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Archive for April, 2013


For the past many years, I have baked two loaves of challah each week for Shabbat: one chocolate chip and one raisin. It keeps my hands in touch with reality, fills my home with amazing odors, and tastes amazing when it’s warm: they’re baking right now as Shabbat’s approaching tonight! And this week’s Torah portion is about bread as an offering to God in the MIshkan. The Kohanim (priests) would bake a dozen loaves for “show” that would stay fresh. This portion also contains advice about counting our days (toward Shavuot) and commands us to celebrate, and make some periods of time holy. But why bake bread for God as an offering -when God can neither eat nor smell the wonderful odor? A famous folktale to explain (I think I heard it first from R. Henry Weiner).  The richest man in a small Shtetl was Chayim. Though he was wealthy, he was pious, if a bit drowsy. One Shabbat he dozed off during services. The Torah was being chanted: the verse about the 12 loaves of bread, the show bread offered to God in the MIshkan. Reb Chayim in his twilight consciousness was sure he heard The Holy One commanding him to bake bread personally as an offering. He was shaken to his core, after all if the Master of the Universe cared enough to speak to Chayim , he could do nothing less than obey! So, the very next Friday, Chayim spoke with his wife and servants about preparing the extra Challahs. He brought them to the synagogue very proudly and placed them within the ark next to the Torah. “I hope you enjoy them,” he whispered to God.
The very poorest man in the village was the Shammes, the caretaker of the synagogue. Normally he would rush home on Friday eve to celebrate Shabbat with his wife and seven children, his in-laws and mother. But he knew that today there would not be much to eat and so he tarried. He approached the ark. “Dear God”, he prayed, “I am grateful for my family and the coming of Shabbat, but I’m so ashamed to see my family share so little, please can you help, show me the way?” and with that, the Shammes sobbed and hit the ark door. Well, it opened, and you can imagine the surprise and glee with which he saw the beautiful loaves and smelled their fragrance! “Master of the Universe, thank you!” he cried and carried his bundle home to his overjoyed family.
Later that evening, Reb Chayim returned early to check the ark. He was delighted to see not a crumb remained! Feeling overwhelming pride, he whispered to the ark, “I’m so happy you enjoyed my wife’s challah!” and he returned to the pews before anyone was the wiser.
The next Friday and the next the scene was repeated, each man feeling specially blessed by God with such favor.
But one Friday the Rabbi watched as the Shammas removed the challas from the ark. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“Rabbi, it’s a miracle!, I prayed to God for help feeding my family for Shabbat, and each week I come to the ark and my prayers are answered!” The Rabbi scolded “Don’t be a fool! I have just seen Reb Chayim leaving, let me call him back, and we’ll know what is really happening”.
Sadly the Rabbi uncovered the mystery. No longer did it seem a miracle, and the world seemed just a bit colder and less magical.
That night the Rabbi had a terrible dream, a nightmare. He had a bolt of insight and knew what he must do. He gathered Reb Chayim and the Shammes back to his office. “I dreamed last night that God was terribly angry with me. A miracle had been in place since creation, and I have disrupted this master plan. That miracle was you, my friend,” he explained to Reb Chayim, “and you,” he said to the Shammes. “God really did require those challahs your wife baked so lovingly; indeed you and your wife have been the hands of God!” “And God really did wish you to take those challahs to feed your beautiful family,” he said to the Shammes. This is ordained and MUST continue!” proclaimed the Rabbi. And so it did, except for the occasions when the family of the Shammes dined with Reb Chayim’s family as guests in their home.
The magic of challah, and making and baking, becomes a fragrant symbol of the holiness our hands can form in partnership with the gifts of wheat and rain and sun. We form it’s dough into intertwined shapes as we are all intertwined. There is no rushing challah, it must take it’s time to rise, just as the savoring of time itself is such an intimate part of Shabbat.
Here’s my recipe:
3 cups bread flour (I use King Arthur)
make a well and put in 1 tsp salt, 2 TBSP sugar, 1 TBSP yeast
add 3/4 cup warm water
1/8 cup oil
1 and 1/2 egg beaten. Reserving the last half egg to brush on top.
Mix and knead. It should be the consistency of play dough.
Let rise in a warm place till doubled, about an hour (or overnight in the fridge)
Break in half, and roll out each on a floured board
fill with chocolate chips or raisins,….
Roll up like a jelly roll
Break the snake into three parts and braid.

Let rise on a floured cookie sheet,. Flour the top and cover with a towel till double in bulk, about an hour. Brush with the remaining half egg (I refridgerate, and then warm for 5 seconds in the microwave)
Bake 350 for 25 minutes.
Write me if you Knead more info.
Shabbat Shalom


What’s Love Got to do with it?

“Teach me all of Torah while standing on one foot, and I’ll engage,” challenged the outsider. Sent away by the teacher Shammai, Rabbi Hillel famously answered “What is hateful to you do not do to another. This is all of Torah, the rest is commentary, go and study.” This week the Torah challenges us all: “You (plural form) shall be holy, because I, God, am holy” Holiness, distinguished from the ordinary and profane – a noble goal, but how? By strange and mystifying rituals? By beautiful words. Those are not the pathways to holiness. As Hillel said, the pathways we must reject are those that are hurtful: don’t insult the deaf (though they cannot hear you) or fool the blind. Don’t elevate yourself on the blood of your fellow. In Boston’s tragic massacre this week, this is exactly what’s happened, and it profoundly savages our trust. If these are the “don’t” command, is there a positive path to a holy and beautiful life? Torah’s answer is among its most renown: Love your dear one as you love yourself. What’s love got to do with it? asks Tina Turner, “What’s love, but a second hand emotion?” Love is why we’d take a bullet if someone threatened our kid. Love sent rescuers running into the danger in Boston this week. Inspiring. I hope I have enough love in my little body to run to help another. I counter Tina Turner’s song with one from Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent. Although we could measure a year in our life in midnights, cups of coffee, or minutes, (525,600 of them), it’s far better to measure it in love. Maybe love really can be the answer. A community full of love is holy, much more than the sum of its parts.
Built or destroyed by the sum of our choices. I don’t know why the perpetrators of the Boston attack chose hatred and chaos, but I know that many others that day chose the incredible path of loving those near to them (just by chance!) MORE than they loved themselves for that moment. It reminds me that love can be the answer.

Wrapping the Bandages

My paternal grandparents came through Ellis Island around 1920. My Grandma Gussie (z”l) was 16, afraid of the journey, so she had her fortune told by a Gypsie before departure for reassurance. Crammed on a boat like so many others, she arrived in a strange place, greeted by Lady Liberty. When Ellis Island became part of liberty park, before it became the beautiful museum it is now (1990) I visited this cavernous, dark, ghost-like building with them. “So many were turned away,” they told me, “if they had a rash, or bald patches on their heads” Probably ringworm, poverty made soap and water dear. A fungus: contagious to be sure, but definitely not life-threatening. The fear of contagion that sent people back on that boat after so much effort to enter, surely was also a fear of poverty and alien cultures, and the unseen microbe. Not much has changed. We think we’re so savvy and civilized, until an infection rears its head. We need other people, and delight in them, so we gather together in larger and larger groups. We send our kids to daycare, school and camp, gather in stadiums, shopping malls, cities. We travel for vacation, business, and war, and our food travels too. With us come invisible microbes. The Spanish flu killed 25 million in 1918, a virus mutated from a pig farm in Tennessee, most likely, spread by the war. HIV virus likely existed in rural Africa for 100 years, until urbanization and travel turned the virus pandemic. The fear, blame, isolation of even child-victims of this disease  was akin to that of the middle ages, hard to believe, unless you were there… I was. Remember Ryan White?
This week the Torah portion gives us a window into how illness and contagion were handled in ancient times, perhaps there’s something to learn today. Illness that appeared as a rash on the skin and hair was called Tzara-at, often translated as leprosy. The person in the community asked to reach out to the patient, and when healed to return him or her to the community is a spiritual leader, the priest. In today’s society, and in medicine, we separate body from, and ignore the soul, perhaps ignoring a key part of healing. And, as Ryan and so many other stories show, we lack a clear path to return to society. In ancient times, the pathway back was to offer a sacrifice, and in one interesting verse, 14:14 of Leviticus, the priest would mark the patient with a drop of blood on the right ear, thumb and big toe, which is the same ritual as in ordaining the priest! it’s reminiscent of the blood of rebirth perhaps, with the right ear attuned, the hand doing deeds, and the foot “walking the walk”. In truth, many who recover from life threatening illness often feel they’ve been given a second chance, feel more intensely the gift of the moments of their lives. Now, I don’t want to go back to those times, lives were short, and blaming illness on moral failings is certainly problematic. I’m just suggesting there’s something valuable we can annex as patients or physicians: seeing the whole patient as one with spiritual needs, essential to healing. Seeing health care as a holy profession. In the Talmud there is a conversation between Rabbi Joshua with the prophet Eliyahu. He asks the prophet “where is the Messiah?” Elijah replies: “at the city gates” “What is he doing there”, asks Joshua. “He is changing the bandages of the lepers, one by one” “When will he come?” (to bring world peace) The reply is” Today, if we are ready to listen.”
The song I offer today is Cantor Leon Sher’s beautiful “Heal us Now” performed here by the plaintive voices of the teens of Hazamir.

Statue of Liberty

April, the cruelest month


It’s April. Spring has arrived, soft rains and breezes, promises. But this week is a strange convergence. Sunday night is Holocaust memorial day, Yom Hashoah, day of the calamity, recalling how so many souls went up in smoke. The Torah portion read this week is one of death by fire of Aaron’s sons, very strange. These were not 2 ordinary boys, not just sons of Aaron, high priest, but among the select few who ascended Sinai, beheld the presence of God, ate and drank and survived. Select, holy men. They were consumed by flame in the tent because they offered “strange fire”. Taken too young, a warning, a sacrifice, a tragedy. Commentators suggest they were intoxicated, only because the next section speaks of such things, but the truth is unknown. Aaron was strangely silent, as the world was strangely silent for decades. As some survivors were until they could come to grips with the Shoah, until people were ready to hear. It also became April this week. TS Eliot wrote of April in his poem “The Waste Land”
April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rains.
It is easier to sleep than to be intensely away, dealing with loss. The poet later continues
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

May the memories of Aaron’s sons be for a blessing. They offered strange fire, but they offered, perhaps wishing, just as Moses did in last week’s reading, only to experience God more deeply. May the memories of our families lost in the Shoah also be for blessing

The song I offer is Hannah Senesh’s poem and Jeff Klepper’s music in Yeish Kochavim: There are stars up above, so far away we only see their light, long, long after the star itself is gone; and so it is with people that we’ve loved; their memories keep shining ever brightly though their time with us is done; and the stars that light up the darkest night, these are the lights that guide us; As we live our days, these are the ways we remember…

Hannah Senesh died in prison after parachuting into enemy territory for the resistance  to bravely rescue people during the war . Her poems continue to light our way.

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