Raining Cats and Dogs – Parshat Eikev 5776

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Like many children, when I was growing up I had a chore chart. I received monetary compensation for doing small jobs around the house like making my bed, getting the mail, and putting away my laundry. One special responsibility of mine was taking care of our family pet. Part of my allowance was earned for giving our dog her treats in the morning and at night, and for making sure she had food in her bowl. Caring for a pet is often one of the first responsible acts we give our children. Even now at three years old, my daughter Shiri is responsible for helping us feed our dog Stanley at breakfast each morning and at dinner each night.

What you may not know is that feeding your pet is not just a good entry-level chore for a little one, but is actually mandated in our Torah portion this week. Parshat Eikev teaches us in many different ways how to build a community. It begins by asking us to make the choice whether or not we will live according to God’s laws. If we make the “wise” choice, we will be blessed and increase the love and acceptance in the world. Adhering to these laws means, at a basic level, remembering to say please and thank you. On another level, it means remembering that we are a part of something bigger.

Chapter 11, verse 15 implores, “I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle – and thus shall you eat your fill.” The Talmudic commentators took special notice of the order of the words in this verse. The rain doesn’t allow us to eat first; rather, the rain comes so our animals will eat and then we will eat. In other words, the Talmud teaches us that one may not eat before feeding one’s animals. It isn’t just a chore to feed your pets, it is a mitzvah. Taken further, the verse reminds us that our responsibility is to take care of others who cannot take care of themselves before satisfying our own needs. In fact, our own hunger only adds to our empathy for others who are hungry.

God’s weekly chore list includes many obligations to others, but most important is remembering those who cannot feed (or take care of) themselves, including our pets. Responsibility comes in all shapes and sizes, but you’re never too young to learn what it means to care for others.

Original Recipe – Parshat Vaetchanan 5776

Original Recipe

On my father’s side of the family, I come from a line of what I like to call “creative in the kitchen” people.  My Nana was an excellent cook and baker, and my Uncle Larry is an executive chef who loves recipe development.  There are certain dishes that played starring roles in family meals for as long as I can remember.  If you ever want to talk food, ask me about rancho beans or my Nana’s peanut-butter-wrapped, chocolate-dipped cherries.  Those, by the way, were a featured dessert treat at our wedding reception.

I inherited this duality of a love of the classics plus a willingness to add my own spin.  No doubt the basic recipes are fantastic, but I also like to experiment in the kitchen.  That might just mean playing around with my challah recipe by adding chocolate chips or a cinnamon sugar crust if I’m in a sweet mood. For me, the recipe on its own is merely the starting point for the adventure, but in general, following the directions will lead you to the expected outcome.

The Torah provides us with a similar guideline.  It’s considered the instruction manual for living a Jewish life, or in other words, the recipe book.  But one of the biggest puzzles in Judaism is determining how much can we stray from the original recipe and still maintain the integrity of the flavor and structure of the dish, so to speak.

Parshat Vaetchanan, the Torah portion we read this week, continues with the retelling of the laws again here in the book of Deuteronomy.  We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel.  The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society.  Moshe then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema.  

Here’s where we step into the kitchen.  Chapter 4, verse 2 reads, “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.”  Well, that seems clear.  Right there the Torah tells us that this is a recipe for the community to follow to a T.  And yet, as you may have noticed, the world we live in is different than the biblical world of the Torah.  No big shocker.  You just have to go back to the red heifer in Bamidbar to see that many of our original mitzvot aren’t applicable today.  So we’re left with the dilemma of how to live in a Torah-dictated, post-Torah world when we’re commanded not to change it?

The way we’re able to do this without rupturing the space-time continuum is by acknowledging the truth in the words “etz chaim hi.”  It is a tree of life.  We see the Torah as a living organism, and we have precedent for clarifying and extending the laws so that the Torah can change and evolve, adapting to present day.  The tree that is watered and pruned thrives.  The tree that is confined and starved does not.

Going back to the recipe for Jewish living, we’re not taking anything away from the Torah when we apply a modern-day philosophy.  Instead, we’re adding to the recipe to ensure its success for years to come.  Parshat Vaetchanan warns us about changing something that has lived, breathed, and inspired for so many years because it’s a good basic recipe.  But the Torah as a whole teaches us that recipes, like our laws and traditions, are the foundation.  They tie us to the past and give us a jumping-off place for the future.  Your Judaism means adding dash of this, a pinch of that.  The point is just get in the kitchen and cook.  No matter what, you’re going to make Nana proud.

Do You Love Me? – Parshat Devarim 5776

Do You Love Me?

One of my favorite scenes in Fiddler on the Roof is when Tevye and Golde sing their duet “Do You Love Me?” It’s a moment of pure honesty when Tevye questions the state of their marriage after all these years. This kind of emotional check-in is natural; it’s a part of continuing to build a relationship and partnership together. Do you love me? Do you like me? Are you mad at me? These moments happen all the time, perhaps because we’re questioning our own emotions and therefore seek to validate them.

This week in our parshah, we enter into the final book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy). Devarim stresses the covenant between God and Israel and looks toward Israel’s future in a new land as they build a society that pursues justice and righteousness. The central theme of this section of text is monotheism – the belief in one God – and the summation of the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books.

Chapter 1, verse 27 reveals the Israelites’ conversation with Moshe: “It is because the Lord hates us that He brought us out of the land of Egypt to hand us over to the Amorites.” Though their theory is incorrect, it’s understandable that the Israelites would express this concern. They’ve been moved out of the only land they’ve ever known. They’re scared, and so they blame their fear on God instead of reflecting rationally on the situation.

In fact, Rashi interprets this line as “If God really loved us, God would have given us the land of Egypt and sent the Egyptians into the wilderness.” Their fear blinds them to the possibility that, as difficult as the journey has been, it is because God loves them that they left Egypt. In other words, because I love you I’ve given you the chance to grow, change, and build a whole new nation.

“Do you love me?” is mostly a rhetorical question in the musical. We know they love each other. Sometimes we ask questions when we already know the answers, and as our parshah teaches, this validation is often all we need. Even Tevye and Golde acknowledge: “It doesn’t change a thing, but even so, after 25 years it’s nice to know.”