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.