Jan 12

“In Life and Death what Really Matters?”

 

A number of my friends have lost parents this year and just a few years ago my father-in-law passed away during Chanukah. This week’s parsha, Parashat Vayechi, tells of the final moments of Jacob’s life, his death and burial in the cave of Machpela in Hebron, Israel. Later in the parsha Josef also dies. The book of Genesis chronicling the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs comes to an end.

 

Death is not an easy topic to speak of or write about, but it’s a reality of life that we all confront eventually; therefore I’ve decided to share seven thoughts on sitting shiva.

 

1.Shiva is the 7-day mourning period following the death of an immediate relative: a parent, spouse, sibling, or G-d forbid, a child. We refer to it as “sitting shiva.” The mourners literally sit from morning till night, getting up from their low chairs for the occasional bathroom or stretch break. The laws of shiva create a structure to facilitate the mourning process. The mourners can’t run away from facing the loss. Mirrors are covered. The mourners wear the same clothing day after day, avoid shaving and even showering.

 

We might think that the practices of shiva are more pain than gain. However, research reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that mourning rituals reduced grief after the loss of a loved one. (Norton, Michael I. and Francesca Gino, “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers and Lotteries.”)

 

  1. The hours matter. Just like a microwaved dinner is not nearly as delicious as food from the slow cooker, so too microwave mourning won’t have the same impact. Shortcuts are great for your computer, but in life they rarely work.

 

  1. Food matters. I usually think that we put too much focus on food. We sometimes lose sight of the deeper meaning of the holiday or our relationships with fellow diners. When my husband sat shiva, I saw that all that food was extremely helpful. It was truly comfort food. My niece took charge of the list and friends and family offered to cook or cater lunch and dinner. It was so special, so touching. We felt so full, so cared for.

 

  1. Family and community matters. My father-in-law’s life was filled with giving. In the 1970s, when waves of Russian immigrants arrived in New York, my in-laws would pick up and deliver donated furniture and household items. They drove friends and strangers to medical appointments. My husband and his siblings have dedicated their lives to building relationships and community. They attend synagogue regularly and are engaged and involved with Jewish education for themselves and their children. Their network of relationships, constructed through time and effort, swung into action in their moment of need. Over 200 people came in person to the house to comfort the mourners. Others called, emailed, texted and chipped in to provide meals for the week.

 

We may get great service from the Apple store or Carnival Cruise Lines, but those are not the people who will bring us soup when we are mourning. Sociologist Robert Putnam (“Bowling Alone”) describes this as the process of reciprocity or building social capital. He writes that the slogan used by the Gold Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Oregon to publicize their annual fundraising effort: “Come to our breakfast; we’ll come to your fire.” Perhaps more apropos to shiva was the comment by New York Yankees manager Yogi Berra, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.” That’s social capital. You can’t inherit it; it accrues through effort.

 

  1. Stuff doesn’t matter. Stuff is an accoutrement of life, not its essence. We fill our lives with stuff. Guess what? At the end of our lifetimes, it won’t be coming with us. Some will go to close family and friends but most of that stuff will end up in the trash. The shiva reminds us that what lives on after death is our spiritual growth, our relationships, the impact that we had on others and our good deeds. That impact is greater and longer lasting than any purchase will ever be.

 

  1. Shiva creates the time and space for sharing those special stories. In the busyness of life, we often neglect to ask the important questions. The stories told at a funeral and during shiva fill in some of the blanks. We feel a bit closer to knowing the deceased. Research shared in Bruce Feiler’s book, “The Secret of Happy Families” (Morrow, 2013) shows that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives; the higher their self-esteem.”

 

  1. Reputation matters. A lifetime is the sum total of countless moments and choices. King Solomon teaches that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a party. Life is a journey. We need to think about where we want to go and how we are going to get there. Sometimes it takes a shiva to get us to recalibrate. May we merit to learn and grow through simchas (joyous occasions),not sorrows.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

Lauren Shaps

lrshaps@gmail.com

www.jetottawa.com

Aug 04

The Leaders We Deserve and Why Perception Matters

The upcoming American presidential election is big news throughout the world. Hillary vs. Trump makes for great entertainment, but it’s kind of scary when you think of the incredibly high stakes involved. Most will agree that the world’s stability is strongly tied to the safety, security and sanity of the United States. Leaders we laugh at make for great comedy, but what we really want and need are leaders who command our confidence and respect.

The Torah is full of lessons on leadership. There are many examples of good leadership – wise, strong, humble, flock-focused leaders – and lousy leadership – vacillating, narcissistic, greedy and self-interested leaders. With good leaders, most people prosper most of the time. Under lousy leadership, there is economic downturn, suffering, famine and sometimes even war.

In the first of this week’s double parsha, Matot, the tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiate with Moshe to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan River rather than make their homes in the Promised Land.

Rav Zev Leff points out that Moshe’s response to their request is puzzling (Outlook and Insights, Mesorah Publications, 2000). Moshe appears to jump to the assumption that, just like the spies who we read about a few weeks ago, this group is also afraid to enter the land of Israel. His initial response to their request is silence. Moshe only responds after the two tribes offer to leave their wives, children and cattle in Transjordan to join in the conquest of the land of Israel. Their offer to participate in the conquest shows they are not a self-interested breakaway. Moshe tells them “You will be pure and guiltless in the eyes of G-d and in the eyes of the Jewish people” (Bamidbar, Numbers 32:22).

One might wonder why Moshe refers to both the eyes of G-d and the eyes of the Jewish people. If someone does what is right in the eyes of G-d, isn’t that enough? Do we also have to worry about the eyes of others? Rav Leff explains that this is where the concept of mar’it ayin comes from, meaning that a person shouldn’t behave in a way that would lead to suspicion or cause someone to jump to the wrong conclusions. Moshe is clarifying that it is not enough to be doing the right thing; perception counts too.

The reality is we are all leaders, certainly in our homes, at work and often in our communities. Our children and friends and community are impacted much more by what we do than by what we say.

In their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape our Lives (Little, Brown 2009), Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler examine the research and show substantive evidence that, not surprisingly, we have a profound influence on each other’s “tastes, health, wealth, happiness, beliefs, even weight.” Their statistical analysis of 5,124 subjects and their 53,228 ties to friends, family and work colleagues found that if a friend starts smoking it is 36 percent more likely that you will too, and the same applies to drinking, slenderness, obesity and many other behaviour patterns. A study of students at Dartmouth College found sharing a room with someone with good study habits improved their roommate’s achievement. “Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (1 degree), friends’ friends (2 degrees) and even our friends’, friends’, friends (3 degrees).” We become like the people that we are close to.

Our rabbis taught that each generation gets the leaders it deserves. Leaders are a reflection of the society they govern. What do we want from our leaders? We want to be able to trust them. We want them to act with integrity. We want them to do what they say and say what they do. We want to have confidence in their judgment. For that to happen it is not enough that they are or are not “pure in the eyes of G-d,” because WikiLeaks or not, only G-d will know the full story. They must be pure in the eyes of the people: the American people as well as the leadership and populace of every other nation in the world.

And if we indeed get the leaders we deserve, then we need to understand that change starts with us. To have leaders who are trustworthy, we must be trustworthy. To have leaders with dignity then we must behave with dignity. Moshe’s teaching of the concern for mar’it ayin, how our actions are perceived, applies to each and every one of us.

When every human being is able to bring their actions into sync with the values they possess, they will impact their family, their friends and their community. Through a process of social contagion, we can be the change we want to see in the world, and in that way we will one day be blessed with leaders who command the confidence and respect of all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Lauren Shaps

Jun 02

Nourishing an Open Mind

Finally Spring has sprung! The gardeners, bikers and boaters are out in full force. Whatever their passion, you can be sure that their kids are alongside – little ones in tow at the garden show, coasting precariously in the bike seat or almost hidden in their oversized life jackets. Fast track 20 years and chances are those little ones will still be bikers, boaters and gardeners. Children learn much more from what we do than what we say. They learn most from the activities that we share. Anyone who says, “I’ll let my kids decide about religion when they are adults” has no understanding of how our every move socializes our children in one way or another.

That’s why I’m always perplexed by the pushback I hear from some Jewish parents. Offer the opportunity to learn a little more, be a bit more engaged and they will say loud and clear, “I’m not ‘that type’ of Jew. I’m fine with my Judaism.”

Is this a new theme that comes with the comforts of modern-day life? Today there are very few societal pressures to be any sort of Jew. We are welcomed, mostly warmly, into mainstream society. We can have our bagel and eat it too. Rashi who lived more than 1,000 years ago, points out that this is far from a new phenomenon. There are people on the path of growth and then there are those who have sealed their minds and their parachutes long before takeoff.

This week we read the parasha of Bechukotai, which includes promise of blessing if we keep the commandments. Then it warns us of what will happen if we turn away from G-d and His Torah. “If you despise my statutes and if your souls abhor My laws so as not to fulfill all My commandments, thereby breaking My covenant . . .” (Vayikra 26:15)

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomi Yitzchaki, 1040-1104, France) asks an interesting question. Does it make sense that such strong words like “despise” and “abhor” are used to refer to abstract concepts such as “statutes” and “laws?” Does anyone say, “I hate the very thought of kashrut or sukkah?” Rashi suggests that this loathing refers to the people who practice the laws rather than the laws themselves, because it is people who get our blood boiling. The Torah is predicting the easy slide down this slippery slope. A person who doesn’t learn eventually won’t keep Jewish practices, which leads to despising those who do, hating rabbis and teachers, and even to preventing others from keeping Jewish practices.

The holiday of Shavuot is around the corner. Take a little trip through time. Imagine G-d giving the Torah at Mount Sinai, surrounded by Moses and the Jewish people – men, women and children. G-d says, “Here’s the manual for quality of life, committed relationships, a just society . . . but it doesn’t work if you don’t open the book. In fact, it has minimal impact if you don’t make it central to your life.” The concept of a manual, a text, even one written on parchment, was completely earth shattering 3,500 years ago when the Torah was given. A belief system with a foundation of literacy and education remains unique even in parts of the world today. No wonder we are called “The people of the Book.”

In Jewish life, clergy are teachers. Jews don’t need a rabbi to be born, get married or laid to rest.  Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch (1808 -1888, Germany) explains that the purpose of every good teacher is to make him or herself redundant. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Great Britain) writes that Abraham is chosen because he would teach his children. Do our kids learn from what we say or what we do? What message do our children get if we send them for Bar or Bat Mitzvah lessons but never attend a class ourselves? What do they internalize when we are disdainful of those who make the choice to continue to learn, to grow and to keep their Judaism the focal point?

Shavuot is one of those neglected Jewish holidays. It doesn’t have a shofar, a sukkah, candles or matzah on which to pin its identity. The theme of Shavuot is Torah. With fabulous spring weather upon us,  we come to a choice point, a fork in the road. Do we open the cottage or the siddur? Do we run the marathon or run to services? Do we take a step that broadens our knowledge base, deepens our understanding and connects us to the Jewish people, to rabbis and Jewish educators? Or do we slide the slope that Rashi describes, turning our disdain toward not only Jewish life and practice but toward those who embrace their Judaism with pleasure and passion.

If we engage our children not by preaching but through practice, and if we nourish our Judaism through learning and doing, then we will indeed be worthy to receive the Torah and transmit it to our children and our children’s children. Because when it comes to Judaism, our minds are like parachutes: They only work if they’re open!

Shabbat Shalom.

Lauren

May 19

Riding the Wave through Life’s Ups and Downs

Hi Chevra,

A few years ago I flew to Cincinnati for a conference. I was pumped up with that feeling of self-importance that comes with leaving home and the familiar routine. I thought, “I’m flying on business like important people do.”

After the conference I was on a total high. Long before my flight took off, my head was so completely in the clouds that, out of my own stupidity and general spaciness, I missed my flight from Cincinnati to DC, where I was supposed to make a connecting flight home to Ottawa.

Now, stuck in the airport for hours, frustration and regret began to kick in. “If only I had been paying closer attention. If only I could take those 10 minutes back.” It would have been easy for me to spiral down in self-recrimination. Not only would the rest of my day have been destroyed, but along with it the whole impact of my wonderful experience.

With all of that free time in the airport, I started to think about how our life cycles up and down, full of peaks and valleys. One moment we are flying high and the next moment we are in the pit of despair. My outlook changed a few years ago when I realized that ups and downs are normal, to be expected, a natural part of life. I started to envision myself as a surfer; my job is to ride the wave.

This time of year our calendar is full of reminders of ups and downs much more serious than missing a flight. One would think that the link between the Exodus from Egypt that we celebrate on Passover and the giving of the Torah on Shavuot would be full of joyful anticipation. Yet in practice, these days are observed as a time of quasi mourning – no haircuts, weddings, or live music.

The Talmud speaks of the cause for mourning in a very cryptic manner. It tells us that we observe a period of national mourning because of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died during this period of time. The reason the Talmud gives for their deaths is a plague, which came about because they did not treat each other with proper respect. Some speculate that the plague may have been a Roman purge in retaliation against the students; involvement in rebellion against Rome in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple. Certainly the Talmud wanted us to understand the crucial importance of relating to others with consideration and respect.

Next Wednesday night and Thursday, the mourning customs are interrupted by a day of celebration, Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. Throughout the world and in Israel, this day is celebrated with huge and magnificent bonfires, especially in Meron, the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

How does he factor into the story? When Rabbi Akiva’s students perished in this mysterious plague, Rabbi Akiva was not demolished by despair. He never expected life to go easily or smoothly. An illiterate shepherd until the age of 40, Rabbi Akiva started with alef-bet and went on to become one of the greatest Torah sages. After the death of an unfathomable number of students, 24,000, he began all over with five. One of those five was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the most influential text of Kabbala, our mystical, esoteric teachings. He was an essential link in the transmission of Torah to the next generation.

Throughout our history, Jews have been forced to rebuild after immense destruction. Survivors of the Romans, the Spanish inquisition, the pogroms and the Holocaust left the horrors of yesterday behind and focused on their present and their future, which paved the way for us today. Because of that ability to rebuild from the ashes, many of us as individuals and almost all of our Jewish communities exist today. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. We are one of the few generations throughout Jewish history that has received our Judaism on a silver platter. Yet we are easily deterred by simple day-to- day challenges and frustrations.

G-d has not created a world that is simple or easy to navigate. Giving in to despair, large or small, will defeat us. We can’t reclaim the past, but we can make the most of the present and build for the future. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to safeguard their Jewish future. Setbacks keep us humble and grounded, in my case, quite literally. I am in no way equating missing a flight with the deaths of 24,000 people, but sitting in the airport I drew upon this important lesson from Rabbi Akiva. If we want to truly fly, we have to pick ourselves up, recharge, renew, rebook, and get to our flight on time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Lauren Shaps

May 02

Do You Believe in Miracles?

Do you believe in miracles? Our Passover Seders were full of talk about these miraculous events and Passover doesn’t end with the seders. In fact the last days of the Passover focus on another great miracle, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, so it’s worthwhile to have a little grounding in miracles… so to speak. Pummelled by miraculous plague after plague, Pharaoh finally sends the children of Israel out of Egypt. Rather than leading them on the most direct route to the land of Israel, G-d takes them toward the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. Pharaoh changes his mind and chases after them with his army, warriors, horses, chariots. He’s dead set on capturing or killing his former slave labourers.

The Jews are in a bind; Pharaoh and his army on one side, the Sea of Reeds on the other. The people cry out. G-d commands Moses to stretch out his arm above the water. The Torah tells us that “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and HaShem moved the sea with a strong east wind all the night, and He turned the sea to damp land and the water split. The Children of Israel came within the sea on dry land; and the water was a wall for them, on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:21-22). Miracle of Miracles, three million Jews march through the walls of water. The Egyptians pursue them into the water and then when the last of the Israelites is safely on the other side – yet another miracle, the walls of water close in, drowning Pharaoh and his army.

Read these verses and what goes through your head? Are you thinking, “Nice story, but never happened?” Or maybe you are thinking, “Hard to believe but could have happened.” The generation that experienced these miracles 3,500 years ago told their children, who told their children, all the way to us and our children.

You could be thinking, “The sea split? What an incredible force of nature!” The moon’s gravitation, the force of the winds, the waves of the sea, all lined up coincidentally at exactly the right moment to save the Jewish people Or you might be thinking, “Ding, ding, ding, ding – Miracle!!”

Guess what, we aren’t the first to question exactly what went on at the Sea of Reeds. Our sages went to great lengths to understand these miracles and the concept of miracles in general. The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, 1194-1207, Spain) explains that G-d makes the rules and he can change the rules when a miracle is called for. G-d used the east wind, a force of nature because “Divine Omnipotence reveals itself by modifying its own natural law into marvellous and extraordinary events.” (Call of the Torah, – Rabbi Elie Munk, pg 175).

The Maharal, a great Jewish leader and Kabbalist, (Rabbi Judah Loew, 1520-1609, Prague) tells us that this was a miracle way above and beyond the forces of nature. When the sea split, all the waters of the world divided, to show that from this point forward, “natural laws would no longer constitute a barrier before Israel. The characteristic trait of G-d’s people is the dominance of the spirit over the material world.” (Call of the Torah, pg.175)

There are many pathways to strengthening belief. Studying Torah and observing the magnificence of the natural world are two ways to get to know G-d. A third is by paying attention to miracles. Today we think we’ve seen it all and none of it is real. We’ve been inundated with larger than life special effects at theme parks, movies, and stadium size concerts. We’re a bit jaded – certainly sceptical. We expect that everything can be explained through science and technology. If we saw a miracle, like the splitting of the Sea, of course we would believe. But the truth is that we experience miracles every day. Human nature is to say, that’s cool… what’s next? We shrug them off and go on our way.

Our rabbis advise us to start with events that seem so natural we forget that they are truly miracles: the intricate workings of our bodies, the birth of a newborn baby, the rotation of the earth around the sun. These miracles = happen so regularly that we take them for granted. We forget that every breath we take is a

miracle.

A miracle is an invitation from G-d to connect, to believe, to have a relationship with our caring Creator. We can choose to accept or turn the invitation down. “And Israel saw the great hand … and the nation feared HaShem and they believed in HaShem… Then they sang…” (Exodus 14:31) My husband’s Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi A. Henach Leibowitz, of blessed memory points out the progression of events. First they saw the sea split, then they experienced the awe of HaShem and that awe led them to believe in G-d. They had to concentrate, to focus on the colossal magnitude of this event, to choose to let it sink in, to allow themselves to feel gratitude. When they made the effort to think about G-d’s intervention in their lives, His caring and concern, then they were lifted up by their belief and they sang from joy and gratitude.

And so should we. That’s why I choose to believe in miracles. It’s the rational thing to do!

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Lauren

Mar 10

Making Time for Jewish Joy

The Jewish calendar operates with amazing precision. As the website JewFAQ.org explains, “The Jewish calendar is based on three astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth about its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon about the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth about the sun (a year). These three phenomena are independent of each other, so there is no direct correlation between them. On average, the moon revolves around the Earth in about 29 and one-half days. The Earth revolves around the sun in about 365 and one-quarter days, that is, about 12.4 lunar months.” To keep things on track so we don’t end up celebrating Passover in July, a leap month is added every few years.

Of all the months of the year that could be added, the Sages chose to add an extra month of Adar. This Sunday is the beginning of Adar Bet, the second month of Adar. We are told Mi’Shenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha (When Adar comes in, one increases his happiness). In our home, my kids would say “Mi’Shenichnas Adar marbim macaroni,” their commentary on a mother so busy with exciting Purim preparations that there was no time for making those delicious and nutritious meals. What I find interesting about that statement – the real one, not my kids’ version – is the obligation to be happy. I have written many times about the emotional intelligence of Jewish life and how we experience a cycle of varying emotions throughout our calendar year. This month is about joy, and while it might be tough, with thought and effort, we can be happy!

Why are we happy in the month of Adar? Because on the 14th of Adar (this year on Thursday, March 24th), we celebrate Purim, the Jewish holiday most full of fun. There is a great story line, heroes and villains, delicious treats, lots to drink (for the adults) and mitzvot to ensure that we bond with our friends, remember the poor and eat, drink and make merry. What could be better?

The Purim mitzvot provide the structure to focus and enhance our Purim experience. We listen to the Purim story read from the Megillah of Esther. We recall the vast dangers that Jews faced in Persia 2,400 years ago and throughout much of our history. We are inspired by knowing that G-d is the Hand behind history and we should never despair. We reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves and to our friends, whom we often take for granted. And then we finish off the day with a celebratory meal. “They tried to kill us, we overcame, let’s eat!”

Most of us shlep our kids to services on Yom Kippur where everyone is serious and even somber. Those who are fasting might be a bit cranky, which all adds up to an experience our children might not put in their Top-10 list of childhood highlights. But if you get them into the fast-paced exuberance of Purim – dressing up in costumes, racing to hear the Megillah, running to deliver mishloach manot, gathering with friends and family for a fun, festive meal, carnivals in synagogues and Jewish community centers – that will add up to amazing memories.

My adult kids, who are now living away from home, still call in during our Purim Seudah (dinner). They often have a funny song to share or want to hear the one we wrote for our guests. They want to know how many bottles of wine were finished and what’s left of the pricey 15-year-old Scotch. They want to share the anecdotes of their Purim Day, how they dressed up, who they visited and the fun they had.

If we want to set the table, so to speak, with delicious, nutritious, fun and fulfilling Judaism, Purim is a great place to start. We plug away for a Passover Seder and hang in for High Holiday services. Let’s put some extra effort into making our Purim experience something extraordinary. We will be setting a table that our children will return to again and again.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Adar Bet!!
Lauren

Feb 18

Inside – Outside

Each of us is an interesting combination of internal and external. We all know people who are beautiful on the outside but full of anger and bitterness. Then there are people whose allure comes entirely from within. We are drawn to people like that, even though they are far from physically attractive. My beloved grandmother was one of the most beautiful people that I have ever known. In the last years of her life, she would not have been considered objectively attractive. She was grey-haired, aged, in pain and paralyzed on her left side, yet her warm heart and the years of giving unconditional Bubby love blinded me to the objective reality.

If spiritual values are central, then what is truly important must be only the internal self, the soul, the wisdom, understanding and intelligence, the personality, the inner qualities of the person. Yet, in this week’s Parasha, Tetzaveh, great focus and attention is given to the magnificent vestments of the Kohanim. The language of the Torah always has something deep and meaningful for us to learn from. The command is given to Moses, “You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron, your brother, for honour and splendour.” We might think that the Kohanim, the spiritual elite, who officiate in the Temple, would need only simple robes. We have all heard the expression, “clothes make the man.” But I never heard that “clothes make the Kohen.”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel, suggests that “the priestly garb is not meant to endow sanctity but rather to inspire sanctity.” The Talmud teaches that those who never saw the Temple never saw a beautiful building. We erect magnificent synagogues and appreciate and admire beautiful menorahs, mezuzah covers and seder plates. Jewish practice is made for human beings, not for angels and not for animals. We are moved, influenced, impacted by what we see. Beauty and splendour bring passion to our practice.

Today we have the opportunity for beauty as never before. We possess the technology for design that brings elegance to everything from basic tools and utensils to awe- inspiring architecture. Even the beauty of a person can be enhanced through trendy techniques such as surgery, botox, facials, expensive makeup and hours at the gym. If we are not happy with the results, we can always airbrush our photos to achieve the right look, a contemporary image of youth and beauty. The pursuit of beauty has become an end in itself. It absorbs more and more of our time and attention.

What is much more difficult is to match the inner person with the external. What qualities give a person inner beauty? Dignity, kindness, patience, concern for others, a positive outlook, warmth, contentment. These come naturally to some but require hard work for most of us to acquire. The Torah reminds us that every Jew must see him or herself as part of a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.

Just like the Kohanim of ancient times, the external is not to be neglected. But it is so easy to forget that each of us is a soul contained within a body. Each one of us is precious and unique, created in the image of G-d. Our job is to bring that inner dimension to the forefront. This requires time, energy and effort to become the kind of person whose inner beauty makes the outer look insignificant.

Warm wishes for a Shabbat Shalom,
Lauren

Jan 28

Why the World needs the Chosen People

There seems to be a never-ending plague of anti-Semitism that can’t be attributed to the Arab-Israeli conflict alone. Anti-Semitism came long before the State of Israel and exists in places where there are no Jews. It leads to Israel, Israelis and Jews in general being held to a standard that doesn’t exist for any other people or nation. One wonders where this totally irrational hatred comes from. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin asked this question many years ago in their book Why The Jews?

The rabbis of the Talmud had an interesting answer to that question. They suggested that the origins of anti-Semitism are found in this week’s parsha, Parashat Yitro, where we read about the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Talmud tells us that “Rav Chisda and Rabbah the son of Rav Huna both said: Why is it called ‘Sinai?’ (They answered,) because it is the mountain from which hatred (Hebrew: sinah) came down to the nations of the world” (Talmud Shabbat 89a).

In a clever play on words, the rabbis pointed out that the seeds of hatred and jealousy were inherent in G-d’s choosing us to receive the Torah. In fact many Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of being called “the Chosen People,” seeing it as the source of virulent hatred that continues to this very day.

So what does it mean to be the Chosen People? If the rabbis connected sinah (hatred) to Sinai, then we need to look more closely at this week’s parasha in order to understand.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares an interesting perspective on two stories in this parsha. The first tells of Moses seeking guidance from his father-in-law, Yitro, who advises him to delegate leadership to others who can share the burden and responsibility of leading the Jewish People. Yitro is essentially the first executive coach.

Then we read of the Jewish people gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The Torah tells us how they experienced divine revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments. These commandments form not only the basis for the moral and ethical code of the Jewish people, but have been adopted by all Christians and others as well.

Why did Moses’s lesson in governance come about through his father-in-law Yitro, who was not yet Jewish? The Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar, Morocco, Israel 1696- 1743) explains that G-d “wanted to show the Israelites that there are among the nations of the world great masters of understanding and intellect” (as quoted by Rabbi Sacks).

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746, Italy, Holland), in his book Derech HaShem (The Way of G-d), tells us that one can come to appreciate G-d and the wondrous world He created through the study of philosophy, physics, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences. (Part 1, 1:2)

In case we think the sciences and math will bring perfection to the world, the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai teaches us that for the world to function properly it needs more than information. It needs a Torah with guidelines for behaviour, values that shape us, wisdom for living, expectations to reach for and even lines not to cross. And the world needs a people chosen to receive that Torah, who will immerse themselves in it and bring its wisdom and values into the world. We, the people chosen to be the people of the book, have a unique and critically important mission. Our job is to bring those lessons to life in order to create just and compassionate societies, balanced between rules and expectations and flexibility, caring and mercy.

This unique mission has differentiated us from all other nations. It has shaped our destiny. Were it not for the Torah, the fledgling nation that exited Egypt would certainly have blended into the many Middle Eastern tribes, lost forever. Instead, for more than 3,500 years, we have remained unique and often hated. We as a nation have retained our sense of mission, excelled in all aspects of life and made a contribution far beyond our percentage of the world population. We have, without a doubt, changed the world for the better.

Every time anti-Semitism raises its ugly head, we are reminded that, like it or not, we have been chosen for a special mission. Not to look down our noses, G-d forbid, at others, nor to revel in our Nobel Prizes, billions earned or the success of Israel as the Start-Up Nation. Rather, we were chosen to partner with G-d in bringing values and ethics to the world, to facilitate the transformation and perfection of humanity. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

Only when we live lives that show integrity, humility and compassion are we worthy of being called the chosen people. Our chosen-ness comes from our connection to Torah. It is both an incredible privilege and an awesome responsibility.

Shabbat Shalom,

Lauren Shaps

Dec 31

Shabbat: The Ultimate New Year’s Resolution

Hey to the Chevra,

Happy 2016!!  Tonight is New Year’s Eve – best known for festive parties and resolutions.  A perpetually reoccurring resolution, one we easily make and then break, is to spend more time with family and friends.  But a few weeks or days or minutes later we get caught up in the quest for evermore and go back to prioritizing doing over being.  The best way to stick to our quality time with family and friends resolution is to resolve to incorporate more of Shabbat – just chill’n – unplugged, no phones, no screens, into our lives.

This week we begin to read the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus), the story of the birth of our nation. The Torah reading for this week, Parashat Shemot describes the descent of Jacob’s offspring from freedom to slavery. The Torah tells us that “the Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with crushing harshness. They embittered their lives with hard labour, with mortar and with bricks, and with every work of the field; all their labours that they made them work were with parech (crushing harshness)” (Exodus 1: 13-14).

While the Torah may be speaking of slavery in ancient Egypt, there is much to learn about that endless quest for work-life balance. For most of history and in parts of the world today, there were and are no options. Constant labour keeps starvation at bay.

But we in the Western World have some significant choices. The challenges of balance come in a dramatically different way. It seems that we are forced to work harder and harder just to stay afloat. Most of us are continuously on call by smartphone, pager, WhatsApp – you name it. Work involves more travel. Stores are open 24/7 and on traditional holidays. Even banks have increased their hours, “for our convenience,” which forces their employees to work evenings and weekends. With economies rebounding ever so slowly, our insecurity is greater than ever. Business is brutal.  We worry that we may not have a job next year and so we work harder and more dutifully.

In previous generations most families managed with less. A penny saved was a penny earned. Raising children was a valued role. Important and fulfilling volunteer work filled spare moments. Significant contributions of time and energy were made to synagogues, community organizations and support for Israel. At a funeral of a friend’s mother, I heard about the huge effort that went into the annual Hadassah bazaar, which was long gone by the time I moved to town.

The Sages explain the term Avodah Parech to be meaningless work. It is work that breaks a person, not only because of the intensity and exhaustion, but because it lacks any sort of meaningful outcome. Purposeful work, what the Torah terms melacha, can be exhilarating, fulfilling, ennobling. So some important questions we should ask ourselves are: Is my work Avodat Parech? Or is it work that brings a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? Am I living to work or working to live? If I’m working too hard and all the time, then who is the taskmaster, whip in hand? Is it my employer, the economic times, the threat of global competition, the need for bigger, better, more and more? That answers will be different for each of us, but these are questions that need to be asked.

Another form of modern-day enslavement is the pursuit of ever more. It is ironic that most of us have more stuff than anyone living a hundred years ago could have ever imagined. It is easy to live on the consumer treadmill and so hard to get off. To finance our lifestyles, we have to work long and hard.

The Midrash tells us that early on, when Moses was still living in the palace, he came to Pharaoh with a brilliant recommendation. Moses suggested that if Pharaoh wanted the Israelites to be even more productive, he should give them one day a week to rest up. Even Pharaoh understood that being “on” 24/7 was counterproductive. He agreed and Moses recommended the seventh day, Shabbat, to be that day.

Ritual forces us to do things we might not otherwise do. I know people who buy season tickets to the symphony or the hockey game. On concert night, they might not want to go, but because they have the tickets they venture out even when tired or in bad weather. Mitzvot help us to make conscious choices, to get a handle on the inner child and the inner slave driver, to be mindful of how we spend our time, our energy, our money.  Shabbat closes the door to work, but also to our addictive quest for activity and acquisition. It gives us the strength to set clear limits – “No we won’t be going to the concert on Friday night; the ski hill or the mall on Saturday.” What will be doing instead? Being productive in other ways. Acquiring connection to G-d, to our families, friends and communities. Making time and space to be a human being, not just a human doing.

This year resolve to make Friday evening the family dinner night and Saturday shul time instead of show time. Take a break from the work world, buy season tickets to Shabbat and make it a Great Day!

Happy 2016 and Shabbat Shalom,

Lauren Shaps

Dec 03

Miracles Illuminated

This Sunday night we’ll light the first of our eight Chanuka lights and we might even make time for a rowdy game of dreidel. Take a moment to read your dreidel and think about the beautiful message it brings to our attention. The letters stand for: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham. “A Great Miracle Happened There.” Or in Israel: Nes Gadol Hayah Po. A Great Miracle Happened Here.

We all know about dreidels and latkes and donuts and menorahs, but how much do we know about the deep and relevant Chanuka themes? What miracle are we talking about and why do we care? Two important sources, the Talmud and the paragraph we add to our daily prayers tell us about two miracles: For starters, a small band of brave Jews won a war against the powerful army of the Syrian Greeks. This was followed by finding a small flask of oil needed to light the Menorah in the holy Temple, which lasted not just one, but eight miraculous days. So which one was the miracle? Or why did we need both? And what’s a miracle anyhow?

The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (1707 -1746, Italy), in his magnum opus, Derech HaShem, The Way of G-d, teaches us that when G-d created the world, he set it up to run according to natural law, what we call science or mother nature. Rabbi Yaakov Marcus, (Jerusalem) explains that G-d hides behind the veil of nature in order to give us free will. Were G-d to reveal Himself, we would be totally overwhelmed. We wouldn’t have the option to do the wrong thing ever. We’d be like angels or robots, forced to do good, and therefore we could never get credit for doing the right thing.

So according to the natural order of things, a rag tag band of Kohanim, could not beat the superpower of its day. Likewise, a small flask of oil, enough for one day, could not, according to “mother nature”, burn for a full eight. The Talmud cautions us with an interesting principle, ain somchin al haNes, “don’t depend on miracles”. Don’t play chicken on the highway, don’t walk through a field of landmines, don’t take stupid risks and expect G-d to turn nature upside down to save us.

But life is all about risks. If we never took a risk, we would never leave our homes, never drive a car, never apply for a job, start a business, marry, or have babies. So much of our lives is about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and most of the time, we drive there and back safely, our businesses succeed, our children grow up healthy, happy and only slightly neurotic due to our “perfect” parenting. When the Maccabees won the war, was that a miracle or just good luck? No one would know for sure. So G-d rewarded the Maccabees for their courage and fortitude, for putting their lives at great risk to save Judaism by creating an obvious miracle, because everyone could see that a small flask of oil, enough for one day could not, according to the natural order last for eight. In that way G-d took the whole Chanuka package, tied it up with a beautiful nes, “miracle”, “banner”, in essence saying, that His gift to us were all the events of Chanuka. Each and every one was above and beyond what could occur naturally and they were brought to us, with love, by our Creator, the Almighty, who parts the veil to allow us to see how He orchestrates the events of history and the laws of nature.

Chanuka is not meant to be only a commemoration of ancient history. Miracles are not fairy tales from long, long ago and far, far away. If we open our eyes we can see miracles at every moment. The sun rises and sets, a sperm rendezvous with an egg and nine months later a beautiful baby is born, thousands of rockets are launched by the enemy next door and almost no one is hurt. The miracle of the birth and survival of the State of Israel, of Jews reconnecting with their homeland and their Jewish roots; the incredible boom of Torah Study, even amongst Jews who can barely tell an Aleph from a Bet – every one is a miracle.

At Chanuka, our Jewish ancestors, men and women, took the initiative. In fact they took great risks because the alternative might have been Jews, but no Judaism. G-d blessed their courageous actions with miracles. Chanuka is about much more than latkes and dreidels. Chanuka is about courage, about pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, about being the next link in the chain that will bring Judaism to our children and grandchildren. Chanuka is about that sometimes only war will lead to peace. May G-d bless our puny, often half hearted human initiative, with the miracles we still need to bring light and peace to our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Lauren Shaps

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