Throwing Myself Into the Arms of Shabbat

Early this morning, after staying up to hear the news about the UK voting to leave the European Union, I posted this message to friends on Facebook:

This (Brexit, Trump) is what comes of the obsession with deficits post-2008 and the growing disparity in incomes. The 90% feel enraged and abandoned, looking for someone to blame, voting their fears.

I don’t know when I have felt so pessimistic. Time for Shabbat.

Then I did a bit of housework, always good therapy. I saw messages from friends, including an exhortation to “Look for the good, it’s still there” from a friend who sees much more of the trouble in the world close up than I do, a nurse who spent much of the last week watching over the victims of Orlando.  These good angels made me rethink my bad mood.

This is not the time to succumb to the blues. There is important work to do in this world. There are things that CAN be made right. We can fix our broken institutions here in the U.S. It isn’t too late to have a functioning Supreme Court, a Congress where they actually vote on bills that matter, and an economic system that brings a decent life to everyone, not just to the wealthy. 

I am tired right now. That SCOTUS non-result that has hurt immigrants hurt my heart. Brexit hurts people for whom I care very much. The reaction of those well-meaning people at the local Republican HQ – “Trump isn’t ours, please go away” – chilled me. Orlando shocked me to my bones.

And yet:

Last weekend I saw my youngest married to a good woman. I saw a new generation of my family begin. I saw that my sons are grown and they are good men. So I refuse to give up hope in the world.

Last weekend I was reminded what a precious and wonderful “family of choice” I have. The people who have chosen to love me and my children are a tribe of our own, built from what seemed, 30 years ago, to be the wreckage of my life. I have children of my body and adopted children, a brother I adore and adopted siblings who would walk through fire for me, ex-in-laws who have been dear to me ever since I met them in the fall of 1973. I have my beloved and beshert, Linda, and to our mutual amazement, we are legally married! So I refuse to give up on the world.

Last week I saw an outpouring of support for the gay men and other Q people and allies murdered in Orlando. There were a few haters. There were people who used it as another opportunity to demonize Muslims. But the vast majority of people saw those gay men as human beings, and saw the shooter as what he was: a hate filled individual who used Daesh/ISIS as his excuse. Even ten years ago, the reaction would have been quite different. So I refuse to give up hope in the world.

Last Monday night I was the guest of Muslim neighbors at their iftar. I saw the earnest seeking after true spiritual growth. I felt the welcome of generous spirits, and I listened to fears and worries that were very much like my own. I am convinced that the Holy One at the center of our attention is the same One. Their love for our country is the same as mine. I refuse to give up hope in the world.

I’m going to keep Shabbat, and let Shabbat keep me this week. Shabbat shalom, my friends. We will still do good in this world, whatever happens.

You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period—I am addressing myself to the School—surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. –Winston Churchill, October 29, 1941

Shabbat Shalom! Vayakhel

Image: The Ark of the Covenant, Drawing by James Tissot, c. 1986-1902. Public Domain.

Vayakhel (“And he assembled”) is the name of this week’s Torah portion, Exodus 35:1 – 38:20. Moses assembles the people and says to them:

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.

– Exodus 35:2

Because this explication of the commandment to keep Shabbat is made in the midst of the building of the Mishkan [Tabernacle,] later when the sages were trying to define “work,” they looked to the various activities required to build the sanctuary. Those 39 categories of labor, called melachot in Hebrew, became the basis for all activities traditionally forbidden on Shabbat.

Then Moses asks the people to bring materials to donate, and collects them. He announces God’s choice of Betzalel and Oholiav as master builders. The parashah describes the building of the Mishkan itself and of much of its furniture.

If all of this sounds familiar, there’s a reason. In an earlier part of Exodus (Ch 25-31) God gave the commands to Moses. Now, in this and the upcoming parashah, Moses has gathered the people and is transmitting those orders to them. In many ways, this is a repetition of the earlier chapters, only with a different speaker and a different audience.

Some divrei Torah from around the Internet:

O Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz? by Rabbi Kari Hofmaister Tuling

Collaboration by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Power in the Assembly by Rabbi Don Levy

Breath of Fresh Air by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

39 Ways Not To Work by Benjamin Elterman

“The Collector” by Ari Shacher

A Song About Wise Hearted People by Alicia Jo Rabins


Vegan Vegetable Soup

I’ve been learning about vegan cooking. Many of my guests are vegetarian or vegan, so I find that it is helpful to have a few simple recipes for main dishes at the ready. However, a dish had better be tasty dishes, or my carnivorous family will turn up their noses!

This soup is on my stove right now, as I write. It’s very easy to make and quite delicious:

4 cups vegetable broth (I use ready-made)
26 0z canned tomato (pureed, sauce, doesn’t really matter)
2 medium onions
1 bunch celery, including the tops!
olive oil
2 russet potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
4-6 carrots, cut into quarter-inch rounds
1 cup chopped collards or other greens
Any leftover vegetables on hand
Pepper sauce (optional)
Ground pepper (optional)
Salt (on table, optional)

  1. Put  vegetable broth and tomato in soup pot over low heat.
  2. Chop onions and celery, soften in a skillet over low heat in olive oil.
  3. Add onions and celery plus any oil remaining to the pot.
  4. Add other vegetables to the pot.
  5. Cook over low heat for 1 hour after assembled.
  6. Serve with pepper sauce on the table, also salt and pepper. Let folks add what they want.
  7. Serve with good bread.

This can serve as many as 10, depending on how hungry everyone is and what else is on the table. Folks who want spicy soup can add lots of pepper sauce, folks who prefer mild can eat as is.

This is a good soup for freezing for later or for giving to friends who need some soup.

For a graceful way to gift food to someone who has a hard time accepting “charity” or a gift, check out More Hospitality: “I cooked too much food!”


Shabbat Shalom: “And Sarah Lived”

This Shabbat we read a very strange love story: Rebekah and Isaac, following the death of his mother Sarah. For some drashot (brief words of Torah) on those topics from past posts:

Rebekah, Woman of Contradictions

Romantic Comedy – In Genesis?

Sarah’s Choices

There are some wonderful divrei Torah available on the net. Here are some I’ve particularly liked:

What’s Your (Back) Story? (Howie Beigelman)

The Blessed Burden (Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

I Will Go (Rabbi Stephen Fuchs)

Have you seen a d’var Torah you particularly like on this parashah?

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, a Sabbath of Peace!

Be a GREAT Shabbat Dinner Guest!

You’re going to your first Shabbat [Sabbath] dinner.  Perhaps you are worried: what’s expected?  Here are five suggestions to help you be a great Shabbat dinner guest:

1.  ASK QUESTIONS:  Every family has their own customs about Shabbat dinner.  Some are very formal, some equally informal.  Asking a few questions ahead of time is essential.

What should I wear?  Dress will differ from household to household, so ask.  You don’t want to be the only one at the table in blue jeans, or in pearls, for that matter!

May I bring anything?  The answer to that may be “Yes, bring —-” or it may be “just yourself!”  If you are asked to bring something, be sure and ask if they would like it to be kosher, or if there are any restrictions you should know about:  allergies, etc.  Better to ask than to show up with something lethal, right?  And even if the answer is “just yourself” it is nice to show up with flowers.  Not required, but nice.

Finally, it is fine to ask questions about the prayers, the food, or the objects you see as the evening progresses.    Some things (a kiddush cup, for example, or a recipe) may come with family stories.

2.  BE ON TIME.  Your hosts may be juggling the hour of sundown, service times at their synagogue, hungry toddlers or other variables.  Shabbat dinner is not a time to be “fashionably late.” I cannot over-stress this: be on time!

3.  DON’T WORRY ABOUT HEBREW.  The dinner may begin with candle lighting and blessings over wine and bread.  If you are not Jewish, you do not have to participate, just listen quietly and observe.  If you feel awkward just listening, you have the option of saying “Amen,” (ah-MAYN) at the end of prayers.

Don’t worry that you do not speak Hebrew. No one expects you to know it at your first Shabbat dinner! There may or may not be Hebrew prayers or songs in Hebrew. As for singing, if you don’t know the words, or don’t sing much, that’s OK.  Enjoy the singing and don’t stress over it.

4.  COMMUNICATE!  Shabbat dinner is not just about food.  It is also about taking time to enjoy one another’s company. Treat each person at the table as if you expect to learn something important from them. Contribute to the conversation when you have something to say. In many Jewish households, friendly dispute is welcome at the table, but keep the tone friendly! Off color jokes and off color language are completely out of place at the Shabbat dinner table. When in doubt, save it for another time.

5.  SAY THANK YOU.  Write your host afterward and thank them for including you.  Email is common these days, but if you would like to make the best possible impression, a written note is best. When you host your own Shabbat dinner (or a similar event from your own tradition) return the invitation!

No Nagging Shabbat

So you have heard about Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. What you heard sounded very good, but the logistics are intimidating: no cooking, no electricity on and off, no work of any kind, no electronics. You look at your family and wonder how you are going to sell them on this idea.

Stop. Let me tell you about how I began to keep Shabbat more than 20 years ago.

It was about the time I began to study for conversion to Judaism. My enthusiasm was building, even though the other members of my family weren’t interested in going to services. I wanted to have some Shabbat at home, too.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. Their rooms were disaster areas, they preferred wearing old rags to clothes, they were not industrious students, and I felt responsible for them.  There were a number of areas where it seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted to take a break from it, I wanted them to take a break from it, and I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.'” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The past couple of weeks has been full of highly emotional events, times of joy and times of anguish. On weeks like these, I am glad I have a synagogue home.

Friday night, Linda and I went to services at Temple Sinai. We arrived extra early, but it almost wasn’t early enough. I wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was full. I’m not the only one who wants to attend services at my shul after a tough week.

Rabbi Mates-Muchin started the service with Shehecheyanu, the blessing for extraordinary moments. We celebrated Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. We celebrated King v Burwell, in which SCOTUS affirmed the Affordable Care Act. And on the side of anguish, we prayed for those who are mourning in South Carolina, as the funerals begin for the nine people murdered in Emanuel AME Church. Many of us had been deeply moved by President Obama’s eulogy for State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

After the service, at the oneg, there were hugs and stories exchanged. The guy who was organizing the group to march at Pride in San Francisco was at one table, signing folks up. Regulars and newcomers were crowded around the cookie table, and another little group (me included) were crowded around the hot water for tea. I had an impromptu subcommittee meeting with one person, and set up with another for study later in the week.

Synagogue is a place Jews go when we need to be with fellow Jews. In moments of great joy or great sorrow, after bad news from Europe or Israel, after anything in the national news that touches us strongly, it is good to sit with the Jews and take it all in. After 9-11, which took place in the midst of the High Holy Days, we gathered anxiously to ponder the meaning of events. During the Gaza War last summer, attendance was high. At such times, we need to be together.

And true, these are also times when newcomers seek out the synagogue, because they haven’t felt the need for one until just that moment – and that is fine. They’re welcome, and odds are, they’ll see us at our best. But synagogue is even better when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs. (If you are reading this and thinking, gee, my synagogue isn’t like that, may I suggest How to Succeed at Synagogue Life?)

Why join a synagogue? Because after a Very Bad Day, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.