CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

It’s carob time again! Come Tu B’Shvat, congregants, Hebrew School students and those who attend Jewish Day Schools prepare themselves perennially to hear all about their “raisin” d’etre.

Perhaps it’s time to branch out, and leave the almonds, figs, and dates alone and look to the trees for a different source of nourishment. Perhaps its time for the trees to whet our appetite for everyday living.

It was the French philosopher, mystic and political activist Simone Weil who taught us: “Whoever is uprooted himself, uproots others; whoever is rooted himself doesn’t uproot others.” Have you ever wondered why with but one exception throughout our  history, we Jews do not seek to persuade non-Jews to see the light and embrace Judaism? Can it be that that our religious leaders have been so well rooted in the religion they represent, that it never occurs to them to try to get those of a different faith to see the light? Conversely, have you ever wondered why over the ages, Church leadership, particularly in Europe, went to such great lengths to get Jews to abandon and forsake Old Israel and embrace Christianity? Were they really that concerned in saving Jewish souls or perhaps subconsciously, they themselves were anything but firmly rooted in their own faith?

In my talk this past Shabbat, I spoke about how I “played hooky” the previous Monday morning  and traveled to Hunt County with Sue Kretchman. Our mission was to visit a nonagenarian who, as a teenager in Germany, was part of the Kinder Transport. Truth be told, my ego got the better part of me, as we set out. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t repress feelings of self-righteousness. After all, I reasoned, how many other Dallas rabbis would go out on a limb and  visit someone they had never met, who had no connection whatsoever to their synagogue? On the way back from a most delightful, eye-opening, unforgettable visit,  I realized that it was not I who went out on a limb, but the countless, remarkable, selfless strangers first in Holland and then in England who went out on a limb for Jewish children escaping Nazis. These strangers were part of a godly group who dared to refuse to succumb to the Machiavellian machinations  of the Third Reich. Amidst the many trees at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem, where the Six Million are immortalized, there is the Avenue of the Righteous, a walkway where tribute and honor are bestowed upon those who saved Jewish lives. Given the many trees, I cannot help but feel that that section of Yad Vashem ought to be referred to as “Our undying gratitude to those who went out on a limb.”

If there was one thing in common shared by our prophets in the Tana’ch, it was their inability to see the greater picture. Moshe (yes, Moses is considered a prophet) saw a burning bush. Amos HaNavi or the prophet Amos saw a plumb line. Yirmiyahu HaNavi or the prophet Jeremiah saw the staff of an almond tree. None of them could see the mission that they were about to be sent on. Being able to see the bigger picture is a rare gift among humans. All too often, one small item catches the human eye, blinding that person to the bigger picture.  Adam and Eve were so focused  on the one tree that was off limits to them, that they lost sight of the lush forest full of trees bearing luscious fruits that were theirs for the taking.

As one who spends hundreds of dollars each year planting trees in Israel, I have every reason to believe that in addition to trees and fruit, the message of Tu B’Shvat ought to go far deeper. Aside from indulging in figs and prunes as well as all other fruit associated with Israel, in addition to planting trees in Israel, I ask that you see Tu B’Shvat as a harbinger of codes to live by. As we are asked to focus on trees, I ask that you bear in mind that those who are firmly rooted will not uproot others and that those who are uprooted will try to uproot others. I ask that you recall how indebted we ought to be to those who went out on limb for us. Above all, I ask that you never forget the price that is paid, when one can’t see the forest for the trees.

A meaningful Tu B’Shvat to all!

APPLES AND ORANGES, IT ISN’T

For the last few centuries, if there is one particular food associated with Chanukah, at least for those of us of eastern European descent, it would be the potato. Availability and cost factor aside, I truly believe, that come Chanukah, the potato is not only rich in potassium and vitamin C, but in meaning as well.

It must not go unnoticed, that in languages other than English there exists an intrinsic connection between potatoes and apples. In Hebrew, the word for apple is tapuach. In Hebrew, the word for potato is tapuach adamah or apple of the ground. The very same holds true in French (pomme vs. pomme de terre) and (old) Yiddish (eppel vs. erd epple).

The term “comfort food” dates back at least half a century. When it comes to comfort foods, the potato is way up there on the list. When it comes to comfort festivals, Chanukah is way up there on the list as well. Victory may have a thousand fathers, but Chanukah has over two thousand years in any number of countries celebrated by countless Jews. Perhaps it’s with good reason  that come the Festival of Lights, it is the potato that greets our palate and not the onion or the beet or any other vegetable.  If the tapuach adamah (Hebrew for potato) is a comfort food, then biblically speaking, it is the tapuach (Hebrew for apple) that is the consequence food. Rabbinic discussion aside, the apple a.k.a. the forbidden fruit, resulted in consequences that were far reaching (the Adam’s apple exists to this very day). If Adam and Eve hungered for that which was off limits, the Maccabees were fed up with fellow Jews hungering for that which was off limits. Adam and Eve were the evictees; the Maccabees were the evictors.

There is however more than one way to slice a potato and an apple. As much as they serve as comfort food and consequence food, the potato and apple are both foods of choice, albeit for an entirely different reason.  The potato is food of choice, because when it comes to our history, the Maccabees ought to be seen as a clan of choice. Not once, but at least three times in the Chanukah story, the Maccabees were confronted by a choice: to go to battle against a better trained, better equipped and bigger in number enemy, or not; to go about pillaging, destroying  and raping after victory was achieved, or not; to go ahead and light a paltry one-day supply of oil, or not. Because of this, the potato, the current choice vegetable of Chanukah has become the vegetable of choice. Yet, the apple represents choice as well. Eve, and subsequently Adam were also faced with a choice, when seduced by forbidden fruit, thanks to the serpent’s sales pitch:
eat or retreat. Eve and Adam made a poor choice and paid a price. The Maccabees on the other hand made an excellent choice and profited!

Have you ever wondered why pancakes are smothered in syrup, yet latkes are dipped into apple sauce? One need not be Sigmund Freud to conclude that latkes and apple sauce represent a symbiosis of human behavior, particularly when it involves Jewish heritage. Throughout history, we have, as a people, been confronted by choices. The correct choice (the potato) brings us comfort; the incorrect choice (the apple) confronts us with dire consequences. Each time our leaders or we as individuals made the wrong choice, we paid the price, often a steep price; each time our leaders or we as individuals made the right choice, we profited. Sometimes we even enjoyed a handsome profit.

Perhaps there is more than meets the eye when considering the moniker “Festival of Lights.” In addition to miracles and wondrous deeds, Chanukah sheds light on the connection between the potato and the apple, so very much the mainstay of modern Chanukah munchies. Perhaps the message is in the medium. Perhaps the message conveyed by potato latkes dipped in apple sauce is one that the Maccabees would want us to chew on.

SIT- IN

An etymologist I’m not. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the term “sit-in” dates back close to six decades. It was at a lunch counter in early 1960 at a Woolworths in Greensboro North Carolina where four African American college students remained seated despite the fact that they were refused service. Unbeknownst to those four college students, the very first sit-in involved the descendants of Abraham. It first took place thousands of years ago and continues until this very day. Unlike the sit-in of the four college students, our sit-in not in any way connected to race. Independent of the fact that it was mandated in the Torah, our sit -in seeks to address three inequalities.

The very first inequality is that of physical security. Unlike other people, neither hurricanes nor other acts of G-d serve as stark reminders for us that our houses offer absolutely nothing when it comes to physical security. For longer than we care to remember, Jewish houses have been blown down through the huffs and puffs of anti-Semitism. Stories abound of those who managed to survive Der  Fuhrer’s inferno, having the chutzpah to return to the house where they once lived. The Policja (Polish for Police) were at the scene lest the Zydzi (Jews) caused the occupants any trouble. For us, the Sukkah serves as a reminder that the sticks and stones of our houses will offer as much physical protection as the schach covering.

The second inequality is that we – and that means all of us – have yet to properly understand the divine word. “So that your generations will know that in Sukkot, I seated the Children of Israel when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” explains the Torah (Leviticus 23:43). Absolutely no information exists that our ancestors who left Egypt dwelled in any structure other than tents! Sukkot is a geographic location. Sukkot was the first stop for our ancestors after they had miraculously crossed the sea after leaving Egypt. It would therefore make far more sense to understand that we are required by the Torah to locate a place once known as Sukkot and vacation there for seven days from the 15th of Tishrei until the 22nd of Tishrei! It may very well be that our dwelling in the Sukkah is a statement on our parts showing that the very same  rabbinic sages who were so truly divinely inspired and so unbelievably brilliant in interpreting the Torah, nevertheless had no way of foreseeing the travels and travails of their people. It’s one thing to dwell in a roofless hut in Sachse on Sukkot; it’s quite another thing to dwell in a roofless hut in Saskatoon on Sukkot.

The third inequality is a protest. With Yom Kippur mere days behind us, one would expect that the efficacy of the Day of Atonement to be fresh in our minds as well in HaShem’s heart. If we have been successful in having all of our sins expunged, then our relationship with our Maker ought to duplicate that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Just as they had free reign of pretty much every tree that grew from the ground, so too should be the case with us. The prerequisite of schach (that which grows from the ground but has been detached from the ground) ought to take on a powerful new understanding. By having a Sukkah sit-in, we are in effect demanding the same accommodation afforded to Adam and Eve! If those who are sin-free deserve paradisaical surroundings, then surely the Sukkah with its faux Garden of Eden covering serves the purpose.

Hopefully the Sukkah sit-n will grow in number over the years. Hopefully, the Sukkah sit – in will grow in understanding as well. Let it be a statement on our parts against the supposed physical security of our house, against the fact that our ancestors never dwelt in booths during their forty-year odyssey in the wilderness, against the fact that we fail to realize that dwelling in the Sukkah is our just dessert in that we are Adam and Eve redux.