Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Hillel Sandwich???

It's somewhat crazy to write about Passover's Hillel sandwich before the High Holy Days, but so be it.

Getting into my car the radio is automatically tuned to NPR. The discussion between interviewer and guest is about the history of the sandwich!  The interviewer mentions Lord Sandwich after whom the sandwich is evidently named and the guest adds for accuracy sake: Lord Sandwich the Fourth!

Then the guest whose name I never got continues that some 1500 years before Lord Sandwich the great Jewish rabbi Hillel actually invented the sandwich and she explains that Hillel would eat two pieces of Matza with bitter herbs and haroset inside.  She then briefly explains the Passover symbolism.  Isn't that the history we all learned in Hebrew school?

Well, if it is, it was taught incorrectly.  Hillel did not eat a Hillel sandwich, not if we mean two pieces of bread/matza with something in between.  It says clearly in the Haggadah (but we are so hungry at that time that we don't pay a great deal of attention, that it was Hillel's custom to eat the three Passover symbols together. 

What are the three Passover symbols? We learn from Rabban Gamliel just a few pages earlier in the Haggadah: they are Pesakh, i.e. the Paschal lamb, Matza and Maror.  In other words Hillel ate a piece of lamb, on a single piece of matza with horse radish on tip.  Sounds delicious, doesn't it?

So how did we get our custom of two pieces of matza with maror and haroset?  Hillel lived in the first pre-Christian century, when the Second Temple still existed.  As long as the Temple stood, the centerpiece of the Passover celebration was the Passover lamb offering.  That's what Hillel ate.  However after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70c.e.long after Hillel's death, Jews no longer offered sacrifices.  The custom became that whenever lamb was to be eaten, since there was no lamb, a piece of matza would be substituted.  Therefore two pieces of matza.  Now we have two pieces of matza with horseraddish, clearly not as delectable as lamb with horseradish.  So the rabbis added haroset to make it all sweeter and to make it all go down easier.

So Hillel never ate a Hillel sandwich.  Our custom of the Hillel sandwich came about at some time probably long after Hillel's death and as a result of trying to eat the three Passover symbols together when one of the symbols no longer was part of the Passover ritual.

Shanah Tovah u'Metukah/ A good and sweet new year to all.     

Friday, August 21, 2015

Nostalgia: Craving Some Deeper Connection and Meaning

This past February Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and author of countless books and articles, offered up his philosophy of life upon learning that he has terminal cancer.
 It was beautifully articulated and although I would not be preparing High Holy Day sermons this year, but if I were, it is with Oliver Sacks where I would begin. 

After all these coming Days of Awe are a struggle with our mortality.  We pray to God for life.  Knowing that our days are numbered we question life’s meaning.  Facing immanent death Dr. Sacks offers us insight: “I have to live the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”  “…trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness as well).”  What important lessons for us as we inevitably lose sight of what is important and get lost in trivialities, in minor irritations, in interpersonal squabbles!

And this past week Sacks treated us to very different insights into his life and living in general.
Sacks grew up in a large observant Jewish home in England.  His parents though physicians themselves were personally devout, maintaining Shabbat, kashrut and regular synagogue attendance.  Sacks gave Jewish observance up after his Bar Mitzvah and was repelled when at age 18 his mother learning of his homosexuality called him an abomination!  Enough to turn anyone away…

After qualifying as a doctor, Sacks moved to America where his vocation became his “religion”, his source of purpose and meaning.  Many of us do that, probably especially men, even rabbis, which he pursued “doggedly, single-mindedly”’.  He describes the experience as “lonely, but deeply satisfying”.

Now even closer to death than he was in writing the earlier piece, Sacks returns to nostalgic thoughts of Shabbat.  He writes glowingly of his observant cousin Robert John Aumann, a Nobel prize winner, “a man of great intellectual power, but also of great human warmth and tenderness and deep religious commitment”. 

Disturbed by the politics of the Middle East, Sacks resolved never again to visit Israel after working on a kibbutz as a 22 year old.  But he nevertheless agreed to return to celebrate another dying cousin’s 100th birthday.  There he experienced anew the warm embrace of family.  Robert Aumann welcomed both Sacks and his partner Billy for Shabbat dinner without judgement.

Sacks writes of “the peace of the Sabbath, a stopped world, a time outside time, which was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness.”

How amazing it is what thoughts we have as we contemplate our lives and what gives it meaning. 

P.S. A far reaching Neveh Shalom connection to Sack’s cousin, Robert John Aumann.  Clara Eltman entered our religious school at age 9, having arrived here with her single-mother.  Joan studied for conversion and both mother and daughter became Jewish together.  Clara celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Neveh Shalom and was determined to deepen her commitment.  I visited her when she studied in a women’s Yeshiva in Jerusalem. She remained in Israel and made Aliyah.  She married another American and together they created an observant Jewish home.  They were living with her husband’s grandfather when the phone call arrived that Dr. Aumann had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize.  The young couple immediately assumed secretarial responsibilities, acknowledging letters of congratulations from around the world.  Today Clara and her husband and their three children live in the modern city of Modi’in.  Two years ago on a trip to Israel I made it a point to visit Clara at her home.  What a special treat to visit a young person who I have known since the age of 9 and to see her having made her permanent home in Israel, happily married and raising a family.  Joan Kelsey, Clara’s mom, remains a Neveh Shalom member, living in Tillamook, visiting her daughter and her grandchildren as often as possible.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Elul: the Month of Personal Reflection

Through the entirety of the month of Elul we are obligated to consider where we have been in order to set our direction for the year soon to begin.  We are to engage during Elul in that self-evaluation and self-scrutiny we do our best to avoid during the other months of the year.  It’s difficult work to face up to our limitations, to our irritating habits, to our worst self.  But that is what our tradition calls on us to do.

The name Elul is made up of four Hebrew letters which we are told represent the first letters of the words in the statement, Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li/ I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, taken directly from Shir haShirim, the Biblical Song of Songs.  The rabbis interpreted the entire Song of Songs metaphorically as a statement of the intimate relationship between God and the Jewish people.

So in this most intimate of relationships, how does God perceive the role of human beings?  Abraham Joshua Heschel, in “God In Search of Man” gives the following reply:

“How should man, a being created in the likeness of God, live?  What way of living is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of life?  It is a problem which man has always been anxious to ignore.  Upon the pavement of the Roman city of Timgat an inscription was found which reads: ‘To hunt, to bathe, to gamble, to laugh, that is to live.’  Judaism is a reminder of the grandeur and earnestness of living.

“In what dimension of existence does man become aware of the grandeur and earnestness of living?...

“It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and bestow it upon others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tensions.  It is in the employment of his will, not in reflection, that he meets his own self as it is, not as he should like it to be.  In his deeds man exposes his immanent as well as his suppressed desires, spelling even that which he cannot apprehend.  What he may not dare to think, he often utters in deeds.  The heart is revealed in his deeds.”

Monday, August 17, 2015

How Is This Elul Different From All Other Eluls?

The pressure of High Holy Day preparation is enormous.  As rabbis we are conscious that hundreds of our congregants will sit before us to hear a series of messages that must resonate, that speak to our lonely souls, that might assist us in repairing a painful strained relation, that will help us make sense of our broken world.  Rabbis search for the perfect anecdote or personal experience to which the majority will nod assent as an opening to broach a difficult topic. 

Protestant clergy consider themselves in the role of the ancient prophets, to comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable.   Though as rabbis we do not see ourselves as prophets, we nevertheless desire to pierce the soul, to grab at least a few who can reconsider, who can engage in serious introspection.  We hope to raise consciousness about life, about the world, about the contributions each of us must make to live a fulfilled life, about evil and the potential for human compassion and righteousness.

We will address these our congregants on both days of Rosh Hashanah, on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur Day and prepare separate talks for each.  As the days draw nearer rabbis tease/taunt each other with how our preparation is going.  I have experienced nightmares of standing before the gathered flock without a note in front of me, not knowing how to excuse my lack of preparation.

As rabbis we speak publicly virtually every day: at Shabbat and festival services, at funerals, at lectures and community events.  We write articles for the monthly bulletin, letters of various types.  But the High Holy Days is the Big Kahuna.

Every year since graduating from rabbinical school 39 years ago, I have spent summers tortured by the prospect of the holy day’s approach.  And life doesn’t stop.  People die and their families need to be consoled.  Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates need help with their speeches.  New members must be welcomed and the beginning of religious school requires our attention.

Well, this year is different and I must admit to some mixed feelings.  I retired this June 30 to my new role as rabbi emeritus, and will celebrate the High Holy Days this year with children and grandchildren in New York.  I am thrilled.  August is not pressure filled.  I went fruit and vegetable picking with visiting family yesterday without an ounce of guilt.  Nevertheless after all these years, how will it feel to sit in the pews in a community not my own?  If I were to address the congregation, would I address the discomfort of increasing strains between loyalty as an American and love for Israel?  Would I touch on the rabbis who have been sent to jail for egregious violations?  What does the enormous attitude change concerning same-sex relations mean in terms of the inviolability of values?  Have we truly made any progress in race relations in this country since the Civil Rights movement?

This year I will be on the receiving end and hopefully that too will be inspiring.