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


In the Image of God – Gender Hijacking of our Youth

Today I was told by the children at our local Jewish Day School that “God is a boy.” Their reasoning was straightforward: We refer to God as ‘he” and “king” therefore God is a boy.  I took the kids through a grammatical journey of the many Hebrew names for God, some  male, some female, the ineffable name neither.  One little girl decided for the group that God was probably a little female and a little male and also probably neither.  It was a good lesson for all of us.  My take away: Kids pay attention to those words floating carelessly around them and settle quite early into defining themselves and others using them.

My daughter’s favorite word is “Elmo.”  She is almost two years old now. I am comfortable with her current role models: Elmo, a fuzzy monster who likes to learn and explore, Peppa Pig who likes to jump in muddy puddles, and that guy from the Green Eggs and Ham book who inspired her to eat eggs.  But as she reaches forward to grasp language, I am more and more aware of the words we use around her.  How many times is she told she is “cute” or “pretty” and is she told just as often that she is “adventurous,” “smart”, “caring,” or “fun?”  She will she learn to define herself and her place in the world by the words and images thrown at her even now when she is too young to understand them completely.

My husband and I try hard to not fence in our daughter through toys, books, TV, or conversation.  She has dolls and trucks.  She wears blue and pink.  She has books with boys and girls of different ethnic backgrounds and social outlooks.  She has limited exposure to TV and the ipad and has only seen commercials for cars.  (She loves cars!)  We want to teach her that her actions are far more important than surface beauty or fashion, and that she can be whoever she wants to be.  And yet….   And yet I had the breath knocked out of me by a children’s radio station.  I am a child of the 70s.  Imagine my surprise when some 40 years after the revolution of Free to Be You and Me, I heard the words “In the morning I get up and paint, read, and clean but I’m waiting for my life to begin.  I’m waiting for my prince.”  These are the sentiments sung by the Disney princess in Tangled.  “I am waiting for my life to begin”  — Are you kidding me?

Here I had been concentrating on keeping oversexualized dolls and images away from child… only to be undone by song lyrics that were considered old fashioned in my grandmother’s time.  When I was a child there was just Lego.  Now there is pink lego for girls and blue for boys.  When I was a child there were turtlenecks and jeans, for boys and girls.  Now I go to the store and have to immediate choose separate parts of the store for boy or girl clothes.  There is never a truck on the sparkly pink girl clothes and never a butterfly on the blue and orange boy clothes.  She’s not even two!  Why is she being so heavily defined and boxed by our society?  The answer is insidious.  According to Melissa Atkins Wardy in Redefining Girly: How parents can fight the stereotyping and sexualizing of girlhood from birth to tween, the blue pink divide is less than a hundred years old and was invented to make us buy the same things twice.  My greatgrandmother used the same clothing for her boys and girls.  Parents of my generation get pink onsies for their little girls then have to buy anew if their second child is a boy.  This means the separate boys and girls aisles have little to do with a culture we have purposely chosen and much to do with being herded like cattle into a thought process that keeps us buying and buying.

What are the other messages subtly being passed to my daughter?  Girls’ clothes, toys, and pictures are in pastels, soft muted colors.  Girls are supposed to be soft and quiet.  Boys’ colors are bold, primary, loud.  Girls’ clothes are covered with cupcakes, butterflies, and tiaras — decorative but not very useful.  Boys clothes have superheroes, trucks, trains, and big strong animals –active things.  Do we tell our girls it is their appearance and demeanor that matter while we tell our boys it is their actions? I do not like princess or pirates but even here the gender messages to children are perfidious:  Thin wispy princesses with ipad apps for fashion and makeup up vs pirates of action, adventure, and mischief.

Yesterday I was careful with my words.  Yesterday I oooed over a new baby telling the proud grandfather what “wisdom I saw in her eyes” and praised a three year old for her adventurousness.  It took a little more work than my usual go to  “what a cute baby” and “look at your fun sparkly shirt” but I’m their rabbi and I’d like to validate their inner sparkle.  We were created in the image of God.  Limiting that likeness diminishes us all.

photo_2-116 photo_1-134Snuggling selfie on our outdoor “adventure” and helping to “fix” the car.

Beshallach – The confidence to sing into the unknown

I left the house last night with some trepidation.  It was my first evening out with a friend in over a year.  Becoming a mommy while working full time has left little time for self.  Last night a fellow mother invited me to a drum circle.  It was exhilarating.  I laughed, I learned, and I felt incredible joy. Most fascinating was that my husband and child were absolutely fine without me for the evening. I am making room for spirit and self and I look forward to my next drum circle.

Our teacher, Rob, concentrated on helping us turn off our analytic brains and lose ourselves in the moment.   This is a challenge for most of us. The idea of a drum circle is for the leader to start a pattern of drumming and for the group to follow or add layers to the music with their own intersecting rhythms.  I had a few patterns under my belt from previous experience but only anxiety at the though of improvising new rhythms.  Tziona and drum Feb 2015Rob had a beautiful vision of the drum circle: a conversation where we listen intently and respond.  All new drummers fear that moment of performance, of leaping away from the group to add our voice to the conversation. He likes to do an exercise he calls “drumming in the dark.”  It is the same circle, the same people, but the darkness gives each the confidence to break from the known and let creativity fly in the moment.  Last night I found that confidence (even with the lights on, my friends smiling their encouragement).  I turned off my brain and beat my heart into my drum, rejoicing in the layering of sounds the group brought together.  I entered an unknown space, the vastness of the rhythm, and found there… myself.

In Beshalach, God delivers manna to the people each day.  The people are commanded not to gather more than they need for the day, but many can’t help themselves. They must eat that day what they gather.  But the people are used to slavery and hunger.  They horde and save what they can, only to find it rotten and full of maggots by the next morning.  God insists the people may only gather what they need for a single day, and double on Friday for the Sabbath. Again, some gather too much and some too little, but when they measure and weigh it they find each has exactly as much as he should have. God has shrunk or expanded the manna to fit his rules.  (Ex 16:17-20)

God tells Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion [or quota]—that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not” (16:4). Why this test?  Rashi (12th c France) in his comment on the verse explains God is testing Israel’s obedience.  Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) reaches deeper.  He suggests that Israel is being tested on their ability to tolerate “needing God each and every day.”  God is teaching the people trust, that dependance does not have to be the same as enslavement.

The people feel immediately at a loss in the desert. They look back to what they knew and understood in Egypt and long for it.  They say, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! (Ex 16:3-4) They forget the slavery, the killing of their children.  They are completely overcome with fear of their unknown future. A midrash illuminates this particular midrash:  “An Egyptian would go into the wilderness, seize a ram or deer, slay it, place it in a pot, cook it, and eat it, while the Israelite would look on and taste nothing.” Note carefully the people’s words: “‘When we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!’ It does not say ‘when we ate from the fleshpots,’ but ‘when we sat,’ because they had to eat their bread without any meat” (Exodus Rabbah 16:4).” Israel remembers the bread longingly and forgets the greater hunger of their enslavement. (Rabbi Shai Held)

The challenge for Israel, though they are in the presence of the divine, though they witness miracle after miracle, is letting go of their past.  Why is this so hard?  Because the unwritten future, the formless unknown, is is so very terrifying in its enormity.  In the face of the future’s vastness, we lose our confidence. We look backward, hoping at least there to find our edges. We look backward because we understand the past, we can see it, touch it…  the future is void and fills us with fear and dread. God is trying to help the people learn to live in the moment, to have confidence in their future and to leave behind their crutch of wishing for the past.

A midrash suggests that Israel had waded into the Red Sea “up to their necks” before God parted the waters for them to cross on dry land.  A secondary interpretation brings a new layer of meaning to the midrash.  Avivah Zornberg (21 c Israel) quotes Mei HaShiloach on the crossing of the Red Sea in her book, The Particulars of Rapture, Reflections on ExodusWhat is the meaning of the two texts: “The Israelites walked on dry land in the midst of the Sea” (Ex 14:29), and “The Israelites entered into the midst of the Sea on dry land” (Ex 14:22).  The Sea symbolizes fear and prayer; the dry land indicates strength and confidence, as in the mastery of Torah, which is Israel’s strength.  One knows one’s prayer is answered if one can move out of prayer and into the study of Torah. Likewise, one knows that one’s study of Torah is true if, together with the Torah one studies, there is a cry of prayer in the heart.  For one must connect the two, prayer and Torah, fear and confidence.

The sea symbolizes fear and prayer and the dry land symbolizes strength and confidence.  Read in the light of our midrash, we can understand that we must move forward through fear, though the waters engulf us to our necks, before we find the dry land of confidence, before we can embrace an unknown future.  What does Israel do when they find that dry land, that strength and confidence?  They sing.  The people are “taken beyond the normal places of speech.” (Avivah Zornberg) First Moses and the Israelites sing their joy to God and then Miriam the prophetess takes timbrel in hand and she and the women sing and dance before the Lord (Exodus 15)

A friend once told me “It is hard to walk into the future when you are lugging your past with you.”  We each carry that bag full of all our joys, our mistakes, our past hopes and dreams.  The weight of it can keep us mired in a sea of doubt and fear.  It is so frightening to let go of it, but surrounded by water up to our necks, we can let go of the past, and with that find the strength and confidence of dry land.

There is a  little known argument between the rabbis as to the timing of Israel’s song. Some said they sang after they had crossed completely and were safe. Others say the song took place while Israel crossed the sea, in the very middle of their fear and danger. (Avivah Zornberg)  Is the song the expression of fears faced? Of a present embraced? Or is this prayer the means by which Israel finds their confidence, a corridor by which they sing their confidence to the unknown.

Shemot – I am called by my deeds

Talking about God has always been out of the ordinary for rabbis.  We are trained to help our congregations embrace lives of mitzvot, not discuss the nature of God.  We talk about how our actions honor God, the mitzvah of kiddush hashem, of emulating God in our actions, of growing closer to God through life choices.  We rarely, if ever, delve into pure theology.  We watch as God passes before us, but we do not seek to see God’s face. (Ex 33:17-23)  We understand God through God’s actions: God created, God gave us Torah, God visited the sick, cared for the mourner…  God in turn, asks us to seek our the divine through our actions, our study of Torah, our care of the world, our following of the mitzvot. We are a religion who places Torah and text, mitzvah and action, well before theological inquiry.

Perhaps the most powerful words to describe God are in this week’s Torah reading, Shemot.  Moses asks for God’s name. God answers, “אהיה אשר אהיה (I am that I am/I will be what I will be). Tell the children of Israel that אֶהְיֶה (I am/will be has sent you).”  God continues, “I am יְהוָה the God of your fathers. (Exodus 3:14-15) With Moses’ question comes our introduction to the tetragrammaton, the four letter ineffable name of God, Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh.

In the midrash, “God says to Moses: You want to know My name? I am called by My deeds. I might be called E-l Sha-dai, or Tzevakot, or Elokim, or Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh. When I judge My creatures, I am called Elokim. When I wage war on the wicked, I am called Tzevakot. When I tolerate the sins of man, I am called E-l Sha-dai. When I have compassion on My world, I am called Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh.”

Seek God through action.  We can not see God’s face.  God’s nature is beyond what we can simplify by speaking a name aloud.  If we want to truly make a connection to God, we must do so through our deeds.  God’s deeds are the guide for our own mitzvot.  Our actions are what bring us closer to Torah and the divine.

There has long been a debate among Jewish scholars about whether one needs to believe in God in order to follow the Torah, or one needs to believe if Torah in order to follow God.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote that the universe is an image of the Torah and the Torah is an image of God. Through the study of Torah human beings draw the secret wisdom and power of insight into the essence of things.

The Talmudists clearly believe the Torah is a divine instrument and thus its study leads to God.  Rabbi Akiva called the Torah “the precious instrument by which the world was created”. Rav said that God created the world by looking into the Torah as an architect builds a palace by looking into blueprints.

A remarkable Talmudic teaching has God say, “If they were to forsake me, I should forgive them, for they may yet keep my Torah. For if they should forsake me but keep my Torah, the leaven that is in the Torah will bring them close to me.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Haggigah 1:7, 120b-121a)  The context of the discussion is one in which Israel’s worst sins are forgivable, all except complete abandonment of the Torah.  Clearly Chazal gives Torah priority over theology.  In this midrash, God acknowledges that it is Torah that draws the people to holiness, to relationship with the divine.  Torah, mitzvot, deeds, are the means by which we form relationship with God.

This week’s parashah “אהיה אשר אהיה (I am that I am/I will be what I will be)” mirrors this teaching, telling us that just as approach God though our deeds, God appears to us through God’s deeds.  Mutuality of action over thought is the basis of our covenantal relationship.  I am that which will be, that which emerges in our actions today and tomorrow with each other.


Vayechi – Power of Words

I once visited a woman who had been told she only had a few more weeks to live.  She said to me “I have had a long and happy life and I’d just as soon go right now rather than stay here waiting for death.”  I asked her if she would like to use the time before her to tell her family anything and she said “No. I’ve already told them everything.  They know how much I love them.” Her family gathered around her in love and support  and she went to sleep.  She stayed asleep most of the time, waking once a while to ask with great irritation why she was still alive then fall back to sleep.  She passed within a few days.  When we buried her, her family felt great peace.  They did in fact already know how much she loved them and loved her and her strength of will in return.

We each face death in our own way.  The midrash suggests that Jacob requested illness before his death so as to gather his family and his thoughts in the days and weeks before he passed.  (Bereshit Rabbi 97) Jacob’s is the first death scene described in the Torah. He gathers all his sons around him to prophesize their future and to bless them.  Abraham’s death is described simply in Gen 25:7.  Abraham breathed his last, died at a ripe old age, contented, and was gathered to his kin.  The texts describes that he left everything to Isaac, having given his other children gifts while still alive. There is no deathbed farewell.  Isaac is described as being old with dim eyes when he calls Esau in to bless him.  There is no mention of death.  Even though Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, it is quite a while before Isaac passes away.  Jacob is the first to know he is dying and to make use of the information to “put his affairs in order.”

The first action Jacob takes is to ensure he will be buried with his ancestors in the land of Canaan, in the family plot.  His words are very carefully used.  His greeting to Joseph demonstrates great respect to the Pharoah’s second in command, asking him for a “favor” (Gen 37:29) and “bowing” to him from his bed. (Gen 37:31)  He then asks Joseph to swear to him that he will bury him with his ancestors (Gen 39:30), in the cave of Machpelah, in Canaan.( Gen 51:30)  The wording is important, as Joseph must ask Pharoah’s permission to leave Egypt.  Pharoah’s response confirms this “You may go because you promised on oath (Gen 50:6).  Jacob has engineered all this with care.  He is an old man, dim of sight, living under his son’s protection in a foreign land.  He is without the patriarchal power of the past.  Yet he uses words to give him power and create this reality.  (Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg,The Beginning of Desire  p.353)

Having established he will be cared for according to his will after death, Jacob gathers his sons around him to offer them his last words.  It is an odd set of final statements for a father to make to his children.  To Reuven, Simon, and Levi, his words are scathing.  His words to his other sons fall somewhere between poetic description and opaque prophesy.  As he concludes his words to each individual son, he ties them all together, pronouncing them the twelve tribes of Israel. Here finally the word blessing is used, not once but three times:  “All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve of them, and these were the words with which their father blessed them, each man according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Gen 49:28)  The Jewish Publication Society, my favorite English translation, refuses to use the word blessing at all, translating instead “he bade them farewell with appropriate parting words.”  Their reason for the translation: “not all the tribes received blessing.”  Alternatively, a midrash suggests while at first Jacob blesses some sons and not others, in the end he blesses them all in unity. He knows they war with each other, that they are human and stubborn and so he ties them all together in this blessing and has them “suckle from one another.”  (Pesikta Rabbati 7:9)  Aviva Zornberg suggests he is trying to influence his children and their future in this speech, offering them a path to rely on one another in their differences rather than fight.  (The Beginning of Desire  p.364)

Perhaps most fascinating, is the interpretation that Jacob is trying to tell his sons the future, to give them a prophesy, the future of Israel until the end of days and the final glory of God, but is blocked. Vayechi is the only parshah with no “blank space” to announce it’s beginning in the Torah.  Each Torah scroll is written carefully by hand, and each weekly parashah has a blank space before, making it easier for the Torah reader to find, and announcing it’s distinct importance. Vayechi, the final portion in Genesis, has no blank space, no blanks at all between it’s beginning and the words of the prior portion.  Rashi, in his commentary, suggests lack of blank space is a physical block.  The parashah text is physically blocked in by lack of space.  Rashi (11th c France) offers two answer, one national, the other personal and spiritual.  The first suggest that when Israel died, Bnei Israel, living in exile, were blocked: They closed their eyes and hearts to seeing God fully.  Rashi’s second explanation interprets the block as Jacob being blocked from seeing or revealing to his sons his vision of the end of days.  Israel’s sons stand at the precipice of the first exile, their enslavement in Egypt the paradigm for all future exiles. Jacob sees this and wants to share it with them, to ease the waiting for generations to come, but as he opens his mouth to speak, is blocked. Instead of providing the vision for all of Israel’s future, his words to each of his sons reveal only a partial truth.

Rashi suggests that in the moment Jacob begins to share the divine illumination with his sons, the shechinah leaves him, and he is blocked, left in darkness.  Rambam (12th c Spain) further extrapolates that Jacob has a life history of losing the shechinah in times of darkness.  While Jacob mourned Joseph, thinking him dead, he was melacholy and God’s presence left him.  When Jacob and Joseph were reunited in Egypt, Jacob, “lived again” (vayechi – Jacob LIVED for 17 years in Egypt) and the shechinah returned to him.  In Rambam’s view, depression, lethargy, melancholy keep us from achieving our full human potential, and block prophecy, or connection to God.  Aviva Zornberg suggests something of Jacob’s light flickers at his end, losing him God’s presence. He is blocked.  This block is released in his final words, “All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve of them, and these were the words with which their father blessed them, each man according to his blessing, he blessed them.” (Gen 49:28). Somehow in his words to each son, replete with images of nature and water he finds the fluidity and light to reconnect with God and to make his final words ones of true prophecy: You are the twelve tribes of Israel, united in blessing.  (Beginning of Desire, p 360-365)

How much of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives can we influence with our words.  What blessings and prophecies can we leave them?  Gluckel of Hamelin (17-18th c Germany) has been a role model to generations in the ethical will she left her children.  In her carefully recorded journal, she used stories of her life to ask her children to remember the mitzvot and live by their tradition.  I love her motherly chidings, spoken from the grave, and now published, educating the many generations that followed.  Like Jacob, her words have made her vision a reality.  Like Jacob, her fondest wish was for her children to lean and depend on each other, making their differences, their strength in unity.

People often know when they are about to die and can take the opportunity to “put their house in order.” They have power to make a difference in their words to loved ones, those with them, and those who will follow in years to come.  Tradition tells us that the shechinah sits by the head of those who are very ill, supporting them in courage and love.  From this we can also take courage, and faith, that God is present for us.  What we want most  is to find acceptance, peace in the time before we are asked to leave this world.  Through Jacob’s long blessing he moved from darkness to peace, and found again God’s presence in his life.  We too can reach out to family and friends, and through connections of truth and love, find our way closer to God.

Super Healthy Rabbi Mommy’s Original Pancake Recipe

I am taking some time off from work while Tim has vacation days and enjoying some lazy family time at home.  This morning I had fun making up a new pancake recipe. They turned out pretty tasty and even the baby ate some!

Pancakes a la Reb Tziona

1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup oatmeal, 1 tbsp chia seeds, 1 tbsp wheat germ, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 tbsp baking soda, 1 tbsp sugar, 1/2 cup yogurt, 1/2 cup water, 1 egg, 1 banana, handful blueberries – fried in olive oil.

Missing lighting our Chanukah candles but it’s always  time for pancakes.

An Angel Whispers to Us

Laying in her bed, she asked me to turn off the television and sit close to her.  She was an artist. Small pictures of her beautiful work on the nursing home wall and a few photographs were her only decorations.  She told me she felt there was a something she was supposed to have learned, as a Jew, that she hadn’t, and now in her late 80s, she didn’t know where to start.  It wasn’t the first time she had said this.  On previous visits we talked about her youth, her decisions to leave Judaism behind in search of being a real American.  But today she got to the heart of her worries.  She was afraid of death, afraid that there was a great Jewish task left undone as she neared her end.  I told her this midrash.

In the months before we are born, an angel whispers to us in our mother’s womb, teaching us all of Torah, all the Jewish wisdom in the universe.  Just as we are about the enter the world, the angel touches us lightly above our lips, and we forget everything we have learning. This is the source of the depression in the shape of a finger between nose and lips.  We spend our lives trying to regain the knowledge of the universe that was ours before birth.  I suggested to this older woman that in the moments before death, as God reaches out to embrace us for eternity, we find again all the knowledge that was ours in the beginning and we understand.

I believe this midrash with all my heart.  I believe that a small drop of the divine rests within our souls and returns to God upon our death.  All that is unique about us is carried in that divine drop to be be part of God and to be part of the world for ever.

As I left the room I prayed with this dear woman.  I prayed that she felt the Shechiyna, God’s presence, resting next to her, giving her comfort, that she feel the healing power of the divine and that she find the peace she sought.

First Chanukah Candle Together

Last night our family had our first Chanukah candle together.  It was a special moment.  One I didn’t anticipate would carry such sweetness. I came home from leading prayer services, Eliyana tired out from a long day, my energy flagging behind hers.  We had planned a taco dinner but were just too bushed to cook or eat.  DSC00538My husband arrived home from his hour long commute just a few minutes before us.  He set up the Hannukiah in the window with candles and matches. We lit the candles together, Eliyana first in Daddy’s arms, then mine, as we sang our prayers together.  Such a small moment together and so meaningful to me.  I was touched that my husband had everything ready for us when we walked it.  I was warmed by the picture of our family standing together, our first Chanukah.  We didn’t buy Eliyana or each other presents this year.  We lit the candles.  We said the prayers.  We ate chocolate.  It was perfect.  Perhaps gifts seem superfluous in the face of the blessings we have received this past year.  This time last year, Tim and I were booking a flight to Ethiopia to pick up our beautiful daughter and bring her home.  My eyes are tearing now at the memory… so grateful for our family now complete with little Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin.  God answered our prayers with blessing and joy.  She is a light in our hearts and souls.