Friday, November 20, 2009

Giving Thanks (Or: Ode to Tofurky)

Ahhh....Thanksgiving.  One of my favorite holidays.  Richly meaningful.  And richly delicious.
I've written in the past about the seasonal trauma that Thanksgiving sometimes wreaks on students returning home for the holiday (and their parents).  If you're a parent or student in that situation, re-read my post here.

As for the culinary delights of the holiday, what do you like to eat?  I'm a huge fan of mashed potatoes.  Check out the Food Network's List of 50 Mashed Potato recipes.  I'm going to try out the Sweet Potato-Apple one later this weekend....(Yes, my wife is a little skeptical.)

For the vegetarians and flexitarians among us, how about a shout out to extol the virtues of Tofurky!  You can roll your eyes all you want.  I love it. 

 But even I have my limits:

Of course there's so much more to the holiday than just the food!  There's all the drama associated with Thanksgiving travel.  If you've ever been hit with holiday travel stress, then "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" is worth watching again!

As far as other Thanksgiving themes are concerned: this week's Torah portion (Parshat Toldot) tells the story of the dysfunctional relationship between twin brothers Jacob and Esau.  It's perfect timing for any of us who have struggled with our own  family relationships, which sometimes come to a boil around the holidays.  Check this out for some tips on avoiding a full family meltdown.  Better yet: embrace your family's wackiness by laughing about it.  What better way to do that than by also laughing at other's people's families (like the ones in the movies)!  (I'm a fan of "The Family Stone" - ok, it's a Christmas movie, and not a Thanksgiving one, but the family dynamics are the same!)  Check out clips from the movie here.

All of that aside, there are some serious issues that are worthy of our consideration on this Thanksgiving.


Given that the Dept of Agriculture announced this week that the US was facing its highest rate of food insecurity (number of families that struggle to put food on the table) since such surveys began in 1995, we should be acutely aware, during this holiday season, of those around us who are in need.  This is some very tangible evidence (of data collected months ago) of the toll that the economic crisis is taking on families.  Perhaps your families have been hit hard during the last year as well.  (Click here for the San Diego Jewish community's response to the crisis.)

With the economic crisis in mind, we have this interesting Jewish paradox when it comes to Thanksgiving.  On the one hand, our tradition insists that we temper our joy and celebration, when we realize that there are others around us who suffer.  (This is best encapsulated by the famous rabbinic midrash that has God chastising the angels for joyously celebrating in heaven after the Israelites miraculously escaped the Egyptians at the Splitting of the Sea....God teaches us that - no matter how great our own personal blessings are, it is wrong on some level to fully celebrate when other human beings (in the midrash's case, the Egyptians) are suffering in the world.)

The ethos of that midrash is the basis for our Passover seder custom of dipping our finger into the wine for each of the plagues.  Our joy (represented by the wine) is lessened when we recall the suffering of others.

You might consider incorporating a version of that ritual into your Thanksgiving meal: symbolically acknowledging the suffering of others, even during this time of celebration.  (If you're not going to be serving wine at your table, and you don't want to stick your fingers into that Tofurky Jones Soda,  you might just go around and invite anyone who wants to share a story of someone they know who is suffering right now, or to simply call out - and raise your table's awareness to - the many kinds of suffering that exist in the world today (economic, racial, etc.).

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer of Chicago, offers other great suggestions about how to transform your Thanksgiving meal into a seder-like experience.  Check them out here.

We also have a Jewish imperative to give thanks for the abundance of our lives.  Whether you believe that our abundance comes from God, or from the many hard-working people (I'm thinking here of the farmers who toil in the fields and the textile producers who toil in factories) who produce the stuff we consume; nonetheless, we are Jewishly called to give thanks, and acknowledge the gratitude owed to the hard work of others.  For it is only because of them that we are able to enjoy that which we have been blessed with.  A great way to give thanks, after your meal, is to recite the creative English Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) that appears here.

For an even more meaningful Thanksgiving this year, you might consider attending our community's Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service, or Jewish Family Service's Thanksgiving Day Run for the Hungry.

Wishing you and your families a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Binding of Isaac: A Tribute to our Veterans

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayera, includes the haunting text of the Akeidah - the Binding of Isaac.  We Jews have been scratching our head, and wrestling with this text, for as far back as the Torah goes.

For those who don't recall the story - this is the one where God calls out to Abraham and asks (demands, actually) that he offer up his beloved son Isaac as a sacrificial offering to God.  Keep in mind that Abraham is the first Jew, and that the future wellbeing of the Jewish people (total world population of Jews at this point in the story: maybe about 3) most certainly depended on Isaac.

How can we make sense out of a story that is absurd: absurd that Abraham would so willingly sacrifice his son, and absurd (and terrifying) that God would have asked him to do it in the first place?

My ethics (and my identity as a relatively new father) have pushed me in the direction in the last few years of making sense out of this story by critiquing Abraham.  Sometimes biblical characters are anti-role models (i.e. that we read and learn about them so as to do precisely the opposite of what they do!).  It used to be that this was one of those moments for me...where the only way that I could figure out how to authentically deal with the text was by speaking against it, or critiquing it.  (One such critique can be found here, posted by the intellectually provocative humanistic synagogue of Cincinnati.)

This year, though, I'm in a different place.

I was in Canada earlier this week (Toronto to be exact), taking part in the opening portion of the Reform Movement's Biennial convention.  And I was incredibly moved by a phenomenon that I witnessed among the many Canadians that I encountered during the trip: in my hotel, at the convention center, on the streets, and on television. 

You see: practically everyone was walking around with these bizarre red and black felt lapel pins on.  Check out this picture of Prince Charles, currently on an 11 day state visit to Canada.  He's wearing two of them!

I learned that the pins are meant to represent a poppy flower.  Why do Canadians wear the poppy during this time of year?  Turns out: the poppy calls to mind the brave soldiers of World War I (and by extension all subsequent wars) who gave their lives in combat.  (For more on the connection between the flower and the tribute to the troops, see here.)  Canadians honor their soldiers, and their veterans, on November 11th, just like we do.  The only difference is: Canadians wear the poppy.

During this season, patriotic Canadians wear the poppy. 

The amazing thing is: nearly everyone does it.  I was in awe of the phenomenon - primarily (and sadly) because my cynicism made it hard to imagine so many Americans gathering together in solidarity for such a cause.

Contrary to my earlier reading of the Binding of Isaac, the poppy reminds me of the glorified notion of service to our nation - most often in the form of serving in our armed forces - and the sacrifice that so often comes along with it.

Maybe Abraham really should be praised: for being willing to give up the thing that was most precious to him - more precious even than his own life - in the name of a cause (namely: the God he so fervently believed in).

The confluence on this year's calendar of the reading of the Binding of Isaac this Shabbat, and our observance of Veteran's Day this coming week, has got me thinking: what, if anything, are we willing to sacrifice?  What terribly valuable thing (our life, a material object, money, a child - God forbid) would we be willing to put on the line, and potentially give up, in order to defend the cause, belief, or ideology that is at the core of our beings?

Could we ever imagine ending our own lives - like the Jews on Masada did - in order to escape from Roman political and religious tyranny?

Can we ever imagine the sacrifices that former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin surely understood that he was making - sacrifices of risk - as he turned a decades-long career as a soldier into the lauded role of peacemaker?  Last weekend, Jews around the world marked the 14th anniversary of his passing.  San Diego's commemoration of his death will take place - coincidentally - on Veteran's Day.  Click here for more info.

Do you remember the Elton John song called "Sacrifice" from way back in 1989?  Listen to it here:

The song - actually really really depressing - talks about how it's easier for two former partners to live apart in separate worlds, rather than to live together.  If Elton John teaches us that "it's no sacrifice" to live apart, then that must mean that there is a lot of sacrifice that comes with being in a relationship with others (and the logic applies equally, whether we're talking about relationships between individuals or between countries).  We have to compromise during disagreements.  We have to risk getting hurt.  And most of all, we have to be prepared to sacrifice what we cherish most, for what we believe in.

So...on this Shabbat preceding Veteran's Day, I hope we all take a moment to: 1) not be so hard on Abraham the next time we read the Akeidah; 2) thank a veteran (or current soldier) for their dedicated and inspiring service; and 3) begin asking ourselves: Who am I?  And what am I willing to sacrifice for the things that are centrally important to me?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.  I invite you to publicly post a response on the blog, or you can email me for a more private exchange.

Shabbat Shalom.