Kashrut: Physical or Spiritual Act

Our Torah portion for this coming week contains one of the fundamental commandments: kashrut.  The sixth aliyah in elaborate detail goes through which land animals, birds and fish we are able to eat.  Why are some animals considered kosher and other are not?  What is it about chewing one’s cud and having split hooves for land animals or having fins and scales for fish that makes them kosher?

The Torah itself does not give a reason other than saying that these animals are “impure” or “an abomination.”  Rashbam, a 12th century French commentator who was a grandson of Rashi, suggests that the reason is that the animals which do not meet the requirements for kashrut are themselves repulsive.  He wrote, אסר הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל מאוסים הם, ומקלקלים ומחממים את הגוף, ולפיכך נקראו טמאים  G-d forbade these to Israel because they are repulsive, and they damage and irritate the body, and therefore they are called impure.  The Akedat Yitzhak, a 15th century Spanish commentator, disagreed with Rashbam, stating, “We ought to bear in mind that the laws of kashrut are not, as some have asserted, motivated by therapeutic considerations, G-d forbid!  Were this the case, the Torah would be reduced to the level of a minor medical treatise…moreover, the alleged ill-effects can be treated by various drugs, just as there are antidotes to the most powerful poisons.  In that event, the prohibition would no longer apply, and the Torah would be rendered void.”

The Sefer HaHinuch, an anonymous 13th century work on the 613 commandments, asserts that the Torah did not give a reason for the observance of kashrut on purpose, “lest people with scientific pretensions argue: the harm attributed by the Torah to this food only applies to certain types of climates and persons.”  Then why keep kashrut if there is no reason given?  Here the Sefer HaHinuch connects keeping kosher to the concept of holiness, for “the body is the tool of the soul through which the latter accomplishes its functions and without which it could never fulfill its task.”  Our body is connected to our soul, and therefore our physicality is intertwined with our spirituality.

Sefer HaHinuch’s interpretation demonstrates that kashrut is both about being mindful about both what enters our body and our soul.  Kashrut is not simply an act of buying items with rabbinic supervision or having two sets of dishes but rather utilizing both what we put into our body and into our mind to serve God.   Kashrut thus becomes an act of appreciating the effort that went into producing the food we are about to consume, being aware of where it came from, as well as of food’s role in giving us energy to continue to have a relationship with God.

This awareness is best described by Harold Kushner in his book To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, which I have my conversion students readKushner says “There is nothing intrinsically wicked about eating pork or lobster, and there is nothing intrinsically moral about eating cheese or chicken instead. But what the Jewish way of life does by imposing rules on our eating, sleeping, and working habits is to take the most common and mundane activities and invest them with deeper meaning.”  The gift of kashrut is being mindful of G-d’s relationship with us.

This is all the more relevant in our contemporary world, when there isfocus so much attention on mindfulness and being focused on the moment in which we are rather than letting it pass us by. Too often we either look ahead or dwell on the past without being aware of how we can make the most out of our present. Kashrut helps give us this gift, enabling us to focus on what we are consuming, the hard work that was taken in order to get that food on our table and our gratitude to G-d that we are blessed to have what we need to eat.

When we partake in a beautiful Kiddush, I hope you will join me in being grateful for the food we are about to consume and thinking about how it will nourish our bodies and souls.  Let us sanctify the food that we eat with a blessing and show our appreciation for all that we have.  May we recognize that through the food we are about to consume, we can better serve God and continue to play an integral role in our activities in the world.

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Grandma Lucille: Making of Life Something Fine

I turn every place and find you in me

Wherever I am,

I find me in you

And so we mesh one,

And thus are one

Although we were two.

 

And it matters but little

That one of us is

And one was before-

For while I still flourish,

Wherever I flourish,

You are all the more.[1]

 

I was hoping not to have to write this sermon. By mid-February I had completed my sermons for Days 1, 2 and 7 of Passover, as well as for Shabbat Hol HaMoed. I was unsure what lessons to teach for Yizkor. On Sunday March 5, I received three calls from my mother. In the first she mentioned to me that my grandmother was admitted to the ER. In the second call she said that my grandmother was stabilized, that all would be fine. It was the third call when she told me that Grandma was not doing well and that she was going to take the last flight of the day out to Arizona. I had an eerie feeling that my Grandma, who loved life so much and who wanted to live at all costs, was going to the next world after all 3 of her children were together.

I was still unprepared the next day, Monday March 6, when I received a call from my Cousin Max a little after 2 pm. He struggled to get the words out, but even before he said them, I knew Grandma’s soul had departed. I can’t use the term “die,” “pass away” or G-d forbid “expire” because Grandma would never use these terms. Instead she would say “became eternal.” She recognized that there is life after death-that no one is gone but rather that they live on through their legacy, their life example and the memories we share with them.

With this in mind, I want to share three things that Grandma Lucille taught me about life. She taught me so many more than just these three but these in my opinion are her central teachings, the third being most important. Grandma Lucille demonstrated how to live with integrity, having an ethical life. For her, one’s word was sacrosanct, and even two months ago she helped me recognize the importance of keeping my word. She made two vows which she kept throughout her life. One of the vows was never to publish any of her 50 plus years of poetry except for family because she felt that the quality of what you are writing losing something if a person is seeking recognition. Even when her views were challenged, Grandma Lucille remained steadfast to her core principles which helped her navigate life’s challenges.

One would think that as a rabbi I’ve learned how to live with integrity and keep one’s word. After all, this was the topic of my Kol Nidre sermon, and the psalm with which I begin almost every funeral, Psalm 14, contains the words “live with integrity, do what is right, speak the truth without deceit.”[2] However, the truth is it’s difficult to do so. Words are often based on what we feel at any given moment, and one’s feelings can waver from one moment to the next. The difficulty of having integrity, of one’s words conforming to one’s actions, makes me sympathize more with Pharaoh, who on ten occasions said he’d allow Israel to go and then reneged each and every time. To make and keep vows or promises for decades, even when one is tempted to turn in another direction, is one thing I admire that my Grandma was able to do.

My grandmother also demonstrated the importance of positivity and idealism. She followed the teaching of her mother, my Great-Grandma Rose, “There are always many ways to interpret something. You choose the one which is the most beautiful.” When people were going through hard times, even some of the leaders of the Milwaukee Jewish community, they would turn to my grandmother for words of wisdom, and her positivity and advice would help them. She had a gift in knowing what to say to people, how to motivate them to positive action and how to connect with them. People often talk about her beautifully written letters, and it was not just the tiny cursive print but what she said-she knew how to build up people. At our family Sedarim, Grandma Lucille would never say the parts of the Haggadah that spoke about the plagues, the drowning of the Egyptians, or any other form of negativity. She also refused to focus on any “negative” aspect of life, such as pain, suffering, or disappointment. It is far too easy to get bogged down in what might have been, to pity ourselves or to beat ourselves up over our situation, rather than appreciate all that we have. The last teaching my grandmother taught me Presidents Day Weekend was that the key to live is graciousness-the appreciation for all we have-rather than happiness.

The most important lesson my grandmother taught me is the centrality of family and to make each family member know that they had unconditional love from her. She would often say with pride that her life work was raising children and grandchildren, encouraging us to be close to one another and look out for each other. When one of us had an accomplishment and was told, “You must be so proud of him/her” she would always reply “I’m proud of all my grandchildren.” She would always caution us that no matter which career we were in, someone had to be there to take care of the children.

The importance of family togetherness has only gotten harder as fewer family members live near each other. The amount of families that were like the one in which I grew up, where almost every member lives within a five minute drive from one another, are few and far between. What this does is make times when the entire family can get together be of paramount importance. Unfortunately, families are often only brought together by a difficulty or tragedy, like a family member becoming eternal. However, the importance of family, in particular of multiple generations interacting with one another, brings me back again to the Passover story. After seven plagues, Pharaoh let the Israelite men go, but Moses said that was not good enough. He replied בנערינו ובזקנינו נלך, “we will go with our young and our old.”[3]

As we conclude this Passover holiday, remembering our loved ones as a congregational family, I hope we will take to heart the lessons taught to us by all of our loved ones. Though they might not be physically present, I truly believe they are here in spirit. Their actions, legacies and teachings continue to remain alive within us, strengthening our resolve and propelling us forward to do the good work we do each and every day.

I will conclude with my grandmother’s personal mission statement. This is from a poem she entitled Prayer.

Help me make of my life something fine.

Help me take of the gifts which are mine

And create days of meaning and worth.

Help me see that from moment of birth,

Life was given to me through God’s grace

With skills taught that would help me to face

Life’s adversity and its success

Let firm faith help transcend every stress.

Let me give to the world all my love

And absorb from the world only love.

Help me sight in mankind the Divine

Conscious that all world’s children are ‘mine’.

Let me say while existence is mine,

I will make of my life something fine.[4]

[1] Lucille Frenkel, “Generation to Generation” in A Biblical Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), Page 123.

[2] Psalm 14 as translated by Rabbi Rafi Rank in Moreh Derekh RA Rabbis Manual.

[3] Exodus 10:9

[4] Lucille Frenkel, Creation Wondrous: A Poetic Exploration (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 2013).

Yom L’Yabasha

Last year I spoke about Berach Dodi which is chanted in some synagogues on the First and Second Days of Passover. This year I want to speak about Yom L’Yabasha, which means “the day the depths turned to dry land” and which is the piyut, or liturgical poem, chanted on the Seventh Day of Passover before the Shacharit Festival Amidah. I have only heard this piyut done once, by Cantor Mitchell Martin when I was growing up in Milwaukee.

          Yom L’Yabasha was written by Yehuda HaLevi, an 12th century Spanish poet whose most famous work was The Kuzari, a dialogue between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars which ultimately led to the Khazars’ conversion to Judaism. In Yom L’Yabashah, HaLevi writes that the redemption from Egypt should bring about future redemption for our people. Like Berach Dodi, which we discussed last year, the prayer ends בגלל אבות תושיע במים ותביא גאולה לבני בניהם: “for the sake of our forefathers may you save the offspring and bring redemption to their children’s children.” HaLevi recognizes that while we were redeemed from Egypt we are still in exile, unable to live freely in our Promised Land. This was especially poignant for him, as we wrote a poem  יפה נוף, which begins יְפֵה נוֹף מְשׂוֹשׂ תֵּבֵל קִרְיָה לְמֶלֶךְ רָב / לָךְ נִכְסְפָה נַפְשִׁי מִפַּאֲתֵי מַעְרָב

“Landscape of beauty, joy to the world headquarters of a sovereign multitude. For you my soul yearns From the far, far West.” HaLevi lived during the Golden Age of Spain, a time of immense wealth and plenitude, yet he writes that he would have given it all up for one glimpse of the Land of Israel.

Does this still apply to us today? After all we are blessed to just hop on a plane from JFK and travel to the Promised Land. I would argue that of course it does as we still do not have an age of the Messiah, of peace. We are often so comfortable here in the United States that we forget what it means to yearn for something, to have our heart ache at which is unattainable for us. Our heartstrings don’t necessarily pull the same way HaLevi’s does in the poem. He recognizes that sometimes you can have the world and yet you’d give it all up for something that money can’t buy.

As we continue to celebrate Passover,  I hope we don’t lose sight of our mission and goals in life, just being comfortable in the present and sitting on our laurels. In Yom L’Yabasha, HaLevi takes us back to what it was like to just be redeemed. In his chorus, שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים, he continually takes us back to the moment when “the redeemed ones sang a new song.” What does a song of true redemption truly sound like, when we are no longer enslaved to our desires or to the comfort of our everyday lives, when we break out of our shells and become who we are truly meant to be?

There’s a story about Reuven and Shimon crossing the Sea of Reeds. When Moses lifted his hand and the sea opened Reuven stepped in and noticed there was mud on his shoe. He said to Shimon “What is this mud?” and Shimon replied “Ech! There’s mud all over the place.” After a few more steps, Reuven complained, “This is just like the slime puts of Egypt! When we were making bricks, we had mud up to our knees.” Shimon retorted, “What difference does it make? Mud here, mud there back in Egypt; it’s all the same.” Revuen and Shimon grumbled the entire way across the sea, never seeing the miracle and never understanding why when they reached the other shore everyone was singing songs of praise. For them, the miracle never happened.[1]

Let us use the last day and a half of Passover to be mindful and ensure that we sing songs of praise and have gratitude and appreciation for the daily miracles that we encounter, recognizing how fortunate we are. When we reach challenge moments, may we have the faith and fortitude to be able to figuratively cross our own Sea of Reeds, staying away from dangers and enriching our lives each and every day.

[1] Adapted from Siddur Shema Yisrael by Shoshana Silberman

Shir HaShirim

Shir HaShirim Asher L’Shlomo. These words, which begin the Songs of Songs, were read so beautifully by Rabbi Marcus on Tuesday and by Sherwin and Arlene today. Why do we read the Song of Songs on Passover? Because it symbolizes the rebirth of nature. In spring the products of one’s love come to full fruition, with flowers blooming and baby animals being born. It is also a time for us to renew our love with G-d and with one another.

Interestingly the book Shir HaShirim almost did not make it into the biblical canon. The Mishnah records a debate over including this book, arguing that it falls into the category of מטמא את הידיים, that it dirties or impurifies the hands. Rabbi Akiva, however, came to its defense, asserting that all of the כתובים[1] are holy but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.[2] He then goes on to describe the Song of Songs allegorically, as the love between G-d and Israel, an analogy which Rashi builds upon, asserting that the distance between the lovers is like the distance between us and G-d when we are in exile.[3]

The Song of Songs is considered to be so sacred that Sephardim traditionally read it every Friday night before Kabbalat Shabbat. The special relationship between G-d and Israel is one to highlight, especially at the dawn of the Sabbath. My question, however, is even if Song of Songs was talking about the erotic love between two human lovers would it be a forbidden text? What is more sacred than two people proclaiming their eternal love for one another and using romantic, sophisticated poetry to describe their love?

Whether we believe that Song of Songs is talking about two star-crossed lovers pining for one another when they are separated, or G-d and Israel being separated and longing to be reunited, we can agree that as human beings we need times when we are close to and in relationship with others. Zalman Shachter-Shalomi puts this best when he states “our minds might insist that we go directly to the Infinite when we think of G-d, but the heart doesn’t want the Infinite; it wants a You it can confide in and take comfort in. The poetry of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, speaks this language.[4] We require the intimacy and touch of personal relationships, and Shir HaShirim provides us with these opportunities. It also reminds us that every Shabbat we have the opportunity to reengage, to find the closeness when we feel so remote from everything.

As we engage in a special Shabbat, the one which coincides with Passover, let us take the opportunity to strengthen the relationships that we have with others and with G-d. Shir HaShirim gives us the language of yearning for those connections, reminding us that we are never too far away to reconnect. As we reflect on the wisdom of King Solomon’s poetry may we apply it to our own lives physically, emotionally and spiritually. If we ever feel that we have drifted too far away, let us use Shabbat to reconnect with those most important to us: our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends and G-d. In so doing, we will escape from the forces burdening us and keeping us in exile and we will return to those who we love.

[1] The third section of the Bible, called “the writings”

[2] Mishnah Yadaim 3:5

[3] Rashi’s commentary to Song of Songs, seen on Page 7 of Siddur Lev Shalem

[4] Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, taken from Page 7 of Siddur Lev Shalem

Seeing Ourselves as if We Came from Egypt

There’s a special Sephardi custom at the Seder that I love. The participants dress up as if they were leaving Egypt. After Yahatz, the breaking of the middle matzah, the afikoman is tied in a large napkin, given to one of the children at the Passover Seder table, and then the child slings the napkin over his or her shoulders. The leader of the Passover Seder then asks a series of three questions to the child: 1. “From where have you come?” The child answers: “I have come from Egypt”. 2. The Passover Seder leader then asks: “Where are you going?” The child answers: “I am going to Jerusalem”. Finally, the Passover Seder leader asks: “What are you taking with you?” The child then points to the sack or napkin full of matzah.

Why do such a ritual? Because we are commanded at the Seder to reenact the Exodus from Egypt. The past two nights we read in our Haggadot בכל דור ודור חיב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים; In every generation one must see his/herself as if s/he came from Egypt. Interestingly, Maimonides’ Haggadah has a different word written in: להראות. This changes the meaning to “in every generation, one must show him/herself as if s/he came from Egypt.”

Often we believe that dressing in costume is for children and connected to only Purim, yet I assert that it also enhances what Passover is truly about. We try to imagine what it was like to be a slave by symbolically eating foods connected to our ancestors: maror to connect to their bitterness, salt water to feel their tears, even matzah to show the rush they were in to get out. Outside of that, however, we do little to connect with our ancestors’ narrative besides reading a nice Midrashic work about their story. Imagine if we actually dressed like them, pretending to be on our journey from Egypt to The Promised Land.

I always try to teach something connected to the holiday so that we can add to our current practices. While the Sedarim have been concluded for 5777, it is not too late to find avenues through which to connect to the narrative of our ancestors. One way I like to do it is talking to someone who did not grow up as fortunate as many of us did, who had to endure great pain, suffering and hardship just to arrive in this country-and once here to make a living. It helps gain perspective on how truly fortunate we are to be living freely in a country where Jews on the whole are respected and which is in many ways a meritocracy. By seeing where we came from: a country where our ancestors had to build pyramids under the crack of a whip, to make bricks by collecting their own straw, to later flee for their lives across harsh, desert terrain not knowing if they would make it or from where their next meal would come-that to me is seeing ourselves as if we were the ones who came from Egypt. Egypt means מצרים, the place of narrows, a place where we are restricted from reaching our full potential. To think that our loved ones not too far back endured a personal state of מצרים and had to fight for everything they had/have is to recognize what it is like to leave Egypt.

As we continue to joyously celebrate Passover, “The Feast of Freedom,” let us not do so blindly but rather by recognizing from whence we came and to where we are headed. May we take some time to reflect on our parents and grandparents’ stories, recognizing both where we are at and what we are going to do to keep from returning to an Egypt. Let us see ourselves as coming from Mitzrayim, the place of narrows, going to Yerushalayim, the city which brings peace, and joyously partaking in our holiday with family and friends.

Tal: The Prayer for Dew

After this sermon we will engage in a special prayer, Tal: the prayer for dew, led by Rabbi Marcus. I understand ab initio why we would pray for Geshem, or rain, as we need rain for crops to grow. However, why would we do a special prayer for dew?

The origin of a blessing for dew comes from the Book of Genesis, where the blessing Isaac gives Jacob is ויתן לך האלקים מטל השמים ומשמני האבן ורוב דגן ותירוש: “may G-d give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine.”[1] The Midrash teaches that this blessing was given on the first day of Passover, hence why we recite the blessing over dew then.[2] Dew would nourish the grain that was harvested on Passover, the barley harvest, and on Shavuot, the wheat harvest.

What’s interesting is that this piyyut, a liturgical poem by Eleazar Kallir,[3] references both the physical dew leading to crop prosperity and the “spiritual dew” which refreshes us.[4] Each stanza begins by asking for dew to flow in the land for a good year and for abundance in the storehouses. However, they end by statements such as “make us a flourishing garden or “may the city which has become an abandoned sukkah become like a crown.” In addition to discussing physical rejuvenation, we are also asking for spiritual redemption.

I think this is precisely why the Tal prayer is read at the beginning of Passover. Not only is this the beginning of spring, of the growing of crops, flowers and trees, but also spring brings about the flowering of our spirits, our thinking about how we are going to rejuvenate our lives through study of Torah. How we will find the Torah to nourish our souls and cause them to sprout and bloom like the dew will nourish the crops.

There are many clues to bring this about. Immediately after my sermon, Rabbi Marcus will introduce a special nusach, or melody, for the Hatzi Kaddish which will be continued throughout the blessing for dew. It is only used twice a year, for the blessings for dew and rain, and it reawakens our souls to the work we have to do in getting closer to G-d.

I’d like to turn to the end of the blessing for dew on Page 452 where we see three phrases: that dew should be for blessing and not for curse, for life and not for death, for satiation and not for famine. The first of these,  לברכה or “for blessing,” is traditionally said after someone mentions G-d’s power to bring about the dew. Like the crops need dew, so too do we need spiritual nourishment, yet we need it for the right reasons. We need to study Torah to bring blessing to us and our loved ones, to increase the vitality of our lives and to give our lives meaning and purpose. We must avoid using Torah to G-d forbid curse out other people who are different than us, cut off part of our life’s vivacity or deprive ourselves of the many great joys of the world. The spiritual realm needs to be used to enrich our lives rather than to detract from them.

A number of us, including myself, follow the Sephardi and Israeli practice of saying Morid HaTal in the Amidah. Ashkenazim traditionally do not do this, instead saying nothing at that point of the Amidah between Passover and Shemini Atzeret. I find joy in saying Morid HaTal because it balances out Morid HaGeshem. It means that every time of the year we are acknowledging G-d’s vitality in bringing us blessing through the natural world, through things as simple as the morning dew.

I hope that for the continuation of Pesach each of us will take the opportunity to study the abundance of Torah we are blessed to have and to work to strengthen our personal connections with G-d and with our people. May we pray not only for physical dew but also for spiritual dew that the teachings of Torah will stick to us give us life and become incorporated into our daily practice. Hag Sameach.

[1] Genesis 27:28

[2] Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 32

[3] Kallir lived in the 6th and 7th centuries in Israel

[4] Siddur Lev Shalem commentary, Page 375.

The Flame on the Altar

I’ve often been fascinated with undersized and oversized letters in the Torah and the various interpretations ascribed to them. Many of them have readily available explanations, like the oversized “ayin” and “daled” in the Shema being so because each of us is an “ayd,” or witness, to the oneness of G-d. One that continues to interest me is the undersized “mem” in the word “mokdah” at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion.

The word mokdah refers to “altar-hearth,” the place on the altar where the olah sacrifice is burned. What significance could there possibly be in the mem being small? The Kotzker Rebbe writes a fascinating interpretation in his work Iturei Torah. He writes that “the Altar symbolizes man’s service of G-d. Just as the flame always seeks to rise, likewise the hope of all prayer is to ascend to the highest places. However, fire also symbolizes pride and arrogance, the character traits that desire to rise and aggrandize themselves over others. The essence of prayer is humility. When we understand how small we are, we have a chance of relating to how great G-d is, since true prayer and love of Torah is hidden in the heart, unrevealed to world, not trumpeted to all with extravagant gestures and posing. Just like that the little mem, the elevation of the altar of the heart is in proportion to its humility.

It’s a fascinating idea-the purpose of prayer is humility, recognizing how little we are in the greater scheme of things and connecting to our Creator. In a similar vein, I appreciate how in last week’s portion the letter “aleph” in the word VaYikra is smaller, emphasizing Moses’ humility when G-d called to him. Through our daily prayer we strive to be like Moses, recognizing how we are just a cog in a much larger picture, greater than we could ever fathom.

It can be so difficult to recognize our limitations. At times we feel boundless, like nothing in the world could possibly stop us. At other times we feel downcast, brought down by a tragedy or personal difficulties. The goal of prayer is to constantly center us, making us lower our self-image and recognize that we are merely a messenger sent out by G-d to do good in the world.

I was speaking in February with my grandmother z”l about struggles with happiness and how the goal in life is to be happy. She said no-the goal in fact is graciousness. This made me recoil as I often think of grace as a Christian concept, even though the word חן, or חנון, means grace in Hebrew. My grandmother was saying how gracious we must be for all that we have and that we need to count our blessings. Prayer is an opportunity to do that, to give back to G-d for all the good things we have been given in life.

This lesson comes to mind especially as we are on the eve of the holiday of Passover. Before Passover we strive to rid ourselves of Hametz, of leavened products. The rabbis teach this does not only mean grains but also any aspects of our character which have become “puffed up” or haughty. We need to take this opportunity to lower ourselves back to ground level, to recognize that the wealth, prestige or fame we have gained will leave us when we pass from this world. Prayer has the opportunity to do precisely that, to anchor us back to being modest and humble and recognizing that we are all servants of G-d.

As we approach Passover, let us strive to rid ourselves and our homes from Hametz, any of the puffed-up haughtiness that we may be feeling. In so doing, may we lower ourselves like the mem in “mokdah” to being a servant of G-d, one who recognizes his/her mission is to bring godliness to others and to strengthen our community. May we utilize our Musaf prayer to pray for the strength to engage in this holy endeavor.