Which do you choose — blessings or curses?


As we journey through the month of Elul, it is customary to comment on the weekly Torah portions in light of the upcoming Days of Awe. Parshat Ki Tavo is
read a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, and its overriding theme is one that we encounter several times during the High Holy Days: blessing vs. curse.

“And all of these blessings shall come upon you, and overtake you, if you listen to the word of God” (Deuteronomy 28:2) Moses says as his introduction to a beautiful description of blessings presented as a reward for following the covenant with God. By way of contrast, Moses also warns: “If you will not listen to the voice of God … all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deuteronomy 28:15), and for the next 53 verses Moses describes a list of dark and devastating curses as punishment for abandoning the word of God.

This “blessing vs. curse” motif, so prevalent on the High Holy Days, is uniquely expressed in Sephardic customs. For instance, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy opens the evening service with a poem whose refrain is “May this year and all of its curses come to an end, and may this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning.”

When we come home from Arvit, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is the rooting out of curse and the aspiration for blessing. We eat pumpkin or gourd, which in Aramaic is called kra (in Hebrew the word for “tear up” is also kra), and in a play on words, we pray that God will “tear up [kra] any evil decrees against us, and let our merits instead be read before God.”

We eat pieces of a fish or lamb’s head, and in a blessing lifted straight from Moses’ blessings in this week’s parasha, we say “May we always be the head, and not the tail” (see Deuteronomy 28:13 — “And God will make you the head, and not the tail”).

One of the most popular expressions of “blessing vs. curse” on the High Holy Days is the image of God seated with two books open before Him: The Book of Life (Blessing) and the Book of Death (Curse). Our liturgy says “Oh God, the Books of Life and Death are opened before You today.”

In the Sephardic tradition, as an expression of alienating ourselves from curses, the custom is that when the hazzan chants this prayer, he changes it to “Oh God, the Good Book of Life is open before You today.”

I guess we assume that God does not have a High Holy Days machzor, or, perhaps it is the outgrowth of another custom, one associated with this week’s parasha. When reading the sixth aliyah, which begins with the blessings and then transitions into the curses, the custom is that when the curses begin, the hazzan lowers his voice and reads the entire lengthy section in a whispering voice. As much as the “Book of Death” or the curses are clear and present in the machzor and in the Torah, it’s unpleasant to chant them in a loud voice.

Throughout Moses’ dark description of curses, the theme of enemies is prevalent. This, too, is part of the curses we wish to obliterate on Rosh Hashanah.

Around the same Sephardic table, the Rosh Hashanah seder also includes dates, leeks and beets. All three foods are eaten accompanied by prayers for the termination of our enemies. The Hebrew word for date is tamar, and before eating the date we say “She-yitamu oyvenu” (May our enemies be consumed; yitamu — consumed — sounding like tamar). The Aramaic term for leeks is karti, and before eating the leeks we say “She-yikartu oyvenu” (May our enemies be cut off; yikartu — cut off — sounding like karti). The Aramaic word for beets is silka, and before eating the beets we say “She-yisalku oyvenu” (May our enemies disappear; yisalku — disappear — sounding like silka). These beautiful (and tasty) customs reflect our innermost desire to begin a year void of some of life’s most brutal curses: strife, conflict and war.

The section describing the blessings continuously repeats the word mitzvot, associating the performance of God’s commandments (mitzvot) with a life of blessing. The Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder concludes with this theme, as we eat pomegranate seeds and sesame seeds mixed with sugar, both prefaced by saying “May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds” or “May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds and sweet as sugar.”

This fitting end to the seder is a reflection of our deepest yearnings to live a life filled with the blessings that can come when performing God’s mitzvot.

As I read this parasha going into the High Holy Days, I feel blessed with many things, one of which is my rich Sephardic heritage. Even if you’re not Sephardic, you might want to try bringing these blessings into your own home. It’s certainly more diverse than a mere apple dipped in honey.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Rabbi Pinto’s miracles


Growing up in Morocco, the word “miracle” was a familiar one. I remember how my parents, especially my mother, would bring up the great Moroccan mystics at alltimes of the day — either to pray for a miracle, or to thank them for one.

No miracle was too small. If a plate would break and a child was not hurt, or if a plate would break and a child did get hurt, whatever it was, mothers would immediately call out to one of the sages. Their names were our security blankets. For centuries, they provided a protective, spiritual cocoon for the Jews of Morocco.

These sages were different from the sages of the Bible or the Talmud; they were the sages of the hood. They were gone, but they were not long gone. You knew someone who had kissed their hand. Your father would tell you about a miracle that his own father had experienced with a certain sage. Somewhere in the neighborhood lived the grandson or grandnephew of another great mystic. We would sleep in tents at their burial sites during their yahrzeit. Their pictures were on our walls.

You could almost touch them.

Today, one of the great Moroccan sages, Rabbi Chaim Pinto of the city of Mogador, has a living presence right here in our own hood, on Pico Boulevard, just east of Robertson. It’s at a little shul called the Pinto Center.

It’s not uncommon for a Moroccan synagogue to be named after a well-known sage (a mile north on Fairfax Avenue is another Moroccan shul named after the great Baba Sale). What’s unusual here is that the heart and soul of the Pinto Center is a Pinto himself. He is Rabbi Yaacov Pinto, a direct descendant of the Pinto dynasty.

But I haven’t told you about the miracle yet.

Rabbi Yaacov opened the synagogue in the mid-1980s and built a thriving little community center of prayer and learning, attracting a high-intensity blend of Israeli, French and Persian Jews. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Rabbi Yaacov developed an irresistible urge to return to Israel, where he had been born and raised.

For a shul that revolved around the charisma and leadership of one man, this was a spiritual earthquake. Nevertheless, after much agonizing, Rabbi Yaacov and his family moved in the summer of 2003 to Ashdod, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv with a large Moroccan community, including the rabbi’s mother and several of his siblings.

(I knew Rabbi Yaacov well at the time, and from what I gather, the pressures of fundraising were starting to burn him out; he wanted a better education for his kids, and, like he said to me once, he simply missed the Holy Land).

It didn’t take long for the Pinto shul to unravel. Despite Rabbi Yaacov ‘s best efforts — he came back every six weeks or so and was here for all the holidays and stayed in constant contact with his people in Los Angeles — the Pinto Center was losing its soul. When the Shabbat minyan dwindled from more than 100 to fewer than 20, the end was near.

Rabbi Yaacov prayed to his ancestors, as he often does. That’s when an idea came to him: He would create an intimate “candle room” in the synagogue, where people could come meditate and light candles in the presence of the great Pinto tzadikim, and pray for anything they wished. Well, the word got out and they came from all over to light candles, and I guess somebody must have prayed for the revival of the Pinto shul, because that is precisely what happened next.

The “miracle” took about a year, but slowly the Pinto shul came back to life. It’s not a coincidence that Rabbi Yaacov chose as the ba’al habayit, or master of the house, someone whose family has been connected to the Pinto family for three generations. When this highly enthusiastic man, Maurice Perez, talks about the Pinto family, he sort of transfers the goose bumps over to the listener. His defining family story is when his mother and grandmother got an impromptu blessing on a street in Casablanca from one of the Pinto sages. This story happened 70 years ago, but when you hear him tell it, you’d think it happened yesterday.

Maurice, who joined the shul in 1997 and who currently does the chazanut, decided with Rabbi Yaacov to bring in a teacher (“Rabbi Raffi”) to give Torah classes during the week, and to speak on Friday nights and during the third meal of Shabbat. Maurice formed a small, core group of supporters to cover all expenses, which helped reduce the stress level and bring a general harmony to the shul. They upgraded the interior, with new seating built in Israel, and a new women’s section that features an ethereal, see-through crimson curtain for a mechitzah.

Rabbi Yaacov himself increased his visits to Los Angeles, but he did more than that, too. He made the shul think “bigger than itself,” and got it involved with two projects in the Holy Land.The first was a “supermarket” for the needy, which Rabbi Yaacov started in Ashdod and which has garnered attention for its unique approach: a system based on points, where the poor can keep their dignity while “shopping” for donated food. This project, called C.H.A.I., is a big source of pride for the Pinto shul, as you can see from the pictures on the wall.

The second is a recent decision to have a sister shul in Hebron, where the Patriarchs of the Bible are buried. A few months ago, the Pinto shul donated a Torah scroll, and they are planning regular activities and visits between the shuls.

And then, of course, there’s the dafina.

The Old Switcheroo


In Parshat Toldot, we encounter the remarkable event described in Genesis 27, as Yitzhak prepares in blindness to confer an eternal blessing on one of his twin sons.

He wants to extend that blessing to the viscerally evil Esav, who nevertheless always has acted with the utmost respect for his father. Esav has Yitzhak figured out, and Yitzhak really loves him. By contrast, Rivkah is devoted uniquely to the simpler, gentler, less charismatic Yaakov.

Why the dichotomy? We have met Rivkah as a kind, young lady, offering water to slake the thirsts of Avraham’s servant, Eliezer, and his camels. We have heard a midrash that her father, Betuel, attempted to poison Eliezer’s food but died himself when an angel sent by God switched the plates. Later, we have learned of Rivkah’s difficulty in conceiving and of her travails in bearing these particular twins to term.

We further will learn that her brother is worse than her dad. Besides her murderous father, Rivkah’s brother, Lavan, is a prototype for Simon Legree. Lavan will squeeze some 20 years near-slavery out of his nephew and son-in-law, Yaakov, after switching daughters on Yaakov’s wedding night, pulling the beautiful and desired Rachel out and slipping the sad-looking Leah in her stead. Even as Lavan steals from Yaakov for two decades, his own daughters will lament that he has stolen all he could from them, too, treating them as veritable strangers. That’s Rivkah’s bro.

So it emerges that although she is an incredibly sweet soul, Rivkah also grew up in a household with dramatic issues of dysfunctionality at its core. To put it simply, she grew up street-smart.

On the other hand, Yitzhak was intensively protected. Not only were his parents the progenitors and founding patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people, but they further protected the spiritual elevations of their home by expelling the Yishmaels and Hagars who threatened Yitzhak’s innocence.

The home was sterilized for spirituality, cleansed of any foreign influence. As a further protection, Avraham virtually hand picked Yitzhak’s wife by setting guidelines when he dispatched Eliezer, his servant, to find a suitable match:

1) No one from the surrounding environs, thus no one who will bring along in-laws and other corrupting and disruptive influences;

2) Only someone from Avraham’s own birthland in Charan, assuring both that the wife would be alien to the local environment, thus impeding assimilation into the morally perverse Canaanite culture, and that another set of prospective in-laws would be kept far out of reach.

Thus, Rivkah was raised in a streetwise milieu, while Yitzhak was extremely insulated. So Esav easily played to Yitzhak’s innocence.

By contrast, Rivkah had the tools to read Esav like a roadmap. It then devolved on her to draw on her own street-smarts to save the day, to move her own intensely protected son, Yaakov, to the fore. For this, she drew on a tactic that seems unique to her family — the switcheroo.

Few families practice the kind of prevalent switching that seems to have been endemic in the Betuel-Lavan-Rivkah family. Betuel switches the plates, trying to poison Eliezer. Lavan switches and disguises his daughters on Yaakov’s wedding night. And Rivkah switches and disguises Yaakov for the blessing.

In time, as the family legends grow, Yaakov’s sons one day will deceive him with animal blood they will say is Yosef’s blood on the precious striped coat. And then Yosef will disguise himself from his brothers in the Pharaoh’s palace.

In the end, is the switching of the brothers justified to assure that Yitzhak’s blessing was conferred properly? The commentators are not all of one mind. What if Rivkah had tried reasoning with Yitzhak, even months and years earlier, trying to use her street-smarts to enlighten him, in his protected spiritual innocence, as to Esav’s true character of evil? Perhaps she did try unsuccessfully, and we do not know. Perhaps not.

Yitzhak ultimately is satisfied that he acted correctly in blessing Yaakov; he reiterates Yaakov’s blessing later with full scienter. But consider the price: Esav feels cheated and pledges to murder Yaakov as soon as his father dies.

Rivkah, hearing of the intent, desperately persuades Yitzhak to dispatch Yaakov to Lavan’s house to find a wife. Yaakov ends up exiled for 20 years, victimized incessantly through two decades by an uncle and father-in-law so heinous, that the haggadah recounts that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh.

It is not clear whether Rivkah had an effective alternative to switching and disguising Yaakov to obtain Yitzhak’s eternal blessing. But it does seem that the idea of switching may well have come from the culture of her upbringing, reared in the house of Betuel and Lavan. When in doubt, switch them out.

Sometimes it is useful for each of us to pause, too, and to wonder what practices and shticklach we practice in our homes, in full view of our children, with the attendant consideration of whether these behavioral quirks and anomalies that we sanction as normative and convenient will be passed down through our children and theirs in generations to come.

And in that light, we well might ask: Is it worth it? To deceive? To live by incessant white lies? To constantly criticize? To yell? To measure people by money? To deny fault and refuse ever to apologize? To always be the one who takes and never the one who gives? To be arrogant in one’s self-estimation?

With children watching and emulating — is it worth it?

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.

First Person – Like Any Other Child


By his size and handsome impression, our son, Max, appears to be like any other boy his age, however when you meet him in his wheelchair, you quickly learn that he is severely disabled, both cognitively and physically. He’s unable to talk, use a device to communicate, propel himself or use his hands. You realize that he’s dependent on others in every aspect of his life. Yet, that didn’t stop our family and friends from all over California, our community and Max himself from celebrating his becoming a bar mitzvah. In January, 160 people gathered for a Havdalah service at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes to recognize our son’s turning 13 and to share in the joy and inspiration he has stimulated within each of us.

As my wife, our 9-year-old daughter and I proudly joined Max to sit on the bimah, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and Cantor Sam Radwine conducted a beautiful service filled with tradition. Music, an aliyah, prayers and sensitive words recognized the significance of the evening. With the intent of highlighting the joy of the occasion rather than focusing on the uniqueness of the situation and Max’s disabilities, the service was purposely kept simple and accented with lots of singing. On the bimah, we sat in a semicircle just one step above the congregation. With Max seated between my wife and me, and, with our daughter, the rabbi and the cantor all sitting alongside us; we were so close to family and friends that I felt as if we were at home, in our living room, for a family event. It was a warm, supportive and loving environment that everyone was able to share in, up close and personal. My wife and I, the cantor and the synagogue president each were called for an aliyah. Then, as Max is fortunate to have a 92-year-old great-grandmother, four grandparents, six aunts and uncles and seven first cousins, each was called upon to participate in the Havdalah ceremony. Max’s grandparents held the candle, his cousins held the Kiddush cup and his sister and great-grandmother held the spice box. The support of our families was overwhelming.

Appreciating the sensory stimulation, Max laughed and smiled throughout the 45-minute service. Building on the moment, I shared an interpretation of the relevant Torah portion to speak of how our family has matured from having Max in our lives and experiencing his disabilities. Max has taught us, both figuratively and literally, the value of being kind, doing mitzvot, not taking things for granted, liking people for who they are and recognizing that there is purpose and meaning for everyone in what we do and in everything that happens. I acknowledged that through Max’s disability, he has demonstrated a kind of strength we all need to make the best of situations, to welcome and invite diversity and to appreciate how people, even when they cannot communicate in the ways to which we are accustomed, can enjoy life in different ways.

For me, Max’s bar mitzvah was a very emotional event. It was not just the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzvah that was momentous. It was the feeling and recognition that our son, who doesn’t understand and is not easily included in regular activities and holidays, was being recognized and confirmed. For several years, I had found myself becoming very emotional during bar and bat mitzvahs as the 13-year-old would read from the Torah and recite his or her speech. I couldn’t imagine how we could enable Max to have the opportunity to experience such a crucial life-cycle event. However, about nine months ago (prior to Max’s bar mitzvah), my wife and I had a conversation with Cantor Radwine. We talked about a simple, creative and musical service to recognize Max turning 13. Then, following a discussion with Rabbi Jeret, we decided to have a bar mitzvah; the date was set for a Saturday night when we could all share in the experience of Havdalah. So, there we were, with Max, my wife and daughter on the bimah and I could not have been happier.

As with any bar mitzvah, the service and reception is tailored to child’s abilities and interests. The reception, in the motif of a carnival atmosphere, was dinner with live background music. The theme for the evening, inspired by a Yiddish proverb, was “Each child carries his own blessing into the world.”

“Inclusion” for the disabled has many different meanings. In the broadest sense and as demonstrated in our son’s bar mitzvah, it means to open doors and provide experiences and opportunities for people of all abilities. The value of inclusion is in the pleasure we know the recipient receives. Equally as important, however, is the value that the community experiences from the event — particularly the support we offer one another.

Max’s bar mitzvah celebrated our rich Jewish traditions; recognized Max within the community; reflected on the significance of life, family and friends; and illustrated how, thinking outside the box, we can celebrate life-cycle events with people of all abilities.

Anton Dahlerbruch is deputy city manager of the city of Beverly Hills.

 

A Single Thread Links Generations


Becoming a grandparent is a very exciting event. Being able to create an heirloom pillowcase out of heirloom pieces for the britim, or covenant ceremonies, of our first grandchildren was an equally humbling and exciting adventure.

Our daughter and son-in-law, Alisha and Ahud Sela, became the proud parents of twin babies, Yael Shira and Gavriel Yair Sela, on May 4, 2004. Knowing beforehand that they were giving birth to twins, a girl and a boy, set the wheels in motion for planning a brit milah, ritual circumcision, and brit mikvah, ritual purification — a relatively new ceremony for a girl, for the two babies. It was planned that the babies would be carried in on pillows for the ceremonies.

While researching what should be written to enhance a bris pillowcase, I found the suggestion of using old family tablecloths for the construction of the pillowcase. I had a tablecloth and napkins given to us by my husband’s grandmother for our wedding, which were now 33 years old. I contacted Ahud’s mother, Rita, and found out she had tablecloths from her grandmother and mother that they had used regularly and were packed up in her attic. Rita sent me a full box of beautifully cross-stitched tablecloths, well worn with loving holes from regular use. I looked at the cloths for two weeks before I had the nerve to make my first cut.

I carefully looked at the cross-stitch designs, imagining what would be the best use of the pieces so lovingly stitched so many years ago. Making the first cut was the hardest, but once that was done everything else fell into place. The back of the pillowcases consists of the edge of a green tablecloth with white fringe and white thread on the cross-stitch design. This was stitched by the baby’s great-great-grandmother, Minnie Aronow (mother of Joel, father of Rita).

Attached to this is a piece from the center of a white cloth with brown cross-stitching created by the baby’s great-grandmother, Yetta Aronow (mother of Rita).The bottom portion of the front of the pillowcase is a white cloth stitched with Shabbat symbols in many colors by Yetta. Rita remembered using this cloth “all the time.” I attached a white napkin from the set given to my husband, David, and myself by the baby’s great-great-grandmother, Anna Robinson (mother of Sandy, mother of David). In one corner of the napkin I attached three white crocheted rosettes that were part of a tablecloth made by great-great-grandmother Anna Robinson and great-aunt Rachel Vorspan (David’s sister). In the other corner is part of an embroidered and crocheted doily made by Bessie Wolfson, first cousin of great-great-grandfather Kopel Kaminsky, who died in the Shoah (father of Sime, my mother).

Before our grandchildren were born, I embroidered in Hebrew, “L’Torah, ul’chupah, ul’ma’asim tovim” on the napkin portions of the pillowcases. This is a prayer for them to study Torah, arrive to the marriage canopy and do good deeds in their future life. I used blue variegated Brazilian embroidery floss for one pillow and a pink, yellow and lavender variegated floss for the other pillow. After the babies were named, I was able to fill in their names in English and Hebrew with their English and Hebrew birth dates. I will be stitching a label inside each case that identifies who made each piece.

Rita and I had the privilege of carrying the babies into the ceremonies on these pillowcases lovingly stitched by the generations that came before them. How delighted these ancestors would be to know that the work of their hands would embrace the future of our families with such love. Our husbands, Nadav and David, held the babies during their britot cradled in the pillowcases.

Alisha and Ahud asked each of the grandparents to share a blessing with their grandchildren. They wanted the blessing to take place under a canopy held up by the baby’s aunts and uncles, Ben Vorspan, Shaina Vorspan and Amitai and Rebecca Sela. I was asked to make this canopy during Passover when Alisha could have had the babies any day (they were born three weeks later). Stitchery was out of the question, so I painted a family tree on a Battenburg lace small round tablecloth. I was able to include some names of great-great-great-great-grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles. What a holy moment to stand under so many generations and bless our precious jewels.

David and I and Rita and Nadav are truly blessed with these new additions to our beloved families. I can’t wait to add more names to the heirlooms we have created, but for the time being, we’re all very delighted to enjoy the newest blessing.

Bonnie Vorspan is an educator at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills.

Philosophical Blessings


While on a summer vacation on the East Coast, my family and I visited some spectacular sights in northwestern North Carolina, especially near Ashville. On our way to Ashville, we stopped and asked directions from a gentleman who turned out to be a Methodist minister.

During our conversation he told us that four years ago he received "the calling from above" to leave his 20-year practice of law and join the ministry. Upon hearing this my wife remarked, "That is strange because I have been praying that my husband would receive a calling from above and become a lawyer." Confused, the minister asked, "But what does your husband do that you want him to become a lawyer?" When my wife told him that I am a rabbi, he was astounded and said, "Oh no, your husband is working for the right law, and his boss is honest. Make sure he stays a rabbi."

Whenever I read this week’s Torah portion I think about that blessing from the Methodist minister because Balak also contains blessings from a non-Jew, Balaam, worthy of our consideration. The sages of the Midrash link the name of Balaam with a contemporary heathen philosopher of their time, Oenomaus of Gadera, claiming that Balaam and Oenomaus were the two greatest philosophers that non-Jews ever had.

Oenomaus was a member of the younger school of Cynics who lived in second century C.E., during the latter part of the reign of Hadrian, after the Bar Kochba War. He is mentioned in classical Roman literature as having successfully attacked pagan superstition, and he is identified in rabbinic literature with befriending the great Rabbi Meir. As a result of his close relationship with Rabbi Meir, he became familiar with Judaism, and the Midrash (Eicha Petihtah 2) records that the Romans therefore turned to him, just as Balak turned to Balaam in the Torah, and asked for advice on how to defeat the Jewish people.

We must appreciate that this request was presented to Oenomaus not only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., but also after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 C.E. The Jewish nation was beaten and almost destroyed, yet the Romans wanted to know the secret of our amazing survival.

Oenomaus answered, "Go through their synagogues; if you hear a hum of children’s voices studying Torah, you cannot prevail over them; otherwise you can." Alluding to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau as recorded in Genesis, Oenomaus commented: "As long as the voice of Jacob persists in synagogues and houses of study, the hands are not Esau’s hands; but whenever synagogues and houses of study miss the hum of those voices, Esau will prevail. The hands become Esau’s hands."

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash realized that Oenomaus had discovered the secret of Jewish survival. They therefore accorded him the distinction of being the greatest philosopher the non-Jewish world had produced. With Balaam, he had probed and revealed the truth about our faith.

How sorely we need to recognize that truth today when so many Jews believe that the Jewish mission is synonymous with social action. "Save the Whales," they say, but they permit Jonah to drown.

When our community leaders recognize that only commitment to Jewish values will insure Jewish survival, only when children study Torah; only when the voices of both children and adults reverberate in our synagogues, will we once again be worthy of the blessings that both Balaam and Oenomaus bestowed upon us.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Love the Stranger


The freeways were quiet and the city seemed peaceful at 4:30 a.m. as I drove to the hospital. I was going to see Thelma before she was taken in for surgery. I thought about the time just over a year ago when Thelma arrived at our house at 3 a.m., tiptoeing in so as not to wake Rachmiel as my husband Jonathan and I slipped out to go to the hospital. My water had broken and our daughter, Kinneret, was on her way.

Thelma has been our children’s nanny for four years, and I always thought of her as a member of our family. Then I considered the words of Leviticus 19:34: The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.

It is interesting that the golden rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," is reiterated here with the stranger who resides with you. The verse would make sense without it, however by nestling the positive commandment to love in the center, we realize that it is not enough to act justly toward the stranger who resides with you. It is not enough to pay her on time, treat her with respect. It is not enough to say, "It is as if she is family," or "as one of your citizens." Rather, strive to love.

We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and it turns out, she was, too, for just as God redeemed us with an outstretched hand, God also redeemed her from her own land.

But how can I love her if I don’t know her story?

Although Thelma’s English is good, I hired a translator and invited her to my office so that I may learn her whole story, the stranger who resides with me.

Thelma spoke of the illness of her 10-month-old son, Carlos, the way he looked at her when he was placed in isolation at the hospital, his angelic face, longing for her to comfort him. He died before she ever held him again. I thought about the day when my son was 10 months old and closed a drawer on his finger. He cried so hard he passed out and his lips turned blue. I now understood better the layered terror that Thelma experienced in reviving him.

When she spoke of the reasons she ran from Guatemala and the journey to full citizenship in America, I felt as if I was hearing the Exodus firsthand.

She told me of the Jewish families she worked with: the family for whom she worked 12 hours a day, who, when her own shoes wore out, bought her a new pair and deducted it from her pay. The family with whom she lived that would lock the house so she could not come "home" and withheld her pay while they enjoyed vacations. And she was never invited to eat with the family.

I filled pages and pages of notes listening to her story.

You shall love the stranger as yourself.

Thelma was in her hospital bed when I arrived. She was in pain and had been diagnosed with ampullary cancer — cancer of the bile duct. I sat on the edge of her bed.

She took my hands and said she felt in her heart she was Jewish. She had questions about Judaism and months ago I had bought her a basic Judaism book in Spanish, as well as a stack to leave in our synagogue lobby where many nannies wait while their charges are in class.

Just then her cell phone rang, and I was shocked to hear "Hava Nagila" as her ring tone.

She said she did not want to go into surgery without a blessing from me. I lay my hands on her head and recited "Misheberach." She opened her eyes and there were tears in them.

"I had a vision of Jerusalem," she said. "Everyone was wearing white, praying in a great courtyard."

I felt as if I had been blessed by her.

Thelma started chemotherapy last week. Someone said to me, "You should keep her away from your children to protect them from being sad while she is sick."

I couldn’t even understand the terrible advice. "The stranger who resides with you … you shall love [her] as yourself."

Think of the people who "reside with you," who work with you, for you, beside you. Ask them for their stories, and consider not only treating the stranger "as citizens," but how our love can indeed make them strangers no longer.

Power of a Blessing


If you were told that you had only a matter of days to live what would you do?

Write out a will? Eat your favorite meal? Try to repair troubled relationships? In our Torah portion this Shabbat, Jacob knows he is dying. Faced with this knowledge, there is only one thing he wants to do: bless those he loves.

We learn early on just how important blessings are to Jacob. When we first meet up with Jacob, he buys the birthright from his brother, Esau, with a pot of lentils. Later, Jacob disguises himself as Esau in order to deceive his father, Isaac, and receive the blessing he has so longed for. Given the lengths that Jacob was willing to go to in order to gain his blessing, it makes perfect sense that his final act should be to bestow blessings. How could Jacob possibly leave this world without passing along the blessing he had worked so hard to acquire?

Why was Jacob so obsessed with blessings? I think he understood better than most the power of a blessing. He believed that through a blessing, one could transmit not only love, but status, strength, leadership, reassurance, hope and even divine favor.

We are the Children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob. We too can bestow blessings on the world and on one another.

When was the last time you blessed someone? Today, most people feel uncomfortable blessing others. They assume that blessings are formulas that rabbis are supposed to offer. But they are mistaken. Anyone can offer a blessing.

Through a blessing you can turn a mundane experience into a holy encounter. When a loved one is ill, you can visit and bring flowers or stand before that same loved one, place your hands on his or her head and offer a blessing for healing. Imagine the strength and comfort such a blessing would convey.

Below, I’ve included four blessings. I have written for healing, for our children, for a new grandchild and even one for our parents. Please feel free to use them, alter them or, better yet, create your own.

A Blessing for Healing

May God heal you, body and soul.

May your pain cease,

May your strength increase,

May your fears be released,

May blessings, love, and joy surround you.

Amen.

A Blessing for a Parent to Say to a Child

I wrote the following blessing to accompany the priestly blessing that parents bestow upon their children each Shabbat. If you are a parent, don’t be timid. Approach your child and say, "I’d like to bless you."

May all the gifts hidden inside you find

their way into the world,

May all the kindness of your thoughts be expressed in your deeds,

May all your learning lead to wisdom,

May all your efforts lead to success,

May all the love in your heart be returned to you,

May God bless your body with health and your soul with joy,

May God watch over you night and day and protect you from harm,

May all your prayers be answered.

Amen.

A Grandparent’s Blessing for a New Grandchild

Gift of God, precious child, miracle, my little one. Lay your head on my shoulder. It seems that it was yesterday that I held your mother in my arms just this way. You are a sweet blessing to me, a tiny messenger of joy. Welcome to this magnificent life.

May God grace you with all things that are good and shield you from all harm.

May the bonds of our family be your strength. May our love be your comfort.

May our faith sustain you. May God be with you, now and always. Amen.

A Blessing for Children to Say to Their Parents

At my mother’s 75th birthday celebration, she asked me to bless her. When I stood up, placed my hands on my mother’s head and blessed her, I cannot describe the feelings that passed between us. All I can say is, bless your parents. You won’t regret it. You will never forget it.

You gave me my life. You give me your wisdom, your guidance, your concern, your love. You are my mentor, my protector, my moral compass, my comfort. There are no words to express my gratitude for all the blessings you have given me. Still, I tell you, thank you.

May God bless you as you have blessed me, with life, with health, with joy, and with love. Amen.

Now that I’ve encouraged you to go out into the world and bless others, I’d like to conclude by blessing you.

May God be with you, may health and strength sustain you. May nothing harm you, may wisdom and kindness enrich you. May you be a blessing to this world and may blessings surround you now and always. Amen.

Show Me the Way


Not long ago, a friend of mine called me and said, "Naomi, I need your help.

I want you to teach me how to pray to God." She told me whenever she goes to shul, she tries to sing along, but she feels nothing. Just words. She said she’s been trying to meditate in a quiet spot, hoping for some kind of communication with God, but she feels nothing. Just silence. My friend’s problem is a familiar one. So many of us sit in shul on Yom Kippur feeling lost or bored. We want to pray, but we don’t know how.

The Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, because on it we read the haftorah that begins with the moving words of the prophet Hosea: "Shuva Yisrael" — "Return, Israel, to the Lord your God." But returning to God is no simple matter. How can we return to God when we don’t know how to reach God? Like my friend, so many of us long to feel God’s presence in our lives, but we feel cutoff from God. We don’t know where to find God.

In our Haftorah, Hosea offers us a path to God. The prophet says, "Take words with you and come back to God." I told my friend, "This problem you’re having, tell it to God, and you’ll be praying." There are many forms of prayer we can learn, but the one we can all start with is the prayer of our souls. We don’t have to introduce ourselves to God; God already knows us. Notice that Hosea doesn’t say, "Come to God." He says, "Come back to God." We aren’t strangers to God. We don’t need to begin a relationship with God. God is already in a relationship with us, God already loves us. Every day, God is waiting for us, calling out to us: "Return to Me." We don’t have to say anything profound; we don’t have to sound smart. God doesn’t care. We don’t have to be sitting quietly in a state of prayerful devotion; whenever we speak, God listens.

Many people tell me that they feel overwhelmed by the depiction of God on Yom Kippur. They are frightened to approach a mighty King on a throne who sits in judgment over us, who knows all our misdeeds and decides who shall live and who shall die. But our haftorah this Shabbat offers a much more intimate picture of God. God is the One searching for us. God is lonely without us.

When we return to God, our lives start to open up. Answers start to appear. We begin seeing things we never noticed before. Days that used to feel empty are suddenly infused with meaning. Anxiety gives way to calm, despair gives way to hope, fear gives way to faith, frustration gives way to peace, sadness gives way to joy. Most of all, through prayer our indifference gives way to action.

Prayer reminds us that we are connected through God to one another, to all those longing for our help. Our souls are tied to the souls of all people. Our souls are tied to the souls of all those who have come before us. We are not alone. We are not cut off. We have not been forgotten: God is with us. God has filled us with enormous potential. But God has given us only limited days. God is praying for us, hoping we will learn how to take care of one another. The world is waiting for us to bless it.

Each of us has a prayer in our hearts, a prayer of singular importance. Chances are, we will find it only by opening our hearts and speaking it directly to God. This Yom Kippur, as you are sitting in shul, when the moment is right, close your eyes. Take a deep breath in and, as you breathe out, relax. Without censoring or editing, look inside yourself. Look deep down inside. Find the prayer of your soul. Find it and speak it to God. Tell God your pain, your hope, your joy. Share your deepest longing. Express your anger. Ask for God’s help. Tell God your secret. Thank God for your blessings. Shout, sing, whisper, talk to God. And listen closely for a reply.

May you receive an answer that will bring you joy and peace. May God be with you, may health and strength sustain you, may nothing harm you, may wisdom and kindness enrich you, may you be a blessing to this world, and may blessings surround you now and always.

May this be a sweet year filled with health, joy, blessings and peace. Amen.

Blowing the Shofar Is a Blast


"Go away!" Gabe, 15, yells at his two younger brothers, having been rudely awakened by a blast of the shofar.

Jeremy, 13, the shofar-blower, dives under the adjoining bed.

Danny, 11, the instigator, explains, "We need you to play Monopoly."

Normally, the shofar is not blown until the first day of the month of Elul, which this year fell on Aug. 9. It marks the start of the long process of introspection and self-renewal that culminates with a single long blast at the close of Yom Kippur.

But in our house, shofar-blowing began in late June, when Jeremy received three shofars as bar mitzvah gifts. They rest on the living room mantle beside the two that Danny already owns.

"Five aren’t enough," Danny says. "We need one for every person in the family."

While shofars double in our house as alarm clocks and noisemakers, failing to increase our popularity with our neighbors, they originally served as primitive communications and early warning systems.

The shofar is first mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:16): "On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled." It was also sounded, among other biblical references, to proclaim the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), as a summons to war (Judges 3:27), as a call to repentance (Isaiah 58:1) and to announce new moons and festivals (Psalm 81:4).

Later, the rabbis of the talmudic period decreed that the shofar be blown during the penitential month of Elul, every day except for Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashana. They also specified that the shofar be a ram’s horn, in remembrance of the animal that was sacrificed in place of Isaac, or a horn from a goat or other kosher animal, except for a cow, on account of the Golden Calf episode.

But it is Rosh Hashana itself that is known as Yom Teruah, or The Day of the Shofar Blast. In Leviticus 23:24, God commands, "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts." The commandment is to hear, rather than blow, the shofar, and it is traditionally heard 100 times on both days of the holiday. When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, however, as it does this year, the shofar is blown only on the second day in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, due to the prohibition against carrying. That doesn’t apply to the Reform movement, which observes only one day and which allows carrying.

Curiously, while we are commanded to hear the sounds of the shofar, we are not told why.

Sa’adia Gaon, the 10th-century rabbi, offers 10 reasons, from proclaiming that God, in remembrance of creation, is king to recalling the binding of Isaac and the ram in the thicket to reminding us that the shofar will be sounded at the end of time, when the Messiah resurrects the dead.

And Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, interprets the commandment to mean: "Awake from your slumber, you who have fallen asleep in life."

And awaken we have, with a jolt. For the past two years, the shofar has roused us to a world of hideous evil and senseless destruction. On Erev Rosh Hashana 2000 (Sept. 28), violence erupted in the Middle East, the start of the current intifada. And less than a week before Rosh Hashana 2001 (Sept. 18), Muslim extremists ferociously attacked the United States.

This year, the shofar, with its eerie, piercing and surreal sounds, awakens us to a world of continued sadness, fear and seemingly irreconcilable conflict. To the knowledge that no matter how much we repent and resolve to improve ourselves, that no matter how many safeguards we erect or military strikes we carry out, tragedy can occur unpredictably and uncontrollably.

This year, the words of the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer, "who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time, who by water and who by fire," are frighteningly real. And there is no guarantee, as we have painfully witnessed, that repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil of the decree.

Nevertheless, we still need the shofar to summon us to repentance and prayer. But this year, in addition, we need the shofar to awaken us to new possibilities and new ways of thinking, to new hopes and new strengths. We need the shofar to pierce the darkness of the world and to help realize the Rosh Hashana blessing: "May the year and its curses end; may the year and its blessing begin.”

For our family, five shofars are a good start.

The Long and Winding Road


A young friend of mine switched career paths, giving up on an industry that she did not find fulfilling. She is now working in a field that she finds challenging, has potential for growth and gives her opportunities to contribute in ways that are important to her. This week she received a call from someone begging her to return to her previous career, offering to even double her salary. Obviously, this was an extremely tempting offer, one that is not only lucrative, but that validates her worth and talents in the field. Yet, she declined the offer. She made a choice to stay in a career that brings fulfillment to her life.

She is choosing to live a life of blessing. This blessing is precisely the kind we are encouraged to seek in this week’s Torah Portion. As Moses continues his farewell charge to the people, he calls out, "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse." Moses informs us that we each have the ability to choose living a life of blessing.

To actively make this choice, the verse tells us we must see what is set before us. It is often a tremendous challenge to see what is in front of us, because our complex reality is not solely physical. Often we must see the world and our place in it through other eyes, through the eyes of knowing, feeling and understanding. Bitterness, doubt, pain can blur our vision. Then, we must see with our heart, intuition, insight and intellect to comprehend what is right for us.

We have the power to choose blessing or curse. Choosing a life of blessing means using the circumstances God has placed before us. If we use the particulars of our situation to fulfill our potential, then we choose blessing. If we squander them and do not find the path to attainment of the unique way we can touch the world, then we feel discontent. We search, we wander, we cannot "find ourselves." This is the curse.

A Midrash, a rabbinic legend, describes life as a crossroads. It says there are two roads to walk down, the road of blessing or the road of curse. One road begins straight and ends with curves, the other begins with curves and obstacles, yet ends straight. The straight road often seems easy and more direct, but yet can have obstacles, and even lead us astray. The curved road symbolizes the difficulties and trials and errors we must endure before we can set ourselves on a straight path. Often, only after we have acquired insight and understanding can we utilize our special gifts.

The world, with its challenges and blessings, is given to all of us. Yet, how we live in and respond to it is uniquely up to us. God invites us in to be ourselves, to avail ourselves of all the conditions of life, the wondrous along with the hardships and the challenges. Yitzchak Luria, the 16th-century kabbalist, teaches that we are each here to do a specific task. No one else can make a difference, do a job, approach a kindness or perform a mitzvah, exactly the way we can.

The Torah says, "See, this day I set before you blessing and curse." It urges us to use "this day," today; to respond to the uplifting and to the oppressive. Every day the possibilities of life are renewed.

A man I know is on kidney dialysis. His entire lifestyle has been altered. Three times a week he must spend most of the day hooked up to a machine. He has had to reduce his business, his social life, his traveling. Yet instead of bitterness, he maintains an outlook on life that is positive, vital and filled with contributions to others. As he sits in the clinic, he shares entertaining anecdotes with the healthcare workers and the other patients. He continues to run his business on a limited basis, he maintains his leadership role in his synagogue and is devoted to family and friends.

As a step toward helping others see and understand their world, he takes time to counsel others suffering from kidney failure about living with the realities of dialysis. Just like my young friend who made a deliberate choice of a fulfilling career, in his own way, every day, he is choosing the path of blessing.



Rabbi Mimi Weisel is assistant dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Birth Pangs


The other day, I got a sample of Pampers in the mail. It doesn't happen very often now, fortunately. For a while there, almost every day brought free diapers, coupons for baby food, baby lotion, baby photographs. I passed them on to my sister, who has a year-old son, and told myself that it's not their fault. How could they know, after all? It's just that I'm on some kind of list — a “new mothers” list, probably through my doctor's office — and so they keep sending me these products, products I'd rather not think about just now.

It happens to people all the time. That's one of the things you learn when it happens to you. Suddenly, you're part of a new sisterhood, a new brotherhood — people who have gone through a miscarriage, lost a baby, suffered a stillbirth. You had no idea how many people around you had such an experience, because most of them never said a word. Only now, when it happens to you, do they let you in on their secret.

They tell you about their losses because they want you to know they understand. They don't think you're ridiculous for mourning over something that wasn't even really a baby — just a coiled-up ball of life, maybe half an inch long. Except that, for you, of course, it was a baby, and it belonged to you, and you loved it. They understand the crushing sense of failure, and the guilt, and the questions that you know are irrational and pointless but you ask yourself anyway: Did I do something wrong? Could I have prevented this if I'd taken better care of myself, stayed off my feet, cut down on stress?

Later, when the pain eases and you stop tormenting yourself with questions, you find yourself dwelling on one simple idea: how many people have walked this path before me. How very common pregnancy loss is, and what a miracle it is to carry a healthy baby to term.

“Women don't need to lay tefillin,” a traditional Jew once said to me. “Your womb is your tefillin. Your power to nurture new life within your body is what connects you to God.”

If we come to this week's portion expecting a lyrical celebration of women's special bond with the Creator through the miracle of childbirth, we may be sorely disappointed. Parashat Tazria spells out all that the Torah has to say about rituals for the new mother — eight verses in all. For more than a month, she must undergo “blood purification,” forbidden to touch any sacred object or enter the holy sanctuary. After her period of separation, the woman brings two sacrifices — a burnt offering and a sin offering — and she is then reintegrated into the community (Leviticus 12:1-8).

Nothing of the joy and wonder of childbirth seems to rise up from this brief legal passage; it speaks instead of ritual impurity, isolation, purgation. But under the dry, compressed language courses a river of emotion. The emergence of a new human being is awesome, tremendous — a mysterious, soul-shattering event. Surrounded by blood taboos whose precise meaning we can no longer decode, childbirth in the Torah is fraught with danger, electric with the energy of life and death, touched by the sacred. It changes a new mother permanently — separates her from who she was, and from all those around her. For a while, she withdraws, dazed and disoriented, from normal life; her world consists of nothing but the baby. Only gradually does she return to herself and her community. Spiritual, psychological and cultic processes merge in the Torah's ritual of reintegration.

At the tail end of the 20th century, human reproduction has become “domesticated” — subject to scientific understanding and manipulation. But for the Torah, birth retains its primal strangeness and elemental power; it is outside the human domain; it belongs to the Holy One.

We are taught: “One must offer a blessing over the bad just as one offers a blessing over what is good” (Mishna Berachot 9:5). I'm still wondering what blessing can come from the loss of a baby. But maybe pain, as well as joy, can awaken us to the miracle of birth. Maybe if we learn how often things go wrong with the intricate, elegant process by which life comes into the world, we'll cherish, all the more, those times when everything goes blessedly, stupendously right.


Rabbi Janet R. Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council.

Torah Portion


Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one moment ofimpulse, and his birthright is gone. He goes out to fulfill hisfather’s dying wish for a savory meal of game, and while he’s outhunting, his mother and brother conspire and rob him of his blessing.Returning to his father with the feast, expecting at last to gain hisdue position as head of the clan, he is met with his father’s emptyexcuses. And so Esau cries: “Have you but one blessing, Father? Blessme too, Father!” And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:38). Tears ofbetrayal, of pain, of rage, of broken dreams.

Two brothers. One blessing. But who told FatherIsaac that he had but one blessing to bestow upon his sons? Who toldhim that blessings must be hierarchical — setting one brother overthe other, declaring one the victor and the other a loser? Why can’the see where this leads? Has he no sense of the bitterness andturmoil that will come of this? Is his spiritual imagination so smallthat he cannot find a unique blessing for each of his sons? Is thisthe blindness that afflicts him?

Two brothers, one blessing. This is the darkunderside of Genesis. Cain murders Abel. Abraham must separate fromhis brother’s son, Lot, because there can be no peace between them.Ishmael is cast out of the family to make room for Isaac. Jacobdeceives his blind father and steals his brother Esau’s blessing.Joseph’s brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery. Beneath theenchanting tales of Genesis, the charming Bible stories we love toread to our children, lies this legacy of hatred, rage, estrangement,murder and pain.

More than the stories of our dysfunctional family,Genesis is an alarm — a plea, a warning — against the humanpropensity to think in binary terms: Us/Them. Our People/ThosePeople. The Good Brother/The Evil Brother. The Children of Light/TheChildren of Darkness. This calculation always yields the sameproduct: The Other. Who is The Other? We call him by many names, buthe is always the same. Cast out for his unrighteousness. Undeservingof blessing. Evil. Dark. Alien. Excluded. Estranged.

Why do we human beings need The Other? Whatemptiness within our soul does it fulfill? What comfort does it giveus to identify, to isolate, to castigate, to scorn The Other?Politicians love him. Demagogues thrive on him, for there is noeasier way to the heart of a people than through our fear, ourdisgust, our rejection of The Other. Just listen to theirrhetoric.

But remember Genesis. Who is The Other? He is ourbrother. Ignore him and watch as his rage consumes everything we holddear. We will never have peace, and we will never be whole until wemeet him and make peace with him. Be careful. His rage is potent. Butif we have the courage to confront him, to meet and embrace him, wewill find him ready to receive us.

“Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by400 men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the twomaids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and herchildren next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on aheadand bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near hisbrother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, falling on his neck,he kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:1-4).

Again, Esau weeps. But this time, different tears.For the years consumed and wasted in rage, hatred, bitterness andfear. For the brokenness endured until each brother realized that hecould have his own, unique blessing. And for the generations of theirchildren who will yet live by dividing — believing in theirblindness that there is only one blessing. For those who have yet tolearn the ultimate lesson of Genesis.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

All rights reserved by author.

Joseph is drawn from the pit.

Photo from “The Jewish People: A PictorialHistory.”



Read a past week’s torah portion!

ParashatVa-Yeze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

Shabbat Thanksgiving

Parashat Chaye Sarah (Genesis23:1-25:18)

Parashat Va-Yera(Genesis 18:1-22:24)

Parashat LechLecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

ParashatNoah (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

Bereshit,Genesis 1:1-6:8