A true partner pushes up against us – Knegdo in Bereishit

Two days ago my husband looked at my blog and silently tsked tsked me.  We’ve been married for over seven years now and I know when he judging me even when few words are exchanged.  He said only “When was the last time you blogged?”  The truth is, I have not done any serious writing in a very long time.  I felt immediately defensive thinking: “I’ve been busy.  I had job search work, regular work, and a two year old daughter. Then I had new job responsibilities, packing and moving tasks, and by the way, I was in the middle of meeting my congregation’s needs for high holidays…. and I’m sick! I have a cold, snorfle.”  But I didn’t say any of that.  Instead here I am blogging.  My beautiful husband has a way of pushing me to be my best, to strive to grow outside my comfort zone, and bring my creativity to the foreground.  Pretty good husband, right?  Well we’re still working on those standard relationship struggles of whose turn it is to cook, clean, or change diapers.. but yeah… he’s a great husband.  His support goes beyond agreeing with me to the loving act of arguing with me.  He is my beshert because he pushes up against me.


This week our Torah portion is Bereishit.  God created our universe.  God created us.  God looked and saw that it was not good for the first human to be alone and so God decided to create and helper to be against him. ויאמר ה’ אלהים לא טוב היות האדם לבדו אעשה לו עזר כנגדו Gen 2:18 uses the words ezer knegdo, meaning literally “a helper against him.”  The rabbis looked at this strange grouping and realized the real truth gifted to us in these words:  A true partner rubs up against us, argues with us and pushes us.  Our tradition of Talmud study accounts for a thousand years of partners studying Jewish law with one another by arguing the points before them.  As the Jewish saying goes: “If two people agree, then one is not necessary to the conversation.”  The same is true of our lives as partners in love, as families.  Done with respect and sensitivity, the greatest gift we give to our partner is an opposing viewpoint.


IMG_3203Thank you to my beautiful husband, Tim, for being my ezer knegdi, my helpmate who pushes against me. Thank you for pushing me to write in the first places. Happy Anniversary My Beloved.  Seven years ago, on the weekend following Simchas Torah, we stood under the Chupah and joined our lives together.

My Mom’s Gluten Free Sugar Free Blueberry Muffin Recipe

My Mom has taken to her gluen free sugar free diet like a fish to water and has begun making up her own fabulous recipes.  I’m allergic to nuts but wanted to share this yummy blueberry muffin recipe she recently developed.  As Eliyana says “Delicious.”

Rena’s Blueberry Muffins (2 Weight Watchers Points Each)
1 cup almond meal, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp melted coconut oil (use microwave), 2 egg whites, 6 pkgs stevia, 1/2 tsp almond extract, 1/2 cup blueberries,

Topping: 1 egg white + 1 pkg stevia

preheat oven to 350F

Mix dry and wet seperately (except blueberries) then mix together thouroughly — makes stiff batter (like shortbread)

coat muffin pans with melted coconut oil and push dough against sides of pan to make tartlets, then spoon in blueberries and cook 15 min

drip/brush topping on blueberries and cook additional 4-5 min

Cool before eating

Rena's Muffins

Pride or Parenting?

I sat in determined silence on the chair as my child clug to me, screaming and crying.  The gentle reassurances, lollipops, and ipad that had distracted and calmed on previous visits to get her haircut were not working.  The hairdresser had already cut her own hand and was displaying Herculean patience with my daughter as she flung her head from side to side.

Eliyana has developed a genuine fear and true hatred of having her hair wet, combed, styled or cut.  She is two.  Usually when she says “no” I smile and rejoice that she has found her voice, is forming her own identity and will.  But the hair is my undoing.  I have been sensitive about my daughters hair since the beginning… joining facebook pages specific to white moms learning to style their black daughters’ hair, watching youtube tutorials, and seeking advice from African American women on the best products to care for infant hair.

I love Eliyana’s hair.  Everyone does.  It is fantastic — tiny tight curls that spring and play at one’s touch.  She is gorgeous.  So I’ve decided to let go of my own insecuritites about the world judging me and let my child have wild hair for a little while.  I’ll focus on eating vegetables instead!  God give me strength to care more about my child’s emotional and physical health than my feeling judged about her appearance.

Guest post from my husband: Tim Olivieri

For everyone’s convenience, I [Tim] have created a brief fact sheet. You’re welcome.
1. Friday’s SCOTUS ruling doesn’t compel clergy to officiate marriages that they disagree with on religious grounds. It’s already against the law to discriminate on the basis of religion. Yet, clergy can refuse to marry people who don’t belong to their denomination. So stop being stupid.

2. Thursday’s SCOTUS decision will keep in force the imperfect, but still successful, ACA which has resulted in tens of millions of uninsured Americans being insured. This is a good thing. Stop being stupid.

3. Canada has both universal health care and same sex marriage (the latter since 2005). It has yet to fall off into the ocean and its christian citizens have yet to be herded into FEMA camps. Stop being stupid.

4. If you’re thinking of fleeing to Australia you should be aware that they have incredibly restrictive gun laws. You’ll also be dismayed to know that since passing said gun control laws they have had one of the most dramatic drops in gun violence ever recorded. Stop being stupid.

5. The first amendment, and over two centuries of case law, guarantee you the freedom to practice your religion without government interference. It never has afforded you the right to impose restrictions on others to keep them from offending your religious beliefs. Stop being stupid.

6. If you’ve ever ranted against people flying the Mexican flag within our borders then you should be fully in favor of scrapping the government sanctioned use of a battle flag flown by people who started a civil war by attacking members of the U.S. Military. Why, exactly, do you get to celebrate a heritage of treason but Mexican-Americans aren’t allowed to celebrate their heritage? Stop being stupid.

7. If you spend any appreciably amount of your day getting angry about how other unrelated persons choose to handle affairs related to their genitals, you need to do some serious reflection. Until then, stop being stupid.

8. If baking a cake makes you a participant in a wedding then selling a gun makes you a participant in a murder. You can’t have it both ways. Stop being stupid.

9. The planet isn’t warming, it’s dying. All of the scientists say so. There is no”debate.” Stop being stupid.

10. And finally, if you are using the bible to justify your hatred of others and using its words to act like a complete idiot, you’re using it wrong.

Blessing of the People – My words at LGBTQ Interfaith Service

In the beginning, God created ADOM – a being in God’s image, formed from the clay of the earth, neither male nor female.  God hovered above Adom’s lifeless form, a cloud of light.  God breathed a ruach elohim, a divine breath, into Adom’s body. In that moment, the very essence of God’s light entered Adom’s soul, a tiny sliver of God, and Adom awoke to life.

This beautiful story is a traditional teaching in Judaism.  Later teachings explain how this first human came to be split in men and women.  I love this midrash because in the beginning God created a being with all potentials within it.  Into this being of all potential, God breathed life. God gave God’s own light into our souls.  To be in the image of God is to be all this potential before our final form emerges.

As a Jew, I have questioned God -Why this disease?  Why this waste of life?  Why this tragedy? Why me?  But I have never questioned the beauty of God’s creation.  In my very soul I know the truth… we are each here because the beauty of who we are reflects God’s divinity.  Each of us is unique, each with a role to play.  To remove any of us would destroy the picture of God’s creation.  To become our full selves, some of us must face terrifying prejudice.  Some of us must transform our outer shells to reveal that within us which longs to be free.  When we embrace our true selves, we embrace that light of God that sits in our souls.  Our task is to find and nourish the gifts God has given us, to live our lives fully, and to help those around us do the same.

I am the granddaughter of a holocaust survivor.  I know the evil that ravages in the guise of religion, of civility, of “social good.”  These are the masks worn to bully and spread hate.  All that evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing.  And so I am honored to be here tonight, as a rabbi, as a Jew, as a woman, and as a mother, to commit as an ally for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer rights.  We are the children of God, made in God’s image.  Who is mere man to question God’s wisdom?

Our lives are made of struggle and challenge, trying to find our path in life, trying to connect with God’s light.  A Jewish teaching recounts: For nine months an angel of God sat with us in the womb, a divine lamp shining, we studied all the wisdom of the world.  In the moment of birth, the angel reached forward and touched us just above our lips, leaving an indentation, and we forget everything we have learned.  We spend our lives studying, reaching for that divine learning that was once ours.  Our lives are ones of transformation, like the caterpillar into the butterfly.  This is God’s light within.

As a parent, I want my child to be all that she is meant to be, for all her potential to be brought into the light.  The challenge for my husband and I is to support her and refrain from building boundaries that hinder her from finding her true self… to nourish that tzil of God’s light within her soul that guides her to fulfill her unique role in creation.  We don’t know where her path will take her, but we know she will be fabulous.

At the time that equal marriage rights in America were first exploding in the media, my husband and I were on a waiting list to adopt.  We had been through years of fertility treatment torture.  We were volunteering at a home for severely neglected and abused children.  The biblical quotes of hatred and judgement spouted against gays and lesbians who wanted to marry and have families made no sense to us.  We were watching a nine year old simmer and explode after the abuse of his straight parents.  We were witness to a child with permanent brain damage after neglect from her straight parents.  A man and a woman do not make a family.  Love, respect and care make a family.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher and theologian, taught that we can treat people as “it” or we can treat people as “thou.”  We can interact with others as “it,” as though they are mere objects, ignore a cashier while we talk on a cell phone, distance our emotions from those in need because they are not like us, float past them without interest or connection.  Or we can interact with our fellow human beings in an “I-Thou” relationship.  This is a relationship of deep mutual respect… of seeking to understand the other, of being present for them and truly seeing them.  In this relationship, the power of the connection and respect between these two people invites God into the relationship.  This is our challenge in life: to seek “I-Thou” relationships with others… to find ways to understand our fellow human being, and through this mutual respect to bring God into our lives.

Judaism has a tradition of reciting blessings throughout the day to remember God’s hand in all of creation.  There is blessing for seeing a creature or person of exceptional beauty: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam sh-kacha lo ba-olam.  Blessed are you God who has made this in your universe.  There is a blessing for seeing that which is unique: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam m’shaneh ha-briyot.  Blessed are you God who makes creatures different.  We all carry God’s light.  Our challenge is to do the work needed to let it shine illuminating God’s world, and igniting the light in others souls.  Deep respect for others while looking inward at our own growth is God’s path.

I will end my thoughts here tonight with a traditional Jewish blessing given by God to the people of Israel in the desert and said by parents to their children every sabbath:

Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā
May God bless you and keep you.
Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viḥunnékkā
May God deal kindly and graciously with you.
Yissā Adhōnāy pānāv ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm
May God bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace.
(Numbers 6:22-27)


Be’Ha’alotcha -God’s Divine Light is the Human Soul

A beautiful midrash describes creation:  When God formed Adam, the first human,  thousands of spirits tried to enter into Adam’s lifeless body but could not.  God then hovered above Adam’s body, like a cloud, and breathed a ruach elohim into his mouth and nostrils.  A divine light entered into Adam and became his soul.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is an essence of God’s divinity in all that which was created, the rocks, the rivers, the fish, the birds, and the trees.  But the Torah only gives credit to human beings for being created in God’s image. The vessel God created to be the human being, to hold that tzlil, droplet of God’s light, is unique.  We have choice.  We have intellect.  We have a kindness of heart that elevates us beyond mere instinct and survival.  We as human beings have been given the divine role within creation to be the lamps and lamp lighters in God’s gardenh.

Parashat be’ha’alotcha opens with God’s instruction to Aaron to “raise light” in the lamps of the menorah in the Sanctuary and is echoed in our Haftarah, Zechariah.  God instructs that  “the seven lamps [in the Tabernacle] give light toward the face of the menorah.”  There is a kabbalistic teaching that this menorah of light is in fact the human soul, which reaches out in seven branches towards heaven. The mystical interpretation rests on Proverbs 20:27 which teaches נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן “The lamp of God is the soul of man, searching all the inward parts.”

The soul of man is a lamp of God whose purpose in life is to illuminate the world with divine light  All aspects of the mishkan are symbolic in Jewish mysticism of the relationship between the physicality of this world and building on that structure to climb to the greater truth just outside this world. God provides us with the physical “fuel” that generates Divine light — the Torah and its commandments, mitzvot.  We are the lamps within the structure of the mishkan. We carry God’s light both to illuminate and to be lamplighters for others.

נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן   This sentence stays with me. God’s light is within our souls, and we search inwardly.  The word in the Hebrew for this inward direction is בָטֶן, belly button.  What is the belly button?  It is a point of connection.  In Jewish tradition Jerusalem is the navel of the world, the point at which the world grew and was nourished from God.  When we think of the human body, the navel is the source of deep connection to another human being. The bell button is a symbol of utter dependance on another to provide nourishment and protection.  As we are born, we grow into independence. That independence is actualized in our souls which have free choice, free will to act to make our lives our own.  God gifted us with the divine spark of life, and it is ours, to use as we wish.  But it can still be a point of connection, to God, and to our fellow human beings.

Human beings have been called the caretakers in God’s world.  We have been called God’s partners in creation.  To be God’s lamps on earth, is to carry the responsibility for bringing light into darkness.  “The earth was unformed and void and God said “let there be light”.  This refers to acts of righteousness.” (Gen Rabbah 2:5)  Judaism has a unique vision of humanity’s role.  Our task is to reach out to God while keeping our feet firmly planted on earth, much like the lampstand, the menorah, described in our Torah.  We stay connected to the earth through our tradition’s commitment to the mitzvot.  Every daily activity is to be mindful, the taking of food is partnered with a blessing, the sight of a waterfall or beautiful person, another blessing.  It roots us to the world around us, to our neighbors and community. As our roots connect to others through mitzvot, acts of caring, acts of communal responsibility, our branches rise upward toward heaven.  The light of our lamp reaches out to touch and ignite the lamp of another, and the finds God’s illumination.  What the menorah of our text teaches us is that we do not stand alone,  Our soul, the lamp of God shines in its connection to our fellow human being

My daughter falls asleep at night snuggled up beside me in her bed.  She fights against sleep until the last moment, rolling around, telling stories, asking for toys.  I have great sympathy for her: There is fear in giving control up to sleep.  It is why we sing the Shema as the last words on our lips at night.  Finally the moment comes when she moves closer towards me, her breathing changes and her body relaxes into mine.  She puts herself in my arms, physically and symbolically, trusting in me to protect her as she gives up control.  It is a time that I look forward to each night: that second she feels absolute trust in me, and lets go.  I am filled with gratitude for my blessings in this moment as I connect to my daughter at this deep level of trust and my awareness that God fills the room.

Martin Buber described this lamplighting, this connecting of one’s inner light with the light of another, as “I-Thou.”  When we interact with another person at the deepest level of respect and trust, we create a line of connection that then expands to bring God as a third line into the relationship.  נֵר יְיְ  נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן  God’s lamp is the human soul…  as it searches from within for connection…  We illuminate the world with the light God gifted to each of us as we connect to one another through acts of trust, of kindness, of giving, and care.  As we spread this light, we become God’s lamplighters, sparking the divine light in others so that they too illuminate the world.


Challenging Our Family Story

My daughter is an adorable outgoing two year old who loves connecting with new people in books stores, cafes, and parks.  Sometimes these new people ask me “where is she from?”  I always hold back the response I want to give “from God, like every child.”  These people are not rude or racist.  They are simply curious.  Yet there is an insensitivity to the question and I am just now putting my finger on what it is.  They assume that my daughter’s story is mine to tell.  I’m starting to understand my own hesitancy in answering.  There is an issue of privacy, not of mine, but of my daughter’s.  It’s her story too and she is not yet at a stage where she can decide what and with whom she wants to share.

The fact that our daughter is black and my husband and I are white is a sign for people that there is a “story” there.  Human beings are curious by nature.  Some questions are curtailed by social mores on privacy.  It seems that adoption is not.  I have heard parents compare the question of their child’s “origin” to asking a stranger if she gave girth naturally, with epidural, or by c-section.  It’s a great simile, clearly enunciating a common feeling of invaded privacy among adoptive families.

The truth is, our family story is one in constant flux and change.  I don’t know what answer to give when asked in that coffee shop or park.  A year and a half ago I created  a story of “how we became a family” as part of Eliyana’s sleep time ritual. I whispered it to her every night, snuggled in the dark, along with a song, a book, and the Shema prayer.  That story no longer feels right or true. The underlying theme was of two people who couldn’t have a biological child, were matched with a beautiful baby, and became a forever family.  There’s a fabulous bit about the airplane ride to and from Ethiopia, with accompanying engine sound effects, but most of the story is obsolete. I think it was more a story of transition. from infertility to parenthood.  It was never really our family story.  The family story I created today is about three souls born continents apart who came together to be the family we were always meant to be.  I kept the plane and the sound effects.  It’s Eliyana’s favorite part.

One day it will be up to Eliyana to decide how to handle people’s inquisitiveness.  I hope I can model for her pride, confidence, and compassion as she reaches for answers.  She is only now on the cusp of language.  I can’t wait to see what she has to say.  Most of all, I wonder how our family story will evolve as Eliyana enters as one of its narrators.  Will it be the same each night, or will there be changes according to how our day went?  Will she even want to tell the story?  How will it evolve as she grows older?  I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.  I do hope we keep the night time snuggle whispering part of the family story in the dark of bedtime… It’s my favorite part.


Family Story – For Eliyana at Bedtime

Once upon a time, before Mommy was called Mommy, and before Daddy was called Daddy… We were just two people.  We loved each other very much… but we knew our family wasn’t complete, not yet.   We yearned for you.  We looked for you.  We prayed and hoped and talked about you.  Our hearts pulled us toward you….  It was hard because we waited a long time for you.  But finally the day came, a telephone call, telling us you were waiting to meet us.  We got on a plane and flew to Ethiopia.  You were a little baby, with a big smile and sparkling eyes and you liked to take our hats off our heads.  We felt so happy. Daddy didn’t want to stop holding you.  He sang you lots of songs.  Mommy told you stories and giggled with you.  Finally we all got on a big plane, with a big engine, that went puh puh, puh, and you went puh, puh, puh too… all the way home.  We gave you a special name: Eliyana – God answered us,  Bracha after mommy’s grandfather, meaning blessing, and Nuhamin, your Ethiopia name.  Eliyana Bracha Nuhamin –And you call us Mommy and Daddy.  We love you very much and we are a family forever.

Naso – Preparing the Way for God’s Blessing

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, was once visiting a village. The people clamored for him to bless them. The excitement was palpable as everyone gathered together. They looked up to him and waited. But the Baal Shem Tov stood before them with his head bowed, silent. The people waited. He was silent. People became restless; “Bless us!” someone called out. Still, there was silence. Then the Baal Shem Tov lifted his head and said, “I cannot bless you. Please, bless me. Bless me with your deeds and your lives.”

What is a blessing? How do we bless each other and how do we enter into God’s blessing? When we ask for God’s blessing we are asking God to infuse our lives with holiness, to be present with us, to stand next to us, to help us through our journey of life. When we ask a fellow human being for blessing, are we asking for the same? The most famous of the Torah’s blessings is in this week’s parashah, the priestly blessing of the Cohanim.

The Eternal One spoke to Moses:
Speak to Aaron and his sons:
“Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā
God bless you and keep you.
Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā
God deal kindly and graciously with you.
Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm
God bestow [divine] favor upon you and grant you peace.”
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.
(Numbers 6:22-27)

We say this blessing at the end of every Shabbat Musaf Amida, and in some congregations today, it is still recited by the Cohanim, their faces covered, their fingers splayed into the ancient shin. The language of the Torah is confusing, the beginning of the passage has God tell the Cohanim to bless the people while the end of the passage concludes that it is God who blesses the people. Our tradition holds that this is not the Cohanim’s personal blessing to bestow, they are acting as God’s vessels, passing God’s blessing to the people, this is why the Cohanim cover their faces with their tallitot. And yet, the Cohanim serve a role… the people have a role in blessing each other. We have many instances of people blessing other people in our Torah –Isaac’s blessing to his sons, Balak’s blessing of the people, and in our liturgy– the parents Shabbat blessing of their children.

There is a partnership, a cooperation between humanity and God that is perhaps unique to Jewish theology. For not only do we ask for God’s blessing, we offer blessing on our actions throughout the day, waking, eating, seeing a rainbow… offering praise to God, sending blessing heavenward. It is a partnership that has been compared by the rabbis to man’s preparing the ground for seeds while God offers the rain and sunshine. The Talmud offers this story: (Shabbat 89a):

When Moses ascended on high he found God adorning the letters of the Torah with crowns. God said to Moses: Is it not customary in your town to say “Shalom” –wish a person peace and hello? Moses answered: Does a slave greet his master so? God answered him: You should at any rate have given me a helping hand by wishing me success on my work.

On the surface this is a sweet midrash about the close relationship between god and Moses. On a deeper level, it is a metaphor for God and Moses’s respective roles of leadership. “Shalom” also means the good and welfare of people. Did Moses see to the people’s welfare as a society asks God? Moses answers, “I’m only human”. To which God replies, “you could help.” (Rabbi H.Y. Pollak, p. 65 in Nechama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar)

By claiming our partnership with God, Jewish theology puts responsibility for our blessings in life on our own shoulders. We pave the way for the coming of the Messianic age by doing tikkun olam, by acting to heal the world. We ready the path for God’s blessing by reaching out first with our actions and lives.

It is notable that our parashah first asks the people to participate in God’s blessing, and next dedicates the Mishkan. The Mishkan is the symbol for God’s presence dwelling among the people. As the Cohanim offer God’s blessing to the people, our covenant is recalled, that God will stand by us and that we will keep faith in God. With our covenant of miztvot in place, we can dedicate the mishkan, and invite God to dwell among us.
Rashi offers this interpretation: In the priestly blessing God promises first to watch over us and our physical welfare – yishmereicha -I will guard you, second God offers us spiritual enlightenment – panav eleicha – I will show my face to you, and finally God blesses us with Shalom –peace, a balance of the physical and spiritual . This balance of blessing is paralleled in our parashah, with the physical elements of the mishkan and the spiritual elements needed to be a people of God intertwined and connected.

To dedicate the Mishkan, the tribal chieftains each bring identical gifts. The gifts affirmed the centrality of the Mishkan and the worth of each tribe; no tribe had higher status than another. Just as the priestly blessing invokes a partnership, so too does the Mishkan, it is built by the people, it is dedicated with acts and deeds, people bringing of themselves to the community.

The Hebrew word blessing is taken from the root brch, meaning knee, because when we say our blessings in synagogue we bend down and bow, beginning at the knee, lowering ourselves before God. The name for our parashah, “naso” means “raise up.” As the people become a community, a nation, they are asked to “raise up”, to offer up gifts of themselves, to arise and take responsibility in partnership with God for making the people worthy of blessing, for raising the very walls of the mishkan as symbolic of raising themselves with deeds and acts to a height where God can reside among them.