The Lasting Supper

We were sitting around the table at Friday night dinner, eating up a storm. My step-grandmother Sandra made a scrumptious feast of home-baked challah, sweet and sour meatballs, delicious chicken and more. My twelve-year-old sister Mira finished her dinner quickly (since meatballs are her favorite). Sandra remarked, “I spent days preparing this meal, and it’s gone in five minutes!”

What a depressing thought! In the subsequent weeks, Sandra’s statement haunted me. While cooking on Fridays, I’d feel disheartened. Why am I spending the day making a nice meal that will quickly disappear?

In this week’s parasha, the Israelite tribes bring an offering to celebrate  the completed tabernacle. The leader of each tribe brings the same present each day for a twelve day period. Members of the tribes surely spent many hours making the silver dish and bowl and golden spoon of exactly the correct weight, filling them with flour and oil for the meal offering, and choosing the choicest animals. I wonder how each tribe felt after their offering day was complete. Were they disappointed that the gift they had worked so long to prepare was past?

Whereas they may have thought their gift only lasted one day, their story is read now, thousands of years later, and will continue to be read long into the future. The offerings lasted far longer than they thought.

This idea reminds me of a midrash about the ram in the story of the binding of Isaac. In Genesis, when Abraham nearly sacrifices his son Isaac, at the last moment he sees a ram caught in a thicket which he offers instead. In the biblical account, the ram’s part is fleeting. He appears on the scene and is immediately killed and consumed in flames. Yet, in Pirkei de Rabi Eliezer, the rabbis argue that the ram’s role was not over. Rabbi Hanina taught that no part of the ram went to waste. Its dust became the foundation of the altar in the Temple. Its tendons became the ten strings on the harp of King David, and its skin became the girdle that the Prophet Elijah wore. The horns of the ram became shofars, one of which was blown at Mount Sinai and the other of which will be blown in the future at the messianic time of the ingathering of the exiles.

I’m unsure how the mechanics of this miraculous preservation of the ram’s parts works. Nonetheless, this fanciful midrash makes an important spiritual point – that our efforts may last longer than we think.

What is true of the offerings of the ram and at the dedication ceremony can also be said about dinner. I once cooked a brisket when my sister Mira was at my house. Mira told me, “You’re a good cook, so am I. We come from a long line of good cooks.” Mira inherited confidence in cooking from her grandmother Sandra to her mother Melissa to her and she will hopefully transmit that skill to her children as well. 

Whereas Sandra thought the food she made was gone in minutes, it actually lasted far longer. The love and confidence contained therein persists.

So Sandra, I beg to differ with you. I don’t think the meal was gone momentarily. Like the ram, your cooking endures – perhaps even until the time of the Messiah.

Summarizing Two Decades -- and Millenia

A college friend of mine recently found me on Facebook. We hadn’t spoken to each other since graduation, but I was happy to hear from him. Since we had been out of touch for so long, he began by summarizing the last nearly twenty years of his life. In a few bullet-pointed sentences, he concisely explained how he had started a Ph.D. program, left to work in the corporate world and married and had a child. I was surprised how such a long period of time could be encapsulated so succinctly, and I did my best to describe my adulthood in a few brief sentences.
On reflection, I realized that the past decade of my life could be summarized in just one sentence — a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Genesis 25:22. This verse describes Rebecca’s experience of being pregnant: And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, ― If so, why this me? And she went to inquire of God.”
This week’s Torah parasha Toldot (Generations) tells the story of Rebecca and Isaac becoming parents. The parasha explains that Rebecca and Isaac had struggled with infertility. However, once they conceived, Rebecca found that pregnancy was much harder than she had anticipated. She was in a great deal of pain and called out to God. Her fragmented question: “if, so, why this me?” indicated the depth of her anguish. Her question was an existential one; she longed to understand her place in the world.
Rebecca sought God, who then responded to her in turn. Until this point in the Torah, God had spoken to other people, but Rebecca was the first person to take the initiative to address God directly and prompt God to answer.
God told Rebecca that she was pregnant with twins, and that these children would each lead a future nation. In responding, God didn’t remove Rebecca’s pain but helped her see the bigger picture by imparting significance to her suffering. God reminded her that her life — and her current pain — was a part of something larger, and this purpose gave her strength to endure.
Rebecca went lidrosh “to inquire” or seek God. This verb is the root of the later word midrash (which means the interpretation of Torah). Rebecca’s quest serves as a paradigm for the process of Torah study, which seeks to gain an understanding from God of our life’s purpose.
Like Rebecca, I too found child-rearing more difficult than anticipated. This experience prompted me to question my place in the world and reassess my priorities. Through the vehicle of Torah, I turned to God for answers and discovered new meaning in life. This insight doesn’t remove the struggles of raising children but imparts a sense of fulfillment. Rebecca’s verse captures the spiritual journey of parenting.
The verse also encapsulates the spiritual quest of the Jewish people since Rebecca’s time. Throughout the generations, the Jewish people have found life far more challenging than we anticipated. In crises, we turned to God and asked repeatedly, “If so, why this me?” Through Torah, we sought and seek our purpose. In turn, God doesn’t remove our suffering but reminds us that our actions have ultimate significance. This understanding has given our people the strength to persevere through the ages.
As it turns out, summarizing a decade or five millennia is easier than it seems. Only one sentence is needed: “The children struggled within her, and she said, ‘if so, why this me’ and went to inquire of God…” The rest is history.

The Un-birthday Gift

            Each year, a few days before each of my children’s birthdays, a package arrives at the door from Louise, my former congregant. Inside the package are two wrapped presents – one to the child whose birthday is coming and one to the sibling. The present for the birthday child has a card saying “Happy Birthday” from Louise and the present to the sibling has a card which says “Happy Un-Birthday” from Louise. The “un-birthday” present is typically small in size – such as alphabet stamps or a book – but its impact on my family has been immense.

            On the morning of my son’s birthday, my daughter woke me up at 6:00 am announcing, “I’m ready for my un-birthday present from Louise.” The un-birthday present allowed her to greet the day with excitement. The day of a sibling’s birthday can be hard for a small child, causing them to feel left out or jealous as their brother or sister is showered with gifts and attention. However, the un-birthday present makes the sibling feel special and allows them to enjoy fully the magic of the day.

            My children don’t see Louise often, but she has developed a relationship with them as the one who remembers them on their “un-birthday” each year. As I cherish these packages, I started to think of the un-birthday gift as not merely a present but a way of life. The giver thinks about who might feel left out or lonely at a given time and through an act of kindness, brings them joy.

            This approach is echoed in this week’s Torah portion, called M’tzora, which means one who has a skin disease. As a result of this infection, the afflicted person had to be separated from the community until they recuperated. The parasha opens with God instructing Moses how the priest should help reintegrate the recovered person into the community. God explains that the priest should go outside the camp, “and see,” and if the affliction has been healed, conduct a ritual of purification.

As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, the moment of recovery from a serious illness entails a mix of feelings – including relief and happiness which may be coupled with “resentment over what had been gone through as well as envy of people who had remained healthy.” Anticipating these feelings, the priest is “not to wait” until the person comes to him, but rather to go to meet that person where he or she is. The priest needs to take the initiative and reach out to the person who is in an emotionally delicate state.

I have also known others who have followed this priestly approach – such as Toby Lee, of blessed memory, who was also my congregant. Toby was always the first to invite newcomers to the community to her home for Friday night dinner. When she realized I would be alone for Friday night dinner, she invited me to her home week after week, and we shared countless meals together.

The examples of the priest, Toby, and Louise challenge me to wonder: Who can I reach out to? Who is in an emotionally delicate moment – whether recovering from an illness, new to the community, facing a difficult transition, or even feeling a bit sidelined in another’s moment of joy? What kind word or action can brighten their day?

As we approach Passover, this week’s parasha reminds us that it’s not always the grand, sweeping gestures like the splitting of the red sea that distinguish between affliction and freedom. Sometimes, liberation can come in a smaller package.