It’s all in our perspective – The Cookie Thief

I want to share with you this beautiful poem from Valerie Cox called The Cookie Thief:

“A woman was waiting at an airport one night,

With several long hours before her flight.

She hunted for a book in the airport shops.

Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book but happened to see,

That the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be.

Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between,

Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.

So she munched the cookies and watched the clock,

As the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.

She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,

Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”

With each cookie she took, he took one too,

When only one was left, she wondered what he would do.

With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh,

He took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other,

She snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother.

This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude,

Why he didn’t even show any gratitude!

She had never known when she had been so galled,

And sighed with relief when her flight was called.

She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate,

Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.

She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat,

Then she sought her book, which was almost complete.

As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise,

There was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.

If mine are here, she moaned in despair,

The others were his, and he tried to share.

Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,

That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.”

cookie thief

You just don’t know what you don’t know, you know? :)


Kitchen Secrets from a Working Mom

One of the challenges in being a working mom has been dinner. Too many exhausted evenings turn to calling for a pizza. For months I have been questioning working parents and trolling the internet for the magical solution to working full time, caring for a two year old, and having healthy family dinners. To every blogging mother who tells me to have my toddler cook with me I say “Are you kidding me?” To those websites whose great mystical insight has been to encourage me to cook after my kid has fallen asleep at night I say “hrumph!” My daughter goes to sleep between 8 and 8:30pm and it’s all I can do to stay awake with her. The minute she is down I head for bed. Some parents told me they can cook a dinner during a single sesame street episode. Some nights I work until 6pm…  Others suggested “snack for dinner,” carrot sticks, crackers, and cheese. This was popular with husband and child.  One parent told me she cooks and freezes three different dishes every weekend. Hmmmm.  I’m not quite there, but my new motto is: “If I have time to make one then there’s time to make two and put one in the freezer.”

Here’s my personal system.  It’s still a  work in progress.

1. The rice cooker is my new best friend. I love it because I can set it and leave it… for hours. It keeps the grain (and beans) warm and fluffy. This can be applied to a crockpot too.

2. Baby steps: My goal right now is two home cooked meals a week, one from me, one from my husband. If we surpass that, bonus!  And no guilt.

3. If I have time to make one dish, I have time to double or triple it and put some in the freezer in dinner sized containers for another time. Favorite freezables are chili, quiche, lasagna, shepherd’s pie, and pumpkin pancakes

4. Shortcuts are not a cop-out. Salad in a bag is not a sin, neither is pre-herbed frozen fish. I check labels for additives, salt, fat content and if it’s ok for my tummy, it’s ok for our table.  Soak dry beans when possible and don’t sweat the canned beans when I can’t.

5. Prepping makes all the difference. I bundle the prep so I’m only actually cooking/prepping once or twice a week. A dinner of hot dogs (organic kosher beef or turkey no nitrates and tofu in our home) is do-able if there are already pre-cut carrot and celery sticks in the fridge… If I’m already cutting for a recipe, I get the veggie sticks done and bagged in the fridge for later.

6. Hide vegetables in everything. If I can puree it, I can hide a vegetable in it. There are even lentils and spinach in my pumpkin pancakes.  It easy to hide spinach, kale, carrots, broccoli and more in any tomato sauce using blender or immersion  mixer.

7. Forget diversity. Culinary experimentation is not do-able right now. My husband and I brainstormed 14 meals we enjoy eating, are simple to make, and nutritious. The list is accompanied by a set grocery shopping list for ease. If we only ever eat 14 different meals at home for the next 3-5 years, great. We are mostly vegetarian so here’s the list:

1. Grilled cheese on whole wheat bread w tomato soup

2. Fish (frozen, herb encrusted), microwaved sweet potatoes, and broccoli/peas

3. Snack for dinner: cheese, fruit, veggie sticks, whole grain crackers

4. Whole wheat pita, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes

5. Bean or lentil chili w salad and rice

6. Rice cooker: brown rice and beans/lentils with spices, salad

7. Quiche with veggies and quinoa crust

8. Bean tacos w cut veggies/salad.

9.  Whole wheat pasta / veggie infused pasta w sauce (or veggie pasta salad – I just added flavored oil and vinegar)

10. Personal pizzas on naan bread and veggie sticks.

11. Hot dogs / veggie burgers and veggie sticks.

12. Lentil loaf, potatoes and salad.

13. Tofu veggie stir fry or curry (grocery store curry sauce)

14. Vegetable lasagna and salad.

Shmoo in cooks outfit Sep 2014Of course I just committed to weekly veggie boxes from our local CSA farm so this may all go out the window this summer.

And…. weekend pancakes are a must…

Will keep you posted.


(Adoptive) Mom

As an adoptive mom I worry what my daughter will feel about her family when she grows old enough to understand her story.  I am the white mom of an African American daughter. I wonder if our bond will stay as strong once the realities of the world invade our family’s cozy threesome.  I thank God every day for bringing Eliyana into our lives.  We both had long hard journeys that brought us to each other.  I had to travel through infertility, anger, and guilt before I opened my soul to new possibilities.  She lost a birth family, endured three different orphanages and countless caregivers, all in her first eight months of life.  Now we belong to each other, heart and soul.  Every night I sing to her and tell her the story of how we came to be a family.  We have a favorite game we play.  I am not sure which of us invented it… Eliyana calls “Mama” and I call “baby,” back and forth through giggles until we come together in hugs and kisses.  I pray that we are always this close, always this joyful in our bond to each other.

I have to thank Michaela DePrince and her mother, Elaine, for sharing their story in Taking Flight.  Michaela watched her parents and neighbors murdered by war in Sierra Leon then walked for days with her orphanage to the relative safety of neighboring Guinea.  She was four.  She writes in clear memory of wanting a new family, parents to protect her.  I cried uncontrollably at her and Elaine’s meeting.  From the moment Elaine enters Michaela’s story, she is mama, never anything else.  In her acknowledgements, Michaela thanks her parents and her birth parents.  There is no bracketed “adoptive” to her “mom and dad”.  She doesn’t see them as white or secondary.  She sees them as Mom and Dad.  She has not lost her connection to the birth parents she loved.  She is not diminished in her African heritage.  She valiantly pursues her dream of being a ballerina and shares her story to inspire the next generation of young black dancers.

In her book, Michaela describes the prejudice she experiences from white clerks who follow her suspiciously in stores, from ballet companies who can’t envision black prima ballerinas, and from strangers on the street who assume she is her elderly parents paid caregiver.  She also describes the prejudice from the black community who assume her white mother doesn’t know how to apply hair extensions to her head (she does) and isn’t providing enough skin lotion to make her skin gleam.  In the end, Michaela makes her own decisions, wise beyond her years.  It is a hard road, but Michaela chooses to use it to inspire others and for that I am eternally grateful.

I was especially touched by Michaela’s relationship with her mother.  In the hotel room in Africa after they first meet, Elaine provides dresses and snazzy sparkly sneakers to her new daughters.  Michaela is overjoyed but starts to look through the suitcase for the ballerina shoes she has been dreaming her future mother will bring.  Elaine says “what are you looking or dear heart?” Michaela pulls out her prized and only possession, a magazine picture of a ballerina.  They don’t yet speak the same language, but somehow Elaine assures her daughter that yes, she can take dance lessons when they get to America.  At $80 a day for point shoes, and more for professional level ballet school, that was quite an investment in her daughter’s happiness.  She could have stopped at making sure this child had love and a full stomach, but she made sure to give her daughter her dream.

I hope one day, I will take Eliyana to watch Michaela DePrince dance.  I hope our lives will be full of wonderful women and models like Michaela.  I pray that we will have the courage and confidence to move beyond ignorant comments and pursue all our dreams.  Perhaps the world will change and grow over the next twenty years. I hope we become a kinder more humane people. No matter what life throws at us, I pray my daughter will know I am there for her, to help her achieve all life should bless to her.


Vayakel-Pekudei: The Shechina Dwells Within

“Each woman who was wise of heart in her hands wove and brought her weaving… All the women whose hearts lifted them up in wisdom wove the goatskins.” (Ex 35:25-26)

Our rabbis taught that “wise of heart” is understood as the Shechina. (The Shechina is referred to as the “earthly wisdom” in kabbalah, a female aspect of the Divine, the nurturing mother who stays with Israel through exile, weeping with her children.  )  “Her hands wove” refers to the women themselves who directed their minds to piety and “the work was done by itself”. Their “hearts were lifted up” bringing them to a “heavenly wisdom”.  (For we learn in Berachot 35b: “If they are so pious as to pray all day, how will the work get done?”  “If they are so pious the work will get done by itself.”) The Zohar thus concludes that the Shechina, Herself, wove the curtains for the Mishkan.  I can see in this verse the women sitting by their weaving, their hearts swaying to the rhythm of God’s presence, their hands moving as though of their own accord, guided by their union with the divine.  The Divine acted through the hearts and hands of the women of Israel, yet it was still they, by their own efforts who did the work.  God acts through us, and yet we give make the effort entirely our own.  This is the union, the coupling, of our action with Divine presence in our lives.  We can not hold back, even for a moment, from stretching toward the work of the Divine.  (Rabbi Arthur Green, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid’s Table)

Shechina שכינה  and Mishkan מִשְׁכַּן‎ are taken from the same Hebrew root, ש.כ.נ., meaning “to dwell.”  Mishkan, Tabernacle, is the dwelling place for God, and Shechina is the presence of God that dwells among or within us.  We are used to thinking of the Shechina as a cloud, something with form outside of ourselves, resting in the Tent of Meeting for Moses and the prophets to confer with and translate to us.  Rabbi Shefa Gold offers us the image of the Shechina as “she who dwells within us.”  She writes “By stepping forward in service, by taking responsibility for our own triggers, by acknowledging the mystery of Love, by paying attention to the details of kindness… [we create a space within for God to dwell and] the Shechina speaks.”  By lifting our hearts and hands, directing them to higher goals, we open a place within our soul for the God to dwell, for God to act through and in union with us. This is the Shechina.

In Hebrew we refer to our core prayer as Avoda, service, or work.  We come together in prayer not just to recite theological teachings, but in service, in labor, to the truths that bring us to the higher realm of God.  It is service, to ideals, to kindness, to our fellow human being, that makes a dwelling place within our soul into which we can welcome the Divine.  Why do we require a minyan for a complete service, because that which we labor for can not be achieved without the effort of grace and generosity to our neighbor.  There is a comfort in the precision and the pageantry of our service, but the real effort is to make space between the details for the Shechina to speak from within us.  Relationship comes from labor.  We hear the “still small voice” of God in the quiet moments of love between one human being and another.  Our hearts beat to the rhythm of the Divine as we hold in closeness that which we have sought and achieved.

Kavanah  (My thanks to Rabbi Shawn Zevit for allowing me to reprint his words) 

I am my prayer to you

I call myself present

And into alignment with the passing of time

May the abundant generosity that fills our world

Come through me

And answer my yearnings

With truth

And expansive understanding. Psalm 69:14

We remember we are all sacred vessels through which the Divine flows into the world.

Each of us fashioned in our own particular way so as to bring forth our unique gifts.

Our lives are our offerings.

May our hearts be open and our minds be clear

So the work of our hands bring blessing

And the work of our hands brings peace.



A friend of mine was punched in the head in the subway this week.  Without warning or provocation, a strange man screamed obscenities at him, and then punched him in the head. I asked, “Did the other passengers react?”  “Oh yes,” my friend said, “they were quiet when I fell to the ground… and when he tried to pull me on to the platform… but after he left the train, many of my fellow passengers asked if I was OK.”   …

In my twenties, I too was attacked on the same subway.   I moved a rude person’s bag to sit on a chair.  He responded by pushing me off the seat and across the train.  My fellow passengers rose up as one, surrounded the man, found the police at the next stop.  Then I knew my tears of shame, my friend’s and family’s admonishments, my stupidity in an act that domino-ed uncontrollably.  Now I know my blessing, my luck, in the people who stood against the violence, the nameless who made themselves my neighbors.

Moses, Aaron and the Golden Calf -Archetypes of Leadership in Ki Tissa

Moses and Aaron are the archetypes of leadership.  When the people want to build a golden calf, Aaron does not argue. He serves the will of the people, leading them in building their idol. Moses is not influenced or swayed in his values or vision. He is often tired, hurt, and angry, but he stays true to his core values. He speaks out against the idolatry of the people.

Of course Moses had God at his side to command the earth to open up and swallow those who acted to sabotage and threaten Moses… Just saying.

A Tomato On the Seder Plate – Slave Conditions for Tomato Farm Workers in Florida

I love making a great big salad at the beginning of the week and eating it each day.  This week at the grocery store I found I couldn’t buy tomatoes.  My eyes have been opened to an issue and I am still collecting facts… but it’s a story which gives me great hope.

The majority of our winter tomatoes in the United States come from Florida.  The conditions for farm workers who pick the tomatoes is so severe, that it has been called modern day slavery.  The law does not require minimum wage be given to migrant  farm workers.  Instead they are paid $0.50 for each bushel of tomatoes they pick. There is documentation of field bosses denying workers water breaks and beating them for taking them without permission.

The great news is that change is taking place.  Ninety percent of the tomato farms in Florida have now signed on to work with CIW and the Fair Food Program to provide their farm workers dignity and better wages.  The movement is to give each picker $1.50 per bushel, with the cooperation of farms, supermarkets, restaurants, and consumers. (We pay $75-$85 a bushel for tomatoes in the store.)  The amazing thing is that the movement for change is succeeding.  It gives me hope for ending slave work conditions in the US for all workers.

This is not just an issue of responsibility of one human being to another, it is a Jewish issue, steeped in our text and history. Every year we gather at the seder table at Passover to reenact our journey from slavery to freedom.  We know what it meant to be slaves in the concentration camps of the Nazis, and to have the world look the other way.  We have always taken the words “never again” seriously.  Jews have always been involved in America’s human rights movements.  Now as Passover approaches, and we ready ourselves to rejoice in our freedom, we are asked to think of those still yearning for freedom here in the US and throughout the world.

In the 18th century, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, was touring the local matzah factory, in order to inspect the matzah to ensure that it was Kosher for Passover. After looking carefully, he declared that the matzah inside was not Kosher. When the shocked factory owners, and community leaders asked him why not, he told them that the women in the factory were forced to labor too long and too hard, and that they were not being paid fairly for their work. He declared that the matzah was traif because it was produced through oshek, oppression of the workers and exploitation.  (Recounted in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim – Early Masters, pg 225)

 Oshek is the Jewish prohibition of mistreating the laborer.  It is described  perfectly in Shema journal:

“Oshek, to oppress the laborer, is forbidden by the Torah — as it is written: “Lo ta’ashok,” “You shall not oppress a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and he sets his life on it. Else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) Rashi interpreted the prohibition of oshek to include agricultural workers. “It is he who risks his nefesh [his soul], climbing up a ladder or hanging from a tree to do his work.”1 Rashi also taught that an olah, the biblically prescribed and sanctified food offering, would be invalid if it was the product of stealing.2 What was being stolen? According to a commentary on Isaiah 61:8, it was the wages of the farm worker.3 In the mid-1940s, Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen, the Chofetz Chaim, moved us from the sacrificial table to the kitchen table when he taught that it is forbidden to make a blessing over stolen food.4 We understand, then, that food, if it is harvested by workers whose wages have been stolen, cannot be sanctified.”  (DESECRATING THE KITCHEN TABLE /RESTORING ITS SANCTITY, Shema Journal, March 2011)

In 2011, seventeen rabbis traveled to Immokalee, Florida to meet with the Coalition for Imokalee Workers and  witness the terrible working conditions first hand. They called themselves the Tomato Rabbis.  In their writings they describe watching workers meet in a parking lot at 4am each morning.  Field bosses chose their crew for the day and buses took the workers to the farms.  The workers then wait until the dew has dried so they can pick tomatoes.  They carry 32 pound buckets up and down long fields where the field boss weighs it a gives them a ticket for $0.50 before they put the tomatoes in a truck and begin again.  Working from sunrise to sunset, the workers can not make even minimum wage.

Over the last ten years, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers and human rights activists thoughout the United States have worked with farms and major food chains to raise the amount of money per bushel to $1.50.  They have succeeded in partnering with the majority of our country’s fast food restaurants, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Walmart.  These supermarkets and fast food chains have agreed to pay extra for their tomatoes and to work only with farms that guarantee $1.50 per bushel and safe dignified working conditions for all workers.

This past Valentines Day, activists across the country brought valentines to Wendy’s restaurant, the last large holdout, saying “You are breaking our hearts. Please committ to fair food.”  I love this story.  It is such a clever and charming means to make real change in our world.  Among the many groups of people of all ages was a Hebrew school from Brooklyn New York.  Their students sang a song about tomatoes as they delivery their plea.  It is inspiring that we are making change and living by our Jewish ethics and tradition.  I am amazed at the work the Fair Food Program and others like Truah and Fair Trade Judaica are accomplishing.

In our Talmud, Ben Zoma asks four rhetorical questions.“Who is wise?” One who learns from everyone. “Who is powerful?” One with self-control. “Who is wealthy?”  Wealthy is the one who appreciates what he has. And finally, Ben Zoma asks, “Who is honored?”  The one who is honored honors God’s creations, specifically, honors other human beings. The one who is honored honors and affirms human dignity in another. (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

There is still much work to do, more Grocery Stores and Farmers to convince of a better way. The Fair Food Movement doesn’t just ask for additional money, it asks for dignity and fair working conditions for all.  It asks for an end to the subcontracting to field bosses who abuse and steal from workers.  It asks for accountability from all, the farmer, the store, the restaurant and the consumer.  Why should a a fellow human being work all day to provide us with food then line up at a food bank with his family for Thanksgiving.

The Midrash teaches: If a person of learning participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter, that person gives stability to the land. But if a person sits in their home and says to themselves, “What have the affairs of society to do with me? Why should I trouble myself with the people’s voices of protest?  Let my soul dwell in peace!?”  If one acts this way, they bring destruction to the entire world. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2)As we approach Passover, we have the opportunity to think deeply about the issues of modern day slavery, of fair wages and working conditions for all.  This year, my family, and many others will be putting a tomato on our seder plate. The seder plate contains a variety of foods that symbolize the Jewish journey from slavery to freedom. Each food illicits questions form the participants.  A tomato on our seder plate is a symbol of the farmworker who picked it, an invitation to question the slavery of today and to discuss  the progress being made by the CIW—supported by the Jewish Community— to bring about a just, slavery-free workplace.

Where are my kid’s dolls? A mother’s rant about the lack of dark skinned baby dolls at local toy stores.

Eliyana’s play life has reached its doll phase.  She adores her Elmo and Ernie whom she insists on dragging with her wherever we go.  I was greatly amused by a recent trip to our Discovery Center to see what was “drop worthy” and what wasn’t.  She tried unsuccessfully to climb the slide with a muppet in each hand.  Nothing could convince her to let go.  When she wanted to play the guitar she dropped Ernie but held on to Elmo.  At the emergency room display she dropped both Ernie and Elmo like hot potatoes.  This is the room with the dolls.  Eliyana loves the little anatomically correct African American baby doll.  She holds him, burps him, and has me dress and undress him.  I was so charmed by the picture of her with this doll that I took her directly to Toys R Us to buy a few for home.  I imagined a small United Nations contingent for tea parties in our living room.  Imagine my shock when we had to leave empty handed.  We had money in hand but there were no dolls for us.

In the small row of baby dolls I almost missed the one that wasn’t white — it was that light skinned.  The vast majority of the store’s dolls were Barbie or Disney.  What happened to baby dolls you cuddle and bathe? The next store we visited, Target, had no baby dolls ofEliyana in fort w dolls color at all.  Very disheartening.  Eliyana wanted a baby doll, not one that looked like a kid or an adult.  It shouldn’t be that difficult in a city this large, with a sizable African American population, to find one that looks like her.  Not all her dolls need to be dark skinned, but some should be.  It’s important.

We did come home with a plastic teapot that sings five different songs. Eliyana is thrilled to pour tea for Ernie and Elmo.  But where are my kid’s dolls?

It’s 2015.  Our president is African American.  The most influential woman in the country, Oprah, is African American.  What’s up with the white out at the toy store?  I am absolutely not comfortable with this reality.  The messages we are sending our kids through today’s toys are not OK.  Once we played with Lego:  building, taking apart and building anew with the same plastic pieces.  Now we buy our children Lego model kits.  They build a house or a ship which becomes a permanent display or toy, its bricks never recycled.  The message is to buy, own, collect, and buy more.  We are training our children to be perfect little consumers. More insidious is that each toy seems to be intertwined with a movie or TV show.  We know how susceptible children are to the messages received through TV and music… and it is constantly reinforced in the matching toys. The dolls are no longer “just dolls” reflections of our kids desire to build relationship and practice parenting skills.  Now they teach the importance of beauty, hair, and fashion.  Some come with coordinating books on activities the dolls enjoy: travel, beauty, fashion, hairstyling… I have yet to see any dolls that adore science or geometry…

I would like my daughter to grow and develop as she plays.  I want her to learn to love herself, in all her inner and outer beauty.  I want her brain to stretch and reach for new ways to look at the universe.  I want her to stand on the shoulders of the great men and women who came before her and to see her potential reflected in their achievements.  I want her to envision the world as it should be, and be a part of making it a reality.  I want her to know that she is a perfect creation of God’s glory, and proudly make her path in life.

My daughter loves to do everything I do.  We brush our teeth together, walk around Barnes and Noble with matching Starbucks cups, and fight over whose turn it is to play with my cell phone.  That kiss she is giving the doll on the forehead in the video below, that’s the kiss I give her every time I hold her.  She learned it from me.  I know I only have this devoted attention for a limited time.  Soon enough her friends’ opinions and those of “society” will outweigh my advise.  In addition to daddy and mommy, we will need to find models for strong, vibrant, African American women, to fill her life.  Right now, many of those life lessons are playing out in her toys.

Thank you Discovery Center.

Thank goodness for the internet (and grandparents).  African American Baby Doll will arrive next week.  Our neighborhood toy stores have a ways to go on their journey.

Purim Spiel – Dr Seuss Style

That man Haman.Dr Seuss Tziona szajman pic

That man Haman.

I do not like that man Haman.

Do you like Vashti more or less?

Would you request her with no dress?

I do not like Vashti the Queen.

King remove her from the scene!

Do you like Esther the Jew?

She hid her faith from me and you.first purim 4

She was married to the King.

He said her beauty makes him sing.

Esther’s ok… She may stay… But…

That man Haman

That man Hamanfirst purim 2

I do not like that man Haman

Haman’s advisor to the King.

He wanted to wear his royal ring.

“Bow to me” he ordered all.

Mordeccai refused and called it gall.purim 4

He shook with fury and made a plan

With lies and schemes, to the King he ran

“Save us Esther” begged Mordeccai

Or all the Jews and you will die.

That man Haman

That man Haman

I do not like that man Haman!

Esther invited Haman and King to parties threepurim 5

Half his kingdom he offered she

Save my life she asked the King

To her skirts did Haman cling.

Now we party every year.

With cookies shaped like Haman’s ear.

Hamentashen are good to eat.

Masks and costumes from head to feet.

That man Hamanpurim 3

That man Haman

I do not like that man Haman.

I  shake my grogger and shout out loud

Blot his name from memory calls the crowd.

Sing Megillah with joy and pride

We are Jews, we will not hide.

The prophet Isaiah – Hear but do not Understand

Maimonides set the division of the Torah into the weekly portions most of the world Jewish population agrees on.  He based his divisions on the Aleppo Codex, a bound manuscript of the Torah written some 200 years earlier in the 10th century.  The Aleppo Codex was kept by its Jewish community in the basement chapel the Aleppo Central Synagogue, a space believed to have been Elijah’s cave. It was revered and kept safe until the riots in Syria against the Jews of 1947 at which time at least half the codex pages were lost to fire.  In 1958 the Aleppo Codex was smuggled by Syrian Jews to Israel, where it was confirmed by scholars as the the book Maimonides refers to in his Mishne Torah.

Connected to each portion which is publicly chanted on the Sabbath, is a selection for the book of prophets, thematically linked to the Torah portion, and called the haftarah. We don’t know who set the list of haftarah readings at the thematic connections are somethimes diffcult to see, sometimes related more to the the Jewish calendar and approaching holidays, and sometimes to the form of the Torah portion more than the meaning of its prose.  For example the Song of the Sea is connected to the haftarah containing the Song of Deborah.  There is a traditional theory connected to the story of Chanukah that under the Selucid King Antiochus IV Jews were not permitted to read/study Torah and so they read Haftarah, the prophets, with thematic links back to the Torah portion in its place.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that teh haftarah reading was added to combat sects that argued only the first five books were part fo the cannon of Torah.  These and other explanations have their difficulties.  The Talmud mentions the reading of some form of Haftarah as far back as 70CE.

This week in synagogues around the world, Jews will recite the ten commandments, given to Israel at Sinai.  Interesting to me is the haftarah thematically coupled to this great moment of revelation.  The haftarah for both Ashkenazim and Sefardim begins with Isaiah, chapter 6.  It is the description of the prophet Isaiah’s encounter with God.  I understand the connection: The people of Israel experience God at Sinai and the prophet Isaiah experiences God in a vision.  It is two stories of revelation, national and personal.

Then I heard the voice of my Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.” And God said, “Go, say to that people:

‘Hear, indeed, but do not understand;
See, indeed, but do not grasp.’
Dull that people’s mind,
Stop its ears,
And seal its eyes —
Lest, seeing with its eyes
And hearing with its ears,
It also grasp with its mind,
And repent and save itself.”

“Hear but do not understand.” Isaiah’s message is difficult, literarily and theologically.  One interpretation suggests that the prophet was instructed to speak in such a way that the people would reject the message, thus ensuring divine punishment. (Etz Hayyim)  Another interpretation translates “Hear, though you do not understand.”  Although the people may hear they have become too indifferent to God’s word to respond to the prophet’s warning. (Rashi, Radak)  The prophet has a clear vision but the people are unable to see or hear.

In the giving of the commandments at Sinai, the people are afraid to approach God and so ask Moses to go for them.  (Ex 19:23)  While Moses is away, they are so troubled that they build the Golden Calf (Ex 32).  Sinai offers a clear vision, a perfect moment of revelation, but the people’s minds are dulled, their ears stopped.  This is our challenge, to learn to see, to hear, to understand.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, made it his life’s work to help the people to see.  He felt that the straightforward tradition of study of Torah and Talmud were not enough to really reach inside the people’s souls and help them understand.  To our Judaism, Hassidut brought music, dance and stories, all designed with the intent of opening the mysteries of the universe to Amcha.

In the story of The Werewolf, we meet the Baal Shem Tov before he had begun to study Torah, before he was a great Rabbi, as a young boy, wild in the woods.  His parents had passed away, the father’s last words to his son: “the Adversary will test you but he has no power over you.”   The community paid to send the boy to school but the boy could not abide staying indoors.  He kept running away to the forest.  Finally, the adults accepted his choice and let him live out in the wild open. The boy got a job with the head of school, accompanying the children from town to school and back each day.  The people in the dull town saw a remarkable transformation take place.  Day by day the boy led a singing procession of children through the streets, the meadows and forests.  The children no longer hung their heads in heaviness.  They shouted merrily, carrying plants and branches in their hands.  Their hearts burned with devotion.

The Adversary was jealous. He came down from heaven and  found a shy man, a charcoal burner who lived at the outskirts forest.  This man was at times compelled to turn into a werewolf, but he never harmed a human, hunting instead on animals. The Adversary reached into the man’s chest and removed his heart, replacing it with a darkness of his own.

When the boy next led the children through the forest to school the werewolf attacked.  The children were terrified, as were their parents who kept them locked in their own homes.  The boy went to each parent and convinced them to allow him to lead the children once again to school, them he gathered the children and calmed them.  As they walked, the werewolf burst upon them.  The boy stood firm.  He remembered his father’s words that he had nothing to fear.  He reached into the werewolf’s chest and pulled out Satan’s dark heart.  With that the man died, returning to his true self, and finally at peace.

The boy continued to lead the children to school and back, from from that day on, they forgot their singing and began to resemble their parents.. passing over the land with their heads bowed between their shoulders.*

I love this story.  It has many layers of teachings.  The connection for me with Isaiah, is in the children, who hand their heads as their parents and grandparents do.  They do not see, they do not rejoice… they trudge along on their path, eyes cast downward.  What has bent them under?  Fear.  What keeps us for hearing, from seeing, for understand the glory and beauty that God presents before us… our fear.

As long as fear is our guide, we will be compelled to hear, but not understand.


* My retelling of this story is based on the translation by Martin Buber