Not Vayishlach: Thanksgiving

thanksgivingI’m taking a break from cooking, preparing for a very joyous weekend.  We’re expanding the joy beyond Thanksgiving, given that my aunt is turning 90 this weekend, all the cousins and cousins’ children are coming into town, (most are staying here) and between Thursday, Shabbat dinner, and Sunday brunch, well, it’s quite a weekend.

And that’s all good.  Crazy, chaotic, a little expensive, but good.

So, instead of following along with the next parasha this Shabbat, which would be Vayishlach, I am skipping around to Deuteronomy, Chapter 12, Re’eh.  And, I am tipping my kipah to my Tuesday morning Torah group and our teacher Jane Shapiro, for this one.  Just this week, as many of our thoughts turned to defrosting and baking and all that, we stopped to talk about joy and feasting and “Makom” (place, God)

In Re’eh, we are amassed at the border, about to come into the Land.  Moses is spending a LOT of time talking to the people, exhorting them to remember, remember, remember what to do when you get into the Land.  “Together with your households, you shall feast there before Adonai your God, happy in all the undertakings in which Adonai your God has blessed you.”  (Deut 12:7)  At this point, Moses is reminding the people that, all through their wanderings, there has been a Makom, a place where God dwells, where they must bring their offerings to.  But what about once they get into the Land?  They will scatter.  Where is the Makom then?  And up till then, there have been proscribed times and places where they can eat meat.  What now? Well, there’s still going to be a central place for the Makom, but it it’s too far away from you, no worries, carry out the these mitzvot at home.  Do you want some meat now?  Fine, eat as much as you’d like.

The Makom can be in the home.  The Makom can be where you are.  The Makom, which has been portable through the wilderness, is now both portable and in more than one location at the same time. And what do you do in this home/Makom?   Eat meat.  Take care of the needy.  Be grateful.  Create a sacred space.  Praise.  And be joyous.  The Makom turns the meal into something of significance; it turns eating into feasting.

Sounds like Thanksgiving to me.  Around our table this year will be many (many!) dear and loving faces.  There will be turkey, and other things for the vegans in our midst.  We are grateful indeed.  We are taking care of those who need extra care.  We will, indeed, create a sacred space with prayer and song.  And we will be extraordinarily joyous.

May you all have loving faces around your table, enough food for leftovers,  time to reflect on your blessings, and expressions of joy and love all around. We wish each other Happy Thanksgiving.  In my notes from Tuesday, I wrote: happiness is grounded in gratitude.  Happy Chapter 12.  Happy Thanksgiving.




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Vayetzei: A better emoji


Sometimes people just don’t get it.

Consider Rachel and Jacob in this week’s parasha, Vayetzei.  Jacob has married both Leah (unintentionally) and her sister Rachel, the one he wanted to marry in the first place.  Jacob, we know, loves Rachel, and isn’t so interested in Leah.  But, even with Leah knowing that her husband isn’t connecting to her emotionally, she still manages to have four children with him.

Rachel is beside herself, grieving for her barrenness.  “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing children to Jacob, Rachel came to envy her sister.  She said to Jacob, ‘Let me have children; otherwise I am a dead woman!’” (Gen 30:1-2)  Her sister is her rival now, and there are four real reminders running around the camp.  Rachel turns to the man who professes to love her and pours  out her heart.  What does he do?

“Jacob grew angry with Rachel and said, ‘Am I in place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Not the right  answer.  He just didn’t get it.  He didn’t comfort, he didn’t even offer silent support, he flat out said the wrong thing, getting angry with her for being so upset, and for showing her grief and pain.  We have all been there, am I right, ladies?  I remember my father’s reaction to tears from any of his three young daughters was anger.  In retrospect, he was probably just frustrated and overwhelmed, and didn’t know what to do when confronted with teenage emotions.  Frankly, neither did we, but Dad wanted to help and had no idea how.  So, his default mode, like Jacob’s, was anger.

It’s true; often when we are confronted with other people’s grief and pain, we really don’t know what to say.  And it’s true that often, we say something completely wrong, unhelpful, even hurtful. I was reminded of something my remarkable friend Rabbi Phyllis Sommer recently shared, an article from The Jewish Week.  It was about what not to say to people in difficult times. The author Erica Brown talks about developing Jewish empathy and sensitivity in our language.  Brown writes, “’You shall not oppress one another, but fear your Lord because I am the Lord your God,” says Leviticus 25:17. The Talmud’s sages unpacked this verse as the biblical prohibition of oppressing someone with words: reminding another of a personal change that may bring them pain, attributing reasons for someone else’s suffering or using language that carries emotional barbs for another…”

We leave lots of voice mails and send lots of texts and emails to each other.  We send emoticons, emojis, little animal faces, and video links.  We do all this to convey how we feel to our friends and family.   And I think we do this a lot more quickly than picking up the phone or walking over across the street, perhaps so we can avoid saying the wrong thing.  We let our emojis talk for us.  Instead however, often the best “emoji” is a silent hug, or a simple, “I love you”.  Jacob might have avoided a lot of problems with that simple statement.











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Toldot: Inquiring of God

jacob esau twins

There are a times when a mother doesn’t need any kind of intermediary to ask for help.  Hagar didn’t need one when she was watching her son Ishmael die in the wilderness after having been sent away by Abraham, at Sarah’s insistence.  Hagar couldn’t bear to see her son die, and so she cried out to God, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting away, she burst into tears.” (Gen 21:16)  God heard her, and showed her where the water was.

Rebecca got to that point, too.  When she was barren, Isaac intervened and pleaded with God on her behalf.  And she became pregnant, but it was during that time, she went straight to God.  The children were bumping against each other, and she said, “If this, why do I exist?’” The Hebrew is not too clear. Some interpreters think Rebecca is complaining about a painful pregnancy.  But the text doesn’t say she was in pain, just unsettled.  Rebecca knew there was something distressing about the life in her body.  There was something imminent that was going to disrupt the family more than expected.  She went to “inquire” of God directly.  “Tell me, God, what is going on here?  What’s ahead for me?”  And God told her she was going to have twins, “Two peoples are in your belly, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” (Gen 25:23). Rebecca knew right then and there that her children would always be fighting each other, that they would never be at peace with each other, as brothers.

Parents know the pain of watching their children struggle.  Maybe you sat by a bedside until a very high fever came down.  Maybe you sat in the ER, watching the IV take effect on a dehydrated child, watching some strength return, like a stalk of celery in a glass of water.  Maybe you had that conversation that every expectant parent dreads, that the child on its way will have to fight its entire life.  Or maybe you find out your child has had to fight through every day, in ways you didn’t even know.

I always wondered if Rebecca told Isaac about what God had told her.   The very next verse, we read, “When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb.” (Gen 25:24).  She knew there were twins, so why would the text announce this specifically, as if it were a surprise?  Why would Rebecca have kept this to herself?  Knowing she was having twins, which is overwhelming enough, plus the added worry of warring brothers, wouldn’t she have turned to her husband for help in preparing, or as a sounding board?

Rebecca heard God’s prophecy on that day, but I would wager it wasn’t the last time she went to “inquire” of God about her children’s distress, only to hear….nothing.  She was left to navigate her boys’ lives on her own.  I’m sure she kept calling out, but the prophecy was done.

This parenting thing doesn’t get easier, as those of us with adult children will attest. As our children encounter difficult times, we parents do plenty of “inquiring of God”.  I hope the answers are there, but wow, they sure are hard to hear sometimes.

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Chayeh Sarah: A life well lived

chayeh sarah

Chayeh Sarah.  The life of Sarah.  We begin the parasha reading of her death, “Sarah lived to be 127 years old, such was the span of Sarah’s life.  She died in Kiriat Arba in the land of Canaan and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and bewail her” (Gen 23:1-2)

Two things come to mind when I read that.  One is about how we deal with death, and the other about how we view life.

When Cain killed Abel back in Eden, we never read of how his parents reacted to the death of their son.  We know that God reacted by getting pretty angry, cursing Cain for all time and such, but that was for the act of killing Abel, not Abel’s death.

But Abraham really mourned his wife’s death.  He spent some time leaving the world behind, focusing on the loss of his wife.  After some time, and we don’t know how long, “Abraham rose up from upon his dead” (v. 3)  The Hebrew says, “me’al p’nei mai-to”, his face in front of his dead (wife).  He honored his wife by attending to her memory with all his attention.  Abraham was sitting shiva, the way people still sit shiva today.   “Shiva” comes from the word for seven, and the traditional time of the initial mourning period is a week.  During that week, one stays away from the world, focusing on the loss.  Little by little, after that first week, throughout the first year, we work our way back to the world.  Abraham did that, too.  He started by arranging for Sarah’s burial.  The Torah goes into great detail over this real estate purchase, finding a suitable place to bury his wife.  That place was called Machpelah, and our tradition tells us that all the matriarchs and patriarchs (except Rachel) were buried there.  Abraham’s first act was making sure his wife Sarah would be honored for the life she lived.

Which brings me to the other point – how we as Jews view life.  Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of someone’s death;  Yizkor, the memorial service we read on Yom Kippur and several other times throughout the year, both call to mind the date of someone’s death, not their birthday.  Did you ever notice that it’s the secular way to celebrate the birthdays of the people we honor-  Presidents, Martin Luther King, Jr, Elvis?   We may remember the day they died, but it’s not what we make holidays out of.  The Jewish tradition is the opposite; we remember and honor the date of death.  Why?

Birthdays are promises of a life not yet fulfilled.  Who knows what kind of life one is going to live?  But the day of one’s death?  That’s an opportunity to look back and see what has been accomplished.  If you do it right, that’s something to celebrate, to honor, to remember with love and respect.  And, knowing that your loved ones will be doing just that is a great motivation to live the kind of life that will engender honor and love and respect.  I attended a shiva this week, for a friend’s father.  He had lived a long and joyous life.  His family mourned his loss, but celebrated his life.  And that’s all one could hope for, indeed.

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Lech l’cha- all about the verb


Lech l’cha is all about the verb.  So many of the Torah parshiot (plural of parasha, portion) are verbs:  Lech l’cha, Vayeira, Vayishlach, Va’era, pretty much all the ones that start with V’…  Lech l’cha is the first, when God tells Abram to get up and go.  “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)

And then the verbs start.  God makes, blesses, and appears.  Abram goes, takes, moves, pitches a tent, builds, digs, and journeys.  That’s just in the first 10 verses of the parasha, too.  As the story unfolds, The Torah A Women’s Commentary that the following sections “continue[s] to explain how the descendants of Abraham formed as a distinct group.  The shaping of what constitutes ‘inside the group’ entails the description of – and separation from – the ‘other’, as variously defined.” (p 63)  The Creator-God of just a couple of weeks ago in Bereshit is moving towards becoming the Particular God of Israel, forging a relationship with this one group of people.  In fact, at this point, it’s not even a group – it’s one family.  Not even a family – it’s one guy – Abram, and his willing wife, Sarai.

Identity is being forged, separating from the “other”.  And here’s where the verbs come in.  Identity doesn’t get formed just through someone saying they are part of a group.  Identity is formed through verbs.  Doing. Making. Celebrating. Verb-ing.  It’s the doing that makes one part of the group.

Identity is not a one-and-done kind of thing.  You have to work to keep it up, you have to do to make it real. There really is something to motor-memory.  That’s true in practicing piano, and it’s also true in Jewish identity. It’s something we do every day to keep it fresh and meaningful.  Maybe that’s why we refer to religious practice in Jewish life, not only religious belief.  It’s not just about the noun, belief; rather it’s about the verbs.

To end this parasha, Abraham (no longer Abram, he received his God-given “H”) took the ultimate verb-step of identity-forging by circumcising himself and Ishmael, his first-born son.  “All the people of his household – the homeborn slaves and those bought from foreigners – were circumcised with him.” (Gen 17:27)  This is the sign of membership in the group.  From here on out, for the males at least, the group identification with this people begins with an act.

We speak of passing on Judaism to the next generation.  And there has always been much talk, often within the progressive members of younger generations, about the stifling nature of ritual, of Jewish practice;  “I don’t have to do anything, I just feel Jewish”. Well, I maintain you can’t pass down a feeling. You pass down traditions, and that doesn’t mean you have to do it the way your parents or grandparents or even further back, whatever the “it” is.  You build and make and do and create from that reservoir of tradition, and you make it your own.  How?

Frankly, that takes practice.  Identity is a verb.

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Noah: We can choose to stop the hate

dove NoahYes, it’s late on Friday afternoon, and I’m just getting to this. And yes, I know, that if you read this after tomorrow afternoon, it won’t be parashat Noach anymore, since the Torah portion “switches” on Saturday afternoon, and we will officially be into Lech L’cha. But frankly, I wrote a Lech L’cha piece this morning, getting it all mixed up on what parasha we’re in (though it’s right there on my calendar), and I’m so swamped in work, I feel like I’m drowning.

Connection to Noach – bingo.

For a moment, I started identifying less with Noah, who survived the flood, and more with the poor creatures who got swept up in the overwhelming, overpowering waters. For a moment, the idea of just starting all over again resonated with me. Sweep off the desk, clear out the papers, start from the beginning again, so that I can gulp some air and begin to breathe again. You’ve felt like that, right? I mean, those of you who aren’t super-organized, and for whom life doesn’t throw so many curveballs. And if you are one of those people, well, I’m guessing we’re not really friends!

In any case, this parasha always makes me think of Stephen Schwartz’s musical, “Children of Eden”, the midrash musical that never made it to Broadway. The first act is about Creation, the second act is Noah. After Noah builds the ark, God makes it rain, and the forty days are up, Noah and Mrs. Noah are tired, confused, and feeling very alone. The rain isn’t stopping. Finally, in a creative plot twist, Shem and Ham decide the reason the rain hasn’t stopped is because Japheth’s love Yonah (“dove”) is from the marked line of Cain, and they want to throw her overboard in order to calm the waters. Noah waits for God to tell him what to do next, but no guidance comes:

MAMA (spoken)
He doesn’t speak to you anymore, does He? Not since before the rain?

NOAH (spoken)
No. And now…I don’t know what Father wants.

(spoken) You must be the father now.
(singing) The spark of creation,

that’s all you’ve got left now.
The spark of creation will have to be your guide.
If no outer force will show you your course,
you’ll have to look inside.
Your only illumination, the spark of— (creation)

Of all the gifts we have received,
one is most precious and most terrible
The will in each of us is free.
It’s in our hands.

And if someday we hear a voice;
if He should speak again, our silent Father—
All He will tell us is the choice . . .
is in our hands.

Our hands can choose to drop the knife.
Our hearts can choose to stop the hating
For every moment of our life . . .
is the beginning.

There is no journey gone so far,
so far we cannot stop and change direction
No doom is written in the stars

Noah chose for empathy, inclusiveness, that change can happen. It’s in our hands. “We can choose to drop the knife and choose to stop the hating.” Yes, I bolded those lines above. This week, we need to hear this more than ever.

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Bereshit: Before the beginning

tohu vvohu

“Nothing comes from nothing.  Nothing ever could.”

Life is lived in the lyrics of musicals, it’s true.  Ok, it’s true for me, but this lyric from perhaps one of my less-favorite songs/scenes in “Sound of Music” rings true for this week’s parasha, Bereshit (Genesis).

It is the beginning, so we read, “When God was creating Heaven and Earth, the earth was chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.”(Gen 1:1)  Read that carefully.  There were things in existence before Creation.  The earth was there, though it was chaotic.  Water was there, and it was chaotic, too. And,of course, God was there.  The rabbis were well aware of the existence before Creation.  One midrash says the world was created with the letter “bet” because it’s closed on three sides, and only open in the direction of moving forward.  Therefore, we should focus on what was created in our time and place, and not investigate what’s above the heavens, below the earth, or before the six days. (Gen Rabbah, 1:10)  Rabbi Gamliel said that the “tohu v’vohu” (chaos, void) was created by God, too, riffing off of Proverb 8:24,  “When there were no depths, I created them.”

So, is what God did really more of a re-arranging of the cosmic furniture that was already there?  What’s creation, then?  We talk about people having creativity, but are they creating something out of nothing, or are they working with materials already in existence?  I know from experience that musical creativity comes from having mastered the “instrument” enough to go to new places, and visual art still requires the materials with which to create something.  The creative actor needs words, character, and imagination.  God had imagination; the Creativity to do something new with what was at hand.  Does the fact that there were things in existence before the “beginning” make what came next less awesome?  I think not.

God had at the ready the raw materials needed for the vision to come to frution.  God had earth and water and something sky-like, and from that, God created life, the kind of life that would be sustained and could grow beyond the beginning.  Chaos became creation.  God differentiated what was already there, and revealed, or maybe released, the wonder that was trapped inside.

There is so much trapped inside us, so much ready to be released.  But we have to calm the face of the chaotic waters first, and that is so difficult, at least for me.  There’s no lack of chaos, but there is a dearth of time and silence and opportunity to hover over the waters and see what could be.   That’s what Shabbat is for.  No matter how you experience Shabbat, know that it’s that chance to make order out of the chaos in your mind, heart, or soul.

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