Vayera: The Care of Visitors

November 6, 2014
"The Hospitality of Abraham" 13th c. Byzantine icon

“The Hospitality of Abraham” 13th c. Byzantine icon

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24) offers a lesson on the mitzvah of hospitality. Abraham, our role model, runs to greet his guests, even though they are unexpected, even though he is old and recovering from circumcision. The text is generous with details: he washes their feet, calls upon Sarah to bake, and orders a calf slaughtered and dressed. Abraham himself waits upon their table.

The contrast is stark between that story and the next. The angels proceed to the city of Sodom. Lot greets them at the gate, hurrying them to his house. Lot is afraid for a reason: a mob surrounds the house and demands that the strangers be given to them: they intend to rape them. The prophet Ezekiel clarified: “See, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, gluttony, and uncaring were in her and her daughters, nor did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) The Talmud expands on the story, explaining that the men of Sodom systematically abused all strangers and the poor in their city, enshrining that abuse in law. (Sanhedrin 109a-b) Like all rape, this was not a sin of sex, but a sin of violence. These sins merited their utter destruction.

This week we might ask ourselves: when did I last personally welcome a stranger to my table? Or have I reserved my personal hospitality for those best known to me, and to those who might profit me? Does my community welcome visitors, or only look to profit from them? Are we following the example of Abraham, or Sodom?

A version of this d’var Torah [word of Torah] originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.


Why “G-d” instead of “God?”

November 2, 2014

Ask the RabbiA reader recently asked: “Why do some Jews type ‘G-d’ when they are writing about God? And why don’t you type it that way, Rabbi Adar?”

Jews traditionally hold the name of God, yud-hey-vav-hey in great reverence. We do not ever pronounce it (in fact, it’s been so long we don’t even remember how to pronounce it correctly) and if we write it, we treat the material it was written on with reverence. Here’s what it looks like in Hebrew letters:

יהוה

 

Part of our story is that God revealed this Name, God’s personal Name, to Moses at Sinai.

When I met the President of the United States, I did not say, “Hey, Barack!” I addressed him with his title: “Hello, Mr. President.” Had I met Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton when they were President, I would have addressed them the same way, with the same respect.

So it is our tradition as Jews to address God by way of titles, rather than to be too familiar. When we see the name above in Scripture, we say, “Adonai” (My Lord) or “Hashem” (the Name), or “the Eternal.” We are aware that other people might say “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” (two attempts at pronouncing the name) but we don’t go there. God is too holy for us to presume to be on a first name basis. I do not ever use those words that attempt to pronounce the name except when I’m teaching about it.

In Hebrew, we often use an abbreviation to stand in for the Name:

יי

 

That’s two yuds: “yud, yud.”  Hebrew readers know that that stands in for the four letter Name, and so we substitute whatever title is appropriate instead of saying the Name.

Some English speakers and writers have extended the abbreviation to the word “God,” which then looks like “G-d.” It’s a form of reverence, and perhaps a way of remembering the holy four-letter Name without mentioning it.

I don’t choose that particular form for three reasons:

  • “God” is a title, not the Name. Only the Name is the Name.
  • “G-d” looks too much like the way people abbreviate profanity, and I don’t want to associate the Holy One (there’s another title) with profanity.
  • My grandmother, of blessed memory, did not like profanity, but when she had to quote someone else who had said, “God damn” she would abbreviate it “G-D.” So, again, profanity. Yikes.

Piety is individual. I am pretty fussy about saying and writing the Name. If it is meaningful to someone else to abbreviate the word “God,” it isn’t my business. It doesn’t work for me, so I don’t do it.

Is there a name or title of God that you particularly like? One you really don’t like to use, ever? Why?


Suffering in Paradise

November 1, 2014
Pahoa

US Geological Survey photo shows the lava crossing Cemetery Rd and Apa’a St in Pahoa.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the plight of the people of the Lower Puna district in Hawai’i in Suffering is Not a Show. Kilauea volcano’s most recent eruption took an unexpected turn this past summer when lava began oozing toward the homes of the small town of Pahoa.

Real estate in Lower Puna is among the cheapest in the Hawaiian islands because of the nearness of Kilauea. It is a gamble to buy land there, because the volcano is so close. On the other hand, if a person of ordinary means and no inheritance wants to own land, that is the only affordable property; much of the rest of the Island belongs to land trusts or owners with very deep pockets. Until June, the village of Pahoa was one of the fortunate places. Then the lava began moving their way, just before the brunt of Hurricane Iselle hit that part of the island.

Now these people of modest means are scrambling to get out of the way of the lava before it takes their property and burns their homes. If you would like to help them, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency recommends cash donations to any of these organizations:

American Red Cross, Hawaii Chapter

Aloha United Way

Hawaii Food Bank

Helping Hands Hawaii

Tzedakah is the Jewish word for money given for the relief of suffering. It is a mitzvah to assist someone in such a situation.

The Hawaiian people speak of Madame Pele, the deity of the volcano. They regard her with reverence and awe. As a Jew, I see the awesome power of the volcano. God in nature can indeed be fearful, but as a human being I can perform mitzvot, extending the mercy of God with my helping hand.

 


Crock Pot Shabbat

October 31, 2014

1024px-Oval_Crock_Pot2

This week I have no time. The faster I go, the worse it gets. I am behind on so many things, and Shabbat is coming. What to do?

One option is something I just did: Crock Pot Shabbat. That means I take whatever I have that will make a good soup, a really good soup, I put it in the crock pot and the crock pot will take care of dinner. Tonight’s offering:

4 potatoes, cut into chunks

1 lb ground beef, browned

3 onions, sliced

1 bunch of celery, sliced

1 bunch of collard greens, sliced into ribbons

1 32oz box of chicken stock

Dump all ingredients into crock pot. Set to cook on low for 6 hours.

 

Add one challah, and a couple of glasses of wine. Hineh! (Voilá!) Shabbat dinner.

Variations:

  • If you are vegetarian or vegan, adjust ingredients accordingly.
  • Chopped tomatoes are good in it.
  • If you like, you can add an envelope of “beef stew seasoning” or similar for flavor.
  • If you are more domestic than I, make your own broth.
  • If you are even less domestic than I, it is not strictly necessary to brown the meat.

The point is, you dump the ingredients in, and there is no more work. Cleanup is limited.

Shabbat shalom!


Saul’s Deli, Berkeley, CA

October 30, 2014

image


Eyes Full of Wonder

October 29, 2014
Dr. Reuben Rivera, OD, MS

Dr. Reuben Rivera, OD, MS

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to see one of my teachers, Dr. Reuben Rivera. He’s my optometrist, but he’s much more than that. Over the past 20 years, he has not only helped me keep my vision clear and my eyes healthy, he has acquainted me with the wonders through which I see the world. I always leave his office in a state of amazement, murmuring to myself the words of the ancient prayer for the body:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the time and space, Who formed human beings with wisdom and created within us openings within openings and hollows within hollows. It is well known before Your Throne of Glory that if even one of them ruptures, or if even one of them becomes blocked, it would become impossible to survive and to stand before You. Blessed are You, Eternal One, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

You see, I’ll be 60 in March. I’m aging. Dr. Rivera always reminds me how wonderfully our bodies age and compensate and heal. I was hit in the eye with a stick when I was about 14. The scar’s still there, on my cornea, but the eye healed and sees just fine. I am very, very nearsighted, and now that I’m older, there are issues that go with that, but my eyes are aging with grace, plastering over the thinning places with pigment, keeping clear my window on the world. My retinas are hanging tight. My astigmatism seems to be rotating, which makes no sense to me at all, but darn, it’s a wonder!

When Dr. Rivera looks into my dilated eye, he cannot see my soul, but he can see what’s happening inside my body: how are all those fine veins and capillaries doing? How’s the blood pressure, the blood sugar, the cholesterol? What news is there from the openings within openings, the hollows within hollows? He reads all that, and he tells me about it, tells me enough that I can marvel with him at the beauty of it.

Our bodies are miracles. We lose track of that sometimes, when we worry about Hollywood standards of beauty and even more so when we confuse those standards with health. Nothing is more wonderful, more beautiful, than the simple fact that we survive.

This is the reason that I don’t worry about a conflict between science and religion. Science at its best  helps us appreciate the miracles of everyday existence. Religion at its best is the response to those miracles.

May your day be full of miracles, and your eyes full of wonder.

 

 


Jews and American Politics

October 27, 2014

Vote!One of the major stereotypes about American Jews is that we’re all political liberals. There are in fact many prominent conservatives who are Jewish: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Eric Cantor, Ken Mehlman, Michael Savage, and more.

What is true is that American Jews tend to be politically engaged. We vote, and we get involved in political campaigns. Our engagement goes way back; I have written before about the letters of congratulations four congregations sent to President Washington and his reply. In 1790, American Jews were acutely aware that this new form of government offered a new hope for minorities like ourselves to live in peace.

In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant’s office issued General Order #11, a decree which summarily expelled all Jews from Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Cesar J. Kaskel of Paducah, KY immediately set out on a Paul Revere-like ride for Washington DC with a copy of the order, and persuaded a congressman from Ohio to take him to the White House so that he could show it to President Lincoln. The President immediately wrote to Grant, ordering that General Order #11 be revoked.

When General Grant ran for president in 1868, he was faced with a Jewish community who wanted answers about General Order #11, and assurances that no such thing would happen were he elected. He, too, repudiated the order, and later called it “his greatest regret.” (For a readable and complete account of G.O. #11 and its aftermath, I recommend Jonathan D. Sarna’s book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.)

Ever since then, American Jews have understood that it is important to our survival to be engaged in the political process. We don’t agree on the right candidate, we don’t always agree on the right policy, but we understand that without engagement in the process, we lose our voice in the public arena.  Many Jews understand voting as a way to do tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. Again, there’s no consensus: how any one Jew defines “better” is individual!

We’re coming up on an election in the United States. In many places, the polls have already opened for “early voting” and many absentee voters have their ballots in hand. Voting is not required by Jewish tradition, but it is a great Jewish American tradition. Whatever your politics, I hope that my American readers will honor this tradition and vote!


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