This week I was learning, through Skype, with my study partner/hevruta/חברותה (Rabbi Rami Schwartzer--some of you may have met him over Shmini Atzeret and Simhat Torah), and I was lamenting how many Jews, oddly, in my opinion, sought a Jewish life steeped in sadness. Everything was about grief and struggle. For sure these feelings are a part of life, but this should not be the ideal, and certainly not the main avenue used to travel through life. I mentioned to my friend, “this isn’t what this is supposed to be about! There are way more feast days than fast days in the Jewish calendar!” Without skipping a beat, Rabbi Rami responded to me, “there are fifty-two of them to be exact.” Now, I am not a mathematician (I got into this business for many reasons, but one was that I was told that there would be no math!), but fifty-two seemed like a high number to me. So, I asked, “Fifty-two?!?” Then, his smile came through on my computer screen and he told me, “yes, that is how many Shabboses we have.” I had been thinking about “major” holidays when I made my “feast day” comment, but, he was totally right when he counted the way that he did.
The highlight of last week’s Parsha was the giving and receiving of the Ten Commandments. In them, we are commanded to “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God/זָכוֹר אֶת-יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ. שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל-מְלַאכְתֶּךָ. וְיוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי--שַׁבָּת לַה’ אֱלֹקיךָ”(Ex. 20: 7-9). And in this week’s Parsha, Parshat Mishpatim, we are given an explanation for this command. “For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and...be refreshed/שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲשֶׂה מַעֲשֶׂיךָ, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי תִּשְׁבֹּת--לְמַעַן יָנוּחַ שׁוֹרְךָ וַחֲמֹרֶךָ וְיִנָּפֵשׁ...” (Ex. 23:12).
The Sfas Emes teaches that this rest on Shabbat, the cessation of mundane action is what allows for the rest of the week to exist. Shabbat is supposed to be a taste of the next world/m’ein olam ha’ba/מעין עולם הבא. So, the Sfas Emes asks, how could it be possible to receive illumination in this world that comes from the next world? They are opposites that would appear difficult to mix. One way to look at this is to say that we work hard all week, in this world, and then we are rewarded with Shabbat to rest and spend time together in peace. That this is the meaning of the verse, “As a lily among brambles/כְּשׁוֹשַׁנָּה בֵּין הַחוֹחִים” (Song of Songs 2:2). All week, we work hard to find those beautiful flowers in our world, so that when Shabbat comes, we have a bouquet ready to enjoy. The problem is, how do we know how to find these holy sparks, these beautiful buds? By resting and enjoying Shabbat--coming to shul, eating meals and spending time with family and friends, studying Torah--it changes the way that we look at the world. Those moments of paradise teach us what a spiritual life can be. And when Shabbat ends, our ability to see beyond the mundane has improved. The intermission of Shabbat gives us the strength to do our work, which is uncover the Divine during the days of the week so that everyone can see it.
Often, I think of the week as leading up to Shabbos--that Shabbos is the pinnacle that I must work up towards. And there is plenty of truth in that. But this week, I am hoping that we can see Shabbat as only the beginning. Let us focus on what we love about Shabbat and gain from it. How can we see that during the week? Our challenge is to bring our Shabbos reality into the rest of our lives. If we can do that, than the number of feast days will only go up.
One of my favorite comedians growing up was Denis Leary. I was exposed to him at a young age, and my friends and I fell in love with his style before we ever actually understood many of his more adult jokes. In a late-90s comedy special, Leary makes a joke about new trends in health and fitness. He says he understands people that lift weights and subscribe to more traditional workout regimens. However, Leary does not understand why people would ever use the stairmaster. He mocks, “Have we turned into gerbils, ladies and gentlemen?!? People are paying money to go into a health club and walk up invisible steps over and over again for an hour and a half. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m goin’ up!’” I have to admit, I too have never quite understood this particular workout, but this week, I started to think about it more seriously.
This week, in Parshat Yitro, we recall the story of what happened at Mt. Sinai. As Moses our Teacher/משה רבינו tells the people of Israel that which God has commanded, “The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do’/וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל-הָעָם יַחְדָּו וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה” (Ex. 19:8). And in next week’s Parsha, we are told, “Then he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will listen’/וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.” (Ex. 24:7). This concept, “we will do, and [then] we will listen/na’aseh v’nishma/נעשה ונשמע, has become a banner for model behavior in our tradition, and it is a response that makes God very happy to be in a unique relationship with us as a people.
The Chernobyler Rebbe asks, how is it possible to do before you know what to do? And, why is God so pleased with our response? He explains that “we will do/na’aseh/נעשה” represents our ability to stay connected to God, even when we fall from the places we once were. This is difficult and it takes hard work, yet is an essential truth that we must try to carry with us at all times. Even when I am flat on the ground, troubled by my struggles, looking up at the place where I just was, I have to know that God is on the ground with me--there no is place that is empty, the whole world is filled with God’s glory/melo kol ha’aretz kvodo/מלא כל הארץ כבודו. It might feel lonely down on the ground, but if we can sense, even a little bit, that we are not alone, it can give us the push to get up, and start climbing back up again, step by step. The Chernobyler Rebbe says this is an essential Israelite behavior--the reason why God is so pleased is that we never separate, even when we fall. The wifi may be weaker on the bottom floor, but we need to remember that there is always a signal. As we climb higher and higher, we will come to clearly understand (listen/nishma/נשמע) that which we sensed below--that we were never alone at all.
As humans, we struggle daily with various challenges. It may feel that every morning we have fallen a bit from where we were the day before. This is a difficult reality to face. And, it can also be an exciting opportunity. Before we receive the Ten Commandments, we are told that “on this day they came to the wilderness of Sinai/בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי” (Ex. 19:1). “On this day”, according to the Rabbis (BT Brachot 63b) means this day, today! Our daily engagement with God and Torah, though a constant struggle, should also feel exciting. Living every day brings new experiences; new insights and understanding. Every day should feel like the day that we received Torah, filling us with joy and vitality. As I reach each new step, even if I have been there before, it feels like the first time that I was there. When we are at the bottom, the question before us is, “where are you going?” This week, lets us look to each other and remember that we are all in this together. Then we can smile and answer, “I’m goin’ up!”
When I was in middle school at Solomon Schechter, I used to look forward to this week’s parsha, Parshat BeShalah, every year. No, it was not altruistic. I was not a twelve year old who was obsessed with national freedom, which is the major event that occurs as we cross the Red Sea in this parsha. I, like many other youngsters, had (and still have) a sweet tooth. And to commemorate the event at the end of the parsha, God feeding Israel with Manna, our prayer leader/Rosh Tefilla, would give us each a honey glazed donut to give us a sense of what Manna could have tasted like. This sugary miracle came once a year. As a child, the connection to the text seemed to be enough to gain from this edible lesson. But, now, I am hungry for something more.
The Torah tells us, “And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations.’/וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן קַח צִנְצֶנֶת אַחַת וְתֶן-שָׁמָּה מְלֹא-הָעֹמֶר מָן; וְהַנַּח אֹתוֹ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם (Ex. 16:33)...” And the previous verse reads “Moses said, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: “Let an omer of it be kept throughout your generations, in order that they may see the food with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.” ’/ לְמַעַן יִרְאוּ אֶת-הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר הֶאֱכַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּהוֹצִיאִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם (Ex. 16:32).”
The Me’or Einayim, The Chernobyler Rebbe, pushes us to consider the deeper lesson of the Manna. The verse, “Do not eat the bread of the one with an evil eye/אַל-תִּלְחַם אֶת לֶחֶם רַע עָיִן (Prov. 23:6)”, teaches us that while we eat, we are battling our evil inclination/yeitzer ha’ra/יצר הרע (bread in Hebrew is lehem/לחם, and to battle is lihilahem/להלחם). It is easy to become engaged in eating for its deliciousness and overdo it. And when we are only focused on the physical, we can forget where food really comes from. It is not ours by our own doing, but by the pure grace of God (BT Mo’ed Kattan 28a). It teaches us the true meaning of the verse, “she brings her food from far away/מִמֶּרְחָק תָּבִיא לַחְמָהּ (Proverbs 31:14, from ‘Eishet Hayil’).” God’s Presence/The Shechina/שכינה delivers our food from beyond. According to the Sfas Emes, the collecting and eating of the Manna is only to prepare us to receive and fill ourselves of Torah--which is why in the Dayenu song on Passover we first get the Manna, then Shabbat, and then Torah! The Chernobyler Rebbe wants us to see that our food comes from a distance. And the Sfas Emes teaches that the food comes with a greater purpose.
As a lover of food, this is often difficult for me. I often get lost in the moment of enjoying good food with friends and family. For God’s sake, I am still thinking about a donut I ate twenty years ago! And, yet, this week, I am challenging myself, and everyone, to think about how lucky we are to have food. We need to challenge ourselves to become more and more aware of how lucky we are to have a God that graces us with the ability to have scrumptious Shabbat meals. If we can develop this awareness, then no matter what we put in our mouths, it will truly taste heavenly.
Earlier this week, I was reading a food review in The Wall Street Journal. Musician/Author John Darnielle was asked to review a new ultra-strong Rum. After thinking of different ways to utilize the drink, he decided to try something more difficult. Darnielle, “turned to Dolores Casella, whose “A World of Baking” is an all-time classic, and looked up “rum” in the index. There, he saw a recipe for Rum Chiffon Pie I, in response to which he said “Oh hell yes” loud enough for the neighbors to hear....But Rum Chiffon Pie I is not any standard cake recipe, or pie recipe for that matter, and this is where our little rumrunner hit rough waters. Fruit pies are easy; custard pies are harder. If the recipe calls for gelatin and you don’t want to use any, which I didn’t, they’re harder still. So I combed through the rest of my cookbooks, and I scoured the internet for substitutes, eventually settling on a combination of tapioca and corn starches. And while I suspect that if it’d been small-pearl tapioca instead of tapioca starch, my pie would have won several awards in contests it hadn’t even been entered in, there were no pearls to hand, and the custard did not cust. I was left with a pie shell filled with a dark yellowish unfinished-pudding-thick sauce. This may not sound very appetizing to you, but the aroma was positively intoxicating, the stuff of dreams. It owed this almost entirely to the rum, which had been heated in a double-boiler with sugar until the kitchen took on the character of a mythical pirates’ brig where the pirates were all secretly swell people who’d never hurt a living soul, just sitting around singing mid-tempo dirges all day. I refrigerated the non-pie overnight, and in the morning I spooned a bunch of it over some vanilla ice cream.”
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Bo, we are given the mitzvah of The New Moon Festival/Rosh Hodesh/ראש חודש. God instructs Moses, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you/הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים, רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה (Ex. 12:2).” Rashi, quoting an earlier Midrash, teaches that Moses had difficulty (נתקשה) in calculating the beginning of the new month. However, Rabbi Levi Yizthak of Berdichev sees something else happening in that Midrash. The difficulty was not a passive lack of understanding on Moses’ part. He was actively causing difficulty and not wanting to accept this mitzvah. By accepting a mitzvah that is attached to the waxing and waning of the moon, he is accepting that the moon is still diminished from its original state (as the Rabbis tell of the moon’s punishment to be decreased in size in the b. Talmud Hulin 60b). Taking on this mitzvah means that we accept that the world is imperfect, and that redemption has not yet come (may it come speedily and in our days).
Yet, ultimately, Moses accepts this mitzvah, as we know from our routine and recent celebration of the New Month. It is often difficult to accept that we live in a world that is not the world we want to live in. Yet, we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Sometimes, a botched pie is delicious, even if it does not look the way we want it to. And despite our lackings and imperfections, thanks to God, good things happen all around us in every moment/hamehadaseh b’tuvo bchol yom tamid/המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד (Page 107 in Siddur Sim Shalom). This week, let us open our eyes to the miraculous and renew our sense of wonder in a world that is often difficult, yet never lacking in beauty if we can accept it.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.