Thursday, December 28, 2006

Midrash of the Week

Parshat Vayechi

One of the most outstanding moments in the entire Torah is the moment in this week’s parasha when Joseph articulates his forgiveness to his brothers. It seems so noble and perhaps too lofty. What was the inner thinking that brought Joseph to such a righteous declaration? This Midrash fills in some blanks.
What are the various possibilities about why Joseph was so magnanimous?
Do these reasons enhance our opinion of Joseph or do they make him more human?
How do you understand the end of the Midrash?
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis C:9
Can then a man speak to the heart? It means, however, that he spoke words which comfort the heart.
Ye have been likened to the dust of the earth, he told them, and who can exterminate the dust of the earth?
Ye have been likened to the beasts of thefield, and who can exterminate the beasts of the field?
Ye have been likened to the stars, and who can exterminate the stars?
Ten stars wished to destroy one star, but could not prevail against it: can I then change the natural order of the world that one star should destroy twelve stars? For these twelve stars correspond to the twelve hours of the day and the twelve constellations of the heavens.
R. Simlai said: He assured them: Ye are the body and I am the head, as it says, Let the blessing come upon the head, Joseph (Deut. XXXIII, 16): if the body is removed, of what use is the head?
Moreover, before ye came down hither I was called a slave, but after ye came down hither I was able to prove my [free] birth; this being so, would I actually slay you!
Further, if I slew you people would say, ‘This man cannot be trusted, for if he did not keep faith with his brethren, with whom will he keep faith?’
Further they would say, ‘They were not his brethren but a band of young men whom he saw and called his brethren,’ the proof being that eventually he brought a false accusation against them and slew them.
Again, shall I become my father's opponent, my father begetting and I burying; or shall I become an opponent of God, God blessing while I diminish!
Now does this not furnish an argument: If Joseph could thus comfort the tribal ancestors by speaking soothing words to them, how much the more when the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to comfort Jerusalem!
Thus it says, Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God (Isa. XL, 1).

Parshat Vayigash

Bereshith Rabbah Genesis XCIV:5
R. Joshua b. Levi said: I went round to all the masters of Haggadah in the south asking them to tell me the meaning of this verse, but they did not elucidate it for me, until I stood with Judah b. Pedayah, the nephew of Ben Hakappar, who explained to me: When a teacher and his disciple are walking in the way, you first greet the disciple and then the teacher.
R. Huna said: When R. Joshua b. Levi came to Tiberias he asked R. Johanan and Resh Lakish about it. R. Johanan said: The reason is because a man owes more honor to his father than to his grandfather. Resh Lakish said: He offered sacrifices for the covenant with the tribal ancestors.
Bar Kappara and R. Jose b. Patros discussed this. One of them said, Jacob declared: As my father was eager for his food, so am I eager for my food. The other explained it: As my father made a distinction between his sons, so am I making a distinction among my sons. But then on second thoughts I declared, says Jacob: My father had the care of but one soul whereas I have the care of seventy souls.
R. Judan made two comments, and R. Berekiah made two comments.
R. Judan said: Jacob declared, My father blessed me with five blessings, and the Holy One, blessed be He, correspondingly appeared five times to me and blessed me. R. Judan made another comment: Jacob declared, I thought that He would permit me the actual enjoyment of those blessings. What were those blessings? Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee but I now see that this applies to Joseph.
R. Berekiah made two observations: The Holy One, blessed be He, never unites His name with a living person save with those who are experiencing suffering, and Isaac indeed did experience suffering. The Rabbis said: We look upon him as though his ashes were heaped in a pile on the altar.
Talking Points
This Midrash centers on the question of why would Yaacov offer sacrifices to the God of his Father Yischak and not to the God of his grandfather Avraham as well?
I am very taken with the framework of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi asking around for an answer to this question. Of course, I continue to be mystified with the notion of the ashes of Isaac – here is another Midrash that makes reference to the phenomenon of "Isaac’s Ashes" – though we know that he was not sacrificed – how do you understand that?
More questions for conversation.
How do the answers compare?
Which one makes the most sense to you?
Why do you think Rashi selects the answer of Rabbi Johanan?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Beauty is Truth

This heightened commercialized season has me thinking. Is it my imagination or are people far vainer and more obsessed with their bodies than they have ever been? In addition to wrinkle prevention creams, exercise crazed programs, extensive menus of elective surgeries, now we have extreme makeover television shows that depict graphic Cinderella tales for all of us to voyeuristically view. True, I could change the channel, but still it is occurrs to me to ask; what is Judaism’s approach to all of this emphasis on physical beauty? Is it time for us to throw away the mirrors or schedule our own makeovers?

Though Judaism is of course a deeply spiritual pursuit, as we glance around we do indeed notice that its adherents are a pretty good looking bunch. One might say that even its staunchest devotees seem to be involved in their outward appearance. I wonder together with you whether or not we Jews have values of austerity, found so often among other religious belief systems or are we given over to the pursuit of the gorgeous? Is beauty a beast or a beloved? If we esteem the spiritual where are these kinds of ideals manifested and do they negate the physical?

We Jews are rarely accused of being an ascetic bunch; Judaism is usually described as a belief system that seeks to locate a balance between the physical and the spiritual. The question then is, are things out of balance with us as they seem to be with our surrounding culture? Are we too guilty of paying a skewed amount of attention to the corporal?

There may not be a simple answer here. Our traditional sources tell a story of the struggle between beauty and vanity, with plenty of texts reflecting a deference for the exquisite and yet a disdain for the vain.
Take the Book of Proverbs whose authorship is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. Here we find multiple cautions concerning the falseness of physical attractiveness. The most celebrated passage of all, denouncing beauty, is often sung on Friday nights at the Shabbat table. The verse is found in the passage that is often referred to as the song of the Woman of Valor, Eshet Chayil. Here the Jewish super woman is extolled for her many talents and abilities.

She is a single handed economic powerhouse, a virtual merchant ship. She wakes early in the morning, she dresses her family, and she feeds them and the poor. She speaks the voice of kindness and is never lazy, she exudes strength and dignity. Finally, in the penultimate verse of the entire book we find a strong declaration condemning the physical, Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised. Aha, is this it? Do we Jews condemn the pursuit of attractiveness? Is this the Jewish approach to beauty; the mantra of all maidens? Shall we cast aside all mirrors, make-up and magnificence? Not so fast. Other verses authored by King Solomon also come to mind.

Let’s open the Biblical book, Song of Songs, one of the five megilloth. Here we seem to find a very different story. Take for example this short section from chapter four.

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike, which are come up from the washing; whereof all are paired, and none faileth among them. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy mouth is comely; thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil. Thy neck is like the tower of David builded with turrets, whereon there hang a thousand shields, all the armor of the mighty men. Thy two breasts are like two fawns that are twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies.

Quite the celebration of splendor! Though many urge us to consider the entire book as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jewish people, still our tradition teaches that a text cannot ever "escape" from its literal meaning. Physical beauty is depicted here and therefore one must acknowledge the worth of the physical. We cannot deny this stunning and stirring language. There seems to nothing quite like loveliness; flocks of goats notwithstanding.
Ironically, Song of Songs is also sung on Friday evenings. By the time we get to the challah and the gefilte fish we are a confused group of folks. So which is it; are we a people who scorn the physical or who adore the exquisite?
The following passage from the Talmud in no way tells the complete story on Talmudic beauty, but it is an interesting peek at male beauty.
Rabbi Yochanan said: I am the only one remaining of Jerusalem’s men of outstanding beauty. Let the one who wishes to perceive Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty take a silver goblet as it emerges from the silversmith fill it with the seeds of red pomegranates, encircle its brim with a garland of red roses, and set it between the sun and the shade. Its lustrous glow will be an approximation of Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty. Quite the sensual picture, and about a rabbi! Indeed it was Rabbi Yochanan’s practice to place himself near the exit of the mikvah, the ritual bath, so that women would glance upon his splendor and subsequently give birth to beautiful children. There must be something to this beauty, but what is it? We know that it cannot be an end to itself and we must agree that one of our greatest sages cannot be on a narcissistic ego trip. But rather the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan and the beauty of Song of Songs is the ethereal beauty that transcends the mundane. It is a beauty that reflects the inner through the outer.

This is the beauty of the soul shining through, as the great mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato teaches; the body has a capacity for holiness in as far as it a vessel for the soul. As the body performs mitzvoth and performs acts of righteousness it is lifted up and becomes holy. True beauty is the beauty that reflects a person’s soul, each person created in the image of God.
What then, are we casting aside society’s intensely predominate value of the exterior? Not quite, though perhaps we should. Instead we are reframing it. Beauty reveals the capacity for the body to reflect the pure radiant Godliness that we each hold inside. The key to a true beauty makeover may be less the product of the cosmetic counter and more the product of the soul.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

America at 350

Thinking about the celebrations around the 350th Year Anniversary of Jewish Life in the America, I wonder; why are we celebrating? Being here in the United States is a national tragedy and part of the Divine punishment imposed upon the Jewish people, as we say in the liturgy, "Because of our sins we have been exiled from our land." We are after all in exile, stationed here in a stopover on the way towards the ultimate redemption which we hope will bring an era of peace and the fulfillment of the promise of ingathering of the exiles to Zion. However, in spite of this I do think that we have two significant reasons to recognize this particular milestone in our long history, they are; Grace and Gratitude.
First the grace; the initial exile inflicted upon the Jewish people, was the exile to Babylonia around the year 586 BCE. The tragedy was almost unbearable. Is there Judaism outside of Israel? Those who had been exiled cried out, "How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?" Jewish praxis and the holy land were linked intrinsically in their minds and the startling realization of the disjointing of the two was almost inconceivable. The prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, counsels the exiled with words from God. At the same time he provides generations of future Jews with compelling words of guidance for living in the Diaspora.

"Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel,
to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon;
Build houses, and live in them, plant gardens, and eat their fruit;
Take wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons,
and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters;
that you may be increased there, and not diminished.
And seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you to,
and pray to the Lord for it; for in its prosperity shall you prosper."

Each time I study this passage I am amazed and deeply moved. Here we Jews are being punished, banished and degraded, yet we are given a twofold directive. First, don’t despair, build yourselves up, do not stagnate. Second, the fate of your host country is your fate. Ironically, the nations to which you have been exiled are not to be objects of ire, but rather they are to be prayed for and supported. I believe it is these words of Jeremiah that served as a modus operandi for our people through our lengthy and extensive sojourns.
Deal with what you have been dealt, with grace. Though we are separated form the holy land do not despair. The fiery chariot of the Prophet Ezekiel symbolizes the powerful idea of the Divine Presence that travels into exile with the people. There can be spirituality outside the land; the Shekhina journeys together with the Jews. Sanctity can surely be found even outside the land of Israel. You can feel it in houses of worship and places of study, though this is no simple pursuit. In his chapter, Shekhina in America, in the wonderful book, Jewish American Poetry, Eric Selinger explores the ideas of spirituality and the struggle and tension of seeking holiness inside a foreign culture. I think we can be proud of our attempt, with grace we have handled the challenge, with grace we have built schools of Torah and with grace we have drawn the Shekhina down, even into America.
The second significant reason for marking this milestone is gratitude. Let us not for a moment forget the sanctuary that the United States has been for our people, from that first moment 350 years ago when a boatload of Jews arrived from Brazil. Many of us have our survival story. The story of how America was the sanctuary for our particular family seeking religious freedom.
Let me share my own story, a story of dramatic contrasts; the difference between February 1919 and December 2004, the difference between the Ukraine and the United States. On January 11, 1919, the following announcement was posted in my grandfather’s shtetl, Felshtin, by the head of the Information Bureau:
"The first warning to the Jewish population. I have learned that the Jewish population is confusing the minds of the peasants. I warn the Jews that the Information Bureau is well instructed. They will all have to pay dearly for this offense, and the peasants themselves will make them pay. You have no one from whom to expect help!"
600 Jews were killed in that pogrom in February including my grandfather’s first wife and two daughters. Brutally wounded, he was left for dead. The carnage unspeakable.
Flash forward eighty five years to the 2004. As I climbed the red carpeted White House stairs this past winter it was the image of my grandfather who appeared in my mind. I heard music and slowly identified the tune that the uniformed band was playing, Sivivon Sov, Sov, Sov, a Chanukah song. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears began to flow. I thought to myself, "Why am I walking the stairs to meet the President, perhaps the most powerful person in the world and why did my grandfather lay in a pool of blood? Why am I honored and my grandfather left for dead?" Some questions always remain. I am indebted to this country for embracing both of my grandfathers, grandmothers and my parents. If not for the welcoming shores of New York of the late twenties I would not be here. Gratitude does not preclude our hopes and dreams for a Messianic tomorrow, but rather it is the stuff upon which we build those dreams.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Quite the Festival of Lights

Quite the Festival of Lights, indeed. As the sun set on Friday, we in the Jewish community who had lost power were entering into what some might suggest would be more aptly called a Festival of Darkness. It became a four day long holiday of chilliness; candles being lit not only in windows, as tradition demands, but throughout our eerily darkened homes.

Much has been reported about our area’s dramatic human surrender to nature but I haven’t seen the Jewish-Chanukah angle anywhere. Maybe this is not surprising, what with our city still reeling under the Seatac airport Menorah fiasco.

As we attempted to observe what we like to think of as a minor festival, our holiday food production was stymied and our Sabbath meals almost thwarted. In place of the classic autumnal High Holiday soulful prayer, “who shall live and who shall die” the questions now were more like “who has a gas stove, who cooks with electric?” And then friends’ homes began to open. Everyone was suddenly sleeping and eating everywhere but home, and the warmth of friendship and hospitality replaced the more mundane variety that runs through wires.

But later as we walked home from synagogue Friday evening in the frightening heavy blackness, feeling our way tentatively along the tree limb strewn sidewalks, it didn’t quite feel like the days of miracles, but rather of abandonment and aloneness. Where is the light on this holiday? Cold and dark did not seem to fit with fond cherished memories of Chanukahs past.

There were some on that chilling walk home, brazen enough to point out the irony of trees and lights coming down, while candles in Menorahs burned steadily in the windows of homes that we were passing. Port Authority of Seattle? Perhaps this, the year that Jews were brutally gunned down and one even viciously murdered right in downtown Seattle, perhaps this year was not the best year to ban the placing of the Menorah in the airport. Perhaps, this was the year to acknowledge the Supreme Court decision that the Menorah, not unlike the Christmas Tree, for the purposes of public display, has been determined to be a secular symbol.

After all is said and done we will never know just exactly what went on behind closed doors at those meetings between rabbis and airport officials; but this we do know - that a graceful elegance was absent. Our community would surely have appreciated a nod in our direction. Instead, ugly images and quotes were spread by media. And that very slightly below the surface Mel Gibsonesque anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. Rabbis and Jewish organizations received repulsive hateful e-mails and we were again on alert; not the holiday spirit for anyone.

This is not an easy time of year. There are great expectations for nostalgic celebrations, tensions of tight timelines for holiday preparations; none of us found this storm to be particularly helpful in that regard. It did however teach each of us that light must emerge from inside, warmth comes from friends; that Menorah in the window shining brightly through the storm? It reminds us of a very idealistic struggle for religious freedom and there is nothing more American than that, Happy Chanukah.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Will A Red String Save You?

A friend recently told me that her daughter returned from Israel and not unlike many visitors she brought back gifts. She presented her with a red string, blessed at the Tomb of Rachel. She tied it around her mother’s wrist and told her mom that it would guarantee that no harm will ever befall her. Her daughter told her that the red string protects from the dreaded evil eye and that Madonna and Paris Hilton wear them too!

What to do when an ancient Jewish practice turns trendy? Somehow the sight of my Hassidic friend’s children with red threads tied around their wrists looks awfully different than non-Jewish celebrities sporting these suddenly chic red threads spouting all sorts of misguided new-age Kabbalah.
That you can purchase these red strings over the internet with all sorts of promises intensifies my concern.

Here is what the Kabbalah Center pledges regarding the red string, which is for sale for a sum of $26.00 from the Kabbalah Center.

“The Red String protects us from the influences of the Evil Eye. Evil eye is a very powerful negative force. It refers to the unfriendly stare and unkind glances we sometimes get from people around us. Envious eyes and looks of ill will affect us, stopping us from realizing our full potential in every area of our life.”

Let me unravel some of the issues for you. Firstly the evil eye; many of us grew up with notions of ayin hara , the evil eye. My mother, of blessed memory, confided in me the secret incantation in Yiddish that is an assured antidote to the evil eye. I was not, she cautioned me to use this incantation unless it was absolutely necessary. It was not an incantation to be evoked casually. I was dully impressed. I have never squandered its implementation, you can be sure of that.
The core belief of ayin hara is that people who may be envious of you may cast an “evil eye” upon you and in your height of success or good fortune you could be brought down by their evil vibes. Psychologically, I think this actually has some validity; bad vibes can’t ever be helpful. Additionally ayin hara certainly has weight if you believe it to be true.
As an aside, the opposite of ayain hara also exits; it is the ayin tov, the good eye. One who posses an ayin tov, a good eye, looks with a grand heart at what others have and at their talents with no jealousy, but with rather generosity and delight. Our Matriarch Sarah was said to have had an ayin tov, a good eye. She looked upon all and as we say in Yiddish she “fahrgint” them meaning she felt a generosity of spirit towards all. This is a noble magnanimous attitude each of us should strive to embrace. It is the opposite of schadenfreud, delight when someone feels satisfaction and glee at another person’s failure.
Back to the red thread; so far we have established what the red thread is supposed to counteract. Now we need to figure out how it works. Why red? Why a string? Why tied around the wrist?
The color red has obvious associations with blood, the life force and with danger and perhaps impending perils. In the Bible several episodes come to mind involving red threads. In Genesis we read that the midwife ties a red thread around the wrist the first twin to emerge from Tamar. The baby had quickly drawn back into womb and she wanted to mark the firstborn. What do we learn from this? It tells us something simple and maybe useful. Red thread was around. It was tied on the wrist. It was a mark of some kind.
The next episode that comes to mind is an incident from the Book of Joshua. As the spies enter the land they find safe sanctuary with a Canaanite woman, named Rahab who they promise to spare upon their return to Jericho. They suggest that she hang a red rope outside as a sign. They were lowered down by the very same rope and escape back to the Israelite camp. Upon the return of the Israelites this sign of the red rope will protect. No harm will come to Rahab and her family, though the rest of Jericho will be destroyed. Could this be the beginning of the protection notion of the red thread? Perhaps, but still a stretch.
Some think that perhaps the red thread serves as a reminder of some sort. You look at the thread and your remember Matriarch Rachel. You remember her generosity of spirit as she helps her sister, Leah, marry her own intended groom Jacob. It may lead you to recall her weeping for her people. Perhaps in some way your good thoughts can counteract other people’s evil thoughts. Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of Jewish legal writing to back any of these theories.
Here’s my bottom line. Those who have a family tradition to wear a red thread as do many Sephardic and Hassidic families, this is their practice and I see nothing compelling to stop them. It is certainly not forbidden by Jewish law though we really do not support most superstitions which have tended to become part of Jewish practice as we became influenced by other cultures.
On the other hand for those outside our faith to adopt this practice I think trivializes Judaism and true Jewish practices, and in some ways reduces Judaism to a ridiculous, silly shtick. We are not that! We are a very deep meaningful religion with very real expectations, disciplines, rituals and mitzvoth whose purpose is to turns us towards God Almighty, to Divine service and to doing good in this world. I do not see where the donning of a red thread comes into all of this nor do I understand Jews who traffic these practices to the outside world.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Recipe of the Week

These are recipes that are Shabbos oriented and very easy!

*Gefilte Fish with Tomato Sauce
This is an easy, warm and perfect comfort food for a cold Friday Night.
Take one or two loaves of Gefilte Fish place in a casserole dish add two large cans of tomato sauce – bag or two of frozen peppers strips and a bag of pearl onions – bake for an hour and a half. Keep warm till you serve.