Some dear friends visited Mexico recently and brought us back a tiny Mexican embroidered dress for our soon to be two year old daughter. It is beautiful and I can’t wait to to dress her in it. But as I held it in my arms a little later, I burst into tears. My beloved grandmother had a dress like this. She cherished it and wore it on special occasions each summer. I can picture in my mind her joy at seeing Eliyana in just such a dress. I can see my Bubie sitting in our living room, or our garden laughing in this dress, enjoying time with her grandchildren. I can almost picture her holding my baby, but then the tears well up again and the picture disappears. My grandmother lived to be almost 93 years old. I was blessed to have her at my wedding at age 87. I was blessed to share with her the wonderful news that Tim and I had been matched with a beautiful little girl for adoption. I was blessed to share my daughter with her in skype and pictures… but they never met. My grandmother passed away before Eliyana received her citizenship papers. We couldn’t bring her to Toronto to place her into my grandmother’s loving arms. I take comfort in the stories my sister and mother shared with me… of my daughters pictures plastered all over Bubie’s nursing home room… of her stopping every nurse, aide, and visitor to show off her beautiful new greatgranddaughter.
Parshah Tazria-Metzora is part of a lengthy Torah discussion on the laws of tumah v’taharah. These we translate to English as ritual “impurity” and “purity”. But the English can not come close to revealing the depths and layers of meaning in tumah and taharah which have more to do with a holiness and life force internalized and depleted. When are we tamei “impure”… when life force has been withdrawn… after child birth, after a woman’s menstrual period, after a man’s seminal emission…. Likewise tazria is not “leprosy, “ but a spiritual illness. It may have physical identifiers, but its root cause is in our souls. We have injured our souls through misguided actions, and now there is spiritual illness…. Or we become depleted of the goodness, divinity within and we need to replenish, to reconnect with God.
Picture every person as a living Torah, an embodiment of the word and light of God. According to midrash, it was through the Torah that God created the world. The Hassidic mystics adapted this idea to suggest that the Torah is the very energy and life-force of Divinity as it fills the world and the human self. Each person is instilled with the divine spirit of Torah, a spark of God. We become a living Torah in the words we speak, the actions we take. There is a fountain within of living waters, of mitzvot flowing from God. Sometimes the chanels to the divine become stopped up, or the divine spark within is shadowed or even depleted….
We stand this week halfway to the great revelation of Sinai. Picture yourself, as you stood in body and soul at Sinai and personally received that Torah, personally entering into an enduring covenant with God, with all of Israel. God filled us, as a vessel is filled with water… We are the Torah that was handed down to Israel… We are the mitzvot. We are the vessel for the divine in this world.
We read in Exodus 27:20, as the Israelites built the Tabernacle:
וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית—לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.
You shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.
A remarkable commentary on this verse suggests that the light was one meant to fill our souls with the divine. “The Sefat Emet, a late nineteenth century hasidic master wrote: “atah tetzavvehet benei Yisrael” (“You shall ‘instruct’ the Israelites”) may be read as the transformation of the people, each of them, into a living mitzvah. Make them, the people of Israel, into mitzvot in the world—tetzaveh et benei Yisrael. Guide each Jew toward the embodiment and ensoulment of the mitzvot; help them become mitzvot themselves.”
“How does a person become a living mitzvah? Through affirming the presence of the sacred in the world and by the love and compassion we show toward others. When we “become mitzvot,” we contribute meaningfully to the building of the sacred “lighting” (ma’or), the luminous presence of God in our world. We bring light into the world. We become instruments of the ahavah rabbah, of God’s love for us, through the mitzvah of Ḥesed, kindness and compassion toward our fellow human beings.”
As we count the days until Shavuot, we can meditate on our souls as living Torah. Have we become depleted, unable to continue to give? As vessels of God’s light -is our flame diminished, tamei? The Torah tells us to renew ourselves in the waters of life. Physically we can visit a mikvah. What are the waters of a mikvah? They are living waters, river, lake, ocean or rain… We affirm the sacred in the world, the base of life, of God, water. Remove our outer layers, make ourselves vulnerable, and immerse ourselves in that affirmation of God, the creator. We open ourselves again to be refilled as vessel of light and holiness, and to be again the embodiment of Torah. As we prepare to welcome Shavuot, to renew our covenant with God, we affirm once again the sacredness of our world and ourselves. We immerse ourselves in Torah, in mitzvot, in goodness and kindness.
My thanks to Dr Eitan Fishbane for inspiring this Dvar Torah and allowing me to use his beautiful words.
Proud to be published again in www.myjewishlearning.com. My thanks to Bechol Lashon for including our story in their series. Click here for my experience crafting a doll and a positive environment for our family.
And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead. And he called for Moses and Aaron by night and said: ‘Rise up, get you forth from among my people, both ye and the children of Israel; and go, serve the LORD, as ye have said.
— Exodus 12:29-31
The plagues are a difficult part of our Passover story. More than one great Jewish scholar has addressed the issue of discomfort with the idea that the plagues were a demonstration of God’s greatness to the Israelites and/or the Egyptians. Couldn’t God’s miracle been accomplished without pain to others, to innocents? Some point to the culpability of the entire Egyptian people who benefited by Israels slavery in silence. Their punishment was deserved. Certainly there is a poetic justice in the tenth and last plague, the death of all Egyptian firstborn children. It parallels the beginning of our story when Pharaoh commanded the midwives to throw all Jewish baby boys into the Nile river. But while it may work on a thematic literary level, it leaves those of us reciting the plagues each year at Seder with a spiritual tension, especially when we reach the tenth. How can our feast of freedom include the ritual remembrance of children’s deaths on our behalf?
The answer for me is found in Elijah’s cup. Our Passover Seder does not simply ask us to look backward, it asks us look forward. We pray for a time when Elijah will announce the coming of the Messiah. We pray that next year we will be in Jerusalem, the first step in the messianic age. We pray that next year all may be free. We have left mitzrayim, we thank God for our freedom, but we acknowledge that we are not fully free until all are free. Our seder is about redemption. Our exodus from Egypt began that redemption, but it is not yet complete. We still pray, still year for our redemption, for the coming of a time when we are one with God and the enslavements of life are behind us.
The tenth plague is the most horrifying element of the Passover story. First born Jews to this day commemorate this awful event on Erev Passsover with the Fast of the Firstborn. The Torah does not try to sugar coat it. We are told the Israelites painted their doors with fresh lamb blood as a sign for death to passover their homes. It doesn’t get more grisly than this. Midrashim talk of the wailing and crying throughout Egypt that night. I have officitated at funerals of parents who are burying their child. No matter the age, it is a parent’s worst nightmare. It is an unendurable pain and we are commanded to remember this in our seder.
So much of our religious lives is spent in study, in searching for answers. But with the tenth plague, there is no commentary that can remove the raw violence, the unfairness of death brought to children. Instead, we are invited to sit with our own discomfort. What Torah does this bring to our souls? We sit with our tension and our guilt and feel more deeply the horror of this ritualized human pain.
Until the time of the messiah, there will be innocents who suffer at the hands of their fellow human beings. It is our job fight against this evil, to look it in the eye and name it. We speak for those who can not speak themselves, for the children whose voices are snuffed out by the world’s cruelty.
Each seder we recite the questions of the four children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the one who doesn’t know how to ask. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, added a fifth child, the child of the holocaust, the child whose life was ended, whose voice was silenced forever. (published in The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays.) This special prayer is to be inserted into the Passover Seder before opening the door for Elijah.
THE FIFTH CHILD -THE ONE WHO CANNOT ASK
On this night, we remember a fifth child.
This is a child of the Shoah (Holocaust), who did not survive to ask.
Therefore, we ask for that child — Why?
We are like the simple child. We have no answer.
We can only follow the footsteps of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who could not bring himself to mention the Exodus at night until Ben Zoma explained it to him through the verse: In order that you REMEMBER the day of your going out from Egypt, all the days of your life. (Deut. 16.3)
We answer that child’s question with silence. In silence, we remember that dark time. In silence, we remember that Jews preserved their image of God in the struggle for life. In silence, we remember the seder nights spent in the forests, ghettos, and camps; we remember that seder night when the Warsaw Ghetto rose in revolt.
In silence, let us pass the cup of Elijah, the cup of the final redemption yet-to-be. We remember our people’s return to the Land of Israel, the beginning of that redemption. Let us each fill Elijah’s cup with some of our wine, expressing hope that through our efforts, we will help bring closer redemption.
We rise now and open our door to invite Elijah, the forerunner of the future which will bring an end to the nights of our people. We sing as they did.
Ani Maamin b’emunah shleimah, beviat Hamshiah, V’af al pi she yitmameah, im kol she ani maamin. I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and even though the Messiah may tarry, in spite of this, I still believe.
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.”
You just don’t know what you don’t know, you know?
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
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.
Of 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.
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.
“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.
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
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 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.