You Win Some, You Lose Some. Sometimes You Do Both


     What does it mean to win? When kids are little, we like to give everyone a medal whether they are first or last in the race. It builds confidence and encourages kids to do more. Kids play games all the time where they win. Most of the time, they get to go out for ice cream after their baseball or soccer game whether they win or lose. As adults, we have different standards of winning. We win a contract. We lose a client. Although even now, some of those standards seem to be muddied. What does it mean to win the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? Can we really win an election if manipulation or cheating is involved?

     The United States Soccer (or is it Football) team is changing the meaning for us through their World Cup play. On Friday, headlines across the country and internet shouted: US Loses – Advances to Next Round. How could that be? We tell kids all the time (or at least we used to): It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. And in this case, that seems to be true. Although I’m not a big follower of the game, and I don’t pretend to really understand the process, it seems that the cumulative effort of the team’s scoring throughout the round helped advance the team to the single-elimination segment of the tournament when winning is indeed everything.

     Let’s think about this for a minute. What can this concept mean in our world? Although in the end one must perform, there are second chances. One game, one test, does not determine the totality of your abilities. We can be forgiven for a bad catch, a bad play, a miss, and still move on. Those of us who, like me, do poorly on tests might appreciate this kind of scoring. In this world of high stakes (and high revenue) testing, winner-take-all can have some very bad consequences. And maybe we can bring home our troops without wondering whether we’ve won or lost and just reflect on what we’ve accomplished.

     What we can learn from our national team? Perhaps we should measure success by the standards of Pirkei Avot 4:1)

Who is wise? The one who learns from others…
Who is strong? The one who controls his emotions…
Who is rich? The one who is happy with his share…
Who is honored? The one who honors others.


     Or we should look to what the Torah says about how you play the game, whatever your game may be. In Leviticus 19:14, we are told to not put a stumbling block before the blind. Everyone deserves a fair shot. Sometimes, even two!

GO USA!!!!!!

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So Nu? Who Doesn’t Want to be Happy?

imagesOne of my all-time favorite movie lines comes from the 1970 Lovers and Other Strangers. The movie is set around an upcoming wedding, blending a stereotypical Italian family with a WASPY family. Bea Arthur, with shoe-polish black hair high on her head, plays an Italian mother, constantly feeding everyone around her. Just as her younger son is getting married, her older son’s marriage is disintegrating. Why? Because they are not happy. When asked by her son if she is happy, her response is, “Don’t look for happiness, it will only make you miserable.”

     I just love that line and I think about it from time to time. And it came to mind when Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” burst into our consciousness. (I suspect it was a bit slower to reach my consciousness than those of the rest of the world.) It’s a catchy tune. Some say it’s the song of the summer, even though the thermometer is nowhere near summer yet, at least in NYC.

     When I first heard the lyrics (they are all below), I was really struck by one line: “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.” As a rabbi knee deep into wedding season, I made an immediate comparison to the chuppah. I talk about the chuppah as a fragile home, that needs constant tending. Its open sides represent a home that is welcoming to others. I suppose “a room without a roof” represents limitless possibilities. But it seems fairly singular to me. Where is the interaction with others?

     I admit, as I parse the text of the song, there is so much that I don’t understand. What does it mean that “happiness is the truth?” In Verse 2, the singer tells us not to tell him about bad news, he’s not going to listen. Is this someone that I would want to talk to?

    Perhaps I should just skip the lyrics. There is no doubt that just listening to the song, “Happy” makes me happy. My body starts moving and my mood sings. I have often wondered when the actual act of singing “Oseh Shalom,” a prayer asking God for peace, can create peace, if only for the moment that we are singing it. Is that enough?

       Maya Angelou, the great poet and speaker who died this week said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

     And clearly, people feel happy singing, “Happy,” even in Jersusalem. What could be bad about that?



by Pharrell Williams

[Verse 1:]
It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

[Verse 2:]
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Here’s why


Hey, come on

Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said (let me tell you now)
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said

[Chorus 2x]

Hey, come on

Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down… my level’s too high…
Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down, I said (let me tell you now)

[Chorus 2x]

Come on

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For Better or For Worse

I have a confession to make. I grew up a Mets fan, and while I don’t currently watch much baseball, if you asked me what my favorite team is, I would still say the Mets. Although I often say, “Iimages grew up in Flushing and I’m used to disappointment.” Over the years, I often passed Shea Stadium either on the highway or subway. During lean times, I would notice few fans in the stands. In winning years, even the outfield seats by Mr. Met were filled. In 1986 when they won the championship, I attended many games. That was when I became a fan of listening to sports on the radio. Bob Murphy would call the games as I spent a lazy day in Prospect Park. The high of the series carried over to the next years. I will always remember the standing ovationFinal-Season-at-Shea-0112-1024x768s that we gave Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter at their last game on a chilly night in September ’89.

     And in the winter, the other team would play. The New York Jets. I didn’t really understand football too much, but I did understand that it was a big deal when my grandmother wangled my big brothers and me seats to see Joe Namath and the Jets play.

     As I took the Number 7 train out to my parents’ house the other day for a pre-Mother’s-Day lunch, I look up at the Willets Point stop and thought of Shea. Finally, after nearly 5 years, I will be attending my first game at CitiField on Memorial Day weekend, with my old light-blue Mets cap on my head.

     It was my during that trip to Flushing that I was listening to urlpodcasts, as usual, and I heard a NPR Story of The Day interview with Mariano Rivera. Even a Mets fan like me knows that Manny Rivera was the incredible closer for the Yankees who just retired last season. In all the years Rivera was in NY, his picture was never splattered across the tabloids for anything but his amazing arm.

     In the interview with NPR’s Scott Simon about Rivera’s new book, I learned that Rivera is a religious Christian. He lives in the Bronx now and is active in his church. The interview wound its way to religion and baseball. “My faith in the Lord is everything,” Rivera said. “I’m not going to second guess my faith.” He explained that this was how he was able to walk away from losing game game 7 of the World Series. Because he “gave all that he had.”

     Simon asked about the habit that many players have of pointing to the heavens when they make a good play. “I don’t know who they are acknowledging…I never have done it…If you point to the sky when you did something good, then when you did something bad or you strike out, you are cursing … What are you doing? You are only taking the good times, but the bad times you won’t….That’s where you have to shine. In the middle of the adversity you still have to point to the sky and say, you know what Lord, thank you for the moment, because you permitted it.”

     The thing about listening to podcasts is that you might be on the train or walking down the street and sometimes you hear something stunning. I have even been brought to tears by the stories coming through my headphones, a weird occurrence when on the subway. But now, while just going through some ordinary activity, I heard something extraordinary. While Rivera’s viewpoint of God is different from mine, we agree on one thing. We can’t just look to God in thanks or in pain, but we need to remember God in just the regular times. Some Jews have this habit of saying “Baruch HaShem – Blessed is the Name” in response to “how are things?” or even when the bus arrives when you need it to. But what do you say when it’s a cold night and the bus is really late? Do you blame God or take a taxi? Or say “Baruch HaShem?”

     Today I was talking about God with fifth graders. One student asked why there are no miracles any more. He said, “There are lots of miracles in the Bible.” Why aren’t there miracles now? First I told him that I wondered whether there really are that many miracles in the Bible considering the span of time that the text covers. Also, I reminded him that there was a miracle every day that we all experienced. The earth turned on its axis and the sun came out every day. So I asked the questions, “Is it possible that God and science can work together?” One student said, “Maybe science is God’s assistant.”

     So now I am a Mariano Rivera fan. Just don’t ask me to wear a Yankees cap.

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Life, Death, and the Address Book

address-book-15x21cmMy mother always kept the family address book in the little drawer near the kitchen. I have always been drawn to little notebooks and diaries, so of course I loved to look through this. When someone moved, the old address would be crossed out and the new one put in below or above. My mom did not use correction fluid. The record would stand. As we started to go to college, I think there must have been many crossed out addresses for my brothers and me. One day, I remember it distinctly, I was looking for someone’s address, probably for a birthday card, and I found the address of a favorite aunt who had died years before. Her address was not x’d-out. She was still there.

I was reminded of my mother’s address book a few months ago as I saw a Facebook birthday reminder for someone who had died. While they were no longer with us, their Facebook page lived on. (Unfortunately, this has actually happened more than once in my Facebook universe.) At first I was startled. It was jarring to see their picture come up as someone with a birthday that week. Then I was truly moved by the outpouring of feelings for my friend. They were truly missed.

Truly I am torn by seeing a birthday announcement for someone who will no longer have birthdays. So many questions. How can they be listed next to all those who are alive and well? Why hasn’t Facebook taken their page down? Don’t they know intuitively that a person has died? Can’t Facebook feel it like I do? Why don’t they have a place for the “Date of Death” on the “About Me” page? Who would fill it in? But in the end I am glad to see their smiling faces and be reminded of the joy that they brought to me and to so many others.

As I have come to believe, social networks, used for good and not for evil, can help broaden our lives. We learn about events that we may have missed. We can share happy or sad occasions with others. And here, we can have a public Yarzheit, an annual remembrance of the person who has died. In the Amida, the standing prayer that we recite three times a day, we refer to God as “m’chayei ha-meitim – Who brings life to the dead.” It’s easy to want to think about this literally and there are those who believe that when the Messiah comes, everyone will rise up. I like to think of this as a reminder that I must teach something that someone who has died has taught me. When I tell people about a recipe that my grandmother taught me, she is here. And if someone that I teach it to passes it on, then her legacy continues. Through the teaching of someone’s work, we will bring life to them.

My mother still has the same address book. Last I saw, it had rubberbands around it with cards and address corners torn off envelopes.

Note: How do we talk about death? You’ll notice that I use the word “died” or “dead” more than one may normally see it. I find it disconcerting the hear the word “passed,” especially for someone who did not die of natural causes. Where did they pass too? And when a person is killed, especially by someone else, using phrases like “passed on” may allow us comfort if the death was violent, but also allow us to smooth it over a bit. Soldiers who die in battle do not “pass on.” Kids who die by gunshot do not “pass on.” Perhaps if we use some stronger terminology, we will stand up a bit more against killing and murder and death.


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Blogging the Torah: Parashat KiTissa, Go for the Bronze!

The only thing that is getting me through this week’s horrible snow, as opposed to last week’s horrible snow, is a day home with the Olympics. Sitting on my tuchis, watching the most amazing people do the unthinkable. They fly through the air on skis and boards. They hold their partners over their heads while they glide on skates. And they go from heartracing swift skiing to precision shooting. It boggles my mind. And throughout the coverage I’m hearing stories of people who are “just happy to be here.” They have no hope of getting on the podium. The Olympic experience is their medal. But for some it’s only the gold medal that will do.

That only-the-gold mentality was really made clear to me. Two athletes, Laura Mancuso, skiing the Super Combined Downhill, and Erin Hamlin, sliding in the Luge, were amazingly grateful to have made it onto the podium at all. Laura Mancuso was not expected to medal, and yet she managed to get the bronze. Erin Hamlin was the first American woman to ever medal in Luge and was thrilled to take the bronze. What made their gratitude at winning the bronze medal all the more endearing was that earlier in the week, Hannah Kearney was tearful at only winning the bronze in Women’s Moguls. She won the gold at the last Olympics in Vancouver and only the gold would do for her. In her interview, she expressed her disappointment at her placement, as if the bronze medal was meaningless.

Ironically, in this week’s Torah portion, gold does not represent success for the Jewish people. As Parashat KiTissa opens, we see God in dialogue with Moses, putting the final touches on the Ten Commandments. Moses has taken a long time up on the mountain, and the people at the bottom are getting a bit frightened. So they turn to Aaron and demand that he “make us a God.” These are people who are used to idols. They need a visual representation of God. And Aaron, perhaps fearing the rumblings of the crowd or maybe trying to keep the people busy for a while, instructs them to create the Golden Calf. This Golden Calf will be just one step in their doubting God, their doubting their ultimate mission, that will change the trajectory of the Israelites’ journey. Instead of going directly to the land of milk and honey, the people were doomed to wander for forty years until the current generation had passed on. The Golden Calf represents a forced transition period for the Israelites. It gives the Israelites time to become a community. It gives them time to mature. It’s like a gap-year that lasts for forty years.

For many of the athletes, these medals may also represent a transition point. Some are retiring soon. Some are striving for their last medal. Some are just getting their feet wet and this Olympics is part of their maturing process. Regardless of what happens, I think being an Olympian is an amazing feat. And to win the bronze medal would be just fine.


If you have never seen this Golden Calf scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments, it’s a must!

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Shabbat Morning with Dickens


It was the first Shabbat of a much needed end-of-the-semester vacation. What’s a rabbi educator to do? Spend the morning in pjs, drinking coffee, reading the Times, and listening to NPR. What a treat to hear my favorite shows in real time and not via podcast. I hardly know how to hear “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” when I am not on the treadmill or subway. But instead of the regular Saturday morning routine, there was a special radio production of the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Not ready to get up from my comfy chair, I took another bite of danish, and I spent Shabbat morning with Dickens.

As you might imagine, I am not a big Christmas movie watcher. It’s not my tradition now. But in the years before cable (yes, there was a time before cable) it was routine to see “White Christmas,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or “Miracle on 34th Street” annually. I did not usually watch the really Christmas-y movies. “White Christmas” was one of my favorites. Bing, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and the dancing legs of Vera-Ellen. And the music of Irving Berlin and others. Rosie and Vera-Ellen singing sisters.  And who isn’t weepy when the General comes downstairs to see his entire platoon assembled? Christmas was just a tiny piece of the story. But I digress.

I know that I once saw an old version of “A Christmas Carol” on late night TV. Turns out there were versions in 1938, 1951, 1999, and 2009 in addition to the spin-offs. I don’t think that I’ve ever read the book, but I know the general story. As I listened to this wonderful production, I realized what a Jewish story this is. Odd for the creator of the ugly character of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

For those who might not know the storyline of A Christmas Carol, here is the Wikepedia description:

A Christmas Carol is a novella by English author Charles Dickens, first published in serial form by Chapman & Hall on 17 December 1843. It tells the story of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation resulting from supernatural visits by Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. The novella met with instant success and critical acclaim.

So, why do I think that this is a Jewish story? What’s not Jewish about it? A Christmas Carol embraces so many Jewish values! Scrooge’s journey through the Christmases of his past, present, and future represent a path to teshuvah, the act of turning around to living a righteous life. In the portion on Christmas future, the ghost doesn’t speak, leading us to believe that it’s Scrooge’s conscience doing the the talking. The month of Elul, the month before Rosh HaShannah, is all about introspection.

In the story, Scrooge is asked to support the needy. He scoffs at the idea. But after his transformation, he learns the true meaning of tzedakah. And in his transformation he pledges to help Tiny Tim, the ill son of his employee Bob Cratchit. Is this gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) or tikkun olam (repairing the world)? Either way, taking care of the world’s neediest is a Jewish value, as is treating one’s employees well, as the Talmud teaches.

So what separates Jews from Christians? In this case it is the concept of mitzvot, the idea that we do these deeds because we are commanded to. Mitzvot elevate our deeds to a holy level.

Many of us have the custom of not studying Torah on Christmas Eve, known in some Ashkenaz communities as Nittel Nacht. But that doesn’t mean we stop “thinking Jewish.” It would be easy for me to say, as I write this on Christmas Eve, that we are all one, and while I hope that is true, I would rather have my bottom line be that we can find Jewish values–Middot–all around us.

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Oy! What’s Your Problem?


Gratitude. It’s a difficult thing to remember. I recall that Oprah, when she had her regular show, had a series on gratitude and there were those that made fun, me included. It was a bit too touchy-feely for me. But life is busy, time passes, we change, and it’s hard to remember to be grateful. In the midst of alarm clocks, subways, deadlines, and crazy holiday crowds in NYC, an attitude of gratitude can be lost. Thankfully, my friend and colleague Susan Cosden reminds me to be grateful every day. On Facebook, she posts daily about what she has to be grateful for. She reminds me that I must force myself to sift through the good,the bad, and the really annoying, to find moments of gratitude. And I am grateful to Susan for her reminders.

I shouldn’t have to search very deeply to find out that I have much to be grateful for. Somedays it seems that I do. But the truth is, I shouldn’t have to. At this ripe old age of, well, let’s just say, it’s ripe, my parents are still alive and sort of healthy. I have a loving life partner who will soon stand next to me under the chuppah. My siblings and their spouses are both healthy and employed. All three of us even have graduate degrees! And I have 5 brilliant, gorgeous adult nieces who are all well on their way (sort of) to finding their life’s path. And let’s not forget two of the sweetest cats you could ever meet.

And yes, my cats wake me up way too early. And yes, my parents still have the ability to drive me nuts sometimes. My job could be…There was another school shooting…Have you seen the JETS and Giants this year. And yes, I wish….and I want… But there is still much to be grateful for. And it is times like this that remind me that I must be grateful.

In Judaism, we have a legal concept called the eruv. The eruv is an artificial border, often a wire, that rings a community to make it one. It could be the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem or the seawall of Manhattan. The purpose of the eruv is to allow people to carry or share from house to house on Shabbat, as if the community was one domain. (Carrying is one of the halachic – legal – prohibitions on Shabbat.) As we move into the future, I wonder if perhaps Facebook has become the new eruv. After all, it allows us to share information without borders, as if we are one domain. It allows us to extend our family and friends, keep in touch with someone you meet at a conference, make a new connection, or keep up with an old one. And it is through Facebook that I have more than once heard of a new baby, a grand child, a wedding. I have also learned sad, sometimes heartbreaking news. News from a parent, a friend, whose child died. Sometimes expected, sometimes not. Heartbreakingly, this has happened more than once. And we draw them close into the eruv.

And now, news of a parent, a member of the Jewish community, whose child has died. Many of us were brought together by the plight of Superman Sam who lost his fight with leukemia. I did not know the Sommer family personally, but they are part of the eruv.

Another rabbi posted about having to officiate at the funeral of his nephew, instead of his bris. I do not know him either,  although I suspect our trays brushed together once at the JTS cafeteria.  He too is part of the eruv.

Two friends lost a parent. We bring them in with virtual hugs.

Yes, there are things to bitch and moan about. A friend was snarky. I had to wait a long time for a bus. The cats got into the garbage yet again. But on the whole, there is much to be grateful for. And there are people out there in real pain who need us.  Maybe if we remember that, we can overcome the truly sucky parts of this project we call life. Then maybe, when sucky times come, we will have the strength to be there for one another.

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We’re Still Here!


“Good times and bum times, I’m still here.”  So begins the venerable singer Elaine Stritch’s signature song “I’m Still Here.”  Even in a White House performance where she struggles to remember the lyrics, she is still here.  And I’m hoping she’ll be here for a long time!

This Hanukkah, I wonder whether this could be the Jews’ theme song.  At Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle of our survival.  A small band of Jews known as the Macabbees beat the Greeks to recover the Temple in Jerusalem.  After this year of the Pew survey bringing news of  “good times and bad times,” as Stritch’s song says, we’re still here.  After years of certain men dictating how prayer must be conducted at the site of that Temple, the Women of the Wall celebrated their 25 anniversary of saying no, there is another way.

As a people, we’ve always found another way to stay alive.  (No Bee Gees please!)  The irony is that when the ultra-Jews say that we must practice the “authentic” way, I wonder what they mean.  As we are learning in the current string of Torah portions, Jacob had two wives and two mistresses, all living together. Is that “authentic” Judaism?  In Moses’ time, Judaism was transmitted through the father.  Is patrilineal decent the “authentic” way?  Certainly Reform Jews feel that it is valid.  The Kotel, the western supporting wall of the Temple, did not become an Orthodox synagogue with a mechitzah (separator of men and women) until well after the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.  So what is the “authentic” way to pray at the Kotel?  Perhaps the Women of the Wall have it right.

So, why is there controversy about the latest concoction, Thanksgivikkah?  Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are based in a fight for religious freedom.  Although in all fairness, the Pilgrims really wanted everyone to just observe their religion. They weren’t really into pluralism.

thanksgivikkah-1My friend and colleague, Juliet Barr, writes about the wonders of Thanksgivikkah in her My So-Called Blog.  She says:

…my kids have always thought Thanksgiving WAS a Jewish holiday.   Look at the evidence:  1. We are Jews.
2. There is ritual involved… we say the shehechyanu (a prayer expressing our thankfulness of being back together and reaching this auspicious time), candles on the table (though no blessing) and we go around the table and say what we are thankful for and we get our flu shots 3. there’s a huge meal for which 4. we are a little bit dressed up and 5. the good dishes are used.

On the other hand, Allison Benedikt wrote in Slate, “No Thanksgivukkah: The portmanteau holiday is bad for Jews and bad for America.”  She writes about how she doesn’t want her kids to think of Thanksgiving and a holiday for presents.

Shemini Atzeret was barely over before my parents started asking what my children want for Thanksgiving this year.

Don’t grandparents always bring presents?

While I have found the Thanksgivikkah mantra trying, I’m happy for anything that brings more interest to Jewish celebrations.  Think about it: Hanukkah has been promoted like never before.  As I am writing this, I am watching a giant dreidle perched on four pieces of gelt sliding and twirling its way down Broadway in the Thanksgiving Day parade! And it was introduced by an announcer saying “as you know…” as if the entire world knows about dreidles.  There are only 5 1/2 million Jews in this country, 1.74%!

So for those who are anti-Thanksgivikkah, this too shall pass.  And we will still be here.  And for those who are celebrating with candle lighting, turkey, and latkes, enjoy!  Because, we’re still here!


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Parashat Vayeshev: Who Hasn’t Wanted to Throw Their Little Brother in a Pit?


A few days ago, a colleague and I were schmoozing before school.  She was trying to decide what to speak about at her pulpit this Shabbat.  I suggested tying in Thanksgiving, families coming together, reconciling.  Her response: “We’re not there yet.”

Yes, in the journey, we are not there yet.  At least not with the Joseph stories.  Last week, in Parashat VaYishlach, Jacob and Esau reconciled after many years. They came together to bury their father Issac, and to bury their differences.  Not an easy feat after all that Jacob stole from Esau.

And so the Joseph saga begins in Parashat Vayeishev.  His mother has just died while giving birth to his baby brother.  The text actually says that his father Jacob loved him the best and Jacob gave Joseph a fancy tunic, a coat of many colors.  Joseph has dreams that his brothers will bow down to him, and he is arrogant or immature enough to tell them.  So what do the brothers do when they have a chance?  First they think of killing him.  Then they throw him in a pit.  Then they decide to sell him to Midianite traders.  (Most of my 5th graders will say that they  thought of  doing this to their little siblings at one time or another.)  And as a final blow, they break their father’s heart by tell him that his favorite son is dead.  This is far from reconciliation. But it’s coming.  Wait a few weeks.

“We are not there yet.”  Maybe that is the point.  It is Thanksgiving, our quintessential American holiday about religious freedom.  This year it falls on the second day of Hanukah, our quintessential Jewish holiday celebrating our fight for religious freedom.  (Is there any one on this planet who has not heard that Thanksgiving and Hanukah have collided to create Thanskgivikah for this year only?)  The time dictates that we get there, that we put on our best face and come together.  If we learn nothing about family life in the book of Bereshit, it is that families will come together in the end.  Well, maybe not Cain and Abel, but certainly in the line of Abraham.

This time of year, I always think about the movie Avalon, by Barry Levenson (a nice Jewish boy).  There is the famous scene where the brother who stayed in the city is late to Thanksgiving dinner because he can’t find his brother’s house in the rich suburbs. (It was a pre-cell phone world.) When he walks in, he sees that everyone has started eating, and he points his finger and utters the now famous line, “You cut the turkey!” And with that, more than just the turkey is cut.  The family is sliced apart forever.

So this Thanksgiving, let’s act a bit better than Jacob’s boys and Avalon’s boys.  Let’s put differences aside, smile when an old criticism is repeated, light our candles with a smile, and remember, if our ancestors can find peace and forgiveness, certainly we can too.  And remember, don’t cut the turkey until everyone has arrived.


Last night I came home to the news that an extended family member had died.  Phil Merker was 91.  I didn’t know Phil well.  He was a nice man.  (And he must have passed that along, because his children are nice.) Nice goes far with me!  When I last saw him a year ago at Thanksgiving, he looked dapper.  Most of us were casually dressed, but he had a suit jacket and bow tie on.  He told us about his life in his retirement apartment.  Every afternoon included a little vodka.  I think that is what kept him going all these years.  Along with his children and grandchildren.  It is times like these that I would like to believe in Olam HaBah — the World to Come.  I would like to think that Phil is reunited with his beloved Alta, sharing a little afternoon vodka somewhere.

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Parashat Toldot: And You Thought Your Family Was Dysfunctional

When we last saw Issac, he had just survived an almost assassination, uh, I mean sacrifice attempt, by his own father, which may or may not have caused the death of his mother. Now that Issac is going to live, and clearly family relations are tense, Abraham sends his aide to find a wife for Issac. Enter Rebecca, who is lovely and welcoming, and Isaac falls in love.

As this Parashat Toldot opens, Rebecca is barren, so Isaac prays to God for her to conceive. She does and twins struggle inside her. So we know that there is going to be trouble from the start. We learn that Jacob, mom’s favorite, tricks his older brother Esau twice. First, when Esau is really hungry, Jacob trades him red soup for his birthright. (So half of the synagogues in America are having red lentil soup at their oneg this Shabbat.) Later on, when it is time for Esau to receive his blessing from his father, Jacob tricks him again and steals it. This time, mom helps. Jacob dresses up in animal skins to mimic the ruggedness of his brother (did he know it was going to be Halloween?), while Mom cooks up her choice kids to feed Dad. (Isn’t it amazing how much an old man can eat?) Issac, more than a bit blind at this point in his life, mistakes Jacob for Esau, and gives Jacob the blessing, a.k.a. the first born’s inheritance. Esau realizes what has happened and begs his father for a blessing too. His Dad gives him one, but it is not really the same. Esau threatens Jacob. Mom appears to save Jacob once more by warning him to leave town. And so he does. And Esau, knowing that marriage to a Canaanite woman would displease his father, intermarries.

Whew! Is this not a soap opera? As the Torah Turns? Days of Our Lives? All My Children? Close. But seriously, does this story not show that our ancestors are human? Who doesn’t feel at some point as if one parent favors their sibling, whether or not it is true? As little kids, siblings always trick one another to get the last pudding or a special favor. In some families, this can go onto adulthood. Surprise, surprise. Every mother isn’t Donna Reed. And all siblings are not like on the Brady Bunch, happily sharing a tiny bedroom. Some marry outside the faith and as we’ll see, some siblings have the ability to grow up later and reconcile. And some fathers don’t seem to participate a lot, just like Isaac.

And what about Esau? Did he have special needs? Was he unloved by his mother? Was he the hunter because his mother didn’t think he was smart enough to be a professional? A professor of mine in graduate school suggested that Esau was the first case of someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. He was so ADD that he thought his hunger would cause him to die. “What good is my birthright if I am going to die?” If he had special needs, shouldn’t his parents have protected him better? Clearly, his inability to use proper judgement was expensive. A teacher of mine once described that when her son comes in the house claiming to be “dying of hunger,” she responds, “don’t act like Esau.”

So, if our ancestors are human, why is their story divine? Perhaps to teach us that we humans can also be divine. The Torah is the story of our people, warts and all. And just like with our own personal stories, we make mistakes, we struggle for the right think to do, and if we are lucky, we can still get a blessing or reconcile wrongs. It is up to us to act.

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