Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reb Suegee's Curried Sweet Potato Soup

There's nothing particularly Jewish about this crazy delicious soup. But Suegee invented it for Ner Shalom's Chanukah potluck, and people wanted the recipe, and so there. The Holy Curried Sweet Potato Soup.

It's vegan by the way.

4 or 5 moderate size sweet potatoes
1 onion
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tsp ginger powdered or 1 tbs fresh grated
1 can coconut milk (unsweetened)
3 cups vegetable stock
salt to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 450
  2. Scrub sweet potatoes and prick skin with fork
  3. Place sweet potatoes on a cookie sheet into oven and bake for 40 minutes or until soft
  4. Remove from oven and cool
  5. Chop onion and saute in several tablespoons of coconut milk until translucent
  6. Add curry powder and ginger to onions and saute stirring frequently until very aromatic, about 1 minute, then add rest of coconut milk
  7. Peel sweet potatoes and and to soup
  8. Add vegetable broth to soup and simmer for about 5 or 10 minutes
  9. Puree soup in batches and return to heat, you may need to add a bit of water until you get the desired texture
  10. Salt to taste, serve with fresh roasted and ground cumin sprinkled over each bowl
Suegee dedicates this recipe to Karen Finley.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Vayeshev 5769 - Dreams are Not to be Messed With

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Dec. 19, 2008.]

Dreams are not to be messed with.

They are big – larger than life. Or smaller than life – sometimes a single moment in time magnified as through a microscope.

Dreams are like angels: fleeting, hard to pin down, demanding to be wrestled with. They fill us with emotion and purpose. They can impel us to act. We wake up and call a loved one to make sure they’re okay. Or we wake up and resolve to try something new or to shy away from something else.

We use the same word – dream, חלום – to mean both the imagery of our sleeptime and our most deeply held desires.

Of course, some dreams are exactly lifesized. For instance, Ari, our 7-year-old. On Tuesday he, along with our babysitter Amy, took out the compost. Then Tuesday night he had a dream. In his dream, he, along with our babysitter Amy, took out the compost.

Some dreams do not look like your life, but are instead a portrait of your emotional state. My own dreams are moody and full of emotional content, typically anxiety. If I had been Jacob in the Parashat Vayetzei, which we talked about two weeks ago, it would have gone like this:
  1. And Irwin took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed and behold there was a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and the angels of God were going up and down upon it. And Irwin looked down and realized he was severely underdressed for the occasion. And behold, the Lord stood beside him and spoke to him, while Irwin furtively looked around trying to figure out where he'd put his nice clothes. This thought led Irwin to realize that he also had no idea where he had left the children. And Irwin chewed on this worry, and as he chewed he became aware that most of his teeth were loose.
That’s how it would have gone. Yes, it’s self-involved. But Joseph’s dreams were no less self-involved. Do you remember what his dreams were? He and his brothers collecting sheaves of wheat and the brothers’ sheaves bowing down to Joseph’s. Then a second dream: the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing before him. These dreams are so superficial, even his family understood them. His brothers already hated him, and now were thoroughly outraged. Even Jacob disapproved of Joseph revealing these self-serving fantasies.

Now: were these dreams prophecies?

Talmud says dreams are one sixtieth part prophecy. This sounds discouraging – don’t even bother listening to your dreams, Talmud seems to say. Perhaps this was an effort to prevent Jews from seeking out interpreters of dreams – say, astrologers and psychiatrists – instead of relying on God.

On the other hand, one sixtieth, though tiny, is not nothing. One sixtieth is a formulaic number in our tradition, sort of like 40 days and 40 nights. It suggests something which, although infinitesimal, is nonetheless meaningful. For instance, under Jewish law, if one sixtieth part of a dish is unkosher, the whole dish is rendered treyf. So one sixtieth means something. One sixtieth can affect things. One sixtieth of your dream is meaningful prophecy. But how do you know which is the right sixtieth?

Unlike the rest of us, the reliability of whose dreams is officially limited to one sixtieth, Joseph seems to get a perfect score. All his dreams came true. So did they come true because they were prophecies? Or were they desires that Joseph made come true?

That is how I like to think of Joseph. Torah presents him as the spoiled favorite. But on the credit side of the ledger is that he had ten older brothers who hated him so deeply they would actually plot to kill him, so one must cut him some slack. He was the clever kid, the talented one, the gifted child, in what Torah really does describe as a family of brutes. Yes, he was vain, but having that much self-esteem while living among those who hate you might be considered a kind of resistance, no?

Now the story of Joseph being sold into slavery is confounding. First the brothers want to kill him. Then instead they put him in a pit to sell him to the Ishmaelites. Then they take a lunch break. They come back and find Joseph gone. We know he was taken by Midianites to be sold into slavery in Egypt. Arguably the brothers don’t know this. They actually do think he’s dead at the hand of some beast. One of our sages points out that the traders would not have taken Joseph if he or anyone else had voiced opposition. If there were relatives who would come after him, the merchants couldn’t have counted on having free and clear title to their new property, and would not be able to resell him with a credible warranty. So why didn’t Joseph object? And of course, if he’d put up a loud fight when being nabbed by the Midianites, you’d expect his brothers to have heard it at their picnic. But no. So Joseph didn’t object and he didn’t scream.

I think Joseph had many more dreams than Torah tells us. Whether actual prophecy or pure desire, they were dreams that said get out. Get away. Get free. Did it ever occur to any of us that perhaps on some level Joseph staged his own abduction? When Jacob gave him the errand that took him to his brothers, he immediately said hineni – here I am – just like Abraham in the story of the Binding of Isaac. It is an expression of total willingness, almost eagerness, even though we know from Torah that nothing good seems to come from jumping up and saying hineni.

“Get free,” said Joseph’s dreams. Find an exit. Start over. New land. New language. New customs. Get out. And he did.

Did Joseph tell his brothers his dreams because he was clueless? Or did he realize that the very act of telling of those dreams would set their fulfillment in motion; it would trigger a chain of events resulting in his own exile and his own liberation?

Yes, this is a very romantic idea. The story is a fine one as written. But I’ve always felt bad about Joseph, and haven’t liked to hear him talked about as arrogant or to watch him suffer. So this year I’m telling myself the story this way. Joseph staged it. Joseph escaped. Joseph did have dreams, but he took action to make sure they came true.

Perhaps dreams are what you make of them. Perhaps that is the nature of prophecy. Prophecy is not the gift of seeing the future, but the ability to recognize possibility in the present. And then it is up to each of us to seize the day, seize the dream, and act. What are your dreams? Have you seized them? Have you acted on them? Is it really too late?

“What will become of his dreams now,” his brothers snicker. Little did they know that dreams are far more powerful than plots. Dreams are not to be messed with.

And so, knowing this, מה יהיו חלומותיך,what will become of your dreams?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Vayishlach 5769 - Demanding Blessing

[Written for Congregation Ner Shalom Malakh Newsletter, December 2008]

This month's batch of Torah portions furthers the tale of our patriarch Jacob, whose life seems riddled with difficult dualities. He is a twin -- the younger one who, by law, will receive neither property nor blessing. But he suckers his brother out of the birthright and engages in an elaborate ploy to nab the paternal blessing that might have been his by Divine intent, but certainly wasn't his by custom. After reversing the balance of that sibling duality, he flees his furious brother and comes to his uncle's house where he's presented with another duality -- the sisters Leah and Rachel. Here he tries, and fails, to upset the expected order. He wants the younger, he gets the elder, and has to pay dearly to change this. The price tag on this reversal -- ultimately 14 years of labor -- perhaps exceeds even the exile and estrangement (and lentil stew) that the first reversal cost him.

But one more struggle of duality awaits Jacob. On the eve of his reunion with his estranged brother, Jacob is accosted by an ish (איש) - a man - who wrestles with him. Our sages understood the ish to be an angel, and in fact some saw it as the Archangel Michael. Michael, in Midrash, declares his jealousy: the angels are God's firstborn, yet humans are God's favorite. Michael is God's first priest, but Jacob-come-lately is God's special one.

This time Jacob fights back. After all the injustice of having to struggle and steal and toil to achieve what he understood to be God's will, to gain what God could simply have granted, he demands God's blessing. He pins the angel and won't let go until he gets it. He is blessed and renamed Israel -- the God-wrestler.

Perhaps this is in some way a parable, or an ancient memory, about change itself. The new idea does not peaceably inherit from the old idea. It struggles, it fights, it hangs on for dear life. And, ultimately, it wrenches away the blessing. So for us too, with our new ideas -- about God, about love, about how to live, about how to save the Earth -- all these require struggle. But our struggles can unleash untold blessing. As we do our work in this world, let us balance persistence (Gevurah in our mystical tradition) with love (Hesed) so that we may arrive at Tiferet -- the splendor of resolution and integration that our tradition ultimately associates with Jacob...and all Israel.

Vayetzei 5769: A Two-Way Ladder

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA, December 5, 2008]

Parashat Vayetzei opens with one of the most potent and memorable images that Torah gives us. It is oddly stuck into the middle of a melodramatic plot line. Jacob is fleeing his brother's wrath after having stolen the blessing that their father, Isaac, had reserved for him. Jacob pauses for the night on his way from Beer Sheva to Charan and this is what Torah says happens:
  1. He came to a familiar place and spent the night there because the sun had already set. Taking some stones, he placed them at his head and lay down to sleep there. He had a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven. God's angels were going up and down on it. And behold he saw God standing over him.
God then goes on and gives Jacob a similar blessing to the one that God gave Abraham and Isaac.What jumps out at you as odd here? Because our sages love the odd. If all in Torah were straightforward, we’d have no commentary, no Midrash, no Talmud. What here troubles or interests you?

Here are three among many items that are worthy of comment:
  1. Jacob uses a rock as a pillow.
  2. God speaks to Jacob in a dream instead of directly. Why?
  3. The angels go up and down, not down and up.
Addressing the second question first, God certainly didn’t need to give Jacob this vision at all. God could have spoken directly and blessed directly. Somehow this particular image, though, must be important for Jacob - and for us who read Torah. There is something to be learned from it that we wouldn’t have gotten from the blessing alone.

So why “up and down” not “down and up”?

The rabbis went crazy with this one. They understood "up and down" to be sequential, and they struggled to figure out why angels would originate on earth and not in heaven. Shouldn't they start above? Some of their answers were practical. The angels, like police officers or newspaper boys, had regular beats. At the end of your land, your accompanying angel loses jurisdiction. So your angel ascends again to heaven. Who descends? The angel who will accompany you on the next leg of your journey.

Some answers were more political. The angels here are the collective avatar or embodiment of different nations. They might all rise and have their heyday, but then they will all fall again. In Roman times, when the end of the Roman empire was not in sight, this was an expression of a hope that change would come and Roman oppression would end.

I like to think of this instead as a model, a road map, for our relationship with the Divine. It’s a two way street. But the traffic starts from right here. Right now. It involves our dispatching our angels, our messengers, out into the Divine realm first. In other words, we don’t wait for God’s angels or words or revelation or even inspiration to come to us. We don’t wait for the Divine message. We instead must open ourselves up to it by starting the climb. Sending out our feelers. Looking for the Divine. Acting in accordance with our sense of the Divine. We send the first email, and God hits reply.

As is the case with all Jewish ideas one can think of, this is not a new idea. There is a longheld element of our theology that our actions force the hand of God. Can you think of examples? Some see prayer that way. Some see acting for justice that way. It becomes imbued with blessing as we engage in it. Have you ever had that experience? Doing something that is right, standing up for something that is right, and by the time you’re done, it feels like you were acting out God’s will.

There’s a story that we’ll get to in a few weeks that when Pharoah decreed that all male Hebrew children should be drowned, the Israelite men refused to sleep with their wives, so that there would not be new babies to suffer this. The women, however, according to Midrash, realized that by doing this, the men were punishing the female babies along with the male babies, by preventing any of them by being born. So the women, in an act of resistance to Pharoah’s decree, seduced their husbands. And that seduction was what aroused God to resist as well, and to begin the act of redemption.

Our Kabbalistic tradition is full of theurgy – ways to force the hand of God through elevated consciousness.

But even without elevated consciousness, I think this particular vision is telling us that if we start the communication, the Divine will come. If we act in ways that are Godlike the Divine will come. If we open ourselves up to the possibility of the Divine all around us, then we will see it.

So why a rock under the head?

Because a rock under your head is uncomfortable. When we reach out to be open to the Divine, the transcendent, the magical, we have to do it from where we actually sit. You can’t and shouldn’t wait for the ideal moment and perfect surroundings to speak to the Divine in the world. Jacob was in the desert, not in a garden. His head was on a rock, not a meditation pillow. He wasn’t at an ashram, or in a temple or in a lotus position next to a babbling fountain. He was in an uncomfortable, probably painful, probably cold, place.

At the end of the blessing Jacob wakes up with a start and says:
  1. God is truly in this place but I did not know it. How awesome is this place! It must be God's temple. It is the gate to heaven.
If it looked like Eden, he might not have been so surprised to have met God there.

So we seem to be instructed not to hold out for the perfect corner in the perfect temple with the right didjeridoo music in the background. It is in our lives – our uncomfortable, sharp-edged, ugly, noisy, busy, rocky, coarse lives – that we must set up our ladders. We must practice looking around when we’re doing laundry and when reading a book and when boarding the bus, smelling its diesel fumes. When we lie down, when we rise up. Etc. It can be anywhere, any time. Including in the 100 year old Cotati Women’s Club. In joy, in sorrow, and in the particularly challenging realm of the trivial.

Wherever you are, consider a practice of taking a moment to stop and say to yourself, God is here and I didn’t even realize it. This is all a miracle and I didn’t notice. מה נורא המקום הזה - Mah nora hamakom hazeh.
How awesome is this place. Send out your angels there and then. And angels will be sent back to you.

Chayei Sarah, 5769: Post Trauma

[Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, Cotati, CA, November 21, 2008.]

This week we read the parashah called Chayei Sarah. To my mind, this parashah is notable for its mood of “aftermath” or “anti-climax”. It follows on the heels of one of the most action-packed parashiyot in Torah, Vayera, in which angels knocked on the tent flap. Heirs were promised and delivered. The barren gave birth. A man bargained with God. Cities were destroyed. A woman looked back at her past and turned to salt. A handmaiden was sent into exile with her son. A child was tied to a rock on a mountaintop and watched as his father raised a knife to slaughter him. A ram, held in reserve since the last day of creation, appeared to take his place. And an angel opened the handmaid’s eyes so she could find water to save herself and her son.

But that was last week’s parashah.

This week Vayera is over. Chayei Sarah begins. And it has a definite acrid flavor of post-trauma. The stale breath of the morning after.

Here is what happens in the aftermath of Vayera. Sarah dies. A bewildered Abraham hustles to find a burial place. Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. The servant stumbles upon Abraham’s niece, Rebecca, and recognizes her to be Isaac’s basherte, his destiny, or at least history’s basherte. Abraham remarries and has more children. Abraham dies at a very old age. Isaac and Ishmael bury him alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.

It is this last image – of Isaac and Ishmael together, side by side, wielding shovel and pick to bury their father – that gave me pause this year. The reuniting and realigning of warring factions in the face of tragedy. At least that’s what I first thought.

And why not? Weren’t Isaac and Ishmael warring? Genesis is full of stories of sibling tension – Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and all the others. Even Rebecca, in this week’s parashah, seems suspiciously eager to follow Abraham’s servant and put some miles between herself and her brother Laban. So sibling rivalry giving rise to actual enmity and episodes of violence seems to be a dominant theme throughout Genesis. Don’t Isaac and Ishmael fall into that paradigm?

Many of our sages thought so. They attributed to Ishmael every possible self-serving motivation, so that his fate, being turned out into the wilderness with his mother, would seem more deserved. The rabbis undoubtedly had their view colored by the fact that relations between the Jews, who are descendants of Isaac, and the Ishmaelites, were, in their time, not always smooth. Nor are they so smooth today, although there have been better times between us in the past.

Torah itself, however, is silent about who Ishmael was, what he was like, what motivated him. We know he was conceived at Sarah’s behest, to provide Abraham with an heir. We know he did something with or to Isaac – metzachek (מְצָחֵק) is the Hebrew word – that caused Sarah to demand his exile. Whatever it was could have been spiteful. Or it could have been playful. Some of the sages say he was mocking Isaac; others that he was teaching Isaac to worship false gods; one says he was using Isaac as target practice with his bow and arrow. But truthfully, Torah doesn’t explain what he was doing, but does imply he was still a child when he did it. He and his mother, Hagar, are banished to the wilderness; they run out of water and of hope; until an angel opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a spring. Torah tells us Ishmael grew to become a master archer. Then he’s written out of the story, except for this one brief cameo appearance, burying Abraham at Isaac’s side.

But before we get all mushy about Ishmael’s mistreatment, let’s look at what happened to the one who didn’t get away. Isaac. He was a miracle baby, born to fulfill a God-promised destiny. That of itself is a tall order. Then he is brought to a mountaintop where he is tied down and watches as his father, playing a mind-numbing game of chicken with God, raises a knife to kill him. Alas for Isaac, it is God’s angel, and not Abraham, who concedes the game. But whether God was testing Abraham or Abraham was testing God is not, from Isaac’s perspective, a terribly meaningful question. Isaac saw the knife, and midrash has it that that is when his vision began to fail. By old age Isaac is blind. Meanwhile, unlike Abraham his father and Jacob his son, Isaac is never an actor. He is always acted upon. His father raises a knife to him; others choose his wife; his wife and son trick him into giving the firstborn’s blessing to his second-born child. Isaac’s life, once he gets off that rock, seems never to get itself together again. He lives out the reverberations of his childhood trauma passively until the moment of his own death.

So are Isaac and Ishmael enemies? At first I thought, aha! This is a parable about the healing that can come later in life. Isaac and Ishmael are enemies, but at their father’s death they make amends. But on the other hand, Isaac and Ishmael might not be enemies, but allies – both having suffered at the hand of their father, both having been sacrificed for the sake of history, for the sake of a great destiny. I can’t help but think about political children in our own culture – Sarah Palin’s pregnant daughter, the Obama children, still famously puppy-less, not to mention a half-dozen Kennedys – who have had or will have to recover their own lives someday when and if they are their own to live. I wondered if Isaac and Ishmael envied each other – Ishmael wanting legitimacy and belonging; Isaac imagining what he might have done that day if he’d known how to shoot a bow and arrow.

At some point in thinking about this possible Isaac-Ishmael alliance something occurred to me. In those days, as in Jewish tradition now, when someone died, they needed to be buried right away. How did Ishmael get there so fast? He lived in the wilderness of Paran. Perhaps a messenger on camel was sent off at a gallop, but then who sent the messenger? If Abraham was already dead, then Isaac did. Which means Isaac knew where to find Ishmael. But Torah, which loves the detail of the camel journey, doesn’t tell us that.

Maybe, more plausibly, Ishmael was already there. It was Isaac and Ishmael together who nursed their father in his final illness. And maybe, just maybe, Abraham and Isaac were in communication with Ishmael all throughout the long years. Why not?

I looked to see if our tradition offers any support for this. And sure enough, according to one midrash, when Abraham helped ready Hagar and Ishmael for their exile, he attached a dirdur – a small wheeled wagon – to her belt, so that it would leave a trail that he could later follow. And in the same midrash, Abraham actually takes journeys to visit Ishmael. This tradition offers us a different view of Ishmael and Isaac, not as bitter enemies, but more like children of divorce, separated geographically but brothers nonetheless.

From here, in a drash like this, one could extrapolate to say something about siblinghood, or about families, broken families, communities, nations, Jewish-Arab co-existence, co-existence in general. Or something about trauma and healing. When I read these parashiyot, I sometimes like to pretend that they’re a dream. Because in a dream all the characters are you. You are Isaac. You are Ishmael. You are also Abraham. So close your eyes for a moment. And think back, back, back to a time when you banished some part of yourself. A dream, a belief, an outlook, a talent. Something from your youth that you felt was incompatible with your destiny. What was that part of you that you banished? Appreciate for a moment the beauty and familiarity of that part of you, even after all these years. Set that piece aside for a moment, knowing it’s not going anywhere.

Now think about what you kept. The part of you that fit with what you saw for yourself. Has it been everything you wanted? Has it been some of what you wanted? Appreciate for a moment that it has weathered trials and sacrifices, and that it has allowed you to survive.

Now imagine those two versions of you looking at each other. Be one, then be the other. Go up and back. Smile at each other. Imagine that whatever need there was to split you in two has expired and is ready to be put to rest.

Imagine that even though you’ve been separated from each other, the other hasn’t really been missing, but has been nearby all along, watching, waiting for your call, completely up to date. Go ahead, embrace. You know you want to.

As Reb Yiskah Rosenfeld reminded us recently, on Shabbat we each receive a second soul – maybe that part of you that you sent away and that you’ve always missed, maybe that is your second soul, your missing twin. Maybe Ishmael is Isaac’s second soul, and Isaac is Ishmael’s. It is now Shabbat. Rejoin. Rejoice.

Imagine now how it might be if you stayed in this embrace in everything you do. All your parts working. Your dreams and desires intact. How grateful would you feel? How grateful do you feel now? Let yourself overflow with gratitude. Kosi revayah Truly, my cup overflows.