Thursday, May 16, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- The Shabbes Queen

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Originally published May 12, 2017

In this week's parsha -- Emor -- God gives Moses the laws pertaining to our most important holidays: Rosh HaShanaYom KippurSukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and SHABBAT! In my opinion, the best thing about Shabbat is that it happens every week!

God tells us not to work on Shabbat, and the Temple service is described. But what you won't find in this parsha are commands to light candles or say kiddush over wine. Those are traditions that evolved later. 

Every now and then, my family stumbles across a custom that we love so much that we then incorporate it into our own traditional Shabbat dinner. One of those is the poem by Chayim Nachman Bialik called Shabbat Ha-Malkah, or The Shabbat Queen. Bialik lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is considered a pioneer of Hebrew poetry. Not only do I think this is a beautifully descriptive poem, but I appreciate the feminine language. In my family, I recite it as the only woman at the table. I hope you like it, too.

Shabbat Ha-Malkah
The sun on the treetops no longer is seen.
Come, let us welcome Shabbat, the true Queen.
Behold her descending, the holy, the blessed,
and with her God's angles of peace and of rest.
Come now, dear Queen, with us abide.
Come now, come now, Shabbat, our Bride.
Shalom aleikhem, angels of peace.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Kedoshim

Originally published April 27, 2018
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A story is told of the Roman soldier who wanted to play a trick on some Jews. He first went to Shammai, one of the great sages of the time. He said, "I hear you're a good teacher. Can you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot?" 

Shammai became angry. He said it would be an impossible task; there are just too many laws to learn. Knowing this was a joke, he turned the soldier away and told him never to return.

The soldier next went to Hillel, another great sage. The Roman soldier asked the same question, "Can you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot?"

Hillel answered: "Yes. What is hurtful to you, don't do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. No go and learn."

The soldier was so taken with Hillel's answer that he went and learned, and eventually converted to Judaism. 

Hillel's answer stems from what is probably the most relevant teaching in this week's parsha: Love your neighbor as yourself. Beautifully simple, beautifully complex, it's the perfect place to start when beginning to teach children right from wrong.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Acharei Mot

The bimah and Aron HaKodesh at the historic
6th&I synagogue in Washington, DC.

This week's parsha, Acharei Mot, describes a lot of things Jews shouldn't do, such as going into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred inner room within the Temple,    . . . unless it's Yom Kippur, you're the High Priest, and you've undergone all the necessary physical and spiritual preparations. Because the Temple no longer exists, this prohibition is really just a reminder of a long-ago time and place.

The closest we have to the Holy of Holies in a modern synagogue is the Holy Ark (Aron HaKodesh), where the Torah scrolls are kept. The Ark is usually the central focal point of any sanctuary, whether it's in the front of the room or the center. It's often decorative and can be very elaborate with all sorts of thematic motifs woven into the design. Click here to read about all the symbols located within and around Agudas Achim's Ark.

The Torah scrolls are placed on a shelf inside the Ark behind both a set of doors and a curtain. It is an honor to be called up to the bimah (the best translation is probably "stage") to open the doors and/or curtains before certain prayers are said. The congregation stands when the Ark is opened and waits until the curtain is closed before sitting. Certain prayers also call for bowing in front of the open Ark. 

Finally, on Yom Kippur, the rabbi and chazzan prostrate themselves before the Ark at one powerful point in the service. This custom is just a echo of what the High Priest would have done thousands of years ago at the Temple in Jerusalem, but it connects us to our ancestors and our history nonetheless.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Hunt for Chametz

B'dikat chametz is a Passover tradition perfectly designed for young children. The night before Passover, after the whole house has been emptied of leavened food, parents hide 10 pieces of leaven, or chametz, for their children to find. Guided by the light of a candle, the children use a feather to sweep the chametz onto a wooden spoon and then deposit the chametz into a paper bag. It takes a lot of dexterity and patience, but it's also a lot of fun. The chametz is then burned the next morning.
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It's important to hide the chametz strategically and carefully so that you don't miss any pieces! Cheerios are perfect for this activity. For more information about the custom, including the blessings, click here, and for an interesting article about the origin and philosophy behind the custom, click here. You can purchase b'dikat chametz kits or create your own. However you plan on celebrating the holiday, have a joyous Passover!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Mikvah

I find this week's parsha, Tazria, the most challenging one to write about year after year. It focuses primarily on the laws of ritual purity and impurity as well as the mysterious biblical disease tzaraat, which has been incorrectly associated with leprosy.

The most relatable part of the parsha for me is the part that talks about mikvah. Mikvah means "gathering of waters," and a mikvah is any naturally occurring flowing body of water. But since immersing in a mikvah is commanded for certain situations (such as conversion to Judaism), it was important to bring the mikvah indoors. Immersing in an ocean or a river isn't always convenient or safe.
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I serve as a mikvah guide at the Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington, DC. It's the only one of its kind between Baltimore and Richmond. It serves the whole community and encourages immersion to mark all kinds of transitions, including ones the Ancient Israelites never could have imagined. Milestone birthdays, overcoming personal loss, coming out, fertility journeys, and becoming a bar or bat mitzvah are all transitions honored at our mikvah.

To learn more about the ritual of immersion, check out this short video.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Shemini and Kashrut

In this week's parsha, Shemini, the people receive the laws of kashrut. What is outlined in the Torah is fairly simple; what's evolved out of those simple rules over the past two millennia is a little more complex. There are now hundreds (if not thousands) or rules for food preparation and food consumption (though none require "blessed by the rabbi," a common misconception). But I have found that the laws of kashrut can actually be summed up quite succinctly.

1) There are animals we don't eat.
2) The animals we do eat must be slaughtered in a way that causes them the least amount of pain and suffering and demonstrates our respect and gratitude for their sacrifice.
3) We do not mix meat (the food of death) with milk (the food of life).

I know it's not always easy (or convenient) to find kosher treats to send to school for birthday celebrations. Therefore I'm happy to announce that there's a new kosher bakery in town! Pastries by Randolph in Arlington is a kosher bakery with all kinds of delicious cakes, cookies, and pastries, some of which can be made to order. Please consider giving them a call the next time you're looking for something special. They were one of our sponsors for the B'nai Mitzvah celebration (they provided the rye bread and macaroons).

B'tayavon! (Good eating!)

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Widely used kosher symbols, or heckshers.
If you find these symbols on the package, the food is kosher!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Purim's Big Idea

Originally published March 10, 2017

The celebration of Purim seems to have been designed with young children in mind: cookies, costumes, parades, carnivals, goody bags, songs, and silliness. Yet, the story of Purim itself is decidedly child un-friendly. We read about gluttony, greed, misogyny, xenophobia, and attempted genocide. And don't forget the execution at the end. So what should we focus on when teaching this story to our children?

Image result for purimI used to ask my fourth and fifth graders to identify the 'big idea' in a story, and I used to think the 'big idea' in Megillat Esther is that one person really can make a difference. But this year I see a new 'big idea.'
King Achashverosh was willing to follow the suggestion of his evil adviser Haman and kill all the Jews in Persia, until he learned that his beloved wife was Jewish.  In that moment, the Jews in his kingdom became less amorphous; they became real people. At least one Jew in his kingdom had a face, a mind, a personality. If Esther, a Jew, was a real person, then all the other nameless, faceless Jews must be real people, too, none of whom deserved to die because ONE Jew had refused to bow down to Haman.

In today's world, where increasingly it seems as if different groups, for different reasons, are trying to identify an 'us' and a 'them,' and to pit 'us' against 'them,' I think it's important to remember who 'them' are. They are all Esthers.

Shabbat Around the Table -- The Shabbes Queen

Originally published May 12, 2017 In this week's  parsha  --  Emor  -- God gives Moses the laws pertaining to our most importan...