Tuesday, December 31, 2013

More Conversations

Oddly school breaks lead to us having fewer meals together.  Actually, we have fewer meals.  Everyone seems to eat as they choose.  Sean and I have actually gone out with friends a number of nights.  We even went to the movies.

Instead, we spend different time around the table.  Last night and tonight we introduced the kids to a new (old) TV show, "Whose Line Is It Anyway."  It's the show "where everything's made up, and the points don't matter."  Sean and I discovered it when we were first married.  We watched the BBC version on a tiny TV in our Jerusalem apartment.  We continued to watch when the show came to the US, and, last night, rediscovered it.  We started with bloopers (not G rated) then moved on to full episodes.  It's both amazingly intelligent and wonderfully juvenile all at once. It led to conversations about the Rat Pack and Sammy Davis Junior, about what's appropriate on television, censorship, and lots and lots of laughter.

Not every time around the table needs to be erudite, but it's great when it combines with lots of fun.

Weathering the Storm

It has been a week plus since we spent a day without power.  The city is still getting itself back to normal.  Sean has been continuously preparing for the storm we just had.  He's put flashlights and batteries away.  We've stocked up on some foods.  Today I finally was able to buy salt for the driveway.

The funny thing is, the things that Sean has prepared were things on which we did okay.  The most glaring example: flashlights.  We have tons of flashlights.  Not all work, but most are fine.  Saturday night prior to the storm, I told the kids to make sure they had flashlights by their beds.  This was an easy task since they have multiple flashlights from camp.  Sean had a flashlight on his bedside table.  I have a reading light.  We had two more in our dresser.  One large one, which can also be a lantern, lives on the porch with our camping lantern.  Another lives outside the kitchen.  There's one more on my keys, easily found.  Batteries have a home in the basement, also easily found.  We always have lots of AA and AAA.  Suddenly, we needed five flashlights in the dresser, with a second set of batteries for each.  The kids began to complain they no longer had flashlights.  I said something to Sean.  He returned them.  We didn't need to put them aside.  They're already findable.

Much more helpful was his regular calling of Home Depot to see when their salt came in.  I finally bought some today, three 20 lb bags, plus one to return (we borrowed one).  Oddly, I usually have 3-4 bags in the garage.  I tend to over-salt.  I don't like to slip.  Sean's been doing the salting when he leaves for work.  Unfortunately he wasn't as neurotic as I in buying the salt, and didn't tell me when we ran out.  That's unlikely to happen again.  I'll probably buy more next week.

What we haven't done- we still haven't really prepared food.  We do have lots of water and some canned foods.  For years we've talked about having a couple of cases of MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat, created for the military).  There's a pretty good kosher version made by My Own Meals.  You can eat the cold, or even get heaters.  You just prop them up on "a rock or something," and you're good to go.  It's a chemical heater.  After, you can put the heater in your pockets to keep you warm.  Hopefully Sean will work on that.  It's the one area we've allowed to really slip over the years.  Otherwise, as long as Gavi and Jesse keep dancing (see Unplugged), we'll all be fine.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Our Family Unplugged

It's been a rough week in the GTA. Many are still without power.  We were part of the lucky ones. We lost power for only 20 hours. While cold, it was a day I would not have wanted to do without.

First, it made us sit up and realize that while we thought we were prepared, we were not as prepared as we thought. We allowed our ice-melt supply to run very low. Normally I keep about 30 pounds in the garage, plus special stuff for our steps. We were left only with the specialty ice-melt. Our battery supply was not what it should have been. We had plenty of batteries for flashlights, and a plethora of flashlights that worked (the seem to accumulate like wire hangers or single socks). We had told the kids to have flashlights by their beds in case of power loss. We have a CD/radio, but it uses 6 "C" batteries. We had 4. Thanks to Steve who brought us some. We realized how dependent on the internet we are. Neither of us has data available on our phones, so that was simply lost to us. There is no plan to change that in the future. It's also not enough to have canned stuff in the house, if it's not food you want to eat on its own. Our tuna supply was low. Water, taco shells, pureed tomatoes, and Israeli pickles is not an emergency plan. We talked for years bout getting MRE's. It's now time we do it.

Second, it made us realize how prepared mentally we were. We knew Saturday night we'd likely lose power, so there was no surprise. We have plenty of candles, flashlights, and matches. We have a cache of wood for the fireplace. It's kept in the garage, but we can open it with a key in case of lost power. There were food places open. We had bagels for breakfast and laffa for dinner. We moved food from the fridge to the deck. We remained calm, and planned as we needed to.

Finally, we're good at being unplugged. Not knowing how long the outage would last, we suggested to the kids they not use laptops, etc, but save them for when they got really stir crazy. Keren wasn't feeling great, but a comfy bed of blankets in front of a fire, and parents to cuddle with works out well. Our children are all readers, and we have a large library to keep them busy. We worked on a puzzle (finished on Tuesday). When the boys got a little stir crazy they decided to listed to music on the CD player. This led to an amazing air guitar show. They leaped about while Jesse played their invisible harmonica. Gavi was in charge of guitar. A hockey stick was his electric guitar; our old hobby horse the acoustic. Sean videoed a set so we can show it at their weddings.

As the light faded, the kids got a taste of what darkness really is. Even at camp or out camping there is always ambient light. They agreed it was eerie to listen to the quiet in the quickly approaching darkness. We threw another log on the fire, and cuddled up together with our books. Towards evening's end, the kids decided to watch a movie we'd all enjoy. They picked Night at the Museum with nary an argument. Then we all headed up to the masted bedroom to huddle up together to sleep. It was at this point the lights came on and, more importantly, the heat. The kids decided we should go ahead with the sleeping plans. After all, what's more fun than a sleep-over, and it wasn't warm yet.

The next day we were all grateful for the power and the heat, but they lamented a little bit over the loss of the opportunity. Insightful for them. Interesting for us.

I hope you are all safe and warm.

Parashat Vayera- Many Out of One

...hinei Anokhi nogeif et kol g’vul’cha batzfar’d’im. V’sharatz ha’y’or tzfar’d’im v’alu u’va’u b’veitecha uvakhadar mishka’v’cha v’al mitatecha u’v’veit a’vadecha u’v’amecha u’v’tanurecha u’v’mish’a’rotecha…. Vayeit Aharon et-yado al meimei Mitzraiyim vataal Ha’tz’fardei’a va’t’khas et-eretz Mitzraiyim
…Behold, I will strike all your borders with frogs. And the rivers will swarm with frogs, and they will go up and come into your house and into your bedroom, and on your bed, and into your servants’ home, and upon your people, and into your ovens and in your kneading troughs…. And Aaron stretched his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt. (Shmot 7:27-28, 8:2)
Pirkei Avot (5:9) lists 10+ miraculous items created during the very last moments of creation.  Among them are the mouth of Bilaam’s donkey, Aaron’s staff (that transforms). The inscription of the 10 Commandments and the tablets, and the first pair of tongs (since you need tongs to make tongs).  As a result of this mishnah, Rambam asserts that all miracles must be part of the natural world. Exceptions to this must have been built into creation, and therefore into nature.
Throughout history there have been many explanations as to the natural series of events that may have created the plagues. One particular piece is more difficult to explain.  The frogs are to be a widespread plague, but when Aaron holds out his hand, only one frog appears. Rationalist, such as Ibn Ezra, state this is merely referring to the genus, but that there were actually thousands of frogs at that moment. Rabbi Akiva taught there was one frog. The Egyptians beat the frog, and others flew from it. Midrash teaches the thousands emerged from the mouth of the one.
While the modern mainstream follows the rational thought of Ibn Ezra on this occurrence, there are fascinating natural phenomena that may inform us. The Northern Gastric Brooding Frog, native to Australia, swallows her eggs, allowing them to develop in her stomach. Fully developed frogs emerge from the mother’s mouth. In Darwin’s Frog of South America, the male swallows the eggs, storing them in specialized sacks until they are fully developed. Three species seem to shed babies from their backs. The male Marsupial Frog holds tadpoles in pouches on his hips until they are developed. The male Midwife Toad, of Europe and northern Africa, carries its eggs until they are ready to hatch. He then deposits the tadpoles into water. Finally, the Surinam Toad flips during mating so the eggs are caught between the male and female, and become embedded in the female’s spongy skin. More skin grows over the eggs, allowing them to gestate in protected pockets. When developed, the frogs emerge from their mother’s back, although flexing can also forcibly eject them.
We cannot know if the Rabbis knew of any species that displayed such interesting reproductive oddities. Likely, the rationalists were correct, and this is just a case of life imitating Torah.
Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Conversations From the Rabbis' Table

Meals at our house are interesting things. In this world of crazy schedules and too many gadgets, we still manage to eat most of our breakfasts and lunches together. Conversation flows (well, not always at breakfast) like a daf of Talmud. One word reminds someone of another story and another and another, until the tangent is more important than the start. 

Our conversation is sometimes immensely normal, and at other times just what a stereotype of a two rabbi family might entail. Breakfasts are a fascinating study in the human condition. Keren and I are most certainly NOT morning people. We are barely capable of speech, let alone thought. Gavi and Sean are decided morning people. Their morning begins with wrestling and dive bombing stuffed animals. They are loud and boisterous. They are happy. Jesse is somewhere in the middle, miserable until awake, then amazingly annoying (at least to my non-morning brain).

Breakfast conversation cannot usually be classified as conversation. "Conversation (noun)- The informal exchange of ideas by spoken words." (Thank you apple dictionary.) Like most parents, Sean and I spend a lot of time rushing the kids along. There are t'fillot to say, shoes to don, and backpacks to pack. Keren is incapable of speech, and usually communicates in short dissatisfied grunts, nose in a book. Jesse is either argumentative or nudgey. Being a teen and the older brother, he feels it is his right and responsibility to correct, discipline, and generally annoy his younger siblings. This is punctuated by exasperated exhalations when something does not run smoothly, such as his contact lens not leaping into his eye by its own volition. There are reminders of how everyone is getting where after school, and things that need to happen. I imagine it's a typical household. Of course, there are the times when Jesse is excited about something at school. Then conversation turns to quadratic equations, history, and talmud. Gavi will jump into any discussion of military history. If there is discussion of mythology, Keren perks up and may even leap in. Regardless, Gavi usually has something to say, often about meteorology. He will glance out the window, and begin to explain the clouds, their nomenclature, and what the weather for the day will be. I usually have to stop him at this point. "Gavi," I say, "You know my brain isn't awake. Please repeat what you said, slow, and with small words." He smiles and runs through it all again. If I'm lucky it'll only take three to four times to get it.

Sunday breakfasts make more sense. Sean isn't home, but by 11-ish we're all up and ready to eat. The kids usually ask for pancakes, although popovers or waffles aren't unheard of. There is fruit and there is chocolate. Then the conversation turns to memories. Jesse likes banana, strawberry, chocolate pancakes. The trippers at Ramah make them on the camping trips. Jesse will wax on about the sights he's seen and the canoes he has carried. This may lead to other camp reminiscences or memories from family camping trips. I will tell stories of their antics when they were smaller. It's a leisurely meal without the grogginess and rush.

Dinners have their ups and downs. We have dinner together at least four nights a week. Two other nights there are at least three of us. Saturday night tends to be a night of foraging for all. The conversation is more erudite. There is lots of laughter (and some annoyance). This is the time when our children really show they're the children of two rabbis, at least when they're not poking each other in the ribs and chasing the cat.

This is a topic I've long wondered on. How are our conversations different from others. I have long wanted to somehow record them. We've tried some nights, with varied success. I may still try. But for now, I shall content myself with trying to record some brief details here. I hope you enjoy.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thank Heaven For Little Girls

Adolescence is a fascinating (and aggravating time) for parents. Our daughter is fully in. There are, of course, the physical changes. She looks older than her years. She's taller than her older brother. (He'll beat her out eventually, but she can rub it in now.) It means she can burst into hysterics for no apparent reason (even to her). It also means she's still very much a little girl.

Last night she went to her first bat mitzvah party. She chose her outfit as carefully as any teenage girl. We have a plethora of fancy hand-me-down dresses from older cousins. The dress by itself was much too sexy for an 11 year old, but paired with a tank top to raise the neckline and a cropped knitted sweater (pinned shut- Keren's idea) to cover her shoulders, it was lovely. The shoes were heeled sandals that I could happily wear (and might).

Keren headed off with a group of camp friends to celebrate their first coming-of-age. I waited up late for her arrival home, something I expect I will do many, many more times in the next 8-10 years. We'd been visiting friends, and brought a friend of Keren's home for a sleep-over. Twenty minutes after Keren arrived home, I went up to her room to turn off the light. On the floor were the two girls. Keren was still wearing her party clothes. Strewn across the floor were "Littlest Pet Shop" animals and accessories.

She may be playing dress up like a big girl, but the little girl is still very much in there.

Parashat Shemot- Names Have Power

V’eileh shmot b’nei Yisrael habaim Mitzraimah et Yaakov ish uveito ba’u.
And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Yaakov; every man with his household came. (Shemot 1:1)
Thus begins the book of Shemot, of Exodus. The process of naming is an interesting one. In the Torah we name parshiyot and books for the first unique words. We have Breishit, Shemot, Vayikra, B’midbar and D’varim. However we also use the English chapters and names that have come to us through others. Chapter and verse numbers provide easy reference, but the changing of names becomes a different issue. English names are given to biblical books based on perceived themes: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. While there is some overlap, the meaning in most of the names changes.

Breishit - In beginning                            Genesis - Origin
Shemot - Names                                      Exodus - Departure
Vayikra - And He called                         Leviticus – Of the Levites
B’midbar - In the wilderness                   Numbers - Quantities
D’varim - Words                                     Deuteronomy – Second Law
The names begin with a connection to ours. Progressing from the start of humans to the line of Shem, and then to Avraham, Breishit is certainly our origin story. However, the similarity of meaning ends there. Sefer Shemot tells the story of the exodus from Egypt, but it is so much more. It is the story of our growth from family to tribes to a nation. These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt. We came down few in number, and there we became a nation, great and mighty. The book continues well past the actual departure. Without a doubt it is a dramatic moment, but not the only one. When we focus on the departure, we forget revelation at Sinai and our connection to Torah and the Mitzvot. Vayikra is filled with laws and rituals for the Levi’im and Kohanim. Then again we are to be a kingdom of priests. This knowledge is not meant for an elite few. Sefer B’midbar speaks of time and place. It is not just a book of censuses. We are searching for a way out of the wilderness, both physically and spiritually. Finally, D’varim. Actually named Eileh HaD’varim, These Are the Words,” it is a repetition of the laws through Moshe’s farewell speeches. It is a book of reminders, a summation. The English can also be interpreted this way, coming from the translation of Greek Jews, Deuteronomion. However, in light of the Christian use of the term, it can also provide an open door. If there can be a second law, why not a new law?
Words, and especially names, have power. Our tradition teaches that each person is given three names: one his parents give, one that his friends call him, and one that he acquires. Each name speaks to who we are and the relationships we share. The same is true for the Torah. The names we use describe and inform our relationship to it and to Jewish life.

Parashat Vayechi- Repent One Day Before You Die

Vayik’r’vu y’mei-Yisrael lamut vayikra livno l’Yoseif…
Vayik’r’vu y’mei-David lamut va’y’tzav et-Shlomo b’no…
And the days of Israel drew close to die, and he called his son Joseph… (Breishit 47:29)
And the days of David drew close to die, and he commanded Shlomo his son… (I Kings 2:1)
Rabbi Eliezer would say, “…. Repent one day before your death.” (Pirkei Avot 2:10) His disciples would ask, “How does a man know on which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer said to them, “All the more reason he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow.” This is the meaning of Solomon’s words in Kohelet 9:8, “At all times your clothes should be white, and oil should not lack from your head.”
There is a time in every person’s life when s/he becomes aware of his/her mortality. It is a time to be serious, but also a time to live life to the fullest. It is a time to connect and reconnect with family and loved ones. Recently, Forbes Magazine published an article on the 25 Biggest Regrets in Life.  Among them:
  1. Working too much at the expense of family and friendships
  2. Not teaching my children more things/ Spending more time with my family
  3. Not standing up to bullies, in school and in life
  4. Not staying in touch with friends
  5. Not turning off the phone/ not leaving the phone at home
  6. Worrying too much about what others thought/Not having enough confidence
  7. Living the life others expected me to, instead of the life I wanted
  8. Not being happier/ taking life too seriously
  9. Carrying a grudge/feud with a friend or family member
  10. Failure to tell your parents/mentors how much you appreciate them
  11. Holding on to youth too long and not becoming an adult
Kohelet’s words ring true in the Forbes article. If we live each day as if we are wearing the white of Yom Kippur, but also cherishing each day and those around us, we will have less to regret, no matter when that day should draw near. Jacob and David are lucky in their lives. They are given the realization that their days are drawing to a close. They are able to spend time and speak with those closest to them.
Take the time. It’s a message for all of us. 

Parashat Vayigash- Desert Revelations

Yitzhak. Vayomer Ehlohim l’Yisrael b’mar’ot halaila vayomer Yaakov Yaakov vayomer hineini. Vayomer Anokhi haEl ehlohei avikha al tira meirda Mitzraimah ki l’goi gadol asimkha sham.
And Israel journeyed with all that was his, and he came to Beer Sheva and offered sacrifices to God, the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, “Yaakov, Yaakov” and he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “I am the God of your father; do not fear going down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there.”
On his journey back to Joseph, Jacob travels by way of Beer Sheva. It is a logical stop on the way to Egypt from Hebron, a last stop before entering the desert. It was a place of peace between Avraham and Avimelekh. Beer Sheva is a natural oasis, the site of seven wells dug by Isaac (of which three or four have been identified). It is the place Jacob left just prior to his famous dream and his full acceptance of the covenant with God.  It would later be a site of refuge for Elijah, and one of the cities rebuilt by the Jews after the return from Babylon. Beer Sheva marked the southern tip of biblical Israel.
In modern times Beer Sheva continued to inspire. A growing city, Beer Sheva is home to Ben Gurion University, founded with the Ben Gurion’s ideal of making the desert bloom. David Ben Gurion once said, “In Israel, to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” Beer Sheva is a place from which miracles emerge. There is a calming spirituality there, on the edge of the desert. Avraham found it. Isaac knew it. Yaakov returned to it.  And Ben Gurion envisioned it the seed of a modern miracle.

Parashat Miketz- Hanukah as a Zionist Act

Roni v’simchi bat Tziyon ki hi’n’ni-va v’shachanti b’tokheikh n’um A’donai.
Sing and be joyful, daughter of Zion, for I come, and I will dwell amidst you, said A’donai. (Zekhariah 2:14)
The holiday of Hanukah celebrates the military victory of Israel, led by the Maccabees, over the invading power of the Assyrians. A miraculous feat in itself, it is made more miraculous by the story of the single flask of pure oil lasting eight days.
In modern times, the celebration of Hanukah has shifted from this nationalistic focus to one celebrating religious freedom. The Maccabees fought for our right to practice Judaism as we wished, and not to assimilate.
Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, taught that we need to return to our nationalistic roots. According to Rabbi Hartman (as shared with me by Rabbi Lionel Moses of Shaare Zion Congregation, Montreal) the celebration of Hanukah is a Zionist statement. It is a public affirmation of our right as a nation to exist, and for Jews to live and practice on the world stage. After all, it is a celebration of a military victory, one which solidified our right to national independence. We place our hanukiyot in our windows, proclaiming this victory, and therefore this right, to the world.
In the words of Mi Yimalel, “Uvyameinu kol am Yisrael, yitached yakum vayigael; but now all Israel must as one arise, redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.” With our celebration of Hanukah, let’s focus, with song and celebration, our hearts, minds, and actions towards Israel, our people and our land.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why American Thanksgiving is Better Than Canadian Thanksgiving

In Canada few Jews celebrate Thanksgiving.  It comes the the second Monday in October.  Proclaimed January 31, 1957, "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed – to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October."  I believe that, for Jews, it comes too soon after the fall Hagim.  After two days of Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur pre and post-fast meals, two days of Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, plus various Shabbatot, the last thing everyone needs or wants is another large family meal.  However, as Americans, Thanksgiving is deeply embedded in us.  And therefore, as American Canadian residents, we celebrate both Canadian and American Thanksgiving.  As one who celebrates both, I can honestly say that Canadian Thanksgiving cannot compete with American Thanksgiving.  Here's why:

1. Timing

Canadian Thanksgiving's timing is off.  I know the harvest is earlier in Canada, but the second Monday in October is simply too soon.  We've just gotten past Labour Day.  Kids have finally settled back into school routines.  They are also, of course, looking towards Halloween.  Thanksgiving passes in a flash between back to school and Halloween, almost without a second thought.

American Thanksgiving comes in late November.  Observed throughout the early years of the nation, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens" to be November 26, 1863.  President Lincoln's successors followed his example, declaring the final Thursday (usually) of November as Thanksgiving.  In 1941, the US Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the fourth Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving, which was signed by President Roosevelt.  By November it is not just harvest time, the harvest is in.  The work is completed.  The weather has started to turn, and it is the perfect time to stay at home, cosy and warm, with family and friends.

2. A Great Back Story

Although American Thanksgiving wasn't celebrated annually until 1863,  it connects its roots to "The First Thanksgiving," that being celebrated by 53 pilgrims at Plymouth Rock with 90 Native Americans and  for three days in 1621 (as reported in an account by Edward Winslow).  Other stories talk about Thanksgiving in the spring after surviving horrible winters.  There's a story of people surviving on just five kernels of corn a day.  You can also learn about the Native Americans, specifically Squanto and Massasoit, without whom the pilgrims would never have survived.  When we look at the hardships the founders of America had to endure, we realize we're pretty damn lucky.  This leads to great Thanksgiving pageants and stories, arts and crafts and costumes.

Canadian Thanksgiving has no story.  It just is.

3. Shared Observance

In The US everyone buys into Thanksgiving.  It's an opportunity, not only for families to celebrate, but for communities to come together.  Houses of worship across the country share services.  It is a day of respect and appreciation for our interfaith and multicultural history, from President Washington's inauguration to the present.  Even though we will be eating with friends and family, the day is surrounded by community.

Canadian Thanksgiving is just about the harvest (according to the proclamation), so it's just about the meal.  As long as you eat, who cares who is there.

4. Football & Parades

American Thanksgiving is a day of food, family, fidelity, and football!  Great games are played on Thanksgiving.  After you've eaten, you have an excuse to lie, bloated, on the couch and watch the game(s).  Also, while you're preparing, there's a great parade down NYC's 5th Avenue.  It's the best parade in the world!  The parade ends with the Santa Claus float, which signals the start of the Christmas season, providing a solid boundary for holiday advertising and decorations.  

Canada's Christmas season is supposed to begin with the Santa Claus Parade, but since there are multiple Santa parades, who's to know when it really starts.  It seems to start immediately after Halloween.

5. Thursday vs. Monday

Canadian Thanksgiving is on a Monday.  As the family meal lingers into the evening, we start to worry about the next day, a day of school and work.  You have to be conscious of getting home at a reasonable hour.  How can you be really thankful if you're worried about a presentation on Tuesday.

American Thanksgiving is on a Thursday.  People leave work early on Wednesday to get a head start. It's a 2 1/2 day work week, followed by a 4 1/2 day weekend.  What more can you ask for?  You don't have to run out to put kids to bed.  There are no early meetings the next day.  There's nothing but another day off for which to be thankful.

6. Pardoned Turkeys 

Each year, since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the president of the US with 3 turkeys, one live, two dressed.  President Kennedy was the first to "pardon" his turkey, announcing he wasn't going to eat it.  President Reagan made it official when he pardoned his turkey in 1987.  President Bush Sr. continued with the tradition, making it a permanent annual tradition.  The pardoned turkey is sent to a petting zoo to be pampered for the rest of his/her life.  Need I say more? 

Clearly American Thanksgiving is the better of the two.  Still, as I said earlier, we celebrate both.  We use Canadian Thanksgiving as a day for being outside and enjoying the start of autumn.  It's usually one of the few warmish days left before dampness then cold set in.  We go pumpkin or apple picking, gathering produce to be used for our celebration in November.  Even now I have 3 pumpkins in my living room.  Last Thursday we shared the evening with American friends.  We ate turkey and stuffing, roasted beets and greens, brussel sprouts, apple pie (and due to Hanukah) sufganiyot (doughnuts).  We appreciated that we live in a good city with great friends.  We toasted the good fortune we do have and the future, where we hope to have many, many more days and reasons for which to give thanks, whether in October, November, or both.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Marriage Advice from America's longest Married Couple

There was a lot of news this week about John (102) and Ann Betar (98), who eloped 81 years ago. News comes both from the yay marriage and the nay marriage camps.

Asked for advice on how they stayed together so long, Ann said, "Marriage isn't a lovey-dovey thing." She spoke about devoting time to understanding each other. John pointed out that they always hold hands, and added, "Always listen to your wife."

There's more of course.  Being content with your life is important.  Like Ann said, it's not all fireworks and rainbows.  Some days are filled with sick kids and kitty litter.  Contentment is not loving every day, but it is being happy and satisfied with the overall.  I am not a gardener, but I love the look, the harvest, and the time it gives me with my daughter who is a gardener.  I am content to put in the time for the benefits I get.  Marriage is the same. I may not love every moment, but the time together and the benefits are sure worth it.

The old joke is that a woman gets married thinking she can change her husband. A man marries a woman hoping she'll never change.  The reality is we both change and stay the same.  Sean will never put things away in the places they actually go.  Things will continue to fall out of cabinets on me, and I will have to search for the things he has given new and interesting homes.  I don't understand the difficulty in putting the milk in the correct spot (or the pasta, or the cans, or my sweaters...), but I do understand that it is impossible for Sean.  I can choose to be frustrated and angry or accept the things I cannot change.  But we also grow.  We grow as individuals and together.  We grow through our actions and interactions.  We grow emotionally.  If we continue to devote the time to understanding each other, we will continue to grow together and not apart.

And holding hands- couples tend to share space.  One of the first things I notice in a couple having trouble is the space.  I knew a family member was having marital issues before even he did.  They weren't touching.  Couples touch. They orbit each other like celestial bodies. They share personal space.  The intimacy shared does not end when you leave the bedroom, it is merely curtailed.  It continues to be expressed through hand holding, a touch to the arm  or back, leaning, and even eye contact.

So mazel tov to you, John and Ann.  You figured it out- not by reading self-help books and following experts, but simply by living with and for each other.  Here's to 120.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hanukah as a Zionist Statement

This drash comes from one shared by Rabbi Lionel Moses (from a teaching of Rabbi David Hartman). I hope I have done them justice in repeating the ideas.

Roni v’simchi bat Tziyon ki hi’n’ni-va v’shachanti b’tokheikh n’um A’donai.
Sing and be joyful, daughter of Zion, for I come, and I will dwell amidst you, said A’donai. (Zekhariah 2:14)
The holiday of Hanukah celebrates the military victory of Israel, led by the Maccabees, over the invading power of the Assyrians. A miraculous feat in itself, it is made more miraculous by the story of the single flask of pure oil lasting eight days.
In modern times, the celebration of Hanukah has shifted from this nationalistic focus to one celebrating religious freedom. The Maccabees fought for our right to practice Judaism as we wished, and not to assimilate.
Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, taught that we need to return to our nationalistic roots. According to Rabbi Hartman (as shared with me by Rabbi Lionel Moses of Shaare Zion Congregation, Montreal) the celebration of Hanukah is a Zionist statement. It is a public affirmation of our right as a nation to exist, and for Jews to live and practice on the world stage. After all, it is a celebration of a military victory, one which solidified our right to national independence. We place our hanukiyot in our windows, proclaiming this victory, and therefore this right, to the world.
In the words of Mi Yimalel, “Uvyameinu kol am Yisrael, yitached yakum vayigael; but now all Israel must as one arise, redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.” With our celebration of Hanukah, let’s focus, with song and celebration, our hearts, minds, and actions towards Israel, our people and our land.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Making the Punishment Fit the Crime

Last night Sean and I went out for an evening with friends.  We left a clean house with our kids watching TV and playing games. It was a lovely evening, a formal dinner we do annually with friends. We get all dressed up; eat good food; drink some cocktails, and enjoy great conversation.  The evening flew by, and we returned home around 12:30 AM.

Here is the scene when we walked in the door-

  • Kids are all in the kitchen.
  • A Bakkugan cartoon is playing on the desktop, loudly.
  • The sink is full of dishes. (They ate dinner before we went out)  They had eaten pasta with cheese, ice cream, and only God knows what else.
  • The table is full of dishes.
  • There are dishes on the counter.
  • Food is still out.
  • Milk is out.
When we said, "Clean up and go to bed." The response was to beg a bit more time.  After all, the cartoon was over in 10 minutes.  Because we will never learn, we agreed, with a caveat.  They had to clean the kitchen.  That meant (and I spelled it out for them) the dishwasher loaded, and any other dishes washed.  Food put away.  The table cleaned off.  All dishes cleaned up, either in the dishwasher or washed.

Here is the scene to which we woke:

  • Kids all out cold (we don't know what time they finally went to bed).
  • Sink still full of dishes.
  • Glasses on the table and the counter.
  • Pots on the stove.
  • A sticky table
  • 1/2 a banana on the table.
  • Bowls in the dishwasher right side up (not really helpful).
  • There was probably more, but I can't place it.
By 10 AM two children were up.  Gavi actually asked me to make him pancakes.  I said no.  Keren made pancakes instead.  I woke Jesse, twice.  He finally got out of bed at 12:25 PM.  I had loaded the dishwasher, and washed dishes.  I needed to make some space for me to make myself breakfast.  But there had to be consequences.

Here is what the kids did today:

  • Swept the house from top to bottom.
  • Unloaded the dishwasher and drain rack.
  • Collected books, games, etc. from all the rooms in the house and put them away.
  • Cleaned three bathrooms- mirrors, counters, floors, toilets.
  • Organized the den.
  • Cleaned their rooms (mostly).
  • Did some laundry.
The most amazing part- they did it without complaint.  Did they learn a lesson?  I think not, at least not a lasting one.  But if we do this again, and again, and again- it'll sink in.  In the meantime, we have a clean house, at least for today.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Here Comes the Sun

We are well settled back into Standard Time.  It is my preferred time.  I so prefer sunlight at the start of my day, when it helps to warm my room and wake me up.  Rising in the total darkness makes me want to say things that would embarrass Rob Ford.

Today, a non-work, non-school day, there were no alarms set.  I woke to the sun streaming in my window, warm beams spreading across the blanket, and the cat shifting next to my legs to take it all in.  It wasn't 10 am.  It was 7:23 am.  Not late, but still bright, even in November in Toronto.

I know it won't last.  We'll have a couple of months of darkness on both ends of the day.  Then, just when the sun returns, it will be horribly taken from us as we "leap forward" to Daylight Savings, an abomination before creation.

Parashat Vayishlach- Wrestling With the Divine

Vayivateir Yaakov l’vado vayei’aveik ish imo ad a lot hashachar. Vayar ki lo yakhol lo vayiga b’khaf-y’reikho vateika kaf-yerekh Yaakov b’hei’avko imo. Vayomer shalcheini ki alah hashachar Vayomer lo ashaleichakha ki im beirakhtani.
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. And when he saw he could not prevail over him [Jacob], he touched the hollow of [Jacob’s] thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained as he wrestled with him. And he said, ‘Release me for day breaks;’ and he [Jacob] said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ (B’reishit 25-27)
Jacob’s wrestling with the angel is an extremely popular archetype. It is an image repeated and reinterpreted throughout literature. Jacob is alone. With whom does he wrestle? An angel? Himself? Does someone else intrude upon his solitude? And the blessing which he demands, can one demand a blessing of an angel? If sent by God, why is he wrestling, and what is his mission? If himself, can Jacob truly bless himself?
Jacob has always had a difficult relationship with the Divine. He received his religious legacy under false pretenses, but once given it could not be taken back. He has trouble sensing God’s presence as he runs, wheeling and dealing with God for Divine protection. And here- demanding blessing. One must wonder is his difficulty with God or with the divine spark that resides within himself.  We each in our lives struggle with God’s presence in the world and in ourselves. It lies at the heart of questions about how we interact with each other and the world. We wonder how humans can perpetrate evil against each other, but we are equally surprised at extreme good. Perhaps the wrestling is the struggle not to accept mediocrity, but to strive to be b’tzelem Ehlokim, in the image of God.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Putting Together Ikea Furniture Is Not a Domestic Disturbance

On November 7, police in Sweden were called by neighbors to the suspected scene of a domestic incident at about 1 AM.  The neighbors had reported banging, yelling of a man and woman, and a crying child.  
Anyone who has ever assembled an Ikea piece can relate to this.  It's the instructions.  To be world-wide friendly there are no words.  Incorrectly translated directions can run the gamut from amusing to completely unhelpful, but Ikea's no words is the greatest source of frustration.  Once you decipher the steps it is easy, but you need a special college course just to decipher them.  
One of my funniest interactions with do-it-yourself furniture was going to a friend's home for dinner.  He had all the pieces laid out, and was drilling a hole.  I stopped him, pointing out that the holes were pre-drilled.  "But it wouldn't go together."  I replied, "Then you're doing it wrong."  He went to cook, and I put the bookcase unit together.  I was done before he was.

Sex & Violence

I just heard on the radio that gun violence in PG-13 movies has tripled since the rating was introduced.   In addition, it seems there is something called the "gun effect."  The very presence of a gun increases aggression.  The gun effect doesn't surprise me.  The continuing increase in violence in movies directed at teens disgusts me.  On the flip side, movies can earn an R rating with a simple flash of nipple.  One has to wonder which is more dangerous- a weapon or a nipple.  Which is more damaging to self and to psyche?

I remember going to my first R rated movie.  It was December 1980.  I was 11.  I was in sixth grade.  We were in Miami staying with friends.  I remember it for two reasons.  Russell had to stay at the friends' home while I went out with our parents, and I got to go to an R rated movie.  It was "Private Benjamin," starring Goldie Hawn.  While tame by today's standards, it features sex, although seen from the shoulders up, some profanity, war games in army training, and drugs.  The first sex scene maybe only 3-4 scenes in.  Amazingly, I do not believe I was at all damaged by the movie in any way.

Fast forward to today.  Keren is 11.  Sean and I had the debate over whether the kids could watch "Life of Brian," which features full frontal nudity, however not in a sexual way.  My argument was the video games and movies, and even television the kids see daily is so much more damaging than the brief view of a man or a woman standing naked.  Sean is the prude in the family, but eventually he saw my point.  Our children have all studied anatomy on age appropriate levels.  As young children we bathed them together.  They know what the human body looks like.  By the way, Monty Python's "Holy Grail" is PG.  I think it's much worse- just check out the Castle Anthrax scene- "and after the spanking the oral sex." with women in the background chanting "Oral sex. Oral sex."  The kids watched that at a friend's house.  We'd said anything G or PG rated was okay.  Oops.  A couple of years later we knew Jesse was growing up when he started giggling at that scene.

More significant- we watch what our children watch (we also know what the human body looks like).  Most often we watch with our children.  This leads to discussion.  Discussion leads to examination and learning.  I have been known to tell my children they can't watch something.  I never allowed "Sponge Bob."  My reason- "It is simply too stupid for any intelligent person to watch."  (I did watch part of an episode to make my judgement, but it was so awful I had to turn it off.)  We didn't watch "Barney."  "I find Barney too inane and annoying to have on."  (Interestingly neither Gavi nor Keren asked what inane meant.)  I have also said to my kids when they do ask what something means, "That's something you're not mature enough to know yet.  When you are we can discuss it then."  It's basically I'll tell you when you're older with a twist.  I mean it.  I will discuss it, just not then.  The kids know it's not a brush off, and they've accepted the lesson that there are things they don't need to know right away.  I have disallowed certain video games.  We have watch great classic Looney Toons, and talked about the violence.  Two favorite movies of Sean's and mine are "The Negotiator" and "Demolition Man."  The kids haven't seen them.  They are very violent.  They could watch now.  We've talked about them.  We've talked about the stories, the acting, the reason for the language and the violence.  And when the kids do watch, we'll talk some more.

In the meantime, give me healthy, consensual sex or nudity over blasting people indiscriminately away any day.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

No More Coffee :(

Today I started my day with a cup of coffee.  It's not something I normally do.  If I have three cups of coffee in a month that's a lot.  At Brandeis I loved coffee.  Working at Ramah as a university and grad student I existed on coffee, but something has changed. Coffee has betrayed me.  It went from friend to enemy.  I do not know why.  I thought it was the caffeine, but I can eat a handful or more of espresso beans with no ill effects.  Caffeinated tea does nothing, and chocolate is like air to me.  Coffee however betrays me. A fluttery feeling I cannot describe seems to fill me instead of the wonderful feeling of awareness.  I am all too conscious of the beating of my heart.  The heart should be an organ you can take for granted, like your liver.  You should never know with total awareness that it is there, but passively instead.  I am alive.  I am functioning.  My heart is still there.  Unfortunately the feeling last long after the caffeine effects.  Just twenty minutes after the cup I am crashing.  It leaves me feeling as if I have had a day of hard labor.  I give up.  I capitulate.  Coffee- you win.  Live long, for I shall not drink you again.  (Of course, I'll probably forget in time, and you coffee will again have your evil way with me.


Things Created Over a Beer

Just read Sean's entry for today- Last week the morning show on Q107 (of which I am a loyal follower) shared a list of the Top Ten Things Created Over a Beer.  Close to the top was the US Marine Corps.  Created in Tun Tavern on November 10, 1775- this is a fact known to anyone who has served or worked with the Marines.  My boys know it.  Keren likely will too when she's a little older, having heard it every year.  I barely remember my own age, but I know the day the Marine Corps was founded. Just 18 days later the Chaplain Corps was created.  I guess someone had to keep those Marines in line.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

"Winnie the Pooh & Horton the Elephant

There's a wall of words and quotes in the lunchroom at our children's school.  Some in Hebrew, some in English.  Some from real people, some special characters. Gavi noticed a quote that had been wrongfully attributed, "A person's a person no matter how small."  The painter/designer thought it was Winnie the Pooh.  It's actually Horton the Elephant.  We've informed the school.  I'm sure they'll correct it.

What's the problem?  I'm torn.  It's a great quote, especially for a school.  It should be correctly attributed.  Pirkei Avot teaches, "One who says something in the name of the speaker brings redemption to the world." (Chapter 6, mishnah 6) So of course I want the quote corrected.  Still it would be a shame not to have Winnie the Pooh up there.  Pooh is perhaps one of the best and most beloved characters ever, and I want to see his name on the wall.  It makes me smile.

I suggested a new quote.  Maybe they'll add it.  "Promise me you'll always remember: you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think."

Shabbat shalom.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

For What Are You Compensating?

Just a few days prior to Halloween I drove through a very Jewish neighborhood nearby.  As I drove through the streets i was struck by the extreme Halloween decorations.  Some focused on the timing of the day- jack o'lanterns, fake webs.  Others, on the gore that has come to define Halloween.

That there are decorations does not surprise me.  The decor helps to create the mood.  I wonder instead about the neighborhood.  This area is 90% Jewish.  With the passion and creativity thrown into the decor for Halloween- "It's too make it special for the kids," a parent once told me, what do these same families do for the Jewish holidays?  I wonder- for what are you compensating?

With the (not surprising) results of the Pew study in the US, questions are being re-asked about Jewish continuity.  As a Jewish professional I can tell you honestly that I cannot make sure your children and grandchildren will be Jewish.  Only you can.  It's not really about intermarriage (although that's certainly a factor).  It's about creating a connection to and love for Jewish life.

I wonder if those same families put as much passion into Sukkot, Shabbat, and Purim.  I know some do.  I grew up in a family that did.

(You're about to hear a lot about my mom-  As the artisticly creative parent, she was a real mover and shaker when it came to getting us kids involved in the days)

I have wonderful memories of my mother pasting large paper hearts to a streamer for a Valentine's Day party I wanted.  When I wanted an "Indian" (that's American Indian) Party.  She designed sand paintings, macaroni beading, and bought me a great head dress.  (I wanted to be an Indian when I grew up.)  For my Sweet Sixteen Toga Party (Yes, I actually said toga party.)  she made a full size gladiator and a full size Roman maiden to greet people as they arrived at our home.  She also made may poles for the center pieces at my bat mitzvah.  Halloween was observed with fun and elaborate costumes.  In addition, every Shabbat was lit by candles.  When my mother went back to work, and returned home after Shabbat began, I lit, and she was greeted by their soothing light.  Shabbat dinner was sacred.  We could invite whoever we wanted (sometimes there was quite an eclectic crowd), and we could go out after, but we were to be home for Shabbat dinner.  We never complained.  Shabbat dinner meant the good china, my mother's crystal kiddush cup and our silver ones.  It meant a special meal, even if it was a Shabbat special picked up at the kosher butcher.  Rosh Hashannah meant eating lots and lots of honey.  Mom had us make mobiles of bees and honey jars, apples, and bee hives.  We collected cards to display, which would later be hung in the sukkah.  We made "stained glass" pictures with autumn leaves and crayon shavings.  Yom Kippur meant breakfast with the Scolls, close family friends.  It also meant chocolate milk.  A Scoll family tradition that my family has adopted and embraced.  Mom and I baked mandelbrot.  The recipe we used is framed and hangs above my cookbook bookcase.  It's not the greatest recipe ever, but I still make it every holiday (except Pesach), and everyone gobbles it up.  It's the taste of holiday, of family, and of memory.  Sukkot brought a barn raising to our home.  We trekked to the local canal to harvest reeds for the schach.  (Unfortunately transplanting snails a mile north into our neighborhood.)  We sat and strung popcorn (eating much more than we strung) and cranberries.  Every year mom had a new idea for a decoration.  The sukkah was precariously built and had to be tied to tent pegs or the house to keep erect, but I ran home to sit in it every afternoon.  Hanukkah brought Maccabee themed mobiles and decorations.  One year a large Judah adorned the table with Shimeon and an elephant.  My mother was the first to teach me about the elephants in the Maccabee story, which I thought was the coolest thing.  We ate lots and lots of latkes, and sat in front of the fireplace while my parents read stories.  Tu B'shevat meant eating dried carob known as bokser, which we all hated (although we ate it anyway), but look back on fondly.  We started seeds.  This was often the time when my Dad would start planning his garden and even starting a few seeds.  Purim brought homemade puppets, great costumes, and hamantashen baking.  Pesach was celebrated with family.  I remember the year my cousin broke the basement window (where we were having seder) trying to climb in when we opened it for Elijah.  My Aunt said if Elijah could make it around the world, he could figure out how to get in the window.  At my other aunt's & uncle's home it meant Grandma's special chicken soup, kneidel, and chopped liver.  I have those recipes.  As the kids aged it meant large care packages packed of of these delicacies to take back to university.  Shavuot filled our home with greenery and flowers.  Some years it seemed every surface was adorned with bikkurim.

Additionally, my Mom helped me celebrate these days in my doll house.  I collected miniature furniture. For each holiday we'd create a scene for the living room with homemade seder plate or latkes, maybe a lulav and etrog.  One year my scenes were featured at the local library.  My parents bought me a silver hanukiyah for my doll house that now sits in my dining room.

Writing about this it seems almost exhausting that my parents did this.  But I think of these things every holiday.  It's what makes my go outside with my kids on cold evenings to hang sukkah decorations because they think we should hang them at night as soon as we can.  It's what causes me to add to the sukkah each year.  It's the reason we have beautiful wooden Shabbat Hanukkah, and Pesach foods, play table cloths, candlesticks, and challah covers.  It's why my kids all had special kiddush cups at an age when they could not appreciate them (although they do now. Yes, Sean they do.)  My did it out of love, love for us and love for Judaism.  It worked.  While definitely on different paths, my brother and I are both committed Jews.  I expect the same from my my children.

Parashat Vayetze- God's Land, and Ours

Parashat Vayetze

Vayikatz Ya’akov mishnato vayomar achein yeish A’donai bamakon hazeh v’a’nokhi lo yada’ti.
And Ya’akov woke from his sleep, and he said, “Surely A’donai is in this place and I, I did not know.” (Breishit 28:16)

Ya’akov flees from his home in fear of his life, from Beer-Sheva towards Haran. As the sun is setting, he takes a stone to use as a pillow, and lays down to sleep. As he sleeps, he is granted a prophetic dream, in which he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. God appears to him, and reiterates the promise made to Avraham and Yitzhak, “The land on which you lie, I will give to you and your descendents. Your descendents will be as dust of the earth, spreading to the west, the east, the north, and the south. In you and your descendents, all the families of the earth will be blessed. (v. 13-14) Ya’akov awakes to realize that God was with him even as he feared for his life. It often takes unusual moments for us to realize that God is with us.
A second message from the dream is Ya’akov’s connection to the land. As b’nei Ya’akov this message is for us. To the west, the east, the north, and the south, this is our land. Just as Ya’akov’s mind and body understood his connection to the land, being in Israel produces a special feeling. Each region has its own qualities. The west today is modern and brilliant, lively and welcoming. The east is the ancient and devout blending with modernity. The north is green and lush, sweet with wine and mysticism, and the south is sandy and abrasive, but flowing with beauty and strength. These qualities are also the qualities of the Jew: modern and brilliant, lively, welcoming, ancient and devout blending with an understanding of modernity, flourishing and thriving, sweet and mystical, and even rough and abrasive, but flowing with beauty and strength. Rav Sean & I hope you will be able to join us to experience all this and more this summer.

Parashat Toldot- Perspective

Vayistom Eisav et Ya’akov al ha’b’rakha asher beirkho aviv, vayomer Eisav b’libo yik’r’vu y’mei eivel avi v’a’hargah et Ya’akov achi.
And Esau hated Ya’akov because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, ‘Let the days of mourning for my father be near; then I will kill Ya’akov my brother.’ (Breishit 27:41)
The situation is thus- In their younger years Esau sold his birthright to Yaakov in a heated moment for a bowl of hamim. Fast-forward to our moment- Isaac realizes his years are waning. He is ready to pass on his blessing to his elder son, Esau. Rebekah, having the prophecy about her sons, hearing this, quickly prepares Ya’akov to stand in Esau’s place to receive the blessing. Once the deed is done and discovered, Esau is again caught in the emotion of the moment. Overcome with his emotion he vows to kill his brother. Far in the future, with the perspective of a life well lived he embraces his brother in love rather than anger.
Perspective is a valuable commodity. Everything should be viewed through perspective glasses. Since Simchat Torah our household has experienced a series of, shall we say, mishaps. A week after our microwave stopped working. The following Friday afternoon the oven broke mid-challah baking. Thankfully it was just a burnt-out wire. On the day the oven was repaired one of the dishwasher door springs broke, causing the door to crash to the floor. Rav Sean and Jesse replaced the springs. The next morning we discovered the shower wouldn’t turn off. And two car tires need replacing. As is the way of the Facebook age, I logged on to air my frustration with this seemingly never-ending series of minor disasters. I never got to update my status. The first thing I saw was a status update from a friend. Six months ago he underwent a bone marrow transplant. At his last check-up he was declared cancer-free. Perspective. I got a huge dose of it.
As humans we are naturally self-centered. Life is frustrating. Minor tribulations seem huge in the moment. However, with the gift of perspective gained through life well lived, even some true calamities pale in its light.

Parashat Chayei Sarah- What's Your Dash?

Vayigva vayamot Avraham b’seivah tovah zakein v’savei’a vayei’a’sef el amav. Vayik’b’ru oto Yitzhak v’Yishmael banav el m’a’rat hamakhpeilah el S’deih Efron ben Tzochar haChiti asher el p’nei Mamrei.
And Avraham expired and dies at a good old age, full of years, and was gathered to his people. And Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the cave of Makhpelah in the field of Efron ben Tzohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre. (Breishit 25:8-9)
V’hamelekh David zakein ba bayamim va’y’khasuhu babgadim v’lo yicham lo…. v’hamelech lo y’da’ah. Va’Adoniyah ven chagit mitnasei leimor ani emlokh….
And King David was old of many days, and they covered him with clothes but he could not get warm…. And the king knew her not…. And Adoniyah exalted himself saying, ‘I will be king…’ (I Kings I:1, 4-5)
Parashat Chayei Sarah, ‘The Life of Sarah,’ begins with Sarah’s death and ends with Avraham’s death. The haftarah begins with the death of King David. Sarah is beloved and lamented by Avraham. She has lived 127 years. Avraham’s death is not a tragedy. He lived 175 years. He is buried by Isaac and Ishmael, having been “gathered to his people.” He is part of something greater than himself, “his people,” generations of beloved others who would perhaps welcome him after death.  Sarah’s life is viewed through Avraham’s eyes. Avraham’s life is viewed through his sons. In juxtaposition is the haftarah.  David is “King David.” His life is viewed through his position instead of his relationships. At the end of his life he is King, and he is alone. He was beloved by God, but it is not enough. At the time of his death his family is not there.  He is surrounded by strangers and courtiers. They cover him with blankets, but he cannot get warm. It is more than heat he is missing.
Sarah and Avraham could die content with their loved ones around them proud of their lives. King David lived a life of love for God, but also a life of war and decadence. As a king it may have been successful, but as a person it was cold and lonely. This is how King David dies.
There is a wonderful poem written by Linda Ellis called The Dash. It speaks to the quality of our lives. What matters most is not the day we are born, nor the day we die. What matters is the time often represented by the dash on a headstone. In Linda Ellis’ words- “So, when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash… would you be proud of the things they say about how you spent YOUR dash?”*

* “The Dash” is copyrighted by Linda Ellis. To read the poem, go to http://www.linda-ellis.com/the-dash-the-dash-poem-by-linda-ellis-.html.

Parashat Vayeira- Come & Eat

Vayeira eilav A-donai… v’hu yosheiv petach-ha’ohel k’chom hayom. Vayisa einav vayar v’himei sh’losha anashim… vayaratz likratam…. Vayomar “adonai im-na matzati chein b’einekha al-na ta’avor meial avdekha. Yukach-na m’at-mayim v’rachatzu rag’leikhem v’hisha’anu tachat ha’eitz. V’ekcha pat-lechem…. Va’y’maheir Avraham…. ratz Avraham... va’y’maheir…. Vayikach chem’ah v’chalav u’ven habakar asher asah vayitein lifneihem v’hu-omeid aleihem….
And A-donai appeared to him… as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. And he lifted his eyes and looked and lo there were 3 men… and he ran to meet them…. And he said, “My lord, if I have found favour in your eyes please do not pass away from your servant. Please allow a little water to be brought, and wash your feet, and recline under the tree. And I will get a piece of bread…. And Avraham rushed…. And Avraham ran… and he hurried…. And he took curds and milk, and the calf that he had made and put it before them and he stood by them…. (B’reishit 18:1-8)
According to commentary and Midrash Avraham and Sarah were famous for their hospitality. We see it clearly here in parashat Vayera. Avraham is always anxious for the opportunity to do hakhnasat orchim, welcoming guests. He sits watching for anyone who might pass by. Even in the heat of the day, when others would be napping, Avraham is watching. Avraham runs to meet those he sees, ensuring they will come to his tent rather than passing by. Avraham and Sarah care for their guests’ comfort, both immediate and longer, offering just what is required, but going beyond. They provides water to wash and cool their feet, a great comfort to those walking through the desert in sandals. Avraham and Sarah hurry. They do not keep their guests waiting on their schedule. To this end Sarah quickly prepares quick bread, curds and milk, easily put together for any unexpected guest. Once their immediate need is met, there is time to wait for the calf to roast. Avraham waits upon his guests. He does not sit leisurely by, but is anxious to be ready to provide anything else they may need.
In the ancient mideast, hospitality was a moral institution. To survive the harsh climate people had to be able to depend upon one another. It is a lesson that has stayed with Jews as we have spread throughout the world. “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Go anywhere in the world and there will be a meal for you. No other people send their children half way around the world to dine with strangers.
I believe the key to Jewish hospitality is that no one is really a stranger. They are family you simply haven’t met yet. We are all B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel. I shared a seder in Paris. Rav Sean was given sandwiches in Marseilles. We were even given free passport pictures by a woman who discovered we were newlyweds preparing for a year of study in Israel. Our home was never empty in Pearl Harbor. If you go to the Kotel on erev Shabbat a myriad of meal invitations await you. Jews constantly pay it forward. Hospitality we receive, or that given to our family, is paid back through hospitality offered. There is a saying, “If you have room in your heart, you have room in your home.” Our door is always open. Come eat.

Parashat Lech Lecha- Torah as History

Vayomer A-donai el Avram, “Lech lekha mei’artzekha umimolad’t’kha umibeit avikha el ha’aretz asher ar’ekha.
And A-donai said to Avram, “Get yourself out of your land and of your birthplace and of your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Breishit 12:1)
The Torah is the story of our people. While it contains history, it is not a history text. While it contains information on creation, it is not a science text. It is a book of ideology and theology, teaching us the information we need to become and remain Jews. It also does not exist in a vacuum. And although we call it the Torah she’bikhtav, even without the documentary hypothesis, it was not originally written in its current form. It is continuously revealed from Sinai on. One opinion in the Talmud is that the Torah, with the exception of the Aseret Dibrot, was given and repeated orally until Moshe wrote it down just before his death. Even in the Torah itself, Moshe paraphrases and edits.
There is a wonderful commentary called The Five Books of Miriam, written by Dr. Ellen Frankel. It contains traditional and modern commentary with a focus on the women’s point of view. The Mishnah and Talmud and the Midrash, and beyond, make up the Torah she’b’al peh, the Oral Torah, which developed over time through oral traditions that continue well past the writing down of the text. They help us to understand the what, why, and how of the Torah and our People. It is this Oral Torah that Dr. Frankel tries to capture. She begins with a poem by Merle Feld:

My brother & I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
Of what he saw
Of what he heard
Of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
One of my own
Or one for a friend
Always holding a baby
So my hands are never free
To write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what where when why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together we could re-create holy time sparks flying

Dr. Frankel gives a descriptive subtitle to each parasha. Lekh Lekha is Destiny. In the parasha God tells Avram he must leave his land, his, birthplace and his father’s house. The story is Avram’s to tell, but it shares the destiny of others, of our future. It connects to Sarai as well, and to Eretz Yisrael. Tradition teaches that Sarai too was a prophet and a proselytizer, teaching and converting the women in their household. It is Sarai who suggest the surrogacy of Hagar to ensure the future of our people. And it is Sarai who says to Avram, ‘God will choose between us.” And God chooses Sarai; “What ever Sarai tells you, do.” Nonetheless, Sarai’s story is told through Avram’s eyes. However, when we delve into the written and oral together we get a fuller story, “recreating holy time sparks flying.”