Not letting bitterness mar our souls

12 October 2007

(my d’rash for tonight…)

Each month on the Hebrew calendar contains at least one holiday – except Cheshvan, the month we are entering with this Rosh Chodesh. The month is formally called “Mar Cheshvan,” usually interpreted as “Bitter Cheshvan” (think maror). The month is bitter, the explanation goes, because it has no celebratory days. The bitterness must especially sting since Cheshvan follows Tishrei, which is filled with the holiday smorgasbord: Rosh HaShanah, the Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

But there’s another interpretation of “Mar Cheshvan” which I heard as a child. “Mar” doesn’t just mean “bitter,” it’s also the Hebrew word for “Mister.” In this interpretation, “Mar” is an honorific, a title bestowed upon “Mr. Cheshvan” to remind the month – and ourselves – that we value it as much as any other month, and that it doesn’t need holidays to be important.

Mar Cheshvan is breathing room, a chance to catch our breath after the whirlwind of chagim we’ve experienced. It’s the pause between the notes in the orchestration of our lives. Mar Cheshvan offers a moment to reflect: have we started the year the way we want? Have we set the proper tone for the months to come? Tishrei is pomp and circumstance, dress-up and heightened reality. Mar Cheshvan is real life, every day-ness, who we are rather than who we’re trying to present to the world.

In Malachim Alef, First Kings, we read of Eliyahu’s encounter with G-d when G-d calls him to “Come out…and stand on the mountain before G-d.” There was a mighty wind – but G-d was not in the wind; then an earthquake, but G-d was not in the earthquake; then a fire, but G-d was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice. G-d doesn’t need fiery, dramatic moments; G-d is there in the still, small voice, in the quiet moment after the storm, in the Cheshvan after Tishrei.

In 1998, I lost three of my grandparents in a span of seven months. First, my Grandpa died just before Pesach; then my Nana, over the summer; and finally my Grandma, on the 30th of Tishrei, so her yahrtzeit was last night and today. Both my parents were very close to their in-laws as well as to their own parents, so they both stood for Kaddish for the full 11 months for each of my grandparents. Since the deaths occurred over seven months, that means my parents stood for Kaddish every day for eighteen months, a full year and a half. They finally got to sit down for Kaddish beginning on erev second day Rosh HaShanah. Of course, that was followed by Yizkor on Yom Kippur, and Yizkor again on Shemini Atzeret, and then my Grandma’s first yahrtzeit just a week later.

But then Tishrei ended, and Cheshvan began, and my parents went to Israel for five weeks to help take care of my sister’s then three-month-old baby girl. It was a powerful reminder that life continues and begins anew, that moments of intensity are followed by moments of calmness. It was Cheshvan that gave them respite.

I may be a bit biased. My Bat Mitzvah was seventeen years ago, Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Mar Cheshvan, 5751. Ever since, I’ve felt an affinity for this month that is so often overlooked and marginalized, assumed to be bitter. But I believe that “Mr. Cheshvan” holds his head up high, and comforts those who are struggling not to give into the bitterness of their own lives.


Beat poetry hip-hop poetess goddess

6 October 2007

Alright, here’s another rambling collection of not-necessarily-related thoughts. Welcome to the randomness that is my mind.

First things first — it occurred to me after my last post that why I’m pulling back from Event Guy is that it feels too familiar. Several dates in a short period of time, rapidly-developing affection…in the blink of an eye I’m engaged, and a few blinks later I’m not. I realize that Event Guy is not my ex, and it’s a different situation, but it feels similar and therefore scary. So while I will continue to go out with him (fifth date is Monday night), I am also looking around on JDate to see if there’s anyone else who might catch my eye.

And mud-wrestling guy has written me again. I was looking at old JDate e-mails (apparently, when you move JDate messages to the Trash folder, JDate just leaves them there forever). It turns out this guy wrote me in 2004 and asked what sounded good for a first date: drinks, dinner, drinks + dinner, or mud-wrestling. (It would seem this is a long-standing obsession…) I sent the auto-decline response (which I don’t think JDate even has anymore), to which he wrote back, “Isn’t it interesting how ‘picky’ sounds a lot like ‘BITCHY’?” He seems like a keeper, I tell ya.

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In other news, the Mexican version of my “Chocolate Simplicity” cake was a big hit, especially the tequila glaze. Yum. For the lunch I was invited to today, I made a very simple tofu dish which people loved and wanted the recipe for. It’s embarrassingly easy:

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Easy Yummy Tofu

2 packages (10 or 12 oz each) of firm tofu
Mikee Wasabi Teriyaki Sauce
red pepper flakes (optional)

Rinse and drain tofu; squeeze out as much excess water as possible. Cut into cubes or strips. Put in baking dish and pour in enough sauce to cover. Refrigerate 12-24 hours.

Remove from refrigerator, allow to return to room temperature. Broil 10-12 minutes or bake at 500 degrees 15 minutes (broiling was my intention, but the glass bowl I’d used didn’t fit in the broiler, so I had to bake it instead).

Slice or julienne (using a mandoline if you want) carrots and zucchini and toss with tofu. Serve warm or cold.

Since the sauce doesn’t seem to have any of the spiciness I associate with wasabi, I added red pepper flakes. Next time I might mix actual wasabi in with the sauce before pouring it over the tofu.

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I’ve been catching up on my TiVo. Yay Numb3rs, still my favorite show. I thought the first epidsode of Bionic Woman was ridiculous, but I will give it a second try. Loved Journeyman — I missed the first ep but watched on NBC’s website, then watched the second, and I think it seems pretty cool. I’m not intrigued by the Pushing Daisies premise, so I’m not watching that; it sounds like that will be right up there with Lost, Heroes, Gray’s Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives as one of those cultural-phenomenon shows that I just didn’t care about. And you know what? I’m OK with that. On my best friend’s recommendation, I’m watching Big Bang Theory, which is fun because I get the jokes. It’s the first sitcom I’ve watched in years.

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On Simchat Torah, the festival where we literally “rejoice with Torah,” there are seven hakafot in which the Torah is paraded around while everyone dances and sings around it. Each hakafa is associated with certain Biblical characters. At the minyan I go to for Simchat Torah, each hakafa is preceded by a d’rash (teaching) about the relevant Biblical folks. This year, I gave the d’rash for the fourth hakafa, associated with Moshe and Devorah.

I decided to try something new. So I wrote the following and had everyone tap out the rhythm for me, and I performed it as an “interpretive d’rash,” and did my best to fill the space with it. People seemed to like it, so here’s the text. Enjoy! (Oh, and the title of this post was how a friend of mine described me afterward…)

“Of Bushes and Trees”

walking along
in the hot Egypt sun
i open my eyes
and then –- i see

there’s a bush that is burning
but it isn’t consumed
i have to look closer
then a Voice says to me

“take off your shoes!
this place, it is holy
I’m your ancestors’ G-d
now listen to Me.

“My people, they suffer
I’ve seen their distresses
I’ve heard their lamenting
their cries have all reached Me.

“there’s a land I have promised
with honey and milk
so go see the pharaoh;
set My people free.”

but i am afraid
i know i don’t speak well
i’m already in trouble
they won’t listen to me!

when they ask, “who has sent you?”
what name shall i give them?
the Voice gives an answer:
“I’ll be what I’ll be.”

this was the start, then
a bush that was burning
a bush no one noticed
well, no one but me

“but why just a bush?”
some people might wonder
“why not something flashy
the whole world could see?”

a bush might be lowly
but could you create one?
it’s still only G-d
Who makes bushes and trees.

and under a tree
sits a judge and a prophet
a mother of israel
a leader who sings

sisera threatened
barak needed guidance
he gave up the glory
of conquering kings

he needed a woman
to lead and command him
so into a woman’s hands
would sisera fall.

devorah, she summoned
the twelve tribes of israel
but of those, only six
heard and heeded the call.

the enemy threatens
the prophetess calls you
how can you ignore her?
your hearts should be strong!

awaken, awaken!
devorah did call
awaken, awaken!
and utter a song!

the tribes who refused her
refused G-d’s commandment
devorah rebuked them
as cowards, each one

but those who fought bravely
devorah praised freely:
let those who love G-d
shine bright as the sun.

devorah reminds us
that judges and prophets
may need iron fists
beneath their velvet glove

devorah reminds us
the children of israel
need prophets, but also
a mother’s tough love.

Shades of gray

9 April 2007

[This is the d’rash I gave this past Friday night at services.]

One of the many things I love about Judaism is that it recognizes shades of gray.

Black and white is easy. In westerns, good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats. The good guys eventually shoot the bad guys, and that’s a happy ending. Similarly, if you smash something precious and shatter it to pieces, that’s bad.

But that’s not how Judaism sees things.

I realized this year that my favorite concept in the Haggadah is actually a teaching from the Talmud. For those of you playing along at home, it’s Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 39b:

When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. G-d silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”

My Haggadah, which is actually the Reform Haggadah, explicates the point in what I consider beautiful language:

Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt, and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe, as the wine within the cup of joy is lessened when we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.

The pouring out of wine for the ten plagues precedes the second cup of wine. The promise signified in the second cup is, “V’hitzalti etchem mei-avodatam,” “I will deliver you from their bondage.” G-d isn’t promising us, “I will crush them and destroy them.” It’s a promise of deliverance for us, and I think G-d would have much preferred it if Pharaoh had never hardened his own heart against the Children of Israel, and if our redemption could have come without bloodshed. The downfall of our enemy is not something to celebrate – this, our sages teach, is why we don’t recite the full Hallel (psalms of praise) each day of Pesach, as we do on Sukkot. For the second through eighth days of Pesach, we recite a shortened version of Hallel, as a reminder to ourselves that our liberation had a heavy price.

The Torah reading for Shabbat Pesach comes from Parshat Ki Tissa. It begins shortly after Moshe, coming down the mountain with the tablets of stone on which G-d had inscribed the Ten Commandments, saw the people worshipping the Golden Calf. Moshe, of course, hurled the tablets down and shattered them. G-d didn’t punish Moshe or even rebuke him for his action. In fact, just after our reading begins, G-d agrees to Moshe’s request to have G-d’s presence pass by Moshe. This is the most intimate encounter any human being has ever had with G-d.

There is a midrash that teaches that the broken pieces of the tablets were placed side by side in the ark, in the Mishkan. What was holy yesterday must still be treated with reverence today, as the Etz Chaim commentary says, explaining why the Kohanim (high priests) had to exercise such care with the ashes left after sacrifices were burned upon the altar. And from this, the rabbis teach that similarly, we must respect our elders even if they are “broken” because they’ve forgotten what they once knew.

The death of an enemy is not something to be celebrated. Our enemies, like us, were created B’tzelem Elokim, in the Divine image. They, too, have a Divinen spark within them; they, too, are G-d’s creation. There is holiness all around us, even in things that appear mundane, broken, or inimical to us. This Shabbat of Pesach, let us try to recognize that which is holy, and treat it with the reverence it deserves.