This week is all about Kosher Vegans, Tu B’Shvat and a big OneShul announcement!
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This week is all about Kosher Vegans, Tu B’Shvat and a big OneShul announcement!
Also, subscribe on iTunes!
Reconciling the concept of divinity with the ruthless slaughter of infants can prove a barrier of significant challenge, and one that may even be insurmountable. We are called to do so when reading this week’s parshah, and we are also asked to do so when viewing the morning’s global news report. Innocent people, many of them children, lose their lives in horrific and senseless acts every day. The luxuries of our western lifestyles appear gratuitous when compared with the daily reality of so much of the world. How do we, as Jews, actualize the command for each of us to love our God with all our heart, soul and strength? How do we maintain the fortitude to pursue justice and be that brilliant, shining light for all people?
The death of the first born is the tenth and final plague of the Exodus story, recounted every year during the Pesach seder. The story we tell around our tables, while ostensibly about freedom from slavery, includes much suffering. Lest we fail to appreciate the trials our ancestors endured, we dip our parsley in salt water to mimic the taste of tears, and choke down horseradish for the sharp sensation of bitterness on the tongue. Perhaps it is this emphasis on suffering which prompted a friend of mine to complain of the remarkable dearth of joy and celebration in Jewish holidays.
Appreciating the incalculable suffering of others, both historically and today, is valuable and necessary if we are to co-create a more just and gentle world. Understanding the persecution of our own people over the course of centuries is relevant when evaluating the anti-Semitism that now flourishes in some parts of the globe. Yet residing permanently in such a morass can be dangerous. I believe most humans are inherently empathetic, and we hurt to some degree when we learn of the pain of others. Our hearts are not invincible and our minds are not immune from the endless toll of violence, hatred and torment our news media so deftly provides. If our Exodus story were rendered in headline format, it may include such gems as, “Thousands Afflicted with Boils, No Known Remedy,” “Locusts Devour Crops, Famine Imminent,” and “Babies Slaughtered, Pharaoh Blames Hebrew God.” The information can be overwhelming. It can easily suffocate our joy, hope, and faith in divinity.
These moments call for practical intervention, returning us to the beauty of the present moment. Lengthy treatises on the dynamics of faith and the nature of God exist in abundance in our tradition. But when we are worn down by the reality of a child torn to pieces when her small body is used as a bomb, or when we burn with both anger and helplessness reading of attacks on synagogues, we need something less densely philosophical. When we honor our people through the yearly reading of the Exodus story, and the tenth plague sticks uncomfortably in our throats, all of the lofty invectives of Rabbis extolling us not to question the divine plan won’t make those murdered children any easier to accept.
This morning, I enjoyed the privilege of awakening next to someone I love, who loves me in return. There is much divinity to be found in snuggling. I climbed a mountain, ascending to its peak as the sun rose in the sky. There is peace and incomparable beauty in the wilderness outside my door. I ate lunch – itself a miracle in a world where so many go hungry – and savored an eggplant steamed to perfection. So much simple joy exists in how we choose to feed ourselves. On Pesach, we recline on cushions because the comfort of freedom is nothing less than sublime. We sing songs and hide the afikomen because silliness and laughter surely make life sweet. To live life fully, to cultivate open-hearted happiness, we must not linger too long in the shadows. We must be able to shift our awareness from a horror that deserves to be known, to a more perfect and mundane moment. Yes, a Yeshiva student praying with Chabad was stabbed by an assailant explicit in his anti-Semitic motives. We must recognize this reality. The story must be told. Any yet, we must also be able to move our awareness to the patch of sunlight illuminating dancing dust motes, or the chatter of birds outside the window. The perfection of these moments must be recognized, as well.
If we fail to redirect our awareness, we risk our joy and happiness. If we remain mired in the indisputable ugliness of our world, we risk losing the better parts of our nature which may only be nurtured through our world’s indisputable beauty. It isn’t always easy. It may seem flippant, even irresponsible. But if we are to ever truly feel a love for God, if we are to do the difficult work of justice, we need to be responsible for the tender care of our own souls. Parshah Bo calls us to tell the story of oppression. It does not ask that we reside there.
My favorite episode of King of the Hill is the Thanksgiving episode, where Bobby renounces the holiday in solidarity with John Red Corn, who teaches Bobby about the atrocities that happened to the indigenous people of the United States.
Growing up is a terrible thing, because the nostalgia of your childhood gets replaced by the “enlightenment” of getting older. When you’re young, Christopher Columbus is an amazing adventurer, your parents are the smartest people you know, and G-d is in heaven smiling down on you and making sure you’re OK. Then your teen years happen and you become cynical, giving up on the genocidal Spaniard, you realize your parents are clueless and sure enough, G-d is make believe.
But education doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t need to “grow up” out of everything. There are certain truths to life that transcend the intellectual and should never be taken away from us. Thanksgiving, I believe, is one of them. Yes, native people were massacred. But giving up on turkey and mashed potatoes doesn’t make that go away. Bobby Hill learned that, and I think we should, too.
And how about G-d? Does the fact that no one has recently split the ocean or stopped the sun or made a snake or a donkey talk really going to persuade you to stop believing in the Higher Power? It’s true, and I’ll be the one to say it: we have no historical proof that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs existed, or that Moses and the Exodus were real, or that any of the miracles really happened. But in giving up the fairy tales, are you really going to be ego-centric enough to say that there is no Creator? And even if you struggle with the “facts” of the Bible, will that be enough to keep you from a Shabbat table?
I’m happy with Thanksgiving, even if the Puritans were dubious people and that native people got a raw deal (and frankly, still do). And I’m OK with the fact that the history of the Bible is not terribly accurate. It won’t keep me from celebrating my own humanity, which is what I believe holidays like Thanksgiving and Shabbat have in common.
So enjoy your dressing and candied yams. They aren’t at the expense of native people. And enjoy your G-d, too! Don’t let your intelligence take away from the joy of a good life.
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. And although I stopped dressing up (and for the most part, going out) on Halloween, I still get a thrill out of carving a pumpkin and laughing at the ridiculous oversexed costumes that are on the market these days.
So what does Halloween have to do with Judaism? Simple: Purim.
Purim and Halloween have more than the obvious dressing-up-and-acting-out shtick in common. The real common denominator of the two holidays is that they came from somewhere else and were turned into something completely different than what they started as.
Halloween find its roots in the Celtic holiday Samhain, remixed with All Souls Day from the Roman Catholic world. Purim, some scholars believe, is actually a Babylonian holiday based around the stories of Ishtar and Marduk. Ishtar became Esther, Marduk became Mordechai and that’s that. You don’t have to believe it, of course
I like how Judaism is able to take what’s outside of itself and bring it in. That’s a good skill to have: it means survival, flexibility, openness. It also means that Judaism can have an impact on broader culture. Jewish people have taken part in the labor movement, feminism, civil and immigrant rights, environmentalism, and many other great movements in this country. Why? Because it’s tikkun olam…it’s part of our culture, whatever that word even means these days. Culture swapping is good, not because it means that we get to have more food filled holidays, but because we, the Jewish people, can export our goodness, our godliness, into the world, and make the world a better place.
So here’s my idea for Jew-ing up Halloween. Before you take your kids Trick or Treating, buy a bag of candy and some costumes and take it down to the local women and children shelter. Give them a little bit of fun. And then go Trick or Treating. It’s a mitzvah, so if you’re the type to worry about chillul HaShem because you are celebrating a “goyish” holiday, at least you’ve canceled your sins out a little bit (if that’s even possible).
Written by Rabbi Patrick
Even Higher: A Rosh Hashanah Story adapted by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Jill Weber is a wonderful story to read aloud to children about a Rabbi who is thought to go “even higher” just before Rosh Hashanah.
Every year just before Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Nemirov disappears. He’s not at home, or in the synagogue or in the village of Nemirov. The villages believe he’s gone to heaven to beg G-d for forgiveness of their souls. But is this where Rabbi Nemirov really goes?
A skeptical, but pious man-a Litvak comes to town and tells the villages they are wrong in their thinking. He uses the writings of ten Rabbis to back up his conclusion. However days before Rosh Hashanah the Litvak follows Rabbi Nemirov and what he finds makes him believe and declare that Rabbi Nemirov might go “even higher.”
What makes something a custom? Why do we do the things we do? Over time, as things change are we to change too or do we hold fast to the past?
The book When the Chickens Went on Strike: a Rosh Hashanah Tale adapted from a story by Sholom Aleichem by Erica Silverman and illustrated by Matthew Trueman asks and deals with these very questions in a manner accessible to children.
This story takes place in a Russian-Jewish village, many years ago so many in fact that most if not all of us were never around to witness to take part in Karpores (the Jewish tradition of holding a clucking chicken above the head of a person and saying a prayer to rid the person of his or her bad deeds. The little boy in this tale wants to behave very badly to make his papa proud, but he also wants to make his sister, who, I have to point out has to sit in the women’s section of the Shul, laugh. The boy’s father tells him to go outside because he causes such a disturbance. Outside the boy sees the chickens clucking. “Strike! Strike!” the chickens declare.
At first the boy is taken aback because he too, like the other villagers, believes in Karpores. He’s afraid there is no other way to get rid of his “bad deeds.” But perhaps there is after all as the story tells us: “Customs come and customs go.”
Tashlich is another Jewish custom of Rosh Hashanah, but unlike the custom of Karpores, Tashlick is still practiced by some Jewish people today. Tashlich is a Jewish custom of going to a body of water during Rosh Hashanah and tossing pieces of bread, which symbolize mistakes of the past year, into the water.
Tashlich at Turtle Rock by Susan Schnur and Anna Schur-Fishman and illustrated by Alex Steele-Morgan is a great way to look at or start your own family or friend customs or traditions during Rosh Hashanah.
Annie, Lincoln along with their mom and dad are off to do Tashlich. This year Annie is in charge of coming up with the family’s route. Annie chooses to stop at Turtle Rock first and to have the family write one good thing from the past year on the rock with the rock. After the family does this, dad washes their words away with water. Next they stop at Billy Goat’s Bridge and toss a piece of nature that represents something they want to throw away or ‘cast off’ from the past year. Annie chooses to stop at Gypsy Landing thirdly where each member of the family makes a promise for the New Year. Finally the family walks together to Old Log where they enjoy some yummy apples and honey.
So what are your families and friends traditions leading up to Rosh Hashanah and during the High Holidays?
Reviews are by Tamara Levine, who works in a children’s library and is active in our online community at OneShul.org.