Va’y’hi – Blessings

Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.

As Jacob lies on his deathbed, Joseph brings him his sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Jacob blesses Joseph through his children, prophesying that both will be the progenitors of great descendants, but as is oft the case in the biblical narrative, the younger will be more eminent than the older.

To this day we mimic his words when we bless sons: “Yismach Elohim K’Ephraim vKi’Menashe – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” (48:20) Ephraim and Menashe, the first brothers in the Biblical narrative, who did not quarrel, but lived in Shalom. Joseph merits a double inheritance, extra prosperity, through both his sons.

This becomes our aspiration for our boys, when we bless them with the same words. That they are men of peace and prosperity. “Yismach Elohim K’Ephraim vKi’Menashe – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”

Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.

As Jacob lies on his deathbed he calls forth his other sons. He offers them too a final blessing. “Come together and I will tell you what will befall you in days to come” (49:1). The blessings seem to take on a prophetic tone, some of them are so negative, these blessings are really akin to curses.

The Midrash (Gen R. 98:2) teaches it is at this very moment of Jacob’s blessings, that foresight of God leaves Jacob. What seems like prophecy is not prophecy at all. The commentator, Rashi, alludes to this in his commentary: Jacob is so filled with the “I,” that the blessings are Jacob’s own, and not infallible predictions of God.

From the biblical story’s perspective, Jacob’s blessings of his sons and their future progeny, are predicated on each of his son’s behaviors and traits. Each child’s individual virtues and flaws are illustrated in Jacob’s words, and written as predictions that will speak of their later tribal identity.

These are prophetic blessings (or curses) based on his stereotypical view of each of his sons.

The danger of stereotypes, of any kind, is that they can become self-fulfilling prophesies in themselves. Think of the under-achiever at school, whose teachers and parents expect lack of effort, and who consistently receive it. Think of the musical phenom, whose talent is nurtured, and who grows up to be the great artist that everyone predicted. Stereotyping can thwart free will. It can spoil our ability to change. It stops us in our tracks.

Along that line, the Hasidic commentator Or Ha’Meir on this very passage, suggests that in the absence of free choice,  a complete revelation of what the future holds, would bring about the end of history – our story. Without choice, without awareness, without making our own stories and narratives, there is no point to living. He writes: “What good is it, if a great sage comes along and tells us each our own secret, that which we were supposed to discover of our own free will?”

Rashi writes of Jacob: “He sought to reveal the end to them, but God’s presence departed from him.” If Jacob’s predictions of his son’s behavior had been God-filled words of prophesy, they would have been irrefutable statements of the future. They would not allow for free choice and change of behavior and future narrative.

Our tradition speaks of the power of blessing, the power of our curses, the power of our words. Yes, they can be predictive. But when we offer them, when others offer them to us, they are not God inspired prophecies.

Each of us has free will to shape our own future, to forge our own path, to become who we might be. We can choose how to understand the circumstances of our own lives – as a glass half full or a glass half empty. We can choose how to respond to life itself – with positivity or negativity. We can choose the paths and byways we traverse.

Blessings. Va’y’hi is filled with them.

Blessings. Predictions. Our lives are filled with the words of how other’s see us. But they cannot be prescriptive. For if they are, they are restrictive.

Va’y’hi,  the opening words of our Torah portion mean: “and it was”. Jacob then proceeds to offer blessings that speak of the future – how it will be for his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, and his other sons. How it was, does not always tell us how it will be.

We are blessed. Not just with the words people offer us – for how others see us can be both blessing or a curse. Our ultimate blessing is in the path we choose for ourselves.

Chanukah: Our Religious Freedom to Touch the Jewish Soul

Chanukah approaches with December.

latkes-stack-690-150x150We are readying our lives by buying candles and dreidels, dewaxing and polishing our Chanukiot, planning eight nights of gifts, grating our Latkes, looking up recipes for Ponchkes (Yiddish)/Sufganiot (Hebrew)/ Donuts, and planning festive celebrations and meals with friends. For us and our children Chanukah in this day and age is a big deal.

This minor holiday has become quite a Jewish winter gathering in the United States in response to the other December holiday that surrounds us. It looms large in the consciousness of the American media (and hence the non-Jewish and Jewish public) as society desires to demonstrate ecumenical inclusivity around the enormity of Christmas.

The story of this winter equinox holiday lies in the apocryphal book of Maccabees and in Judith. These books did not make it into the Biblical Canon. The story of the Maccabees was too close in time to the fixing of the Bible’s contents. While the victory of the Hasmonean’s over the Syrian Greeks and the restoration of the Temple was something to celebrate, recent memory at the turn of the millennia of the disastrous reigns of the Hasmonean dynasty, was a more than good reason to downplay the holiday.

In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud who were surely familiar with the apocryphal works ask the question: “MEI CHANUKAH? What is Chanukah? Chanukah was already a festival that the people were celebrating with the lighting of lights. But the rabbis were searching for a reason outside of military victory and a short-lived badly-ruled Jewish state to celebrate.

sdfdvazyrzwd2sy7d54xruxngxaThey offer various reasons. The House of Hillel argues for increasing light and holiness in the world over eight nights. The House of Shammai, knowing that the Hasmonean’s fought through Sukkot, argue for diminishing candle lights over eight days corresponding to the eight days of sacrifices through the festival of booths. It is from this same Talmudic passage that we first find the story of the pot of oil that lasted for the unexpected eight days and a reference to the miracle.

Most Chanukah customs are developed in Rabbinic Judaism as a back-and-forth negotiation between the people and the rabbis. What happened on the streets and in the homes of Jews eventually is given greater ritual meaning. The eating of oily food to recall the miracle of the oil. The playing of dreidel which has its origins in a medieval betting game is given significance by inferring that the letters on the top refer to the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a Great Miracle Happened There). The eating of dairy food to honor Judith on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month) of Tevet that occurs in the middle of Chanukah.

Chanukah is a festival that celebrates not just the religious freedom won by the Maccabees, but perhaps also, our religious freedom to create Jewish celebrations that have meaning and significance for each generation of Jews. What new customs will our generation develop that will touch the Jewish soul?

Where is the Hand of God?

Hands

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? …When Freddie Gray dies in police custody from a spinal cord injury.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as the death toll in Nepal exceeds 4000, and the injury told beyond 7,500.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as protestors become violent on the streets of Baltimore, less than an hour away.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God?… as a teenage girl being attacked by amorous men is thrown from a bus to her death.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … as the young die of diseases not cured.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when things go awry in our lives or those of our friends.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when natural disaster wreaks havocs on lives.

And we ask: Where’s the hand of God? … when our environment succumbs to vulnerabilities.

Where’s the hand of God?

The easiest way to answer when bad things happen is in the negative…  for we recognize  intuitively where the metaphorical hand of God is not.

God is not in the violence, God is not in the hate, God is not in the earth’s tremors or the earth’s winds, God is not in the lust, God is not in the ego that does not venture beyond id, God is not in power struggles, God is not in the politics that play with people’s lives, God is not in bad things that happen to us, others or the world.

Where is then the hand of God to be found? Such a deep question with so many complex answers.

One answer –

The hand of God is in our tears, in our compassion, in our caring. When we are moved by the troubles of others, when we empathize with the pathos of their suffering, when we pray for them in our hearts, we manifest the love of God into the universe. When we love our neighbors as ourselves we bring the hand of God into this world. When we weep, so does God.

One answer –

The hand of God is in our movement towards action – when we make a donation to help our brothers and sisters, when we work for equality for all peoples whatever their skin color, when we sponsor research, when we comfort the mourner and feed the hungry, when we raise awareness, and address society’s ills. We become God’s partners, God’s hands in repairing the world.

One answer –

The hand of God cradles us with love so that we can endure what is beyond endurance. When we let the spirit of God support us and know that there is life beyond pain, endurance beyond suffering, and that through will and support there is nothing we cannot forebear. We feel the hand of God on our shoulders, the touch of God in our hearts.

One answer –

The hand of God is in  in the path of goodness. God is found in universal values of peace, justice, love, compassion, equality, humanity. When we manifest the positive into our environment God’s presence is strengthened for us and for others. God’s hand’s hover over all of us like a parent blesses a child.

One answer –

The hand of God is felt in community that comes together and is there for each other. It is in the prayers they lift up with one voice. It is in the discussions of the holy that happen in their midst. It is in the study and the struggles that they share. God’s hand links each of their hands as they journey in life.

One answer –

The hand of God is in radical amazement when we know that miracles abound. As beautiful as a sunrise and as glorious as an ocean vista. They can be found in the little small details of existence– the fact that our hearts beat and our eyes open in the morning, the little bud on a tree in spring or the fact that water sits at the base of our cups. The sky is blue. The trees are green. The hand of God is in all of creation – if we choose to widen our eyes clearly enough we can feel.

When we ask: Where is the hand of God as we confront all that goes awry, it is too easy to forget in the randomness of existence, that so much of our world works, that is right and good and wonderful, where God is to be found.

Our ancestors believed that God had a strong hand and a mighty arm. Limited by their understanding of the world and the inadequacy of words, they spoke of God in human terms. We too have words unable to express the wonders of the Spirit that Unites us all, but just because the one that is Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, the One that is Becoming is beyond our grasp, does not mean that we are cannot recognize or see or feel or intuit  the touch of God in the universe and in our souls.

When we ask – Where is the hand of God? The answer is by necessity beyond our reach but at the same time able to be known. God’s metaphorical hand is as real as an ever present touch in our hearts and souls and minds.

The Real Knaidlach 

(Or so they were called in my family. Others call them Matzah Kleis – matzah matzah balls – whatever you call them: they are delicious!)

I swore I was going to break the mold this year. I wasn’t gonna  make and roll them. But it is not Pesach until I have made my grandmother’s knaidlach (matzah balls) from scratch. Soaked matzah, onion, celery, ginger, parsley, cinnamon, salt, pepper, egg and a little meal oh my! Vegetarian broth on the 2 hour boil. I think it’s lunch. 

 

Ingredients to taste (as all good old recipes are)

  •  6 matzah soaked 2-12 hours
  • A little onion chopped fine
  • 1 stick celery chopped fine
  • Few sprigs parsley finely chopped
  • Shake of cinnamon 
  • Shake of ginger 
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 2 large eggs
  • Superfine (cake) matzah meal 
  • Oil

Method to feel (Yep. Shown the feel by Grandma and Mum as a child and I just know when they are right).

Soak Matzah in water in a bowl.

Place celery and onion in pan and brown in oil. Drain very well.

Strain and squeeze matzah in a fine mesh colander. Place in bowl. Add egg, cinnamon, ginger, salt, pepper, parsley and sauté mixture.

Stir in matzah meal till right consistency is attained for rolling balls.

Roll in matzah meal and stand in tray in fridge.

Cook in soup for 10-20 minutes.

Can be pre-boiled, frozen or not, and reheated in soup.

  

  

The Haggadah as Metaphor

Haggadah 14th Century

As Passover approaches, our minds turn to the Haggadah, the book of “retelling” our people’s mythical history, our experience of when we were slaves in Egypt. The Haggadah tells of our enslavement 400 years from the time of Joseph, the injustices that happened to us in servitude to Pharaoh, and of the miraculous events that lead to our liberation from bondage.

The traditional Haggadah tells not just the biblical story of m’avdut l’cherut, from slavery to freedom, but uses the bible story as a template for the many times in our history when we were enslaved and worked towards independence.

Have you ever wondered why the story of five rabbis holding a Seder in the town of B’nai B’rak appears in the Haggadah? The legend tells us that the rabbi’s Seder went on all night until their students interrupted the Seder with a call to morning prayers. Tradition has come to teach us that these rabbis were not discussing Egyptian slavery but their own struggle against the Roman oppression.

Have you ever wondered why we sing a song about a goat that our father bought for two Zuzim, and all the unfortunate circumstances which occurred to everything that comes into contact with that goat? Chad Gadya, the one goat is a metaphor for those who are oppressed who will be ultimately redeemed by the Holy One.

Szyk Haggadah

The Haggadah is certainly foremost a Jewish story with a particularistic paradigm. It speaks to the creation of our identity as Jews. But it is also a universalistic story that makes us aware that we are part of humanity. The Haggadah is symbolically the retelling of the story of anyone and everyone who is oppressed, enslaved, and who longs for freedom. Hence the tradition of including readings in the Haggadah or writing whole Haggadot  that speak of specific  injustices – topics such as environment, Holocaust Darfur, African American oppression, LGBTQ rights and so much more – have found their way into our Pesach Seder for contemplation.

In its’ particularism and universalism the Haggadah is a metaphor for our own lives. Bottom line, our identity should be a Jewish identity. We form our own and our children’s identities through a Jewish lens. That does not make us impervious or indifferent to that which is not Jewish. The presence of other religions and secular society is part of our reality. However our approach to that which is not Jewish should be appreciated by us through our Jewish paradigm.

We are Jews visiting the Christmas celebration of others. We are Jews lighting candles on the side lines of our child’s Friday night soccer game. We are Jews eating Pesachdik at our families’ Easter tables. We are Jews who seek to understand and learn from Buddhist meditation. We are Jews who are involved in social causes because our tradition demands that we are God’s partners in Tikkun Olam, world repair.

Like the Haggadah which is a uniquely Jewish story that allows for the embrace and understanding of various other narratives within its context, Judaism should be and must be our basic paradigm of our personal narratives in the midst of our modern lives.

Passover is the time of our retelling the tale of freedom and formation as a Jewish people. Let it be a time also to contemplate how Judaism underlies the telling of your own life.

Predicting the Future

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In a few hours when I arrive in Australia my parents will await me in a coffee shop adjacent to the International Arrivals at Melbourne airport, with a “Skinny Flat White” in their hands to greet me off the plane. There will be big hugs. My Mum will ask if I remembered her Dior perfume from Duty Free. My Dad even though he is not allowed to anymore (for health reasons) will ask to wheel my luggage. Then we will walk into a warm summer day, pay the electronic parking ticket and head down the freeway towards their home.

I will notice a year of changes in them (the aging process seems to accelerate year-by-year) and they will point out little changes in the landscape and the city. I will ask after my brother, sister-in-law and nephew and when I am going to see them? Who is joining us for Shabbat dinner and if we have plans yet for “our birthdays”? They will ask if I am hungry after a long flight with constant servings of food and I will say – “not so much”.

There is something very comforting about knowing what our future holds. Not often do we get to predict with accuracy the way that our lives unfold. Excerpts of Alvin Fine’s words which I sometimes read at funerals “life is a journey… a sacred pilgrimage… made stage by stage…” along with the mantra I would often repeat as advice while working for the Union for Reform Judaism: “shift happens” reverberate more often in our lives rather than predictability.

If I was more of a thrill seeker perhaps I would be better at embracing the unknown future. But as in the real world, my emotional world is not terrific on roller coaster rides. I brace myself on the rise holding tight and close my eyes and gasp at the free fall. I am constantly having to remind myself that at the end of the journey there will be a sense of adventure and a realm of experience that will be part of my growth and well being.

When I look back on times of uncertainty past I have always landed on my feet. Trust in God, the ability to be creative and adapt, to do my best in all circumstances, to keep my options open and fluid, have led to a richer landscape of an unpredictable life. I would not change any of it. And I think to myself: if life predictably unfolded and I always knew what the future held, how boring it would be!

But for now, amidst a time of many changes, just for some short moments, I am hankering for predictability and thankful that soon I will arrive at Melbourne Airport. Mum and Dad: bring that “skinny flat white” on!

Getting Out on the Right Side of the Bed

This Thanksgiving weekend I have been thinking a lot about thanks. It is my first Thanksgiving as a US Citizen for which I am enormously thankful after years of visas, green card, peppered with mixed immigration status. I am beyond blessed to have loved long-term friends who moved north around the same time as me, with whom I get to spend Thanksgiving in the Virginia/Maryland/DC area. I have a warm and welcoming community congregational community where I am fortunate enough to be rabbi. I have people around me who make me feel loved, valued and nurtured. Yes, this Thanksgiving weekend I have been thinking a lot about thanks.

However, being grateful for life and blessings as a Jew is not limited to a one-time a year American holiday. Jews don’t limit thankfulness only to a day with laden tables and turkey/tofurky, cranberry sauce and pies. Our tradition would have us every morning, before we rise, begin with a prayer of thanks. It is a prayer said as we lie flat, as our neshema/souls are restored within us from their nightly cleansing in the heavens on high. It is a prayer said laying on our pillows in that sleepy dreamy moment as we awake, as our unconscious gives way to our conscious. It is a prayer said at the beginning of our day, designed to get us out on the right side of the bed.

modeh-ani

There is an importance in the word order. Most translations, like the one above, begin with the word “I”, emphasizing self. However the Hebrew does not put the “I” first. The Hebrew reads: “thankful am I”. Our morning, coming into our own wakefulness, does not begin with a sense of self, but rather a sense of thanks.

What would it take for our one day of American thanks to morph into the Jewish custom of every day thanks? Just a short tiny prayer said under our blankets! That should not be too hard, right?  Imagine how different your day would look if thanks was the first thought upon awakening? Imagine how your life might be transformed if thanks was your set induction into each morning’s existence.

So this American Thanksgiving Holiday, join me in emphasizing thanks in the every day. Vow to always get out on the right side of the bed with the words “Thankful am I…” to see beyond your self to the many blessings in life that abound.