Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dip the Persimmon in the Honey

Why not a mango, an orange, or a banana in honey? Apples have deep significance in Judaism. They are used to personify righteous people and to demonstrate our collective devotion to G-d; their colors express three of the sephirot; the star inside the apple stands for G-d’s Holy name; the blush of the apple symbolizes G-d's "smiling cheeks." They’re also good for you! We can safely assume, then, that the choice of apples for the Rosh Hashanah honey-dipping is no mere happenstance.

Honey appears throughout Jewish literature as the epitome of sweetness. While its nutritional make up may be similar to other sweeteners, it’s much denser. It’s the sweetest of the sweet. And yet, it comes from a source that’s not so sweet: bees, which may sting. Honey is also unique because although it comes from a non-kosher creature – a bee – it is kosher.

As we reaccept G-d’s kingship on Rosh Hashanah, we ask that He grant us not only a “good” year, but a “sweet” one too. We ask for a year free of stinging or being stung, for a year when any of our “non-kosher” qualities will somehow produce something sweet. I will certainly be thinking of all that this year as I dip.

Apples and honey have their own connection – without bees we wouldn’t have either. Hive collapse has been a concern since 2006; scientists think they may be getting to the bottom of the problem. http://bit.ly/DyDFS

Pondering which apple goes best with which honey? The research has already been done for you. http://bit.ly/qFJLw

I have a special Rosh Hashanah menu that includes almost every food mentioned in the Talmud (I draw the line at ram’s head). It includes roasted fish with beets, carrot and date salad, leek shepherd’s pie, squash kugel, and of course, honey cake! You might want to try a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder: http://bit.ly/o3gvCE

Monday, September 26, 2011

Happy New Year!

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Annoying Apple...

Serve the L-rd with Fear and Rejoice with Trembling

To me, Rosh Hashanah is a day of contradictions. It’s the day we coronate G-d as King, and in celebration we dress up and eat delicious meals with our families. On the other, by crowning G-d as our king, we are acknowledging that we are subjects of the King Who has absolute control over our lives; that today is the Day of Remembrance and Judgment, when G-d determines all that will occur to us and the world in the upcoming year – and that’s scary!

Whenever I think back to the previous Rosh Hashanah, I’m struck by how much happened that I never anticipated. My mind jumps to the logical corollary, the mystery of what unknowns lay before me.

Our prayers describe how we pass before G-d single-file, as sheep before the shepherd. Each of us is examined individually and our fate is written in the Shepherd’s book. G-d looks at our talents and potential, examines our current circumstances and the tests we’ve endured. What’s the state of the union of our body and soul? In fact, all this anxiety over our fate has a practical ramification in that on Rosh Hashanah we don’t sing Hallel, the joyous prayer that is part of the regular holiday service.

And yet, amidst all this fear and trembling, there’s joy. When Ezra the Scribe led the Jews of Judea to repent, on Rosh Hashanah they prostrated themselves and wept – two things that we still do on Rosh Hashanah. But then he told them, “Go, eat delicacies and drink sweet drinks…and do not be sad, for the joy of the L-rd is your strength.”

It seems to me that there are two Rosh Hashanahs that coexist. The mood in the synagogue leans toward awe, but once we return home, joy steps to the fore. We greet each other cheerfully with wishes for a good and sweet year, and celebrate with a holiday meal that is festive in mood and menu.

In a sense, this Rosh Hashanah dichotomy captures what it is to be a Jew: to rejoice with trembling. Sometimes one wing rises higher for a moment, but both are needed for us to soar up to G-d.

Friday, September 23, 2011

One year, Reb Wolf Kitzis, a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s, was chosen to blow the shofar.  The Ba’al Shem Tov charged him with studying special kavanot for each set of sounds.  Reb Wolf studied these, knowing the heavy responsibility he bore – his shofar blasts must tear away any barriers that stood between the congregation’s prayers and G-d.  Anxious lest he forget these special meditations, Reb Wolf wrote some notes to consult before each set of shofar blasts. 

When the time came, he pulled his tallit over his head, took up the shofar, and made a futile search for his notes.   Reb Wolf was shattered.  He had let the Ba’al Shem Tov down – to say nothing of his fellow congregants who now must suffer a shofar-blower devoid of meditation…With a wretched heart he blew the sounds.

After shul, the Ba’al Shem Tov thanked Reb Wolf for his efforts.  “From my request that you prepare the kavanot, you probably guessed that our people are facing a grim decree from Heaven.”

Reb Wolf shuddered.

“Each mystical kavanah is the key to unlock a particular room within the King’s palace, and no two are alike.”

What had he done?

“But there is one way to gain entrance to every room in the palace – without a key – and that is with an ax.  Reb Wolf, your sincere devotion to the congregation and your  broken heart were the ax that broke through every door.  The decree is annulled.  A good year for all!”
And so may it be for us.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Baal Shem Tov's Birthday: "Chai" (18th) Elul

Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov appeared in the world at a time of turmoil and spiritual crisis.  Two years of pogroms in Ukraine and Poland had left nearly half a million Jews dead, homeless, orphaned, and deeply shaken in their faith.  Jewish communal life collapsed, yeshivot closed, and desperate poverty forced many to abandon any hope of more than a rudimentary education for the quest to find their daily bread.       

The Baal Shem Tov reminded his brethren that G-d is everywhere – even in those moments seemingly devoid of His Presence; that His supervision and guidance extends to everything, down to the movement of a leaf in the wind; that one must serve G-d with joy, not asceticism.  But most of all, the Baal Shem Tov emphasized the beauty of “the simple Jew.”  He held up a mirror to the unlearned Jew and taught him to see himself as G-d does: precious. 

The Baal Shem Tov also attracted many great Torah scholars who went on to lead communities and Chassidic dynasties of their own.  But these men did not understand the Baal Shem Tov’s elevation of the simple Jew.  One summer Shabbat in the 1750s, something happened that forever changed the way the scholars saw these men. 

Following a communal meal, the simple Jews left for the synagogue to recite Psalms.  The Baal Shem Tov then arranged his disciples in a particular order and told each to put his hand on the shoulder of the person next to him. He told them to sing certain songs and to close their eyes.  He then placed a hand on each of the students on either side of him, creating a single circle.

Immediately they heard soul-stirring tunes.  Master of the World! The words of G-d are pure words like silver. Another voice pleaded, Dear Father, favor me, for in You my soul took refuge, and in the shadow of your wings I take shelter.  A third begged, Beloved Father, Holy Father, bring us back, G-d Who saves, erase Your anger toward us.   Hearing these heavenly songs of Psalms, the disciples began to tremble and tears flowed down every face. Each thought: If only I could serve G-d in such a manner!

At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov lifted his hands and the music vanished.  “Those songs you heard were sung by those simple Jews in the back of the synagogue.  All of you were touched by their beauty and power.  Imagine then, how much G-d loves them.”

To see ourselves as G-d does is to understand our essential belovedness and all the potential that comes with that.
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Windows on the World

On our third date my future husband and I went to Windows on the World, on the very top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.  It took just under a minute to reach the 107th floor, but our stomachs caught up a little later.  We followed the maitre d’ down a short flight of steps and were seated right up against a breath-taking view of south Manhattan at night.  My New-Yorker date showed the California girl the spot where the Hudson and East Rivers meet and Ellis Island, where my grandmother had arrived from Eastern Europe.  He told me about Phillipe Petit, who balanced on a highwire between the two towers, and another guy who climbed up the side of one of the buildings.  These memories from his childhood seemed incredible, but they were true. Leaning over to get a better view of the Verrazano Bridge, I knocked over my glass, which broke noisily.  Immediately, cries of “Mazal tov!” resounded from all sides.  I took it as a good sign.
Thirteen years later, we were living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and expecting our sixth child.  It was a blue-skied Tuesday and I had just returned from dropping our children off at school, when my husband interrupted his phone call to tell me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.  We discussed how something similar had happened about a year before, when a small plane lost radar reception and crashed into a building in Newark, NJ. 
But sixteen minutes later a second plane crashed into the South Tower.  We turned on the news.  Lower Manhattan was being evacuated.  My brother worked in the Chrysler Building.  I tried to call him, but there was no cell reception.  When I reached him, much later, he told me it had been the most frightening day of his life.  The sky was gray-white with ash and debris and the streets packed with people.   This mob of frightened people would start to run – and he had to run, too, or risk being trampled.  Then the pace would slow, and just as suddenly, take off again.  Carried along by the current of this mass, he thought, “I’m confronting terrorism here, I might as well move to Israel.”
Still grappling with the news, we heard that a third plane had slammed into the Pentagon, setting fire to part of the building.  We found TV access just in time to see the South Tower collapse.  And then Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive from our house.
In the days that followed, people everywhere were glued to the news.  I would listen in the car on the way to work, dry my tears, and then go to teach.  I learned about the courage of the passengers on Flight 93 and the kindness of the people of Gander, Newfoundland.  But after a few days of being convulsed by grief, I decided this was not good for our unborn baby.  All this sorrow and anguish coursing from my blood to his, was unhealthy physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  I made a conscious effort to turn away, and studiously avoided photos of the deceptively insouciant “Falling Man” (Jonathan Briley).
In the ten years that have passed, I have avoided everything having to do with that day.  I didn’t watch the movie, Flight 93; I drew back from photos that showed the 200 people forced by intense heat and choking smoke to jump to their deaths; and I shrank from listening to the panic-filled 911 recordings from the towers. 
They say that time heals all wounds, but time hasn’t made this one any easier. Each horrific image, each desperate voice crying for help, still shakes me to tears. Nearly 3,000 people were killed that day, how could we ever make peace with that?
Can there be any greater proof that G-d is in exile, than the atrocities committed in His name?  And so long as He is exile, we cannot be complacent and we cannot find comfort.  
Ironically, September 11, 2001 was the United Nations International Day of Peace and the first day of Culture of Peace Week.  Resolution can only come once we have agitated to create a world at peace with itself, at peace with the Creator.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Halachic Ramifications of 9/11

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On Top of the World on 9 - 11

Trauma is a narrowing experience, tightening the focus down to one, as self-preservation gobbles up all psychic and mental energy. But there are some exceptional people who, even in the face of the unimaginable, maintain a broad pipeline of flowing love.

 When Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center, Shimmy Biegeleisen was four floors above.  A fire stood between him and exit to life.  Shimmy called his wife, Miriam, to tell her he loved her, and charged a friend with taking care of his family.  In the one hour that the tower still stood, Shimmy did everything he could to prolong his life, but also prepared for his death.  “I’m not going to make it,” he told his friend.  He discussed financial arrangements for his family and wishes for his children.  In a voice hoarse from smoke inhalation, he recited the 24th Psalm which tells of G-d’s majesty and mastery of the world.   The last words his family heard from Shimmy were, “Oh, G-d!”

In Jewish law, an agunah is a woman who is separated from her husband but cannot remarry, either because he won’t grant her a divorce or because it’s unknown whether he is alive or dead. Without a body, a rabbinic court must rule whether death can be assumed.  Shimmy knew that if he didn’t call, no one would ever know for sure.  In fact, in one of his phone calls during the brief hour he had to prepare for his death, Shimmy asked a friend to be his proxy in giving Miriam a divorce if his body wasn’t found.

These selfless acts of love are not the result of measured quiet moments, but of the true essence of Shimmy Biegeleisen shining through the smoke.  Even confronting his own death, he turned his focus outward, to his wife and children.   “Who will ascend upon the Lord's mount and who will stand in His Holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  At the top of World Trade Center, Shimmy’s heart was wholly with his family.

Mourning brings with it feelings of vulnerability and fear.  We try to protect ourselves by building walls around our heart and soul.  Sometimes these tight enclosures lead to bitterness and cynicism, and us off from G-d.  Even mourning the loss of his own life, of the future he would not have as a husband and a father, Shimmy’s heart was open and facing G-d.

Based on the phone log, the rabbis were able to establish that Shimmy’s last words were uttered as the South Tower fell.  His wife was declared a widow, and she and their children were able to gain the comfort of observing shiva. 

"You gates, lift your heads, and lift up, you everlasting portals, so that the King of Glory may enter."  As I sing the joyous concluding verse of Psalm 24 this Rosh Hashanah, I will think of Shimmy Biegeleisen, and turn to face G-d.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Teshuvah – The Steps

In the United States, April is book-keeping month.  In Judaism, it’s Elul.   Teshuvah involves a process of auditing ourselves, checking our books, the black columns and the red ones.  Why the U.S. chose April, I don’t know – but Elul was chosen for this purpose because it’s a month when G-d’s 13 Attributes of Mercy are most revealed. 
After all, we often face unpleasant surprises in our books – gaps where we thought we were solid, or hard evidence of what we suspected all along.  We can get depressed; even feel as hopeless as Ghana’s economy.  So knowing that G-d stands by, waiting with mercy, is a comfort.  

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the fourth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, related that there are set times for making our cheshbon ha’nefesh – spiritual accounting. 
·         For each day, it’s when we recite the Shema before going to sleep
·         For each week, it’s our Thursday night Shema before going to sleep
·         For each month, it’s the evening before Rosh Chodesh, the new month
·         For each year, it’s the month of Elul. 
Once we’ve tallied up our figures, the reality of where we are and where we need to be sets in.  Perhaps even, we’re forced to admit that the gap is fairly large.  Looking back, we see moments when we could have chosen better.  We resolve not to make these errors again.  Confession, regret, resolutions for the future, making amends to those we've hurt.  That’s all part of doing teshuvah. 

How will we know that our teshuvah has been successful?  When we face our personal demons again, find ourselves back in that same rut -- but this time we make better choices.  This is the proof that we’ve really turned over a new leaf, that we’re walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
But what if substantial time has passed without a reckoning?  The IRS has amnesty programs for tax scofflaws; the teshuvah process can also apply to any era of one’s life – last week, last year, even last decade.  And here's an amazing thing: when we return to G-d because of our love for Him, we disrupt the space-time continuum and retroactively turn the energy of our sins into a powerful expression of love and connection.

 Overwhelmed by where to start?  Here’s some good advice from a Google guy. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/matt_cutts_try_something_new_for_30_days.html
 (Just about the amount of time we have left until Rosh Hashanah!)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Elul Customs

To help us tune in to the special energy of this month and prepare for the Days of Awe ahead, our Sages established specific customs. 

·         It is customary to check one’s tefilin and mezuzot in Elul to make sure that the writing has not deteriorated.
·         Beginning from the 1st of Elul we blow the shofar every day.  Its blast serves as a spiritual alarm clock: “Awaken you sleepers from your slumber!” 
·         We recite chapter 27 of Psalms daily from the 1st of Elul to the 21st of the next month, Tishrei. 
·         We say special pre-dawn prayers of supplication called selichos.  Sephardim begin to say these from the 1st of Elul, Ashkenazim and Lubavitchers begin the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah.
·         We increase in Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness

The 27th Psalm begins with two statements of confidence and faith: “The L-rd is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The L-RD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  On the one hand, these words challenge, with our bold fearlessness, yet the unstated answer whispers of One we should fear.   Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov recalls his father’s deathbed words: “Fear no one but G-d.” 

The past month has provided ample fodder for fears of all sorts, from the economic (the U.S. debt crisis and the pursuant lowering of its credit rating), to the geopolitical (terror in Israel, violent clashes in Syria and Egypt, attempted overthrow of the government in Libya, riots in England) to the natural (earthquake in Virginia, Hurricane Irene, famine in East Africa). 

At times like these, it’s good to remember that G-d is our light and our salvation.  His light nurtures our soul, His salvation protects our bodies from harm.  When we stand in awe of His majesty, when we completely submit ourselves to the Hand of the Universal Conductor, we understand that we have nothing to fear.
Dawn prayers at the Western Wall

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Elul: the History

Triumphant, the Jews left Egypt in a swirl of miracles and wonders.  Forty days later they stood at the foothills of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.  But while Moses was on Mount Sinai they made a grave mistake: the Sin of the Golden Calf. 

As he descended the mountain, Moses saw the people he led out of Egypt dancing around this idol of gold.  He dropped the Tablets, shattering them, and after meting out justice, ascended the mountain the next morning to plead with G-d to spare His nation.  Forty days later, G-d accepted Moses’ prayers and commanded him to craft a second set of Tablets.

The Sarajevo Haggadah 

On the first of the month of Elul, the shofar echoed through the Jewish encampment and the nation heard that Moses was ascending to receive the second Tablets.   On Mount Sinai Moses devoted his days and nights to learning Torah from G-d, so he could bring it back to the nation.  Forty days later, on Yom Kippur, he came down with the second Tablets. 

For this reason, these days were set aside as days of Divine forgiveness, a time when G-d is ready to hear and accept our Teshuvah (repentance) and is desirous of our closeness.  These days culminate in the complete absolution of sin and our reunification with G-d on Yom Kippur.