What The Hamantaschen Have Taught Me

As you know, my kids and I have spent lots of time this week baking hamantaschen for our Ramat Shalom family. From scratch, we made over 2,000 hamantaschen! It took us about 20 hours to make the dough, fold the individual hamantaschen, and fill them with chocolate, raspberry, or strawberry filling. It was hard work – but it was fun spending the time together and giving back to our community.

Our first few batches of hamantaschen were rather sad looking. We laughed as various odd shapes came out of the oven with filling oozing and bubbling all over the place. It took us awhile to get into a routine and learn how to make decent looking treats that resembled the three cornered hat that the wicked Haman supposedly wore. But, we did it. And when we did, I noticed (sadly) that while the hamantaschen were looking more “hamantasheny” – some of the laughter that was part of our first few batches was gone. We were now serious bakers on a mission to craft the perfect Purim cookie.

After our first day of baking, we took time to sample our work. We each loved the beautiful hamantaschen that came from the last batch of the day – picture perfect, three cornered cookies. And the taste matched their perfect appearance. Really good! To our surprise, however, the funny looking hamantaschen from earlier in the day tasted just as good. Cheryl thought they tasted even better than the nicer looking ones. Maybe it was the laughter involved with putting the early ones together? Perhaps I was a bit delirious from spending so many hours baking, or perhaps it was just the absurdity of the Purim holiday getting to me, but I started to think about the lessons I was learning from these little, three cornered cookies.

1. While a few hours of practice made my kids and me “master hamantaschen makers” – our new found “experience” and “skills” replaced some of the silliness that came with being clueless “hamantaschen makers”. Yes, with knowledge comes power – but with knowledge, the carefree joy, innocence, and giggling associated with being “clueless bakers” disappears.

2. The funny looking cookies tasted just as good, if not better than the good-looking ones. Certainly, I already knew that “judging a book by its cover” was a foolish thing to do. But the great taste of our ugly hamantaschen was a good lesson for my kids and an important reminder for me. At the same time, however, my kids suggested that we should toss the ugly hamantaschen. “Why!?” I wanted to know. “Because, dad, they might taste good, but who is going be brave enough to put those funny looking things in their mouths!?” Appearance shouldn’t matter. But, when it comes to hamantaschen, people want a three cornered, hat-like cookie. If they don’t get that – they will be upset.

As I prepared to toss our ugly hamantaschen, I looked at them closely as they sat pathetically next to the pretty hamantaschen and, boom, it hit me: the ugly and the pretty – the lesson of Purim. Again, maybe just too much inhaling of flour and sugar – but side by side the ugly and the pretty hamantaschen beautifully captured the dichotomy of Purim. On the one hand we have the wonderful story of the Jews defeating the bad guy and, on the other hand, we have the frightening story of the sinister Haman and his plot to annihilate the Jews. Purim is incomplete without both sides of this story. Without the “ugly” side – there would be no need for the “pretty” side of Mordechai and Esther saving the day. Without the “pretty” side – well, there would be no Purim celebration because Haman would have won and we would have been wiped out.

“Sorry guys,” I said to my kids as I saved the ugly hamantaschen from the trashcan. “These ugly guys are not going anywhere.” As I explained why we were not tossing them, Abigail bit into one of the nicest looking hamantaschen we had made – big, triangular, golden brown. Within seconds, her face twisted in disgust as she exclaimed: “Ewwww……I just ate a raspberry one. I hate raspberry, grooooooossssss!!!!!” Jonah quickly grabbed a chocolate one from the ugly pile. “Here,” he said as he handed it to Abigail. “You love chocolate!” A bite of the ugly chocolate hamantaschen did the trick. “Phew,” said Abigail, “that got the bad taste out of my mouth!!!”

Right then those hamantaschen shared another little lesson with me. Just because something is beautiful on the outside, it doesn’t mean its inside is appealing to us. And, visa-versa, just because something is funny looking on the outside doesn’t mean that its inside is not appealing to us. Within the beautiful, victorious story of Purim, we must never forget that there lies a sinister plot to kill every single Jew. At the same time, within the nastiness of Haman and his horrific plot, lies the sweet triumph of the Jews over evil.

Yet again, our hamantaschen let me see the dichotomy of Purim. There is no joy without pain. No victory without a struggle. You can’t appreciate how good a chocolate hamantaschen is until you bite into one that contains a filling you despise. Additionally, you need to learn what the other fillings taste like before you know which one you truly like. This brings us back to the concept of knowledge.

As with anything, knowledge has its downsides. My kids and I stopped laughing when we mastered our baking skills and our hamantaschen started to look good. Queen Esther stopped living carefree in the castle once she learned about the plight of her people and stood up and won her people’s safety and security. But, with knowledge comes true understanding. In our case – it was as simple as learning how to bake a cookie. In Queen Ester’s case, it was realizing that the beauty and happiness of life within the walls of the palace was just a part of her life. The other part included the ugly fact that enemies were out to destroy her people and she had the obligation to act.

We can choose to toss the ugly hamantaschen into the trashcan and surround ourselves with the good-looking cookies. We can do this literally and symbolically – surrounding ourselves with only good things. But, when we do this, we ignore the reality of life: there is bad stuff out there. If we are not afraid of it, the bad stuff (whether it be the hamantaschen filling we don’t like or something much, much worse) has the ability to teach us invaluable lessons. From the bad, we learn what our blessings truly are. By wrestling with the hard parts of life, we grow and develop new skills. As we accept the reality that life is filled with both the good and the bad, we learn to look beneath the surface and appreciate that what lies within something “pretty” can be “pretty awful” and that within the “ugly” are some of the most beautiful gifts life holds for us.

As I am always looking for an opportunity to quote a great country music song, I quickly realized that Garth Brooks’ “The River” captures perfectly the lesson I learned from my hamantaschen baking experience. In the song, Brooks compares life to a journey on a river. In order to get to where we need to be, we have to go downstream. But this journey might involve rough, dangerous waters that we would rather avoid:

Too many times we stand aside And let the waters slip away ‘Til what we put off ’til tomorrow Has now become today So don’t you sit upon the shoreline And say you’re satisfied Choose to chance the rapids And dare to dance the tide…yes There’s bound to be rough waters And I know I’ll take some falls But with the good Lord as my captain I can make it through them all. I will sail my vessel ‘Til the river runs dry Like a bird upon the wind These waters are my sky I’ll never reach my destination If I never try So I will sail my vessel ‘Til the river runs dry.

Purim is all about riding the rough waters to get to a better place and eating the ugly hamantaschen to get to the sweet chocolate inside.

I hope that you had a chance to pick up the hamantaschen Abigail, Jonah, and I made for you this week. Given what we learned from them, my kids and I tried to insure that every bag had a good mix of pretty and ugly hamantaschen. We hope you noticed that the ugly ones tasted even better than the pretty ones. May these wonderful little cookies that bring us so much joy and happiness, while at the same time reminding us of one of the worst guys in Jewish history, encourage us all to see the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly as life’s lessons. It is only by embracing these lessons that we truly travel through life.

Please make sure you attend our Saturday Purim Shpiel @ 8:00PM – or one near you. (See you at the dinner if you RSVP’d) and our Purim Carnival on Sunday from 10AM-1PM (Opening Ceremonies, Children’s Megillah Reading and Costume Parade @ 10AM). And join us tonight for Kabbalat Shabbat services at 8:00PM where I will share some more lessons that I learned from the hamantaschen.

What Does It Really Mean To Be A Jew?

My notes from Friday’s Dvar Torah (19 February).

What does it mean to be a “Jew”?

To answer this we must start with another question? Who was the first person to be called a Jew?

You might think Abraham was as he his considered the “father of Judaism” – but he was never called a Jew.  Rather, he was known as an “Ivri”, a “Hebrew”.

Isaac, Abraham’s son was also known as an “Ivri” or “Hebrew”.

As many know, Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, had a famous wresting match with an angel which led to his name being changed to “Yisrael” or “Israel”.  Jacob’s twelve sons, the twelve tribes, were known as “Israelites” not Jews.

The word “Jew” or, in Hebrew, “Yehudi”, is related to the name “Judah” or “Yehudah”.  Judah was the fourth son of Jacob.  Given this, it might appear that by calling someone “Jew” or a “Yehudi”, we are implying that one is a descendant of the tribe of Judah.  The problem with this is that not all “Jews” are descendants of the tribe of Judah. For example, some of us today know that we are “Levites” descendants of the tribe of Levi.  Even the first “Jew”, as we shall see, was not a descendant of the tribe of Judah.  For approxmaintely 2,500 years, we have been known as “Jews” no matter what tribe we come from.

Why are we called “Jews”?

To answer this question, we must go back 2,500 years in history. If we do so, we are in Shushan, under the reign of King Ahashverous.  Yes, 2,500 years ago, the famous story of Purim was unfolding.  It is in this story that we hear about the first Jew.

“There was a Jew in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai from the tribe of Benjamin” (Esther 2:5).

Mordechai, the hero of Purim, is our first Jew/Yehudi.  Notice, Mordechai was not from the tribe of Jehuda.  Rather he was from the tribe of Benjamin – proving that Jews were not necessarily descendants of Judah.

If Mordechai was not part of the line of Judah, why is he called a Yehudi/Jew?  To answer this question properly, we must appreciate the fact that the term “Jew” has more to do with a personality trait than with family lineage.

Judah was one of the infamous brothers who threw their young brother, Joseph, into a pit.  As a result of this cruel, brotherly deed, Joseph was sold into slavery and wound up in Egypt where, overtime, he became quite powerful in Pharaoh’s government.

While Joseph was rising to power, his brothers went about their lives, assuming that their little brother Joseph was lost forever.  Overtime, a terrible famine would sweep through the land of Israel.  Joseph’s brothers – including Judah – went to Egypt to find food.  While they did not know it, their search for food led them to their brother Joseph who was now an important leader.  Joseph, of course, knows who his brothers were but torments them a bit – which is understandable given what they put him through.  Joseph demands that his brothers leave the youngest brother, Benjamin, with Joseph as a slave.  At this moment, we can only imagine that Judah had a flashback to the moment he and his brothers doomed Joseph to a life of slavery.  Judah would not go through this again.  He had learned from his bad behavior and, so, he stood up to Joseph, whom Judah thought was a high ranking member of Egyptian royalty.   Certainly, this could have been extremely dangerous.  Standing up to and opposing royalty could have meant instant death for Judah.  But he had been a part of one brother’s enslavement.  He would not make the same mistake twice.  Judah’s risky, yet commendable actions led Joseph to disclose his true identity to his brothers.

Now that we have a clearer sense of Judah, let’s turn our attention to Mordechai and try to figure out why he is the first to be called a “Jew”.

Mordechai is the reason the Purim story takes place. Because Haman is a descendant of the wicked Amalek who viscously attacks the women, children, and infirm Israelites as they begin their journey in the desert, Mordechai refuses to bow to him.  This makes Haman so angry that Haman plans to kill the Jewish people.

Some might say that Mordechai should have bowed to Haman as this would have protected the Jewish people of Shushan.  However, Mordechai felt that this would have been compromising everything he believed in.  It was worth putting his life life on the line for this issue.  The Jews of Shushan agreed with Mordechai.  They had no problem taking part in a very public day of mourning when it was learned what Haman’s sinister plans were.  They could have remained silent – but they did not.

Mordechai, the descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, stood up to a powerful leader in an effort to defend his Jewish family.  He seems to inherited the courageous gene from his great-great-uncle Judah.  Ah-hah!  This is why he is called a “Yehudi” – a “Jew”.

What does it mean to be a Jew?

It means more than our adhering to the rituals, beliefs and practices of Judaism.  It means following in the footsteps of Judah and Mordechai and countless other Jews who have taken a risk by courageously standing up for what they believed in – even if doing so put them at risk.

For 2,500 years since Mordechai gained the title “Jew”, there have been many moments in Jewish history that have tested our “Jewishness” – our willingness to stand up to the bad guys and stand up for our beliefs.  As Jews, history has shown us that we get bullied.  But as Jews, we do not run from the bully.  We stay strong and we don’t break down.  That is why we have survived for as long as we have and continue moving courageously into the future.

This Purim, may we all reconnect to our “Jewishness” by remembering that we are the descendants of Judah and Mordechai.

I Wanna Be An “Adar Jew”! How About You?

The Jewish month of Adar began earlier this week! This means that Purim is just days away and, therefore, it is time to be surrounded by joy. Can’t you feel it!?

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that when Adar begins, simcha (joy) increases. Obviously, the highlight of the month is Purim, the day on which we celebrate our ancestors’ ability to stop Haman from annihilating them. But, the rabbis explain that the joy associated with Adar is not limited to Purim alone. We are taught that the entire month is filled with simcha because Adar is the month during which the Jewish people actively changed their destiny ˆ transforming what seemed like their inevitable destruction at the hands of Haman into a celebration of life and Jewish power. Given the fortunate events of Adar, the rabbis teach us that this month is an auspicious time for our people. We are encouraged to schedule challenging events like court cases and medical procedures during Adar so that the “luck” associated with the month rubs off and benefits us.

Unfortunately, the joy of Adar does not rub off that easily. You have to know about the joy of Adar in order to appreciate it. You need to be around the joy in order to feel it. You have to be drawn into it in order to truly live it. Once you do appreciate it, feel it, live it, the joy is contagious. I can’t guarantee that it will be as “auspicious” as the rabbis say it is ˆ but I can guarantee that the joy of Adar will make you happy. And in this day and age, why turn down something that makes you smile?

The fact is, most Jews do turn the joy of Adar down. This is because while being written in the “Book of Life” during the High Holidays is something most Jews pay close attention to, the joy of Adar is not on most Jews’ radar screens. Purim is seen by most Jews as a holiday that rabbis, cantors and other “geeky” synagogue-going types get into. As a result, for most Jews, the joy thing kind of goes out the window.

Listen closely. Can you hear it? All that Jewish joy flying out of windows all over the place as Purim gets closer? We, the “geeky” synagogue-going types, we can hear it loud and clear. And we know that the joy we hear crashing to the ground was supposed to belong to those Jews we call “High Holiday Jews”, Jews who come to the synagogue only on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. How do you know if someone is a “High Holiday Jew”? Simple: ask him or her to describe Judaism in three words. While I can’t predict the exact words a “High Holiday Jew” will use, I guarantee you that they will be words having to do with guilt, formality, solemnity, repentance, and/or sin. In addition, I am certain that at least one of their three words will capture the extensive length of High Holiday services. To be honest, I probably would not disagree with the descriptive words of the “High Holiday Jew”. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are very ! intense, serious, reflective holy days that make us explore our shortcomings and weaknesses. Plus ˆ on Yom Kippur, we can’t eat! Oy!

If I didn’t do what I do for a living, I would probably become an active “Adar Jew” ˆ one who comes to synagogue only during the month of Adar. To me, being an “Adar Jew” makes a lot of sense ˆ a whole heck of a lot more sense than being a “High Holiday Jew”! Adar is a fun month filled with laughter, happiness, drink, food, costumes, and celebration. This is the type of stuff that would bring me back year after year. Now, I must admit, I’ve never met an “Adar Jew”. I have, however, met my fair share of “High Holiday Jews” ˆ people who choose to hang out in synagogues for the longest most intense services of the year. What does this say about our people? Do we like the depressing, gut wrenching holidays that leave us feeling guilty?

As someone who is committed to insuring the survival of Judaism, I can’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, the key to our survival lies in turning “High Holiday Jews” on to things like intense joy, side-splitting laughter, great food and drink, and celebrating Jewish pride with friends and family. By focusing solely upon the intense themes of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we run the risk of denying ourselves so many of the uplifting, celebratory, carefree, lighthearted, and pleasurable aspects of our tradition. Why do this to ourselves? What good does this do us? As I said back on Rosh HaShanah, we need to dance, sing, and be happy. This is what will make us spiritually, physically, and mentally balanced.

Here at Ramat Shalom, Purim festivities start at 7:00PM next Saturday (the 27th) evening with our “Pasta and Pesto Pre-Purim Party and Dinner” (RSVP REQUIRED) followed by our 8:00PM Purim Shpiel (a bawdy, PG-13 Purim spoof starring yours truly, Cantor, Ms. Marney and Ms Beth) and our Megillah Reading (BABYSITTING OFFERED W/RSVP). On Sunday from 10AM-1PM our annual Purim Carnival will take place (OPENING CERMONIES @ 10AM). If you are a “High Holiday Jew” do yourself a favor, come and experience the other side of Judaism – if not at Ramat Shalom – at a synagogue near you. What’s the worst thing that happens? You actually enjoy yourself? You laugh in the synagogue? Chas v’cholileh! You’ll survive and you’ll be better off because of it.

Jewish Survival: The Many Heroes of Purim

Jews need each other.  We need a minyan (10 people) in order to pray.  Traditionally, in order to study Torah, we need a partner.  We can’t chant Torah alone.  We can’t say Kaddish alone.  And we really can’t appreciate the Jewish holidays alone.  Imagine a seder without anyone attending!

Last Shabbat was known as Shabbat Shekalim – a special Shabbat that always falls before we celebrate Purim.  On this Shabbat, we read a special section of Torah that reminds us of the ancient census that took place within the Israelite community – one that involved everyone giving a half-Shekel to the community.  The collected funds were used to support the desert tabernacle, the symbolic center of the community.  Last Shabbat, we talked about how this census enabled people to stand up and say “count me in!”.  Had the people not done so, there would have been no funds to maintain the community’s symbolic center.  Without these funds, the center would have ceased to exist, leading to the deterioration of the larger community.  It was only by individuals coming together and supporting each other that the center remained strong and the Israelite community survived.

On Friday night, we discussed why this special census is part of our Torah reading before we celebrate Purim.  The answer lies in the essence of Purim.  What is it that we celebrate on Purim?  The answer to this question is simple once we determine who it is exactly that saves the Jewish people from Haman.

Click HERE for Friday’s sermon.

Moses’ Kid Was Jewish, But Your Kid Might Not Be!?! Keep Reading…..

Last Shabbat, at our Friday night service, we had a very interesting discussion about the fact that Moses married outside of the tribe of Israel. His wife, Tziporrah, was part of the Midianite tribe that lived in the northern Arabian Peninsula. The Midianites had their own religious beliefs, rituals, and gods. Tzipporah, as far as we know, never adopted the religion of the Israelites. Given this, Moses, one of our greatest leaders, was involved in an inter-faith marriage.

One of the things that I find so interesting about Tziporrah is that for a member of another tribe, she quietly plays a very important role in the Torah. We learn very early on in Exodus that Tziporrah has the where-with-all to save her husband’s life. Moses, rushing with his family to return to Egypt and lead his people to freedom, overlooks the fact that his son, whom Tzipporah had just given birth to, needed to be ritually circumcised. In parashat Shemot, we read how Moses is almost killed by God because of this oversight. Tzipporah, however, understanding Moses’ mistake, immediately circumcises her son, redeeming her husband. If it were not for Tzipporah, Moses might not have had the chance to lead his people out of Egypt.

Many of you questioned me after our discussion last Friday evening. Given that, for the most part, the contemporary Jewish world asserts that in order for a child to be Jewish, he must be born to a Jewish mother, you could not understand why God was so upset with Moses for not circumcising his son on time. After all, this little baby boy, born to Tzipporah, was, according to today’s standards, not Jewish! Tzipporah was not a member of the tribe!
The fact is, in biblical times, the tribe or religion of the mother did not matter. In the Torah, the tribal and religious affiliations of a child were determined by the tribal and religious affiliations of the father. We call this “patrilineal descent” and it is the reason that Moses’ son needed to be circumcised.

Today, the vast majority of the Jewish world embraces the concept of “matrilineal descent”. A child is a Jew if he is born to a Jewish mother. The religious affiliation of the father does not matter today. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements embrace matrilineal descent. However, these movements also embrace the older concept of patrilineal descent that we read about in the Torah. In these two progressive Jewish movements, a child who is born to a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother is considered a Jew. In the Conservative and Orthodox movements, this child is not considered to be a Jew.

What happened to bring about this significant change in the way we determine the religion of a child? The fact is we are not certain.
Professor Shaye Cohen, a well known Hebrew Literature and Philosophy professor at Harvard University, suggests two reasons why Judaism switched from a patrilineal culture to a matrilineal one. First, he proposes that it was the ancient rabbis who, around the 3rd century CE, adopted the concept of matrilineal descent. Cohen suggests that the rabbis took the concept from the Roman law that established that in a marriage between two Romans, a child would receive the legal status of his father. In an intermarriage between a Roman and a non-Roman, however, a child would receive the citizenship status of its mother.

Cohen’s second proposal is, oddly enough, based upon Israelite animal breeding practices. While the Torah forbids the breeding of animals of different species, there is a teaching in the Mishnah that a mule whose mother was a horse and whose father was a donkey should be allowed to mate with other horses. This rule suggests that “horse-status” is passed down from the mother. The father’s species is insignificant. Cohen argues that this rule pertaining to animals might very well have been applied to humans and this is why a Jewish woman is the one who passes down “Jewish-status”.

Others argue that matrilineal descent came about as a result of the unpleasant reality that Roman soldiers would frequently rape Jewish women. The argument has been made that the ancient rabbis, in an attempt to comfort these women, declared a child born to a Jewish mother to be a Jew. Related to this, some assert that the unpredictability of paternity made matrilineal descent an easier, safer way of determining a child’s religion. The father might be gone, but chances are, the child is still with her mother.

I need to stress that none of these explanations as to why Judaism went from being a patrilineal culture to a matrilineal culture have been proven. We simply know that at some point, the concept of matrilineal descent replaced patrilineal descent. Given this, today, Moses’ child would not have been considered Jewish and circumcision would not have been required except if the child was being converted to Judaism.

Unfortunately, this change from patrilineal to matrilineal descent does not just make for an interesting scholarly discussion. It also does not just affect the status of Moses’ son. The reality is that it has the potential to affect all Jewish children whose Jewish identity is defined solely by their father’s Judaism (by patrilineal descent). One day, these Jewish kids (many of our Ramat Shalom kids) might very well find that their Jewish identity is questioned. Whether it be because they fall in love with and want to marry someone from a Conservative or Orthodox background or because they want to make aliyah (move to Israel) – there are many Jews out there that do not consider these children to be Jewish and will deny them the basic rights entitled to every Jews (e.g. the ability to marry another Jew, the ability to make aliyah). It because of this that I encourage all inter-faith families where mom is not Jewish to consider converting their children when they are young so that their Jewish identity can never be called into question. (By the way, I also strongly urge families who adopt a child to convert their children as well. Having no biological Jewish parent places even more obstacles before a child being raised as a Jew.)

Conversion of children is simple, safe, meaningful, and moving. It requires no study on the part of the child. Little boys do need to be circumcised by a mohel. Mom and Dad need simply to state their desire to convert their child before a beit din – three witnesses who oversee the conversion. By doing this and by immersing their child in a mikveh (ritual pool, or the ocean) while saying a few sacred blessings, parents can significantly reduce the potential of their child’s Jewish identity being called into question. If you have any questions about conversion, please contact me and I would be happy to talk with you.