The Pillars of Justice, or Why a Whale? – a Yom Kippur Drash

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

One of my favorite Yiddish stories is I.L. Peretz’s Ob Nisht Noch Hecher (“If Not Higher.”) It’s worth seeking out Peretz’s charming, evocative rendition, even in translation, but briefly: The Rebbe of Nemirov seems to disappear every morning at Sliches time and no one knows to where. The rumour is that he ascends to Heaven.

A Litvak, new to town, scoffs when he hears this and decides to find out where the Rebbe really goes to expose him as a charlatan. The Litvak hides under the Rebbe’s bed and in the morning, follows the Rebbe, now dressed as a Russian peasant, to the edge of the shtetl where the Rebbe chops firewood by hand. The Litvak watches with eyes wide as the Rebbe, still in disguise, enters the hut of a very poor old woman, lights her fireplace, bringing much-needed warmth and light, while secretly chanting the Selichot prayers. He then leaves, refusing to take money for his work.

From then on, the Litvak becomes one of the Rebbe’s disciples. And later, when anyone would wonder if the Rebbe was flying up to Heaven, the Litvak would answer quietly, “If not higher.”

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will read the Book of Jonah. Most of us are familiar with the story. Kids love it, and a story with a whale is always a winner. But interestingly, the most valuable part comes after the whale releases Jonah, after Jonah warns the Ninevites to repent, and after they all immediately do so.

At this point, Jonah should be pleased. He’s not – he’s furious. Jonah tells G-d that he knew this would happen: What was the point of the whole whale thing if G-d was just going to have mercy on this terrible people? Jonah beseeches G-d to treat the Ninevites with severity. Instead, G-d forgives.

In response to Jonah’s anger in the face of this mercy, G-d sends a plant to protect Jonah from the sun and wind. This makes Jonah happy, but the very next day, G-d sends a worm to kill the plant, and Jonah grieves.

G-d does this to help Jonah understand mercy; to illustrate that if Jonah is going to grieve for a plant “which (Jonah) did not work for and which (he) did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight – Should G-d not care about Nineveh in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people…?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

How does Jonah respond? Does he learn his lesson the way the Litvak did? We never find out. The Book of Jonah ends here with the question.

In Kabbalah, there is a saying that justice has two pillars: mercy and severity. The pillar of mercy represents forgiveness for our wrongdoings. The severity pillar represents being responsible for our decisions and that we reap what we sow. In life, justice needs both pillars to exist in balance. The pillar of severity upholds accountability. The pillar of mercy considers the circumstances and makes exceptions.

With the state of the world now, finding this balance is challenging. We are tired and scared. We alternate between numbness and hypersensitivity. Our anxieties chatter, our nerves are shot. It is easy, in this situation, to tip the balance of justice to the side of severity: we long for somewhere to place blame. Like Jonah, mercy no longer seems fitting – we want retribution, vengeance, we want someone to pay.

As we approach Yom Kippur, our “Day of At-One-Ment,” let us work to balance our severity with mercy. Let us ensure that true justice: impartial, reasonable, righteous, is every bit as tuned to mercy as to discipline. This difficult time is exactly the time to hone compassion, understanding, and generosity. And when that friend/acquaintance/stranger comes to us to ask for forgiveness, consider offering it as a gift to them, but mostly as a gift to ourselves.

As we continue our spiritual curriculum in this school of life, we don’t always have to be better. Higher will do.

Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tova.


Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish Educator and story-teller in Calgary. She is currently attending rabbinic school online through the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute in New York and will be ordained in December 2020.

CJR Rosh Hashanah Message: Believing is Seeing

Sept. 17, 2020 – By RABBI BARUCH FRYDMAN-KOHL

There is a Hebrew expression that goes far beyond the hope for a shanah tovah. It is, “May the old year with troubles end. Let the new year, with blessings, begin.” I hope that this will be the case for us, as individuals and families, for our community, our country, the Jewish people and the world. 

Even with 20/20 eyesight, none of us could have anticipated the past year. But I want to suggest a vision for 5781 based on recent research in neuro-optics. Although every eye has a blind spot near the center of the visual field, the mind’s eye does not know its own gap. In the middle of our universe is a hole which the eye/brain duet transforms into a full image. The eye also transmits upside down images, which the brain turns 180 degrees, situating the external world upright, solid and safe, one in which we can stand with certainty.

You see, believing is seeing. What we think controls our perceptions.

Other studies indicate that our brains create mental models which determine what we see and want. If you are grieving, you see many others who are sad. If you are in love, you see the world in a positive way. What we value floods our vision. We see what we believe.

A key word for the Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah is the Hebrew root word ר-א-ה  (R-‘A-H), to see. Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber taught us that leading words, leitwörter, build “arcs of significant repetition.” The repeated occurrence of a root word adds significance to the narrative.

Seeing plays a role in both Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah. In Genesis 21, the selection for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Sarah initially sees Hagar’s son laughing, perhaps mockingly, and insists that the Egyptian slave-woman be banished with Avraham’s first-born son, to protect Yitzhak, the true heir. Hagar becomes a fugitive, fleeing to the wilderness.

In that uncertain and fearful place, Hagar despairs. She says, “let me not see the child die.” Encouraged by an angel-messenger, Hagar is told not to fear, not to lose sight, to take the child by the hand. Then, God opened her eyes and she saw a spring of water. The child is saved and receives a divine promise that he will become a great nation. And Hagar “called the Eternal One who spoke to her, You are El-Ro’i. God who sees me.”

The reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Genesis 22) begins with Avraham called to take Yitzhak to the mountain that God will have him see. After the boy is bound on the altar, an angel-messenger tells Avraham to stop, “do nothing to the boy, for I know that you have awe (a word play on see) for me.” Only then does Avraham see a ram, which will become the sacrifice. Avraham called that mountain Moriah, the place where God sees. In turn, he is told that his descendants will be innumerable; later he is instructed to see the stars.

In both narratives, Hagar and Avraham must open their eyes to see new possibilities, new opportunities, new realities. Only when they believe can they see.

Many of us have spent the past six months looking at screens. Many of us have had limited occasions to see and embrace family. Many of us have not seen our classrooms or offices. The Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah call us to look to the New Year with hope and vision. We don’t know what is before us, but we are called to believe that, like Hagar, we need not fear, we need not lose sight of one another.

Instead, we are called to take each other by the hand — really or virtually — and to go forward with hope that God will help us to see life differently and to make it better.

In his play, Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw has the serpent in the Garden say to Eve, “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” The snake slyly suggested the subversion of society. But the American political leader Robert F. Kennedy transformed those lines into a statement of hope and aspiration: “Some see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

This Rosh Hashanah, more than many others of the past, we are called to fill the blind spot of our vision, to reverse an upside down world. We are called to dream, to hope and to aspire. Believing is seeing. Let us believe that in this New Year we will see hesed, care and compassion, concern and cooperation. And then let us build that world.


Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl

Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto, and a Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem.

Selichot: The Fine Art of Apology

Sept. 11, 2020 – By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

“No man ever became great or good except through many and great mistakes.” – William Gladstone

In the delightful children’s book The Hardest Word – A Yom Kippur Story by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn, a gigantic mythical bird called the Ziz makes a mistake and trashes his friend’s beloved vegetable garden.

When the Ziz flies to Mt. Sinai to ask God for help, God tasks the bird to search the world to find “the Hardest Word.” The Ziz embarks on his journey and finds words like “spaghetti” and “rhinoceros,” but each time, God sends the Ziz back to keep looking.

When the Ziz has exhausted his search, he visits God to announce he’s stumped. “I’m sorry,” he says. “That’s it!” God pronounces. “There are lots of words that are hard to say, but ‘I’m sorry’ is the hardest.”

This weekend, Jews will be chanting the first Selichot service of the High Holiday season. The service takes place during the Hebrew month of Elul (Aramaic for “to search”) which is an acronym for Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li – “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

This phrase from the Song of Songs is usually reserved for weddings. In this context, it is about our desire for a closer relationship with God. Selichot, usually held around midnight, includes a recitation of the “Thirteen Attributes” of God. These Attributes, originally found in Exodus after God pardons the Hebrews following the creation of the Golden Calf, speak to God’s capacity for forgiveness and compassion.

The writer Forest Rain Marcia says of the Selichot service: “Properly chanted, it forms an oratorio expressing the despair that accompanies separation from God and the desire to change and repent. The self-deprecation contained in the words, which express the feeling of life’s fleetingness, and the burden of vanity that motivates so much of what one does, all cause us to ponder how we can break the cycle of our lives and change ourselves for the better. The possibility of change and of a better life is inherent in these prayers.”

Selichot prayers are like a preamble to the High Holiday season, when we ask one another and God for forgiveness for our transgressions. Our goal is teshuvah – literally translated as “to return” to God or “repentance.”

One wonders why we have a specific occasion to ask for forgiveness. Isn’t apologizing relatively straightforward? Shouldn’t we be doing it on an ongoing basis? Well, yes and no. Human nature leads us astray sometimes. Sometimes, instead of apologizing when we should, we dig in our heels, cast blame, justify our actions. If pressed, we may issue the famous Canadian non-apology apology – “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

In our tradition, there is no place for this kind of feeble apology. The Rambam defined teshuvah in the Mishneh Torah as requiring these four steps:

  1. Verbally confess our mistake with details and understanding.
  2. Express sincere remorse with a complete and heartfelt apology.
  3. Do our best to right the wrong and make the person we harmed feel better.
  4. Resolve not to make the same mistake again – and don’t.

How is one to tell whether a penitent is genuine? Rabbi Judah said: When the penitent has the opportunity to commit the same sin once and once again and he refrains from committing it. (Yoma, 86b).

In the next few weeks, like the Ziz, we are in search of the strength and wisdom to say the Hardest Word. It’s one thing to know it and another thing entirely to genuinely apologize with dignity, grace, and sincerity.

May the upcoming Days of Awe bring us the strength and humility to make peace with God and with one another. We may not be giant mythical birds, but we know the hardest word. And now is the time to say it.

Shabbat Shalom. 


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

Schooled by Isaiah: The Lessons of Tisha B’Av

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

Tisha b’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, begins at sunset July 29. While most Jewish holidays are ultimately celebratory (“They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat…”), Tisha b’Av is a rare exception. The ninth (tisha) day of the month of Av marks the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE and the Second Temple in 70 CE, as well as numerous other tragedies including: Bar Kokhba’s fallen rebellion (135 CE); the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492); the Warsaw Ghetto liquidation (1942); and the bombing of the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires (1994). We remember and commemorate this solemn day with a 25-hour fast.

On the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, known as Hazon Yeshayahu, we read from the first chapter of Isaiah. It is a disturbing passage in which the prophet Isaiah, speaking the words of G-d, rebukes the Jews for their failure to act honestly and compassionately.

“Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city that was filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt – but now murderers!” (Is. 1:21).

Evidently, the Israelites have been going through the motions of devoutness while acting immorally in their regular lives. This strategy fails miserably; nothing makes G-d angrier than to see people treating other people poorly: “What need have I of all your sacrifices? Says the Lord. “I am sated with burnt offerings. Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” (Is. 1:11-13).

It becomes clear that our role in Judaism is to take care of one another even more than to worship G-d: “Wash yourselves clean; Put your evil doings away from My sight. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Is. 1:16-17).

Isaiah’s message is timely in hundreds of ways. A topical example: Wearing masks. Public health experts have been fairly consistent in their messaging that wearing a mask in public, in addition to frequent hand-washing and social distancing, is the primary way to reduce the risk of spreading COVID.

We may feel fine, but there is a chance we are carrying a deadly virus that could destroy the life of someone we encounter: A young mother whose child is immune-compromised, the man at the grocery store going home to his elderly mother, the teenager whose little sister has asthma. The truth is, we just don’t know, and what we don’t know can kill us.

How is this the message of Isaiah? Because wearing a mask doesn’t much safeguard the person who is wearing it. The only reason to wear a mask is to protect those around us. It is a gift we give, from the goodness and wisdom of our hearts, to our neighbors, friends, family, and ultimately, the whole world.

Our community, and Canadians in general, are well-known for compassion and caring. Canadians treasure universal healthcare and prioritize education because, even if we are perfectly healthy and don’t have kids, it is in all of our best interests that our nation be healthy and educated. Our country is made up of a diverse group of people who, in all the ways that matter, are a lot like us; we look out for each other. We are a family and we are our brothers’ keepers.

Whether or not you observe Tisha b’Av, think about all that has befallen our people. Remember the loss and the sadness and how we want better for ourselves and our descendants. And when that day is done, continue to wear your mask in public to protect G-d’s children all around you. We are deserving of this gift, it keeps on giving, and it is the least we can do.


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

Parshat Pinchas: History Has its Eyes on You

July 10, 2020 – By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

In Parshat Pinchas, toward the end of the Book of Numbers, a census has taken place, presumably to assign land rights for when the Hebrews enter the Holy Land. The logistics unfold predictably until the five daughters of Zelofechad arrive at the Tent of Meeting requesting an audience to express their feelings of injustice regarding the culture of inheritance.

“Our father died in the desert…and has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son – Give us a holding among the brothers of our father” (Num 27:3-4).

This is an extraordinary event in the Torah: Not only do these five women summon the courage to come forward; not only do they make a dignified case to inherit in this very male-centric society; not only are their names listed (Mahla, Noa, Chaglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah); and not only is the matter worthy of consideration, it is taken directly to G-d. At this stage, this would have been enough.

Then, without equivocation, Hashem tells Moses, “The plea of Zelofechad’s daughters is a just one… transfer their father’s share to them. Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter’” (Num 27:7-8).

To say this passage is unusual is an understatement. Women are mentioned in our Holy Books, but rarely are their names listed, and even more rarely are they seen outside their roles as mothers or wives. More often than not, women in the Torah are noteworthy for the manner in which they assist or challenge men who make up the main narrative than for their own agency.

The women are treated in a respectful manner and the matter progresses seamlessly – no drama, no controversy – just a comforting message: Sometimes, when conditions are right, an injustice can be brought to those in power, considered, and corrected and not just for those in the immediate situation but as a legacy for those who come after. How wonderful!

Another thing that makes this instance remarkable is what doesn’t happen: In order for Zelofechad’s daughters to get their birthright, the men, who would have inherited, don’t dispute the women’s appeal. They just let it happen. Whether gracefully or ungraciously is unknown; there is no mention of anyone challenging the fairness of the request or complaining about G-d’s ultimate ruling.

An occurrence like this gives us faith in right-mindedness. There are times when the right thing to do is so obvious that anyone with a little seykhl (common sense) can see it: Wearing masks in large crowds, helping to change a culture in which Black people are in danger, petitioning for better health conditions in seniors’ residences, speaking out against antisemitism when the tinfoil-hat crowd creates outrageous conspiracy theories, and so on…

As one of our more well-known quotes urges: Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof – Justice, Justice, Shalt thou pursue (Deut. 16:20).

I had the pleasure of streaming the Broadway show Hamilton last weekend. Although my knowledge of U.S. history is limited, the George Washington character chants a song that feels very relevant:

“I know that we can win
I know that greatness lies in you
But remember from here on in
History has its eyes on you.”

Chaverim, history has its eyes on us. What will we tell our great-grandchildren about how we conducted ourselves during this complicated time? Will we be gracious and brave even if it means sacrifice? Are we on the right side of history?

At this time of upheaval and adversity, let us have the strength to tap into the greatness that lies in us and may we conduct ourselves with the integrity and dignity that defines the best of our tradition.


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently studying online with the Jewish Studies Learning Institute as a rabbinic student and will be ordained in June 2021.

What’s My Motivation? Parshat Korach

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

A friend posted that her adorable toddler has discovered the magic and wonder of the word, “no.” Apparently, regardless of the question, the answer is always, “no,” spoken loudly, with hands on hips and a defiant twinkle in the eyes. Such is the power of finally having language with which to dissent.

We all go through this stage as we grow. For some of us, it lasts longer than for most, and for others, it never really passes. We all know contrarians who will insist that the sky is not blue because they enjoy the act of arguing too much to acquiesce, even when common sense says otherwise.

As Jews, we understand this compulsion to disagree and to question as a way to advocate for change. As I wrote in my previous Parsha, much of our motivation is for betterment, and that is apparent in our Holy Books.

When we read Parshat Korach in the book of Numbers, we learn that Moses’ first cousin, Korach, is leading a rebellion. He petitions to remove the seemingly arbitrary hierarchy of Moses as leader and Aaron as High Priest, and he gives a superficially reasonable argument: “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” (16:3).

Moses does not question Korach’s right to argue about this. In fact, Moses begins making arrangements to come to a reasonable resolution. Then comes the kicker: Two of Korach’s followers, Dathan and Abiram, spit in the face of Moses’ efforts at diplomacy and say, “Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?” (16:13).

Moses is stunned that, yet again, a false memory emerges, this fake news, of how wonderful life was in Egypt. He is so distressed by this bald-faced lie that his diplomacy departs and he ends up, with G-d’s help, dispatching the rebels to an abrupt and sandy death.

The Sages make clear that arguing was not the crime here. For them, it is the motivation behind the argument that determines its righteousness, or lack thereof. “Any dispute for the sake of Heaven will have enduring value, but every dispute not for the sake of Heaven will not have enduring value. What is an example of a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of one not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company” (Mishnah Avot 5: 21).

In our daily interactions via email, social media, and family conversations, Korach can be a good “check engine” light. What’s going on under the hood? Are we gossiping? Are we tired, sad, lonely, hungry? It’s ok to disagree, as long as our motivations are for good. As the poet Rumi wrote, “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

It’s tiring to always have to be the grownup; sometimes our inner toddler comes out. Our culture today is full of off-the-cuff remarks, comments that sting, and trolls who want a laugh. But our problems are not going to be solved by juvenile responses. It will be kindness combined with understanding, and a heart full of well-meaning, that will bring us peace in the tumultuous days to come.


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

Kvetching and 20/20 Hindsight: Parshat Beha’alotecha

By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

In the opening scene of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s highly-strung character Alvy Singer jokes about two elderly Jews having dinner at a resort. One turns to the other and says, “Boy, the food here is really terrible.” The other answers, “And the portions are so small!”

We Jews have a reputation for kvetching, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this week’s parsha, Beha’alotecha.

The Israelites have kvetched in the desert before. Following the Exodus, they cried, “You have brought us out here into this desert to make us all die from hunger.” (Exodus 16:3). Moses advocated for his people and G-d sent manna.

This time, the kvetching is different. It happens, not because the people are hungry, but because they are bored. “…the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat?”’ (11:4)

As the story progresses, G-d is unimpressed. G-d promises to provide meat until it is, literally, coming out of their noses (11:20). With the meat “still between their teeth,” many Israelites are struck by a plague and the most egregious offenders are killed.

It’s not such a mystery where the chutzpah to complain comes from. Our people have a proud history of creating systems designed to work better than before. The entire Talmud is filled with arguments around how to make Judaism and the world better.

As Rabbi Jonathan Saks says, “Judaism is a faith for those who seek to change the world… (it)is a protest against the world that is in the name of the world that ought to be…to make a difference, to change lives for the better, to heal some of the scars of our fractured world.”

The most baffling part of the parsha is not the complaining, but that, as justification for wanting to have a more diverse diet, the Hebrews hark back to when they were slaves: “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge…” (11:5). Are the Israelites really saying that they would trade their freedom for fish?

We have to remember that for centuries, these people were slaves. Being a slave is a little like being a child: You don’t have much power but the basics are provided for you. In contrast, being a free adult is accompanied by great responsibility. It can be scary and exhausting. As adults we often yearn for the simplicity of childhood. We refer to years past as the “good old days.” We forget that childhood is chock full of its own difficulties, anxiety and fears.

All the more so when we speak of society. It may seem that 50 years ago, things were better. We remember a simpler, sweeter, more wholesome time. We forget it was also a time of bitter turmoil: Wars, racism, crime, sexism. For some, just being who they were was a criminal offence. Our memories are precious but sometimes they fool us and paint the past with sentimentality.

In our world today, there are some systems that are still not working and we struggle to come to terms with that. It is tempting to stay in innocence, to live, as they say, with the devil you know. But that is not a full life. A life stuck in nostalgia is stunted, cowardly, and ultimately will rot. The solution is not just to yearn for times past, but to face forward with a brave heart; to strive for justice, have faith, and continue our difficult journey toward the Promised Land.


Ilana Krygier Lapides
Ilana Krygier Lapides

Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller. She is currently attending rabbinic school at the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute and will be ordained in June 2021.

D’var Shavuot 2020, ‘Wither Thou Goest’

by ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES

Wither Thou goest – I will go.
Wither Thou lodgest – I will lodge.
Thy people shall be my people.
Wither Thou goest – I will go.

The pilgrimage festival of Shavuot is upon us. Shavuot commemorates the anniversary of our receiving the Torah. We celebrate by listening to the liturgical poem, the Akdamut, eating dairy products (reminding us that studying Torah is as sweet on our tongue as milk and honey), and engaging in all-night Bible study. We also read the Book of Ruth.

My first exposure to the above passage was via Leonard Cohen’s beautiful rendition. At that time, I thought it was a romantic love song. I’ve quoted it to my husband and, if it registered at all that the words were from our tradition, I assumed they were from the Song of Songs. 

But, no. These are the words that Ruth speaks to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Book of Ruth. The story begins in the land of Moab, a notorious enemy of Israel, where Naomi’s family has settled due to famine.  Naomi’s husband passes away, as do her two sons, and they leave behind two Moabite daughters-in-law. Despite Naomi’s insistence that the girls return to their families, one of them, Ruth, insists on staying with Naomi and follows her back to Israel. (Ruth 1:16-17)

It is surprising that Ruth is so attached to her mother-in-law. In traditional Jewish humour, mothers-in-law don’t always fare well – we all know the jokes. But Ruth remains loyal to her mother-in-law and refuses to leave her.

Earlier in the Book of Ruth, we come across the term chesed. This word does not have a direct translation into English. It is sometimes spoken of as mercy or pity, but what it really means is loving kindness. 

The loving kindness between Ruth and Naomi is worth mentioning here because, in these times, it is hard to imagine two people from such different backgrounds intersecting this affectionately. 

For most of us, our internal radar is so perfectly tuned to the way we see the world that other perspectives barely register. Technology allows us to limit our intellectual and emotional intake to sources that align with our point of view.  We express ourselves into echo chambers disguised as social media and hear only what we already suspect is true.

A dissenting perspective is not only unwelcome but we worry it’s wrong and stupid, even hateful or dangerous. It sometimes feels like our very survival depends on holding tight to our world view. This does us a disservice – seeing the world through a lens of fear limits our knowledge and, by extension, our opportunities for growth.

By all evidence, Ruth and Naomi should have been enemies. Instead, these two women banded together, created a family, and loved and learned from one another. Ruth, with Naomi’s support, became the great-grandmother of King David, who ushered in one of the greatest periods of peace and prosperity in biblical history.

Maybe we have something to learn from these two women who rose out of tragic circumstances, made a choice to trust one another, and left a legacy of kindness. On this strange and difficult Shavuot, when Yizkor is online and we eat our cheesecake in isolation, perhaps we can open our minds and souls to a new way of being and allow thoughts of chesed not just into our hearts but into our deeds.


Ilana Krygier Lapides is a rabbinical student at Jewish Studies Learning Institute.

BULKA: Rabbinic Reflections for the Record

By RABBI REUVEN P. BULKA

For the Record, mazal tov on the launch of The Canadian Jewish Record!

You begin The CJR as we start a new book of the Torah, B’Midbar, often referred to as the Book of Numbers, even though the word B’Midbar means “in the desert.”

The desert is where Israel received the Torah, at Mt. Sinai. This reading, the first portion in the “Book of the Desert,” precedes Shavuot, when we recall the revelation on Mt. Sinai.

In the lead-up to Shavuot, we would expect a reading that is full of inspiring exhortations, a sampling of the ethical and moral obligations that comprise the Torah.

Instead, we get numbers – a census report of the population of each tribe. What are we to make of this?

There is an interesting nuance to the census worth contemplating. According to the Torah, the counting was via mispar shemot – “by the number of the names” (Numbers, 1:2). What exactly does that mean?

The sages Ralbag and Malbim explain that everyone who entered the census gave their name and wrote it down, and afterward the names were counted. The census did not reduce the people to numbers. Everyone came to be counted, and came with a name, with an identity.

Everybody was a somebody. Coming as this does within the immediate proximity of Shavuot lends a powerful impact to this census. This most important message in advance of revelation is that the community is much more than numbers, that everyone is important, that everyone counts.

The ethical principles, the moral directives, derive from this critical idea. Once this essential idea is entrenched in our minds, the rest follows with potent logic. Absent this essential notion and all the regulations fall into a sea of obscurity.

The names were written, and everyone who gave their name also gave a half-shekel. To be counted, one must be a giver, however minimally. Everyone takes from the community in some way. That is what community is designed to provide – something for everyone, materially or spiritually.

But everyone must perforce be a giver, a contributor. That is the best way a community can thrive.

In different ways, these two ideas have come into blunt reality as we wrestle with COVID-19. On one hand, the avalanche of deaths threatens to dull our sensitivities, to see this as merely numbers.

But each death is a true human tragedy. We cannot let this happen.

When we are free of this dreaded virus, we should expect an explosion of bottled-up grief, and a strong desire by many families to memorialize their dearly departed who were not properly mourned. If called upon, we must respond with sensitivity and caring, however emotionally draining it will be.

On the other hand, this tragic time has been a true community time, when our actions have made us all givers. Our staying at home, our physical distancing, normally innocuous actions, became lifesaving actions for the entire community.

It is an odd confluence of actions and emotions. When the pandemic leaves us, our caring action of staying away will hopefully give way to the caring action of embracing those who will need our support as they confront the losses they incurred.

I can think of no better way to prepare for revelation and of affirming the sanctity of God’s word than by thinking of ways we can and will help God’s sacred creations, who need us now and in the coming months.


Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and President/CEO of Kind Canada Genereux.