression. Some overcome poverty and some overcome abuse. Whatever our past, we can learn to work with and around what seems like a barrier. One way of doing this is to find community.

Moses tries to get out of his task of approaching the Pharoah, using his speech impediment as an excuse. God tells him that Aaron will be with him and will talk. Together we can find complementary strengths. Aaron is Moses' brother. But we can be brotherly and sisterly in our interactions with one another. We can make up for the gaps in one another's abilities. We can be stronger when we work together.

The second aspect of the story that doesn't get much airtime is this scene. ”At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me! And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” This is an enigmatic passage. It is not entirely clear, but most rabbis interpret that God was about to kill Moses (the “him” does not refer to anyone clearly but Moses was the subject just prior). Why would the God-character, who has just chosen Moses as the deliverer of his “chosen people,” want to kill Moses just as he sets off to do what he asked? Some feel there is missing information. Perhaps in the earlier versions of the story Moses committed some transgression that got edited out so as to maintain a pure view of his good character. Nevertheless, this is part of the story and we can do interesting things with how it alters the meaning.

First, there is an equalizing effect brought to the story through this passage. Moses saved Tziporah and her sisters at the well, but now it is Tziporah who saves Moses. The circumcision is what does the trick. While some may see this as a sign that circumcision is essential to Jewish culture as emblematic of the convenant of God, one can also read the opposite. Tziporah declares the act one of a covenant between she and Moses – a human bond that buys his protection. He is “truly” her bridegroom – and she repeats that it is because of the blood. Blood is a sign of protection, and some rabbis have argued that as she touches the blood to Moses' "leg" it foreshadows the spreading of blood on doorposts for protection later in the story. There may be cultural information we do not have about what this sign means. What we do know for sure is that Moses and Tziporah's son was not circumcised until this moment. Moses is on the way to deliver the Israelites and the lack of a circumcised son suggests that a) he does not yet see himself as part of this people descended from Abraham or b) he does not see circumcision as essential to the identity. This means that either he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of a people to which he does not belong like he does when he tries to save the labourer, or it means that the “covenant” as marked by circumcision may have varying dimensions and meanings.

The parshah does not end happily. Moses notes that after he begins his negotiations with the Pharoah things get worse for the people. He is disheartened. We, like Moses, must remember that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. Change is slow. We must nevertheless try to make the world as just and free as possible. Like Moses, we're on a journey.

Va Yehi - on parents, on poetry, and on peoplehood

Jacob's death reminds us that the connection between parents and children is sacred. While in today's world family relationships can be very complicated, many Jews identify strongly with family, and in particular with parental love. Jacob is able to die in peace because he is able to reunite with Joseph. Many of us may also be able to find more peace if we reach out to those in our family with whom we may have difficult or severed connections. Before Jacob dies he adopts Joseph's children into his line (thus creating the eleventh and twelfth tribes). He then blesses each child, speaking to them of the qualities that they will impart to their descendents. This is done through poetry, and is one of the passages in the Torah worthy of close study. It gives an overview for what the writers of this section (in the time of the Judges) thought about their forebears and about what the forebears would have hoped they would become. The attributes of each son are emblematic of qualities the writers imagine were hoped to be inherent to the culture.

In this section, Jacob's death is given much attention but Joseph's follows quickly and with very little said about it, except that we are told that Jacob asks to be returned after his death to the promised land, while Joseph's body remains in Egypt. We have here a sense that the promise of Genesis – Abrahamic descendents and the coming up and together of a people – is fulfilled here. Jacob as the last of the major patriarchs will return to the land, while his descendents will go out into the world.

The contemporary struggles with how we define our peoplehood, and our sense of belonging in it, as well as the claim to land on which this Torah portion hinges, are the stuff of serious consideration. The twelve tribes may not mean much to us today, but a sense of peoplehood does. We may not feel a strong connection to “the holy land,” but, then, we may. For some of us these ties still are rooted in biblical text, for many of us they have to do with political and social values, history, and a more contemporary sense of selfhood.

This portion concludes Genesis, the beginnings of Jewish peoplehood, and with the poetry ascribing qualities, destinies, and love for the Abrahamic descendents, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our sense of belonging, and our sense of what it means to belong, to the Jewish people. Not all of the twelve sons are the same. In fact, it is the diversity of the qualities they bring – some brave, some wise, some loyal, etc. - that gives strength to the people. So too with Jews today. We do not have to think or act the same way. We are stronger due to our differences from each other. We do better when our individuality can be recognized as contributing to the group. The poetry of the bible is sometimes quite moving. This time, the words make us think of our “mishpocha” (family) in the largest sense, and what our place in it may be.

Va-Yiggash - on pain, on performance, and on power

In last week's parshah I spoke about the dangers of the pressure to forgive. This week we are reminded that when people show true remorse for their actions, and in particular when they have learned from past behaviour, forgiveness is better for all involved. Judah was one of the brothers instrumental in throwing Joseph into the pit. It is notable that at that time he felt one of his brothers to be expendable. Knowing the pain he caused his father (Rashi has a midrash about how Judah suffered pain when he told Jacob about Joseph's “death” to reinforce this idea), he could not allow Benjamin – the other of Rachel's sons – to be sacrificed for the good of the group. Thus Judah has learned about loyalty, compassion, and is willing to sacrifice himself for those he loves. He earns Joseph's forgiveness. Two touching moments follow. Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and Jacob is brought to Joseph. What do these scenes tell us? Joseph had been hiding his true self for a long time. Of course his brothers did not know who he was, but even prior to their arrival in Egypt, Joseph was essentially a stranger. He was not able to be fully himself in the palace, particularly when cut off from his own community. This is a reminder of the relief one can feel when we shed whatever mask it is we may wear. Many of us perform different social roles – we can be one person at work, one at home with our own families, one with our birth families, one with friends, etc. Even though we are different things to different people, we can still strive to be genuinely who we are. Part of Humanistic Judaism's value is acknowledging that there are many ways of being Jewish, and that one should not artificially pretend to be something one is not. Joseph models the freedom that comes with integrity. He is happiest when he can fully be who he is. The reunification between Joseph and Jacob is very sweet. Both have suffered in the absence of one another, and this scene gives a sense of closure to the hurt amongst members of Joseph's family.

Unfortunately, there are less happy lessons in this week's portion as well. The famine Joseph had dreamed of arrives and Egypt is suffering. Joseph is able to control the economic and social situation in Egypt given his prophetic abilities. His brothers are given land and title and food because of Joseph's work. They even enslave Egyptians as part of their economic management strategy. We know that in the story of the Exodus it is the Israelites who are enslaved. We should be reminded that power can be a wonderful thing but can also sow the seeds of a misuse of that power. Joseph attained great success and did a lot of good. He mitigated the effects of famine and thus earned his powerful position. But no one likes to feel that someone has power over them, and this is the problem. The Israelites will find themselves on the other side of that power dynamic soon enough. We must remember that it is important to be empowered, to feel in control of oneself and one's behaviour, and to enjoy a sense of self-worth that comes out of who we are and what we do. It is also important to remember that we can use our power to similarly empower others and we can use it to disempower others. When our power infringes on that of others, resentment and anger are soon to follow. Though it may seem trite, we all do better when we all do better. This is another lesson from this parshah.

Miketz - on foresight, on forgiveness, and on food/famine

In this portion the Joseph story continues. Because of his ability to interpret dreams he becomes a vizier to the Pharoah. His prediction of plenty followed by famine not only wins him a seat of power, but also saves Egypt. From this we learn, like in last week’s parasha, that Joseph is a character from whom we learn to make our own luck. He becomes a success in spite of the odds. We also learn that it is important to plan ahead. In a world in which people tend to live far beyond their means, it is worthwhile to consider the lesson of prudence here. The saving of grain in the story leads to the saving of people.

In this portion, Joseph's brothers (not having the benefit of foresight) are suffering in the famine and go to Egypt to ask for help. Joseph recognizes the brothers but they do not recognize him. This is connected with Joseph's ability to “see” the big or complete picture. The brothers have a hard time seeing or recognizing what is going on, but Joseph is attentive and benefits from that attentiveness. Joseph sets up a test for his brothers. He tells them to return with their youngest brother Benjamin. Benjamin, replacing Joseph as Jacob's favourite son – for he is the last remaining son of Rachel as far as Jacob knows – did not accompany his brothers the first time. Though Jacob is reticent to let him go for the second journey, he realizes they all may starve and thus he consents. On their return, Joseph makes it seem like Benjamin stole a special cup. He is testing the other brothers to see if they have learned their lesson. Will they stay faithful to Jacob and defend his favourite son, or will the old feelings of jealousy prevent them from doing justice? We find out the answer next week.

What is clear from these tests is that Joseph is willing to forgive his brothers. He has the power to turn them away or even put them to death in retaliation for their ill treatment of him. But rather he creates conditions by which they can prove themselves worthy of his forgiveness. This suggests that forgiveness is a positive value, but that in order to forgive someone they must show that they have learned something or would act differently. Forgiveness is a hot topic in contemporary society. We are told from life coaches, therapists, and self-help books that when we forgive someone we are doing ourselves a favour; holding a grudge is as bad for the grudge-holder as it is the one who committed the original offense. That is true, except I'd like to add a caveat that the Joseph story illustrates nicely. We are told to forgive. We are also told “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It is exhausting to put pressure on ourselves to forgive those who continue to hurt us. It is good for us to find a way to let go of that hurt to be sure, but forgiveness itself needs to be earned. In the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we ask others to forgive us. We also – and this is crucial – consider how we have acted and how we may improve. Forgiveness is only really possible if we are willing to take responsibility for our behaviour and try to be better. Forgiveness goes hand in hand with change and growth. Joseph sets up this test because he wants to forgive his brothers, but he also wants to ensure that they are worthy of that forgiveness; that they have learned their lesson and are better for it.

Miketz is one of those Torah portions which makes us realize how literary the bible can be. The plot includes twists, suspense, and humour. The characters are knowable and relatable. We want justice to win out in the end. We are engaged readers. The literary aspects of the Torah, and how one can read the bible as literature, are much-discussed issues in the fields of biblical criticism and literary studies. It is useful to sometimes stop and take note of the well-crafted writing of some of our earliest authors and appreciate the story for the story itself.

Because the test that Joseph sets up for his brothers is the stuff of great literature, we tend to overlook what is going on with Jacob. Consider the story from his point of view. He has lost his favourite son and now is threatened with the loss of another. While showing favouritism for a child is never a good parenting strategy, we can have some sympathy for Jacob in the choice he has to make. He either lets Benjamin go or he risks starvation. There is a midrash that speaks of “Jacob's Dilemma” which says “You may learn from the story of Jacob that it is a man's worst trial to have his children ask him for food when he has nothing to give.” The famine is a plot device that gets the brothers to Egypt, but is important to consider in itself as well. Hunger is devastating and there is still far too much of it. Jacob reminds us of our responsibility to feed the hungry. The midrash about Jacob works nicely in conjunction with something Rashi noted about this portion. He makes the link between the word for corn/food in the Joseph story (shever) with the word for hope (sever). Indeed, it is difficult to ascend in power and position (the way Joseph does) when hungry. It is difficult to have hope without bread. Joseph offers his brothers food and thus sparks the hope that they may reconcile. Let all of us work for a world in which both bread and hope are in abundance for all.

Vayashev – on siblings, on sex, and on self-determination

In this Torah portion the main narrative is the beginning of the Joseph story. We also have an interruption of that narrative to tell the story of Tamar and how she is able to become the mother to the Davidic line. While the two stories appear to have little in common, it is useful to ask why they are juxtaposed and what we can learn from that juxtaposition. In the Joseph story we learn that because he is Jacob's favourite son, and because his dreams indicate that he expects to be superior to his brothers, the other brothers try to get rid of him. This highlights the power of sibling rivalry and the huge impact it can have on family dynamics. The text is unclear about whether Joseph himself believes he is/will be superior to his brothers – he merely relates his dreams (one is that seven wheat sheaves bow to him, the other that eleven stars bow to him). The text and many of its interpreters imply that Joseph did not realize how upsetting this would be to his brothers. One has to wonder, though, whether Joseph's gloating means that he is partly responsible for his unpopularity amongst the brethren. Either way, the brothers plot to get rid of him. They discuss killing him and throw him into a pit. Ultimately, they sell him to traders and he ends up in Egypt. This is where the break in the story comes in and we hear of Tamar.Tamar has been widowed twice and, through the practice of “levirate marriage” (if a man dies childless his brother marries his widow to continue his line) is entitled to marry Judah's son Shelah. Sensing Judah's reluctance to follow through, she dresses as a “harlot” and seduces him. She later reveals that he is the father of her twins and therefore finds her way into his family and his patriarchal line. Because this is along the lines of the law, Tamar's act is one of justice. She knows what is right and bends the rules a bit to make sure it happens. In this part of the narrative we also learn that the first of the twins to emerge gets a red cord tied around his wrist (to signify being the first born) but the other twin is able to usurp his brother's position and is born first. This reminds us of Esau and Jacob and the rules of primogeniture.

One reason the story of Tamar interrupts the Joseph narrative is because when we meet Joseph again he is now an adult living in Egypt. The narrative interruption makes the passage of time more smooth. Another reason, however, is that there are similarities in the stories. Joseph is propositioned by Potiphar's wife but he refuses her. For this he winds up in jail where he would almost surely rot except for his ability to interpret dreams. The Torah portion ends with this prophetic ability being proven. Both Tamar and Joseph become entangled in complicated sexual situations. While Tamar acts as a harlot in order to secure her position in Judah's house, Joseph risks his position in the Pharoah's house in order to maintain his ideals. Tamar's sexual act is in accordance with the law, while Joseph's would be an adulterous contravention of it. Both, therefore, are righteous.

Rules such as levirate marriage do not leave women with much choice (neither, of course, do most marriage and sexual rites of the time). It is interesting in this portion that we get a sense of the practice of a cult prostitute, or temple priestess, that many of the areas' cultures would use in order to fulfill the rites of prayer. It seems that Judah, mistaking Tamar for one of these priestesses (the name for which comes from the same word as Kodesh/Kadosh – holy) suggests that some women held powerful positions related to sexuality. It also suggests that prostitution was not wholly and uniquely seen as a negative act. This is something contemporary sex workers point to as proof that a condemnation of their profession is not “natural” but constructed.

Tamar uses her sexuality to secure her rightful position. Joseph relies instead on his prophetic power. From a Humanistic point of view we do not typically believe that dreams are prophetic. With the rise of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis we know that dreams are much more an expression of our repressed pasts than a foretelling of our future. Still, though, Joseph's ability to interpret dreams can be used as evidence that he was, if not prophetic, perceptive. The abilities to make connections between the events of the past and the future, as well as to understand the motivations of people from a psychological point of view, are really what create prophets and prophecy. Like Tamar, Joseph will free himself from his low position – from a pit to a prison to a palace – by using his skills. Both Joseph and Tamar prove that they have been underestimated and will attain success in the end. Both, then, are a reminder of the human power to decide our own fate. We have to work within the circumstances we have (both Tamar and Joseph find themselves in most unpleasant circumstances), yet we do have some power in how to navigate through.

Nachmanides points out that the reason Joseph refers to Potiphar's wife as “my master's wife” while refusing her is that he is making clear that he is choosing to obey his God rather than his master. While we may not believe in his God, we can applaud the willingness to follow one's own convictions and moral decision making, even when being told/ordered to do otherwise. This is something Jews have understood for a long time. Many of us have chosen to break unjust laws. Many of us have chosen to disregard those in authority in order to practice our culture/religion. Many of us have followed an ethical code that is more true to our values than to our society's. Joseph and Tamar show us that making choices according to our ethics, even when others judge those choices as immoral, is part of our Jewish heritage.

Va-Yishlah- on brothers, on brutality, and on borrowing Gods and traditions

In this portion we have examples of the best and the worst of human behaviour. We have the reconciliation between Jacob and Esau. We also have rape and murder. Jacob knows an encounter with his brother is inevitable as he moves towards his land. He prepares for battle and separates his assets into two camps in the hopes that one would survive in the event of attack. He is informed that Esau is approaching with four hundred men – indeed suggesting that attack is likely. When the brothers see one another, however, they embrace. The text does not tell us for sure whether they had been planning to do battle and then softened at the site of one another, or whether Esau was approaching with peaceful intentions all along. What is clear though is that despite their painful rivalry the brothers are able to find peace. One reason that is given for this, in addition to the hopeful implication that the inextricable bond between brothers is stronger than their quarrels, is that both admit to having enough. Their rivalry over their father's favour was very likely about insecurity. At the time, their futures were uncertain and uncertainty can make people behave poorly. Now that the brothers are each affluent in their own right, they are able to see their brother less as an enemy and more as a friend. This is a reminder that behaving with goodness is the responsibility of all, but that it is easier to do so when our basic needs are met. This should compel us to address poverty in our present day in our pursuit of Tikkun Olam. In this portion we also have the renaming of the house of Jacob to “Israel.” This happens in a couple of different textual moments. The disjointed nature of some of the writing in this portion suggests multiple writers, perhaps with competing ideas of how the story should be told. At one moment, Jacob struggles with a being by the river Jabbok. When he successfully fights the being off, the being tells him that his name should be Israel. The text tells us that this being is supernatural; he is in the shape of a man but something more like an angel or demon. Many commentators have interpreted this moment as a struggle between Jacob and himself. Whether the incident is really a dream, many feel that the being is Jacob's “shadow” (from Jungian terminology), or other aspect of the subconscious. Is this his feeling of dread approaching his brother? Perhaps. Perhaps it is some other source of inner-conflict. We find that his triumph over the being can be read, in this light, as the triumph we too may experience when we face our "inner demons” head on.

As soon as “Israel” is named, it becomes tainted with scandal. We have in this portion the very troubling narrative of the rape of Dinah. Most commentators understand that Dinah is raped,and violently, although the JPS version suggests that there may be a way of interpreting the text as suggesting improper sexual relations as opposed to rape. This would make the scene about intermarriage as opposed to sexual violence and change its interpretation entirely. We know that Hamor, father of Shechem the rapist, encourages Jacob to allow intermarriage between the tribes when he goes to ask for Dinah's hand in marriage for his son. Shechem gets circumcised and convinces the other men to do so as well in the hopes that this will make the marriage possible. All of this makes the rape narrative murky. The response by Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi, ostensibly to the rape but also perhaps to the suggestion of tribal intermingling, is to kill all the men who have just been circumcised and take their goods and women for their own. If it is the aspect of sexual relations between the tribes, as well as sex before marriage, that is the crime in this text, there is no doubt that Dinah's brothers slaughtering the entire town as a response is an inexcusably violent and horrific response. If the crime was rape we may read their response as justifiable, although certainly the extreme violence of it and the killing of innocent men along with the guilty one should give us pause. Certainly commentators have seen Simeon and Levi as justified, even though Jacob forbid this sort of action directly.

The text is silent on Dinah's will (she does not speak during the entire narrative) and so we cannot know whether this was a rape in her view. The text is also silent on the other women who are taken as part of the onslaught. Obviously this is not a world in which women have the power to say “no” and so the circumstances of Dinah's rape are even more murky. The text is clearly using it as symbolic of something else. This does not prevent commentators from using this narrative to perpetuate familiar problematic tropes about rape. Some blame Dinah for the jewellery she adorned. Others read the text, which says she went out to find the local women, as her choosing to traipse about and therefore, in some sense, she’s “asking for it.” All of this shows us that sexism is endemic to our Jewish society as well as our broader societies. The text can help us see the problematic tropes and offers a chance to discuss and demystify them in our communities.

Towards the end of the portion is the story of Rachel dying in childbirth. In the last portion I mention that her death along the road becomes emblematic of the deaths of many Jews while leaving/moving/in exile, etc. Rachel named her son “Ben-omi” for “son of my suffering” (it can also be “son of my strength,” which suggests an interesting dichotomy). He is renamed Benjamin “son of the right hand” or “son of the South.” Although Jacob builds a pillar to commemorate the spot where she dies, Rachel's own naming of her son does not stand. This is a particular Torah portion in which the words of women do not seem to amount to much. Dinah disappears from the narrative (and most commentators believe from the house of Jacob altogether – worrying for those so concerned about intermarriage and the purity of Jacob's line), and all that is left of Rachel is a pillar (reminding us of the pillar of salt that Lot's wife became).

The final aspect of this week's Torah portion that is interesting from a umanistic perspective is the naming of the God-character. The text tells us that when Jacob arrives “in the city of which is in the land of Canaan” he is thankful for his safe arrival and so sets up an alter. He calls it “El-elohe-yisrael.” The JPS Jewish Study Bible notes that “through this confession El, the supreme Canaanite deity, is identified as the God of Israel” (69 n20). Immediately after this is the rape of Dinah and the suggestion of Hamor that the groups intermarry. We know that the Israelite culture borrowed tremendously from Canaanite culture, and here is a moment in which the text gives us proof. Perhaps fears over how much integration would be too much is what influences the telling of the rape story that immediately follows. Later in the story, after the retaliation by Simeon and Levi, Jacob moves again. Again, he is grateful for safe passage. He thanks God, who once again renames him Israel (suggesting this was a separate version of the story than the one in which the angel/demon tells Jacob of the name change that we have earlier in the text). God also says to Jacob “I am El Shaddai.” While this is one of the names for God, its origin is uncertain. Some have argued it is a reference to Ugaritic, others Mesopotamian Gods or even Goddesses. Again, however, we have a sense that as Jacob and his tribe move, they pick up from the cultures around them. It is ironic that the response to suggestions of intermarriage are treated with such violence in the very narrative that gives us proof that it is the very intermingling of cultures that gives us the culture we call “Israel.” Just as Jacob earns the name “Israel” through his travels, the Jewish people have become part of the tribe of “Israel” (and its successive generations) through the global migrations that have brought us into contact with others. This is clearly not a view of the text that most rabbis would celebrate, but for us it is a sign that our culture, like all cultures, has always been a process of human creation and has evolved and changed as we have. This is not something to bemoan, nor is it something to address by attempting to fix or freeze our culture in one arbitrary “original” or “authentic” moment. It is something to acknowledge. Change and tradition have always been mutually constituting processes. While that may seem to be a contradiction, it is also undeniable and is encoded in our very foundational text itself.

Va Yeze - On trickery, on teraphim, and on tradition

In this portion we have the story of Jacob falling in love with Rachel but accidentally marrying her sister Leah. Laban their father, a roguish miser, exploits Jacob for his own gain. His daughters represent external as opposed to intrinsic value, and Jacob is the one to pay. We have seen several examples of brothers who rival one another, but this is the first story of a rivalry between sisters. There is no doubt in the text that Leah and Rachel compete with one another for both Jacob's love, and the honour of bearing his children, but their relationship is more complicated than that. There is a Talmudic midrash that suggests that Jacob, wisely untrusting of Laban, gave Rachel tokens so that he would know her. Rachel, fearing Leah's shame at her younger sister's marriage, gave the tokens to her. In our tradition we have the love between sisters, despite their differences, as central to our story. Jacob does not succumb forever to Laban's trickery. He learns how to work the land and the flock, thus highlighting the Jewish ethics of labour and closeness to the land. These are skills Laban never has, and when Jacob leaves he therefore takes his riches with him. Rachel also does not allow her father to go unpunished. She steals his teraphim (idols) before they depart. It is notable that, despite the common perception that Judaism is the first monotheistic religion (and the belief by many that it has always been thus), it is clear that our matriarchs (and others) believed in these idols and the power of the gods they represent.

I always find it fascinating when the Torah includes details that run contrary to both our mainstream ideas of Judaism, and other aspects of the Torah itself. Although idolatry is expressly condemned in other places in the text, we see here that Judaism has changed significantly over time. In fact, change is the only constant in Judaism, as elsewhere. When we alter, adapt, or amend Jewish culture to make it relevant for our lives, what we are doing is, paradoxically, both traditional and new.

The incident with the teraphim carries very negative consequences. Jacob, not knowing that Rachel stole the idols, tells Laban that anyone who took them is to be cursed. Jewish scholars have attributed Rachel's early death (and consequent burial away from the other matriarchs and patriarchs) to the fulfillment of Jacob's curse. Later prophetic literature will discuss Rachel, her death in childbirth while wandering, and her tears. Her tears become emblematic of the generations of Israelites – they are many but theirs is a difficult road. She is a symbol of the wandering that has come to characterize Jews; she is buried away from home as are so many of her descendants. Her death, if it is indeed related to Jacob's curse, is related to her defiance. Yet rather than see her defiance as negative, the text upholds her as a woman who knows her rights (and that of her husband and family) and acts to protect them. She uses what she has as a wife and a woman in order to protect what is hers. She is fierce, and for that reason, she is beloved by Jacob. Although the Jewish tradition has not always taken this view of its matriarchs, the text is clear.

Rachel is connected with Rebecca and Sarah (all are barren, all are brave, all define themselves as mothers with a sense of pride and power). These women are not passive; they act to produce the children and future they think is right.

Toldot - On birthing, on blessing, and on bible as literature

In this section we have the by-now familiar trope of the barren woman. Rebecca has trouble conceiving and then has a troubled pregnancy. She goes to God and asks that if procreation is so difficult for her, “Why do I exist?” This type of existential questioning is something to which readers throughout the ages can relate. Many people ask these kinds of questions of a God; we externalize the conversation about life's meaning because it is scary to imagine that we alone can define the meaning of our existence and the direction our lives will take. Although in this narrative the God-character answers Rebecca, we know that she was already pregnant. One reading of this is that sometimes the answers to our deepest questions and fears, like Rebecca's baby, are already inside us. Rebecca is not just mother to her children, but figuratively to our people. Rebecca is the reason the Abrahamic promise can come to fruition. Isaac, a patriarch but one who is painted as both weak and sort of comic in the text, is not responsible for the continuity of the Abrahamic line. He prefers their son Esau (whose progeny become the Edomites), but Rebecca knows that Isaac is the more suited to fulfill the covenant and the promise of the generations.

Another repeated trope in the biblical narratives is the rivalry between brothers and the younger brother's usurpation of the elder's birthright. Just as we saw with Cain and Abel and Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob are conditioned by conflict. Esau gives Jacob his birthright in exchange for a plate of lentils. While Rashi has a beautiful analysis of lentils as symbolic of mourning and tradition due to their round shape, a much more simple reading is that Esau didn't value his birthright very much if he was willing to give it away for so little. Jacob is the one who values tradition, family, and responsibility. Esau is coarse while Jacob is refined. Rebecca is able to manipulate Isaac so that Jacob can act on the birthright he procured from his brother. As Isaac ages he becomes blind. He sends for Esau in order to bless him, but Rebecca compels Jacob to take his place. Jacob dresses in Esau's clothes so Isaac will be fooled by the smell, and Rebecca puts pelts on Jacob so that he feels hairy like his brother. Isaac bestows his blessing upon Jacob instead of Esau. Rebecca, having pulled the strings to make all of this occur, is clearly the stronger figure. She does not waver in her preference for Jacob and she is not cowardly about it. She acts. Rebecca is powerful and, although commentators and interpreters take exception to her trickery and deception, valiant.

One aspect of Rebecca’s character that Humanistic Jews find objectionable is her distaste for Esau arising from his choice to marry outside of their tribe. His wife Judith (about which we learn nothing in this text) is forgotten in the Jewish tradition but reclaimed elsewhere. Biblical texts are contradictory when it comes to intermarriage. For Tziporah (a Midianite who marries Moses) and Ruth (in the Book of Ruth) it is celebrated. Here it is condemned. We can have sympathy for a matriarchal figure like Rebecca, whose identity rests in being a mother and a mother to a nation, for wanting to preserve the purity of her progeny. We also know, however, that all genetic lines are strengthened by mixing (culturally but also genetically according to Darwinian thinking), and thus Rebecca's hatred of the other is one of her poorer qualities. Nonetheless, Rebecca is sympathetic in her power, her love, and her searching for meaning.

Traditional midrash holds various interpretations of how Isaac could be so easily fooled. One is that he secretly prefers Jacob but is too afraid to tell Esau. He therefore lets himself be deceived in order to bless Jacob. This is a lot of twisting in order to maintain the power of the patriarch in the light of this comic (and strange!) story. Those of us who are not invested in the truthfulness of the narrative can see this as a great tale. This vignette in which Isaac is fooled by such a ridiculous charade calls attention to the story's own narrativity. Any story, especially a comedic one, gets embellished for effect. This narrative is no exception and is a moment in which the literary nature of the text is especially apparent.

The question of whether the bible is literal or literary has been fraught. For Humanistic Jews it is the wrong question altogether. A better question is what these narratives can teach us about our humanity. This parshah teaches us that the matriarchs have been overlooked and deserve more exploration and respect, that power should not be transferred by birthright alone but attained by those who are deserving of it, and that life is significantly enriched by really good stories.

Chaye Sarah - on land, on legacy, and on leading one's own path

In this parshah we have the story of Sarah's death, although the name of the parshah is "Sarah's life." In this section we also have the betrothal between Isaac and Rebecca, marking the continuation of the line of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah's death stands in for her life because becoming a mother was her greatest desire, and through her children she continues to live. This is one feminist understanding of the power of motherhood. Although the line is referred to as "Abrahamic," Sarah as the archetypal mother figure reminds us of the inextricability between women and life, and gives us renewed reverence for the mother figure. There is a midrash that suggests a continuation from the Akedah story (the binding of Isaac) to Sarah's death. Tanhuma Vayera 23 fills in the details of the transition between the Akedah to the moment of Sarah's death. The midrash describes Isaac telling his mother what happened to him on the mountain and, being shocked and outraged at the possibility of her son's death, Sarah dies before the story concludes. In The Women's Torah Commentary, Rabbi Rona Shapiro claims that this midrash highlights the difference between Abraham and Sarah. While Abraham felt that the highest ethic would be to listen unquestioningly to God, Sarah knows that no God could command as immoral an act as murdering one's child. She dies, Shapiro suggests, because she can no longer believe in this God. Shapiro's interpretation is startling given that the traditional view of the Akedah is positive, and that the birth of Isaac is bound up with Sarah's fervent desire and prayer. Isaac is born because "God remembers her." Even the religious viewpoint, when refracted through a feminist viewpoint, struggles with blind faith and ultimate belief. Shapiro's understanding of Chaye Sarah, then, is that ethics are found in the home /and in the love expressed between parents and children. This is the kind of divinity in which she chooses to believe. For a Humanist, it is not divinity but humanity that imposes the ethics as espoused in the story of Sarah and in her midrash. We cannot accept injustice and immorality - particularly in the name of a God. We focus on life and human relationships, both of which are exemplified through the mother's story.

The story of Rebecca's betrothal to Isaac also reminds us that women, as matriarchs, can be powerful. The parshah states very clearly that when asked if she will "go" to where Isaac is and marry him she states "I will." We visited the concept of the journey earlier. Just as Abraham was a pioneer and the "Lech Lecha" parshah inspires the idea that to go can be a powerful assertion of one's will to decide one's direction, Rebecca also unites her journey with her "will," She does not rely on parental consent and the typical patriarchal arranging of marriages, but rather she asserts her own selfhood with her betrothal.

Many commentators have long interpreted this parshah in problematic ways. Although it is named for Sarah, and focuses on the story of Rebecca, a male-centred viewpoint is typical espoused through its interpretation. After Sarah dies there is a lengthy discussion of Abraham buying her a burial plot. This connection with the land is used by many to assert a divinely promised connection between the people and land of Israel. While many Humanistic Jews may feel strongly about the land of Israel as a Jewish state, it is not a divine contract that guarantees us this right. If Sarah's story forms the basis for our connection with the land, it is because it is the land of our mythical origins, as well as our ancestral home. We must honour the mythical and historical forebears of ours and not erase them in an effort to claim a stake in the soil. Sarah should neither stand in for, nor be eclipsed by, the land on which she is buried. Her legacy and memory should go beyond the negotiations over where to put her mythical bones.

Rebecca's betrothal also does not typically get interpreted in the manner it deserves. Her "will" and her voice are overlooked. Once again, the story of her moving to the land (Hebron) to be with Isaac is used to justify Jewish settlement in the region. The rabbinic law inspired by her betrothal is that one can move to the land of Israel even without/in contravention of parental consent. Note that the more literal reading -- that a woman should be able to marry anyone of her choosing without parental consent -- does not become the law. So our tradition remains imperfect in the lens through which it interprets, yet it also gives us the stories through which we can make our own meanings. Rebecca is the first woman we have in our foundational stories who so clearly chooses her own path. The following parshah continues to follow her will and her journey.

Va Yera - On homophobia, on hospitality, and on horrific choices

In this section Abraham bargains/pleads with God to spare Sodom and Gemorrah if ten righteous men can be found there. In an absence of such righteousness, God destroys the cities. We have the troubling story of Lot's family – first his offering up of his daughters to strangers, then his wife's unfortunate transfiguration into a pillar of salt, and ultimately an incestuous scene between Lot and his daughters. The narrative continues with the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and Sarah that they will havea son and the much commented upon scene of the “Akedah” (binding) of Isaac. So, you know, light and pleasant stuff.

There is much to say about each section of this Torah portion. The idea that Abraham can bargain with God that he should spare Sodom and Gemorrah gives way to many humanistic insights. We do not take the story literally, but even those who believe in a divine plan must acknowledge here that Abraham attempts to control fate. Implicit in the text is the idea that the moral choices of humans can alter our destiny. What are the sins of the people of Sodom and Gemorrah? One is homosexual relationships, which is why this section of the Torah is so problematic from a Humanistic and egalitarian perspective. However, it is notable that the strangers who approach Lot's house demanding access to its male inhabitants are interested in committing rape, not consensual homosexual relations. The text does not pick up on this nuance and neither do most commentators, for it is assumed as in Leviticus that homosexuality itself is “abhorrent.” Nonetheless, even the text makes clear that homosexuality here is not nearly as sinful as a lack of hospitality. The people of Sodom are wealthy, yet they adopt an attitude of stinginess. There is a lack of sharing, a lack of concern for the other, that pollutes the town. Homosexuality is a red herring in the text concerning morality. The clear message is that the people are immoral because they do not care for one another.

There are many feminist interpretations of the sections relating to Lot and his family. Lot offers up his daughters to the strangers in place of the men. Given that we know Lot is perceived by the God-character as the only moral man in the city (the reason he may leave prior to its destruction), it is troubling that his offering of his daughters is not viewed as immoral. The text continues in its sexist vain as Lot's wife (unnamed and defined only be her relationship with her husband) looks back behind her and turns into a pillar of salt. She is punished for reflecting on her past when her husband has been commanded only to look forward. Lastly, Lot's daughters get their father drunk and seduce him, their pregnancies figuring forth the Ammonites and Moabites who become the enemies of Israel. It is a story with Oedipal resonances, chauvinistic gleanings in terms of both gender and cultural superiority, and it is a scene which is confounding in terms of the moral messaging we might expect given that Lot and his daughters are the only ones to escape the destruction of their cities.

Feminists have reclaimed Lot's wife. Unnamed, she serves as a signpost – a pillar – to signal that we must all resist the temptation to look behind us too much, as living in the past is unhealthy, but so too must we regard with care the direction we choose to pursue. Some argue Lot’s wife may have intentionally looked back, knowing that the only gift she could give her daughters was to mark the territory of the land from which they had come, to remind them of their roots, even as she helped to show them the way forward. Some also argue that Lot's daughters' seduction of their father is retribution for his offer of them to strangers. This is a minority view, however. The text tells us that the daughters thought that Lot was the last living male on earth after the destruction, and so planned the seduction in order to promulgate the human species. They gave him wine so that he would not remember the incident. The idea here, then, is that his daughters acted as morally as possible in an impossible situation. While the incident is unpleasant, the moral lesson we can glean from Lot's daughters as well as his wife is that there are times in which it is difficult to tell what the right course of action may be. Moral choices, particularly in an immoral world, are sometimes difficult to discern and even more difficult to practice. Nonetheless, we all must do our best to find our path, to move forward in spite of whatever wreckage we must leave behind in our past, and still try to act as decently as we know how.

The most notable feature of this week’s parasha is the Akedah; the story in which the God-character asks Abraham to kill Isaac. From incestuous relationships to murderous ones, the Torah is no parenting guide. Why would God give Abraham a son at the age of 100 and then ask him to offer him up to sacrifice? It has been read as a test or temptation by God, but most find it difficult to reconcile this deistic image with a sense of his benevolence. A humanistic understanding of the story might even trouble the near-universal interpretation of the story. Abraham's unthinking devotion to God is typically praised as the ultimate virtue, where we might see it as blind ignorance leading to unthinkable cruelty. God stops Abraham's hand and thus we find he is ultimately good and caring. But would a good and caring God set up the test to begin with? A Humanist must find that the traditional interpretation of the story -- faith is the ultimate morality – to be lacking. We must empower ourselves to decide what is right. We are not guided by a deity or his messengers, we must guide ourselves. We are not tested by a deity, although the world will present us with challenges; we must find our way through these challenges ourselves. We are not rewarded by a deity for our good decisions and deeds, we must see goodness as its own reward.

The Akedah is part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy because the story signals so clearly the idea that rebirth is possible. But Va Yera in a larger context reminds us that we have to strike a balance between our connection with our past and our decisions about our future. Lot's wife looked back too far; his daughters made a huge sacrifice for the sake of creating future generations. Neither seems to have gotten right the balance. The near-sacrifice of Isaac serves on the Jewish new year to signal that faith will be the light that carries the Jews forth through the generations. We do not, however, accept this either. These narratives are the foundational stories of the Jewish people. They are our cautionary tales, our origin myths, our literary prefigures, our cultural folkstories. We must not attach ourselves too much to the readings of these stories – our intellectual legacy – we have to decide which truths apply to our lives today. Neither, however, should we disregard these stories; they themselves implore that to remember one's past prepares us for the future.

So what meaning can we draw from the story that is applicable to us as Humanists? Perhaps the value that the story highlights is presence, as opposed to faith. The story actually does not discuss faith or belief. Twice when called by God, however, Abraham answers “ Here I am.” This occurs at the beginning of the story as God is about to command him to sacrifice Isaac (22:2) and also just before God stays his hand (22:11). The repetition signifies the importance of the phrase; those three words are the expression of Abraham’s devotion. Presence is a gift we give one another that should not be taken lightly. This story as part of Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us to be present in our own reflections as we take account of our own souls and lives in the pursuit of our own goodness. It reminds us that the gift of presence we offer our loved ones and our community is the most precious gift of all. In times of distress, or loneliness, or pain, what better solace is there than to feel someone is there for us? What more important act, than to say and demonstrate to those in our lives: “I am here.” Most read the Akedah as a call to faith. But I read it as a call to presence: the devotion to self and community that comes out of active, willing, committed, and purposeful presence.

LECH LECHA - on journey, on biblical sexism, on circumcision, and on the power of choice.

Lech Lecha means “go forth” and in this parshah God tells Abraham to leave his home and venture forth (to an unnamed destination). In return he promises Abraham a progeny numbering greater than the stars. Abraham, his wife (Sarah), and nephew (Lot) in tow, makes the journey. Religious authorities have always viewed Abraham's "wandering” as a precursor to the larger Jewish wandering in Exodus, and also a sign of his extreme faith. The text foretells that the Jews will be enslaved but then set free (laterconfirmed in the book of Exodus – a sign that God had a plan all along). What can Humanistic Jews learn of this biblical scene? Perhaps not that we are all living according to a divine plan, but that sometimes there is no plan and things have a way of working out. Abraham does not know where he will end up, but he makes his journey with courage. This may resonate with many Jews whose families had to journey to new lands for the good of their future descendants. Abraham is promised a nation, but the average Jew who moved to North America, Israel, or another country of refuge, did so with the hope of prosperity for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. My grandparents, for example, fled Europe after the Holocaust and settled in Uruguay. It is hard to imagine the culture shock of leaving Poland – and Poland under war, at that – to move to South America. Their journey to an unknown place was made with their future progeny in mind. My father was born there immediately after their arrival. In Julius Caesar, there is a famous line in which Caesar, ignoring warnings concerning the Ides of March, decides to follow his plan no matter what. His story does not end happily. When his henchman bemoan that “Caesar shall go forth,” it is with much trepidation. But Caesar was determined to make his own plan, to chart his own course. In “Lech Lecha” we are asked to think of all of the myriad ways in which journey is metaphorical for transformation. We are empowered to decide how and when we “go forth.” Also important in this passage are the sections pertaining to Hagar (who is also promised that her son will have descendants in great number), and her suffering. This is the torah portion in which the birth of two nations is signified in text. They are born in conditions of uncertainty and suffering. Sarah's infertility is the reason Hagar mothers Abraham's first child. The story of the jealousy between the women is exemplary of a male chauvinism inherent to the biblical text: the struggles of women are petty, but those of men are heroic. Sarah is jealous of Hagar, and wants her banished. God tells Hagar that if she returns, and submits to Sarah’s harsh treatment, then she will bear a son Ishmael in return for her suffering. The image of Sarah here is hardly positive – striking for the first matriarch Jews revere. The story here establishes the basis for the lingering conflicts between the descendants of Ishmael (Islam) and those of Isaac (Judaism). But we can find compassion for the matriarchs who ignite this conflict. They are both powerless in a world in which their fertility is the sum total of their worth. They must vie to carry on the Abrahamic promise. In “Lech Lecha” God and Abraham form their “sacred covenant” in which Abraham promises that the future generations of males that spring forth from his line with be circumcised. Circumcision is an issue with which many Humanistic Jews wrestle. We do not believe in the “Brit” part of the “Brit Milah” - this covenant with God does not hold meaning for us. While many choose to circumcise due to affiliation with the Jewish community and its historical legacy, as well as for other reasons, this Torah passage no longer provides the sole reason behind the choice. This is a reminder that throughout the generations Jews have accepted, adopted, and also altered aspects of their heritage. Previous generations were able to chart a course for us – we have followed in the figurative footsteps of our forebears – but we also get to chart our own course as we become fully engaged Jews, citizens, people. As we “go forth” we must decide which elements of tradition we wish to retain, wish we wish to alter, and which we wish to exclude. These are not always easy choices, but they are ours to make.

Noach - On climate change, on diversity, and on peace

The Noah story reminds us about the fragility of this earth. The imagery of the flood takes on new significance in light of the urgency of climate change. Jewish environmentalism uses the Noah story as an allegory for the consequences of our choices today, something that can unite us in common purpose. Last month, Jews across the religious and cultural spectrum joined the People's Climate March. We marched as Jews, as people, concerned about one another, our broader human family, and our planet. This was a moment of communities joining together - which also fits with the theme of the Noah parshah. The text lays out a genealogy of the descendants of Noah. It is a reminder that, according to our earliest stories, we all spring from the same source. This is a repeated theme in the Torah. The many genealogies provided are a reminder that we are descended from these figures. The repetition in later books that we were those who were saved from Egypt (we say this at our Passover seders; we insert ourselves in the Exodus narrative), is a reminder that we are implicated in the stories we read - even centuries later. Just as we are all meant to believe we were delivered from Egypt, the text encourages us to see ourselves as descended from those who survived the flood. There are other ways in which the Noah story prefigures the Exodus story. The 40 days of rainfall reminds us of the 40 years of wandering. Both Noah and Moses are “deliverers” of our people to a better land. And in both stories we are meant to believe that God saved us. From a humanistic perspective, we can't accept that God will get us out of predicaments (especially those that we ourselves create). Rather, we must save ourselves. Whatever is the flood that rises around us, seeking to consume us, it is up to us to build an ark. It is up to us to care for the animal-life of our planet. It is up to us to seek safety and security wherever we are, and create it in any land on which we find ourselves. Also last month, coinciding with the timing of the march, Ha'aretz reported that scientists discovered Ashkenazi Jews stem from approximately 350 people. Like we find in the Noah story - we are family. This parshah concludes with the story of the Tower of Babel. We have just been told of the various nations on earth that spring from Noah's line. The tower of Babel reminds us of diversity - within and without our Jewish family. As Jews, we speak many languages from Yiddish to Ladino to Hebrew to the many diasporic languages we have acquired. We are a diverse group that still comprises only one of many peoples sharing one earth. As family and community we need to unite in common purpose. We need to come together to build the ark for our day. The Noah story prefigures peace – it gives us the symbols of the dove and the rainbow. The story of the Tower of Babel encourages us to continue to work towards the perpetuation of that peace – despite difference.

Bereshit - On Jews disagreeing from "the beginning," on Eve's subservience and subversion, and on worldly beauty and ugliness.

Thanks for returning to my blog! We are at the start of the Torah portion (parshah) cycle for this year. See last week's post for my view on the what and why of Humanistic Jews reading the Torah. Each week, you'll see my reflections on the Torah portion of the week, from my view as a rabbi and as an individual. Let's begin at the beginning with "in the beginning"... The common joke about Jewish dissonance and disagreement is that if you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions. How fitting, then, that the very first line of the Torah has given way to a multitude of meanings, which arise out of a translation issue (the first of many in the Torah). The first line could be translated as. “When God began to create heaven and earth.” The same line can also be understood to say “in the beginning of God's creation.” The two mean vastly different things. In the former, God pre-exists the earth; in the latter, there appears to be a vastness and a void that God fills; God creates himself along with the world. The question arising from the two meanings is a well-known theological problem. for those who believe God created the world, who created God? This is the perfect entry point for Humanistic Jews. We can see that the Torah does not offer one consistent theological position, but rather it opens up questions and demands that individuals and communities rise to the task of answering them. In addition to the confusion around how to translate the opening of the Tanakh, we are presented immediately with a contradiction between the first and second chapters. Both tell creation stories and they differ significantly. In chapter 1 we have an account of the creation of the heavens and the earth in six days. It is not, however, the only story we get. The story that immediately follows is of the creation of Adam and the Garden of Eden. These stories get sewn together in most translations and, it is true, they are not mutually exclusive. Nonetheless the story of Adam and Eve could exist without chapter 1 and many scholars comment that the two stories likely existed separately. What we can learn from this as Humanistic Jews is that our insistence that we can question the world, assert our own ideas about it, and argue about that which we don't know for sure, is a long-held part of Jewish tradition. Disagreements even about creation make their way into our foundational text, highlighting the diversity of thought that has always been crucial to Jewish culture and humanity more broadly. There are still further competing narratives in the same story. In addition to varying theories on how the world was created, the text posits two competing stories for the creation of woman. In chapter one the text says: “And God created man in is image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”. In chapter two, the creation of Adam and Eve, we find that Adam, lacking a “fitting helper”, was made to sleep so that God could “fashion” Eve into a woman from Adam’s rib. In the first chapter, man and woman are created at the same time and as equals. They are both created in God’s image and they are exist side by side. The Adam and Eve creation story is more narratively interesting. It is written as a story, as opposed to a factual record. Through the narrative, we glean attitudes about women at the time. Eve is created just after Adam has named all of the animals, thus establishing his dominion over the living things. Eve is created to be Adam’s helper in administering to these things but, given that she is named along with the animals Adam tends, and given that she comes out of his body, the text implies that she is to be subservient to him. Perhaps her supposed subservience makes her subversion of eating the forbidden fruit all the more shocking. To be fair to Eve, she is not present when God commands Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, for this warning comes prior to her creation. However, we know that she knows about the commandment because she relates it to the serpent. Still, though, commentators rarely mark that Eve did not hear the command herself and this may have contributed to her disobedience. Nonetheless, she provides an interesting figure for woman as temptress. She is one of many women in the bible who are act sinfully due to either weakness or ambition. Others include Lot's wife, Delilah, and many more. Many feminist scholars note that Eve does not deserve the bad reputation she gets through the story. She is not the only one who eats of the apple (Adam does too), yet she receives most of the blame. When the God-character questions Adam about it he says that “The woman You put at my side – she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (3.12). Adam plainly and clearly throws Eve under the bus. So much for masculine courage and control. A humanistic reading of this text can see Eve in feminist terms; we celebrate defiant and strong-willed women; we celebrate the quest for knowledge and power; we believe in questioning authority. The text also begs for a feminist interpretation of the punishment of Eve. The God-character says: “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3.16). The writers of this story were very clearly trying to put women in their place; they showed that women are not to be trusted, and are inherently defiant, and thus must be controlled. Beyond the feminist interpretations of the passage, Eve reminds us that we value knowledge over faith. We do not wish to follow commandments without the knowledge of why they may lead to good. Eve may be responsible for the “fall” but she is also responsible for our capacity to think and criticize, to be fully engaged with our world. She is, therefore, a heroine of Humanistic Judaism. As the Torah portion continues, we get the story of Cain and Abel. These are the first pair of brothers to know jealousy and to fight. The Torah begins with stories of both creation and destruction. The world we have been given is beautiful, yet through our choices we make it ugly. The expulsion from Eden is one example, and brothers killing brothers is another. This is a reminder that regardless of how we believe the world got here, we have a responsibility to protect it and to protect each other. Life is precious, and it is the folly of humanity that we sometimes forget our humanity. The first portion of the Torah asks us to pause and wonder at the marvel of our own existence and, simultaneously, to be careful not to squander the wonderful gift that is life.

Humanistic Torah commentaries

Humanistic Torah commentary - weekly blog posts for 5775

This year, each week I will publish a commentary on the weekly parshah. This project was my rabbinic thesis - a Torah commentary from a Humanistic Jewish perspective. Through it, I came to learn, reflect on, and add my voice to the centuries of rabbinic contemplation of our earliest stories and texts. I hope you'll find these commentaries accessible, engaging, and thought-provoking. This first entry is my introduction to my Humanistic Torah commentary from that rabbinic thesis. It will set the stage for the weekly writings that will follow the weekly parshah read by Jews around the world. If you'd like more information on how Humanistic Jews view Torah, you can also watch me in this Youtube video from my congregation's website:


“In the beginning….” This is the phrase that begins the vast canon of the Jewish textual tradition. The Torah is the sacred text of the Jewish people, and has been read, studied and interpreted for over two millenia. It is not, as some imagine, a static document that was written and frozen. Rather, it is a living document; its history of writing, re-writing, and redaction is part of its dynamism, but so too are the ways in which the multitude of interpretations applied to the text have altered the way the text is viewed itself. This can vary according to theological position, religious/cultural movement, and individual understanding. Humanistic Judaism lays equal claim to the Torah as any other Jewish movement. The tradition of reading and studying text, rooted in Torah study, has given way to the thinkers of the haskalah (Jewish enlightenment), and the ways in which Jews as a people have valued education and critical thinking. These are cornerstones of Humanistic Judaism. The Torah is not a simply text to understand; part law code, part anthology of myth and story, part history, its various elements coalesce and challenge us to find ways of understanding and interpreting the text that lend meaning to our own view of Judaism and to our own lives. Many traditional Jews have viewed the Torah as mostly a historical document which tells the real stories of our earliest ancestors. Modern archaeology has confirmed what scholars, investigating textual contradictions and the history of the Torah’s writing and redaction, have known for centuries. there is little evidence for the historicity of the bible. The events of the Torah are not “true,” although they have given Jews a sense of the truth of their identity over the generations, and they point to truths of human behaviour, family life, community, and values that we do find interesting. This project, however, is not about arguing for why Humanistic Jews should read the bible, or how. It is not about the nexus between history and fiction in the bible. These themes arise periodically in what follows, but are extant to the thrust of the project itself. The goal of this work is to provide Humanistic Torah commentaries, according to the divisions created by the weekly parashot (sections of the text read in synagogue each week). This is so that Humanistic Jews may find new and deeper meanings in the text, those more applicable to and consistent with their own view of Judaism. This commentary does not fear historicizing the text, but nor is that its focus. Rather, the purpose is to provide material for Humanistic Jewish communities and individuals. No Torah commentary can be exhaustive. In fact, each weekly entry touches on only a fraction of what could be brought forth from the Torah text. This project does not claim to be THE Humanistic Torah commentary, but rather A Humanistic Torah commentary. It is, however, the first that addresses the entire Torah from a Humanistic perspective. This commentary considers midrashic sources from the long history of the rabbinic tradition, thinkers/critics such as Rashi, Sforno and Nachmanides, and newer commentaries such as The Woman's Torah Commentary edited by Elyse Goldstein. Most of what follows stems from my own viewpoint and understanding of the text. I am not a biblical scholar, and nor are my insights into the text more authoritative than anyone else’s. If you disagree with my views then you are part of a long tradition of disagreement and dialogue about how to interpret Torah. My goal is not to put an end to this dialogue, but rather to enter into its conversation and, perhaps, to start making Torah scholarship more central to Humanistic Jewish practice. It is part of our intellectual tradition. There is a personal side to the commentaries here. As a rabbinic student I began to mark Shabbat. Along with my husband and whichever of our friends and family choose to join us from week to week, we light candles, drink Manischewitz, eat sweet challah, and enjoy a meal. I also use the time on Shabbat to read the Torah and haftorah portions and various commentaries. Writing my own has become a natural extension of this practice as I too wish to engage with the writers and thinkers I encounter. For me, the celebration of Shabbat has filled a need in me to mark a special time of the week. The ideas to be explored helped to make the experience intellectual as well as emotional. I hope that others find what follows meaningful.

Shana tova! Welcome to 5775!

Wishing you a shana tova u’metukah! A happy and sweet new year! I hope wherever you were it was a peaceful and meaningful holiday! At our Oraynu congregation ( service yesterday, I did a commentary on the challenging story of the akedah – the binding of Isaac. I then spoke about the need for presence, balance, mindfulness, and rest. Part of my commentary is here: In the story, twice when called by God, Abraham answers “hineni,” “Here I am.” This occurs at the beginning of the story as God is about to command him to sacrifice Isaac, and also just before God stays his hand. The repetition signifies the importance of the phrase; the expression of Abraham’s devotion. Presence is a gift we give one another that should not be taken lightly. This story as part of Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us to be present in our own reflections as we take account of our own souls and lives in the pursuit of our own goodness. It reminds us that the gift of presence we offer our loved ones and our community is the most precious gift of all. In times of distress, or loneliness, or pain, what better solace is there than to feel someone is there for us? What more important act, than to say and demonstrate to those in our lives: “I am here.” Most read the Akedah as a call to faith. But I read it as a call to presence: the devotion to self and community that comes out of active, willing, committed, and purposeful presence.

We live in an age where there is a lot of talk of mindfulness, of living in the present moment. And yet we simultaneously live with the expectations of being able to multitask, of being constantly accessible via our various devices, and of being able to manage our many roles seamlessly. I am not saying I’m nostalgic for a time when we were expected to have one role only – men as breadwinners, women as homemakers – but I do think that life used to move at a slower pace, which allowed us to be more mindful, more present, and more available for one another. Think of the times over the past year when someone we knew and care about was sick, was sad, was struggling. Were we able to be fully there for them? Or were we too busy?

If we find we are too busy to fulfill our priorities, we are not alone. We are as a society over-worked, over-committed, and over-whelmed. Those devices that I mentioned that are meant to make our lives easier, often make us feel that we can never take a break. They are there to enable us to be “connected,” and yet I think there has never been a time in history when people feel less connected to their families and communities than we do today.

This year is 5775 – and the palendromic quality of that number suggests to me an opportunity for balance. This year in the Jewish cycle is also the shmita year – the year of the sabbatical when the Torah tells us to let the land lie fallow. The fields which give us food and sustenance, if overworked and overwrought, will stop producing. And we are the same. If we are overworked and overwhelmed then we will be unable to be fully available – fully present – to those we love. We too have a limit. And in this culture that measures goodness by productivity, it is good to remind ourselves that rest breeds productivity. Just like the harvest will be better if we rotate our crops and let the land rest, we will be better if we have a chance to rest and recuperate as well.

The word shmita literally means release. As we take this day for contemplation, a good question to ask is what we can let go of. What if we released ourselves from the feeling that we weren’t doing or being enough? What would it look like to release ourselves from guilt? From fear? What past hurts can we forgive and let go of? What tension do we carry that could be released? The shmita occurs every seven years and provides us the opportunity, as does Rosh Hashanah each year, for renewal. Every shmita year, some believe, all contracts are to be voided and renewed. There was even a small group of early Jews who believed that the ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, could only be valid for seven years. My husband and I have agreed to renew our vows every seven years in order to remind us that in order to maintain a strong connection, a marriage requires mindfulness, presence, and renewal.

Many of you know that I am a new mother. I am also your rabbi, a teacher, a wife, daughter and sister, and a friend. Like many of you, I play all of these roles and try to find a balance so that I can be present and available for all those who rely on me – my coworkers, my congregants, my students, and my loved ones. I am gratified that I get to do work I believe in, and that I have a family I adore. But, like many of you, striking the balance is hard, and the cost of having a full life is exhaustion. My goal is that presence of mind so that I can appreciate the small moments. Although I don’t love getting up for 4:00 a.m. feedings there is a beauty in the intimacy that comes when the world is dark and quiet and I’m alone with my daughter. Although I don’t love that my inbox seems perpetually full, it is wonderful when I am able to help someone out, or do work that I find impactful. This year, in our quest for presence and balance, let’s try to focus a little less on the “oy” and a little more on the joy.

This year, let’s let the words “shmita” – for release and “hineni” – for presence, resonate. Let’s offer one another presence – full and complete focus, when we keep company with our family and community. Let’s endeavour to be there for one another fully. And let’s endeavour to rest and to take care of ourselves in order to make that kind of mindful presence possible. Mostly, moving into 5775, I wish you a sense of balance, and a whole lot of joy. May this be a healthy, sweet, and wonderful year, full of abundance and happiness.

In Defence of Cultural Judaism

Looking to find out more about Humanistic Judaism? This piece was recently published in the Canadian Jewish News: Friday, August 29, 2014 Tags: Columnists Humanistic Judaism Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

Rabbi Denise Handlarski

Many people were surprised that last fall’s Pew Report found that a growing number of Jews are without any particular religious attachments and that most perceive Jewish identity as a matter of culture or ancestry. I’m surprised by their surprise. These are trends we’ve been seeing for decades.

Change makes people nervous, and it is with true empathy and respect that I acknowledge the fears of those who make claims that cultural Judaism is “not enough.” It is difficult for people for whom religious devotion, prayer, and synagogue life have been crucial to their Judaism to understand how rich and meaningful cultural Judaism can be, especially in the context of congregation and community.

Their fears come from a longing for Jewish continuity, which is a longing I share. But the worrying tones, and the admonitions and accusations that cultural Jews hear all the time – that their beliefs and practices are shallow and meaningless – do not encourage them to participate more actively in Jewish life.

There are two dominant yet competing narratives in contemporary Jewish discourse: on the one hand are the deep concerns for Jewish continuity, and on the other are the politics of exclusion that suggest to cultural Jews, intermarried Jews and Jews who do not fit a particular set of expectations and practices that they aren’t welcome, aren’t doing it right or, worst of all, aren’t Jewish at all.

I am a rabbi at Toronto’s Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. We provide a congregational context for what many call cultural Judaism. The movement of Humanistic Judaism, which is 50 years old, offers rich and meaningful holiday celebrations, educational programs, and congregations wherein cultural Jews can connect with Jewish tradition and community. Humanistic Judaism offers the best of secular humanism and the best, in our view, of Judaism. We offer a school which has a deep focus on Jewish history, culture and tikkun olam. We have dynamic adult education programs where art, Jewish thinkers, and text are studied and debated. Our holiday programs offer music, poetry, reflections and adaptations of traditional Jewish texts. Our life-cycle celebrations and commemorations from birth to death feature Jewish tradition and human-centred language that truly celebrates the person or people at the heart of the ceremony. We are, in short, very proud of how deep, meaningful, and rich our expression of Judaism is. Those who claim that cultural Judaism is shallow have never seen us in action. In fact, the experience of attending synagogue and saying prayers that one does not believe feels far more shallow – I know, because I was one of those Jews, wandering and wondering, until I found Humanistic Judaism.

There is no question it is not for everyone. Neither is Orthodoxy. We exist on a spectrum of beliefs and practices. My concern is not that people disagree with my ideas about theology, or who the Jews have been, are or should be. My concern is that we have so much in common along the Jewish spectrum, but the politics of exclusion mean that we often cannot dialogue, share experiences and learn from one another.

Humanistic Judaism is not a movement defined by what we do not believe, but rather by what we do believe. We believe that Judaism should be welcoming of all who wish to be part of our family, from those who are born into it, choose to be part of it or marry into it. We need not all be the same to recognize our shared heritage and/or connection. We believe that equality and egalitarianism should be an inherent and important part of our Judaism. We believe that Jewish history grounds us and gives us roots. We believe that Jewish creativity and human ingenuity give us branches. We believe that tradition gets a vote but not a veto. Most importantly, we believe in the power of ourselves and one another to effect meaningful and positive change in the world.

- See more at:

Officiant services

Hello again, People ask me about what I can offer as an officiant for life cycle events. Below is from my website:

Denise is ordained to perform life cycle events including wedding ceremonies, funerals and memorials, baby namings, and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Humanistic Judaism has a focus on how Jewish identity can bring meaning to our lives and deepen our experiences of our relationships, our communities, and our world. Denise’s particular focus is on “Tikkun Olam,” or repairing the world, and how Jewish culture encourages ethical behaviour. Delighting in and reflecting human creativity, intellect, and emotion, Denise creates ceremonies that inspire those being celebrated and in attendance.

Denise is currently the Assistant Rabbi at the Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto.


Denise delights in performing Humanistic wedding ceremonies, with or without Jewish content. Celebrating couples of all cultures, sexual orientations, and genders, Denise can create a ceremony that reflects the beliefs and values of the couple. Custom wedding ceremonies ensure that couples participate in the creation of their ceremony, and tailor it so that it reflects their views, their lives, their love for one another.

Bar/Bat Mitzvahs

Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is traditionally the Jewish time of entering adulthood. Denise helps guide the individual through a program of Jewish learning including history and literature, tzedakah (charity/justice) projects, and cultural engagement. The main focus of the ceremony will be a research project on a Jewish topic and/or a Torah (Hebrew Bible) reading and analysis.

The goal of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony is to mark the inheritance of Jewish wisdom and cultural values. A Humanistic Bar or Bat Mitzvah ensures a program of study and a ceremony that reflect the individual and his or her cultural identification, an inspiring look at what it means to be Jewish today, and a celebration of cultural history and community.

Denise also specializes in women’s Bat Mitzvahs – at any age. Given the exclusionary nature of many streams of traditional Judaism, many adult women have never marked their own inheritance of Jewish culture. Denise can create a meaningful and inspiring program for individual women looking to assert and celebrate their place in Jewish tradition.

Baby Namings

Celebrating the birth of a child is a joyful and wonderful occasion. A baby naming is a way of celebrating with community, and honouring the newborn child and their family. Whether a couple chooses to have a ritual circumcision or not, a baby naming ceremony adds an element of Humanistic celebration and is a way of publically welcoming a child into their Jewish identity and community.

Denise will work with the family to create a ceremony that reflects the family and their cultural backgrounds, values, and traditions.

Funerals and Memorials

Death is a difficult time for a family. While traditional Jewish funerals have always provided means for mourners to find solace, a Humanistic funeral allows for flexibility in the aspects of Jewish tradition that are included. Always with a focus on aiding mourners in their grief, and in honouring the life of the deceased, Denise will work with you to create a ceremony that is respectful and reflective of the person being honoured.

Other rabbinic services

Denise also provides programming in the Jewish community such as for holidays, Jewish education, young adult community-building, and Holocaust remembrance. If you wish for Denise to speak or lead a program at your organization or community, please get in touch.