Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ain Somchim Al HaNes

Parashat Miketz is always read during Shabbat Hanukah. The Etz Hayim Humash points out that “just as Hanukah celebrates the victory of the weak over the powerful, the parasha begins with Pharaoh’s dream of the lean cows conquering the well-fed ones.  As the parasha begins with Joseph in prison and ends with Joseph as ruler, the story of Hanukah begins with Israel oppressed and ends with Israel triumphant and independent.” 

On Rosh Hodesh Kislev I participated in a Hanukah program.  One of the guest, Rabbi Peretz Weizman said, “We are living in the period of Hanukah.” Rabbi Weizman pointed out that from until the addition of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, no new holiday celebrations were added to the Jewish calendar. I spoke with him afterwards about this statement.  All other holidays are biblical.  Most of the commandments surrounding celebrating biblical holidays give us the reason that we do this because God took us out of Egypt.  In all these cases, the holidays are connected to the fact that God fought for us, but on Hanukah we fought for God.

This is the irony of Hanukah.  The mitzvah of Hanukah is parsum et hanes, to publicize the miracle.  The question is what was the miracle.  The easy answer is that the oil lasted beyond the one day, but then the miracle would only be for seven days.  Why do we celebrate for eight days.  One answer passed down through our tradition is that we celebrate the first night for our victory. 

There is a Jewish belief, ain somchim al hanes, do not depend upon the miracle.  We hope and we pray for God’s help, but we act for God.  Just as Joseph had to come to the realization that he had to be brave enough to act to bring about change, this is a message for us all.

Hag Hanukah samech.

Long Live the King

I'm going to Israel in January.  Just me, without hubby or kids, sad to say.  I'll be on a Masorti Mission.

I started thinking about my favourite falafel joint.  It's Moshiko on Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem.  Then I found this:  It's from 2008, the Top 5 Jerusalem Falafel Joints.  Not surprisingly to be, Moshiko tops the list.  It was such a favourite of ours that Sean & I had a picture of the store on our bulletin board until our last move.

One word of disagreement with the article.  We like Melech HaFalafel.  Yes, it's cheap, greasey, fast food. To compare it to Moshiko is like comparing White Castle (forgive the treyf reference) to a fine steak house.  White Castle knows this.  They proudly call their little squares of grease covered in watery chopped onions Sliders.  You can just imagine all the reasons why.  There is a time and a place for greasy, cheap food.  Certainly my digestive system could handle that much better when we lived in Israel almost 20 years ago, but sometimes Melech HaFalafel is just what you want.  Sean & I used to get a 1/2 felafel every time we went shopping at Machane Yehuda.  There's something to be said for a quick, cheap spot of grease to hold you over until a better meal.  Here's what Go Jerusalem had to say,  Long live the King.

Do as I do.

Last week I was walking with Keren & Gavi to Just Bags at Lawrence Plaza (BTW, they're a great spot to buy luggage, knapsacks, purses, lunchboxes, etc.  Wait for a sale, although there's always something.  They're great about repairs.  My kids are very hard on their stuff!)

Anyway, back to the story....

I was walking with the kids and we passed a man asking for money.  I didn't have anything with me, and I said so.  I rarely have any cash, change or otherwise, in this day of ATM, debit, and charge cards.  I did make it a point to look him in the eye and answer though.  It's a value Sean and I have tried to instil in the kids.  Eye contact- realize you are speaking to a person, a valuable human being.  We also keep change in the car to give out.  We most often encounter beggars while in the car.  I felt bad having to say no.

After a few steps, Keren stopped.  "Eema, I have some money."  She unzipped her bag, pulled out a twoonie, and went back to give it to the man.  I stood, looking on, very proud of her.  She spoke to him; looked him in the eye, and handed him the money.  She didn't expect anything back, but the satisfaction of doing a mitzvah.  (We put a twoonie in her bank, unbeknownst to her.)

Wow, kids really do learn what we do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Upon Hearing Your CV Read - or- Be The Seed

Tonight, as I wrote earlier, I spoke at Beth David B'nai Israel Beth Am (Yes, that really is the shu's name). Whenever I speak, as with most speakers, there is an introduction.  The intro comes from my CV.  It's an interesting thing to hear one's CV read aloud.  Wow, did I actually do that?  Boy, I'm actually pretty cool, and there is a reason people should listen to me.

I have discovered that although to me these are details of what feels like a normal life, others are impressed.
Yes there are cool things- I have been appointed a "Submarine Lady of the Submarine Force."  I do have a certificate from the US Department of the Army in "The Spirituality of Trauma."  I have been published, and I did receive an award from my USY Pilgrimage group (group 2 in 1985) "Most Likely to Marry a Rabbi."

Still, to me, this is just who I am.  I forget that these are accomplishments.  I forget the power I can wield, and I forget that I really can make a difference.  Then I get to hear my CV read.  It's a good reminder.

A parable I heard from Pete Seeger-  there once were some seeds scattered to the wind.  Some fell on the path and were trampled.  Some fell on the rocks and so they didn't grow.  But some fell on arable land and multiplied by the thousands.  We never know when a word or deed will find that small spot of good growth material, but if we never cast our seeds, we'll never make a difference.

Each time I hear my CV read, and see the faces of those listening, I cast out my seeds to see where they may grow.  The CV is the fertilizer that helps plant my ideas, my values and my teachings in the fertile minds and hearts of others.

Thanks for listening.

Vayeshev- Sometimes The Path to Righteousness Comes From Below

Vayomer Yehudah el ehchav mah betza ki naharog et achinu v’chisinu et damo. L’chu v’nim’ch’renu laYish’m’eilim v’yadeinu al t’hi vo ki achinu b’sareinu hu vayish’m’u ehchaiv.
And Judah said to his brothers, “what do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, his is our flesh, our brother.”

Have you ever wondered why we are called Jews, Yehudim?Vayomer Yehudah… and Judah said…” Jews, from the name Judah. We are known by our leaders- b’nei Avraham, the sons of Avraham, b’nei Yisrael, Israelites, and Yehudim, the descendents of Judah.

It can be said that the best mentors are those who have been where we stand, and have come out positively. Avraham, Jacob/Israel, and Judah, none were perfect, yet from all we have much to admire. It may be difficult to accept this from the verses above.  Just prior to this the brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit and sat down to eat. Their anger at Joseph so great that they were indifferent to his needs or cries.  Just beyond is the story of Judah and Tamar, another mixed story in Judah’s life.  One may wonder if this isn’t Judah hitting rock bottom, but I would rather look at it as a turning point in Judah’s life.  We could focus upon “what do we gain…” or upon “let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our flesh, our brother.” 

In parashat Vayeshev Judah is struggling, but there is honour in struggling.  Judah is self-differentiating.  He is emerging as the leader, moving beyond the influence of anger and hatred, working to become better.  For so few of us is the path to righteousness a straight upward line.  There are bumps, and there are dips and there are mistakes.  Sometimes even, the path of righteousness comes from below.  If we seek to move ever forward, to improve ourselves, and to help others where we can, perhaps we too will be lucky enough to live on through the righteousness of our descendents.

Vayishlach- the lasting power of our words

“Eileh toldot Eisav hu Edom; these are the generations of Esau who is Edom.”

Reading the Torah text, Esau is a redemptive character.  Esau, while hotheaded in his youth, makes up for it.  He is a devoted son, caring for both his parents.  When Esau hears of his mother’s disappointment at his choice of wives from the local tribes, he takes a wife from among Rebekah’s kin.  Towards the end of the parasha, Esau genuinely misses and clearly loves his brother.  He comes to greet Jacob upon Jacob’s return to their land with his entire community, 400 men, the loving family welcoming the prodigal son.  Esau embraces Jacob, kissing him on the neck.  A number of commentators, including Ibn Ezra see this as heartfelt, and most reading the text would likely agree. 

Interestingly, many commentaries do not interpret Esau in this manner.  As the text above reads, among the descendents of Esau were the Edomites.  To the Rabbis, Edom represented Rome.  The Rabbis connected Esau’s red hair with the royally coloured robes of Caesar.  Perhaps the bile poured out at Esau comes from anger at the oppression of Rome, the ruling nation of their time. 

In every Torah scroll there are a series of small dots written over the word, “vayishakeihu, and he [Esau] kissed him [Jacob]” (33:4 This can also be seen in the Humash on page 125).  Since nothing in the Torah is extraneous, these dots clearly have meaning.  The question then is- what?  Throughout our history Esau has been portrayed as cruel and bloodthirsty.  The dots are interpreted as a meaning change- from kissed to bit. Our rabbis and other Jewish leaders have always been experts at word play and polemic. This verse is most likely being used as a polemic against assimilation into Roman culture.  It is a warning, “although Rome may seem to embrace you, watch your neck.”  Once codified in commentary, the vitriol meant for Rome was passed to new generations.

No matter what the meaning- the dots teach us that we must take care with our words lest something meant for one time and place is removed from its context and held up beyond its relevance.

Vayetze- Seeing God in the everyday

10“And Jacob went out from Beer Sheva and went toward Haran.  11And he arrived in the place, and stayed there because the sun had gone, and he took one of stones from the place and he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  12And he dreamed, and he beheld a ladder set on the earth and its top reached the heavens, and he beheld angels of God going up and coming down on it.  13And here was Hashem standing beside him, and he said, “I am Hashem, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you I will give it and to your descendents.  14Your seed will be like the dust of the earth and spread to the west, the east, to the north, and the south of this land and all the families of the land will be blessed by your seed.  15Behold I am with you and will guard you everywhere you go, and I will bring your back to this land because I will not leave you until I have done that which I said to you.”  16And Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely, Hashem is in this place, and I, I did not know it.”

In 1998 Rav Sean and I moved to Hawaii.  After a long flight with a toddler, we deplaned late at night, hustled into a cab, and headed to a hotel.  Our hotel room was innocuous, like almost every other hotel room.  We fell into bed, simply glad of a place to lay our heads.  In the morning, shortly before dawn, we awoke, jet-lagged and still on eastern standard time.  To avoid waking Jesse, we sat on the lanai (aka balcony), huddled against the pre-dawn chill.  Suddenly the sun rose above the mountains, like a lunar sunrise, the peaks alight with fire.  Rav Sean turned to me and said, “Now I know where God lives.” I would soon discover though that when you spend your days going to work, volunteer, the market and pre-school, that life even where God lives looks like life anywhere. 

How often can we stand somewhere that just looks just like any other place?  Then, suddenly we are hit with the feeling we are not alone, that theirs is something significant in that place beyond us.  Maybe it’s an avoided accident or averted problem.  Whatever it is, we have the feeling that we are not alone in the world.

God comes to Jacob when he most needs it.  In that moment, fleeing from home, angry and alone, perhaps even Jacob did not realize his need.  Once he lets his guard down, relaxes during sleep, Jacob is conscious of God’s presence.  “I is in this place, and I, I did not know it.” Even in Hawaii I had to remember to look up to see the rainbows.  Sometimes feeling God’s presence in our lives is just a matter of opening ourselves up, letting our guard down, looking around and being willing to believe.

Toldot- It's all in the family

“V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham…”  “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham…” The word toldot is usually translated as ‘generations’.  In the case of Yitzhak, however, the understanding is that the word toldot refers to Isaac’s narrative.  With previous uses, the text following “toldot” has been a genealogy.  In parashat Toldot, it is not a list of descendents that follow, but the story of Isaac’s family.

The change here is that the simple existence of Isaac’s generations does not define him.  Isaac is defined in his relations to others.  He is included first in the stories of his mother and father, then in the story of Rivka, and now he is defined by the birth of his children. The individual nature of Isaac escapes us. For many scholars, this passivity is a sign of something lying under the surface. “There is something naive, almost simplistic, about our second patriarch (Isaac) that jumps out of the Genesis narrative…  he is portrayed as being reserved, non-aggressive, and even, dare I say, slow” writes Rabbi Avi Weiss.  “For some, spirituality is exclusively bound with the intellect. Those of lesser intelligence are not viewed as having the capacity to have spiritual depth… spirituality emerges from the whole being- not only from the mind, but also from the soul. Those with Downs [Syndrome] may be blessed with the spiritual brilliance to become the greatest tsadikim or tsidkaniot of their generation.” 

We tend to think of our patriarchs as strong, brilliant individuals.  But of course they are human, with human frailties and limitations.  It is important that we see special needs and limitations in our text, and that these individuals occupy important roles in our history. God chooses imperfect people.  Each of us has limitations, but still plays an important role in Jewish life.  As a community we need to note the importance of relationships and ensure there is a place for everyone in our community.  Creating welcoming communities allows children and adults with special needs to go beyond the idea that Jewish life “applies to everyone who is normal, but not to me.”

This issue of inclusion has been acknowledged in North America. In Toronto the Zareinu School provides a place for many.  Most of our day schools integrate children with smaller challenges, and our synagogues make efforts to be inclusive and accessible.  Unfortunately in many Jewish communities this is not the case.  All to often those with special needs are not fully integrated. In all of Israel there is only one program to teach children with special needs for bar or bat mitzvah, administered through the Masorti Movement, but open to all teens.

Relationships are important.  The place of the individual in the community is significant.  Imagine where we would be if Isaac had been denied his place in the community of Israel. “V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham…”  “And this is the story of Isaac,” and our story as well.

Catching up

 Okay, so I'm behind again in posting, and really behind in posting anything but the parshiyot.  So here's goes catching up...

  • Can you believe it the kids grew again?!  It's strange sometimes looking at my children to realize that they're not the babies they were.  I think the key moment was looking at our Little Tykes kitchen and saying, "I'm not going to get rid of the kitchen.  The kids still use it sometimes, and others do when they visit.  I'll put it downstairs.  Besides, in ten years we could be grandparents."  OH MY GOD- ten years!  it's possible.
  • Sometimes meanness masquerades as curiosity.  I spent time talking to kids about conversion, derech eretz, and Jewish identity sparked by obnoxious comments from one child to another.  Lots of interesting questions, but the kids who needed the talk- who knows if they got anything.
  • Sometimes shaarey shayna is the place to be.  The past two weeks have been go, go, go.  This makes Shabbat a very special time (although motzei Shabbat has been busy, so the effect is mitigated.)  It lets me rest, sleep, and turn off.  (BTW- Shaarey shayna means Gates of Sleep)
  • Hanukah fry-down.  Last Sunday we had a pre-Hanukah fry down.  We made lots of latkes- potato (the all-time favourite), sweet potato, parsnip, pineapple, and cheese.  All yum.  The pineapple are sweet, and would make a nice dessert sprinkled with some powdered sugar.
  • I love my job.  I spoke tonight at Beth David for MERCAZ-Canada and Canadian foundation for Masorti Judaism.  I made my notes, looked them over, and spoke for 45 minutes from the heart.  I could have gone on for another hour.  I guess I really do love my job and what we support.  New tagline- CFMJ- Supporting the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel- MERCAZ-Canada- Your voice in Israel.  You have more power than you think.  Best line of the night- "My diverse background make me a better, stronger person.  A diverse, pluralistic Israel WILL be a better, stronger Israel.
  • I love Pete Seeger.  He taught me I have power.  I also have lots of important things to say, even if I did live a bit of a privileged life (okay, not as privileged as some, but still pretty darn lucky).
  • I also love the person who discovered the first antibiotics and set in motion the science of antibiotics.  It's amazing what a 2 inch by 2 inch infection on the skin in the middle of your back can do to mess up your life.
  • Just bought tickets for Potted Potter,, for February with the kids.  Can't wait!
Wow, all that and it's only December 14.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Fine Young Man

So I'm behind in my posting of parsha comments and everything else, but before I catch up I had to share Zach Wahls' testimony before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee and subsequent comments.  He's a fine young man, a regular guy who stood up for a principle.  Interesting how those of us who do something special never really think we're special.

Kol hakavod Zach; hazak ve'ematz.