A New New Year’s Resolution

December 30, 2014

resolutionConsidering New Year’s resolutions for the upcoming secular holiday?

You can make the same old resolution (lose weight, exercise, save money, etc) or you could try something new.

For those readers who are considering a new New Year’s resolution, let me offer you some possibilities:

Try a new mitzvah on this year. What mitzvah have you thought about but never actually taken on? Commit to trying out a new mitzvah, and give it a year. Here are some examples:

Take a class. It doesn’t have to be a heavy subject! Learn to bake challah. Learn about the Jewish history of chocolate. Learn about Passover customs. See what your area synagogues and adult education programs are offering!

Read a book (or set a number of books.) It might be an ambitious commentary on Torah, but it might also be something a lot lighter. Some of my favorites:

Watch more Jewish films and discuss with friends

Are there other New Year’s resolutions you are considering to deepen or enhance your Jewish life? I invite you to share them with us in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 


A Last Lesson from Jacob & Joseph

December 29, 2014
"The time drew near for Jacob to die. (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing)

“The Time Grew Near for Jacob to Die” – Jim Padgett

The end of the book of Genesis offers us two end of life accounts, those of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all Jews.

Both are models for us in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants long before he needs it: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when Jacob knows that he is actually near death, he calls all his sons together. First he blesses them. Then he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, teaching them the mitzvah of burial in a family plot.

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. Even though he had already spoken with Joseph, Jacob gave his disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. That way, when the time came, Joseph could direct that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah without unnecessary arguments – they all knew exactly what their father had wanted.

Later Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up from this place.”  He prophesied that someday they would leave Egypt, and in fact, Moses remembered:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.” – Exodus 13:19

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors. However, those documents are limited unless we also take the time to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time. If you have not had such conversations, if you have so far not created those documents, do not delay!


Ask the Rabbi: What Should a Guest Bring to Shabbat?

December 26, 2014

Ask the RabbiSomeone typed “what to bring to shabbat as a guest” into the search engine to get to my blog this morning. I hope they found a post with the answer, but I thought this deserved a post of its own.

A gift is not strictly necessary. A thank you note, however, is the proper thing to do afterwards.

If your friends keep kosher, all of these make a nice gift to take to a Shabbat meal:

  • flowers (the safest choice by far)
  • an unopened box of kosher candy or cookies
  • an unopened bottle of kosher grape juice

If you are certain your hosts do not keep kosher, add to that list:

  • a bottle of wine
  • a bottle of grape juice
  • some small table item, like a trivet

Flowers are always your safest choice. The reason I say that is that even if you bring kosher food or drink, and you bring it unopened, the hecksher (rabbinical seal) may not be one your kosher host recognizes. If you stick with flowers, you can’t go wrong unless they are allergic to those flowers.

Do NOT take to a kosher home:

  • homemade food of any kind
  • wine of any kind
  • dishes
  • kosher food that has had the seal broken

Just take my word for it. Kosher kitchens are important to those who keep them and these things create complications, no matter how well meant they are.

Last but not least: if you don’t take something, that isn’t the end of the world. Write a paper (not email) thank-you note afterwards, and all will be well. Actual thank you notes are much rarer than wine or trivets, and they tend to be remembered for a long, long time.

Shabbat shalom!

If you have a question for a rabbi, click “Ask the Rabbi” at the top of this page, and I will do my best to answer your question! No question is “stupid” and you can rest sure that someone else wants to know, too. You are doing a mitzvah by asking!

 

 

 

 


The Torah of the Bread Machine

December 26, 2014
bread machine

The Terrifying Bread Machine at work.

I studied a bit of practical Torah today with a woman who has been my friend for years. She was my conversion mentor (not my rabbi, just a friend who showed me the ropes) and since then we have become friends and partners in teaching. I still look to her when a bit of practical home-based Judaism is tricky for me.

A year ago (a year ago!) she gave me a bread machine as a housewarming gift. I have always made bread by hand, and was suspicious of machines. I am also very busy, especially on Fridays, and so I bought my challah at the store, because I was afraid of the bread machine. I decided “Enough of that nonsense!” and asked Dawn to teach me how to use the terrifying bread machine.

Yes, I am making fun of myself. It is ridiculous for a grown woman of nearly sixty years to be afraid of using a bread machine. I am pretty sure – almost certain – that it will not blow up. Dawn assures me that it won’t. And it is not a crime to use a machine to allow me to do other things.

I know for sure the challah that comes out will be good – Dawn uses the same machine! I love her challah!

How do you get your challah? Do you bake it? Make it with a machine’s help? Buy it from a particular store? Make it with your children or friends?

Has there ever been a mitzvah you were afraid to try because you might mess up?

Anyway, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, and tasty challah however you obtain it!

 


Most Read Posts of 2014

December 25, 2014

This has been a very active year for this blog. Activity here as more than doubled since last year, and I thank you for your readership.

These are the ten most frequently read posts on this blog among the posts I wrote this year:

How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips

What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral

What to Wear to Synagogue?

Blogging While Black: Yeah, It’s a Thing

Conversion Manifesto

Prayer for the Opening of Baseball Season

“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

A More Meaningful Chanukah

Never Say This when You Welcome a Visitor!

Thinking of Conversion to Judaism? 5 Things to Do

The five most read posts of all time (well, the five calendar years this blog has been online):

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

10 Tips for Attending a Jewish Funeral

What’s “Yasher Koach?”

Choosing Synagogue Membership

How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips

Rabbi and Dog

The Blogger and her Helper

The goal of this blog has been basic information for newcomers and others who may feel awkward in Jewish community. There’s a tremendous amount of information available in books and on the internet, but sometimes it’s too much all at once. I hope that by offering topics in small bites they have been more manageable.

Mixed in with those “basic info” articles are posts about growing Jewish identity and about living a meaningful Jewish life. I am not interested in Judaism as an exercise in historical reinactment. The prospect of Judaism that gives meaning and purpose to real 21st century lives is much more exciting to me.

So here are my questions for you: Which posts have been most helpful or interesting to you? What would you like to read about in 2015? Is there a topic about which you’ve heard “enough already!?”

I wish you a happy secular New Year of growth and bloom!


Hospitality For Growth

December 24, 2014
Lighting chanukiot at our Chanukah party.

Lighting the candles at our Chanukah party.

Long-time readers may remember my Hospitality Challenge: 16 months ago I challenged myself to grow in the mitzvah of hospitality. Yes, it is an actual mitzvah: Abraham and Sarah are famous for their hospitality. The Torah commands us to follow their example. After all, this is how all of us learn to “do Jewish:” not from a class or a book, but from observing the mitzvot with other Jews.

What I didn’t expect was that hospitality could also be an avenue for personal and spiritual growth.

Here’s where we started: I’m an introvert married to an introvert’s introvert. We are not great housekeepers, nor are we good cooks. We were both intimidated by the idea of opening our home to people who might (eep!) judge us on our housekeeping and cooking.

We’ve had fewer Shabbat guests than I originally hoped, but we have hosted more people in the past year than ever before.  We have celebrated almost every Jewish holiday with friends and family and some new friends (aka “strangers.”) Sukkot and Chanukah each saw a large gathering at the house. During the summer, I hosted regular Torah study gatherings here, and we’ve had countless folks over for an afternoon or an evening.

We’ve had great dinners, and burned dinners, gatherings where we were overrun with guests (who thought they’d all say yes?) and gatherings we canceled for lack of guests. There have been some wonderful people here, and a few who’ve been a challenge. And yet one thing has been constant: after the guests left, there was a glow that remained, a sense that home was indeed a holy place of warmth and friendship.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Nobody cares that the rabbi’s desk looks like a tag sale.
  2. If the main dish is a bust, the pizza place down the hill delivers.
  3. To carry out this mitzvah, I had to learn to ask for and accept help.
  4. People will bring food if you ask them to ahead of time.
  5. A plan for the evening is nice but not necessary.
  6. All guests go home eventually.
  7. Jewish warmth and Jewish blessings make everything glow.
  8. Jewish hospitality grows our Jewish souls.

Taking on this mitzvah has made me grow into a happier person and a better Jew. Here’s to 16 more months (and more!) of sharing the joy.


Welcome to Tevet!

December 22, 2014

Tevet 5775 began last night at sundown, on the evening of December 21, 2014.

6chanukahWelcome to Tevet! It’s the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and last night, when we lit six candles, the month of Tevet arrived to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest things to happen in it are not Jewish days at all: Christmas and the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually fall in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!

 


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