Apple Ginger Honey Cake

Ingredients· 

For the Syrup:· 
1 cup sugar (7 ounces; 200g)· 
1 1/2 cups unsweetened apple juice (12 ounces; 340g)· 
2-inch piece ginger (2 ounces; 60g), unpeeled, cut in half lengthwise and smashed· 
Zest from 1 medium lemon· 
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (1/2 ounce; 14g), from about 1 lemon· 
4 tablespoons Applejack brandy (2 ounces; 60g) Black DirtDistillery is kosher·

For the Cake:· 
4 large eggs (6.8 ounces; 190g)·
3/4 cup sugar (5 3/4 ounces; 160g)· 
1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt,use about half as much by volume or the same by weight· 
1 cup vegetable oil (8 ounces; 220g), or any other neutral oil·
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger (1 ounce; 30g)· 
2 1/2 cups almond flour (8 ounces; 230g)· 
1 1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts (6.2 ounces; 175g)· 
2 teaspoons (6g) ground cinnamon· 
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg·
2 cups grated unpeeled Fuji apple (12 ounces; 340g), from about 2 medium apples

Getting Ready: Adjust rack to lower-middle position and preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a 9- by 13-I” anodized aluminum baking aluminum pan with parchment paper, covering bottom and long sides of pan. (It’s all right to leave the short sides exposed.) Lightly grease pan with nonstick cooking spray.
For the Syrup: In a 2-quart nonreactive saucepan over medium-high heat, simmer together sugar, apple juice, ginger, and lemon peel until syrup reaches 234°F (112°C) on an instant-read thermometer. Remove syrup from heat and add lemon from heat and stir in lemon juice and Applejack*. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature.
For the Cake: In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine eggs, sugar, and salt. Using a whisk attachment, whip on high until eggs become thick, pale, and ribbon-y, about 10 minutes. With mixer running on medium, slowly drizzle in oil in a thin stream until fully incorporated and thick. Whisk in grated ginger, about 10 seconds, then shut off mixer.
With a flexible rubber spatula, fold in almond flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, and walnuts until combined. Fold in grated apple. Pour batter into prepared pan, lightly tapping on the counter to evenly distribute. Bake for about 50 minutes until top is golden and springs back to the touch.
While cake is still warm, loosen exposed short sides of cake form pan using an offset spatula or putter knife. Using parchment paper as a handle, lift cake out of pan and onto a cutting board. Cut cake into diamond shapes by making a series of diagonal slices in one direction across the cake, then making another series of diagonal slices in the opposite direction. Lift sliced cake, again using parchment, and return to pan. Strain syrup over warm cake using a fine-mesh strainer, then let sit at least 1 hour to allow cake to fully absorb syrup. Serve.

Asian Chicken Sheet Pan Dinner

serves 4
The Sauce 
1/4 Cup Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Honey
2 Tbsp Rice Vinegar
1 tsp Sesame Oil
1 tsp Sriracha
2 garlic cloves – finely minced
2 tsp grated fresh ginger root
2 tsp fresh lime juice
1/2 cup water
1 tsp cornstarch

The Dinner
6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
2 bell peppers, chopped—I like to use different colors
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
1 medium onion chopped
A few handfuls of sugar snap peas, strings removed—you can buy them pre-strung
1 tsp. neutral oil such as avocado oil
4 baby bok choy bunches, cut in half lengthwise
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish—optional 

Pre-heat oven to 400°
In a small bowl, mix the soy sauce, honey, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sriracha, garlic, ginger root and lime juice. Place the chicken thighs in a resealable plastic bag and pour 1/4 cup of the soy mixture over the chicken. Close the bag and refrigerate up to 24 hours. 
Cut up the vegetables. 
Cover your sheet pan with heavy duty aluminum foil, spray the pan with a neutral oil such as avocado oil (the reason I recommend avocado oil is that it has a higher flash point and it is non-inflammatory). 
Put the vegetables except the baby bok choy on the pan, assuming you are cooking the chicken now, drizzle the oil on the vegetables, toss to distribute the oil. Spread vegetables out evenly on the sheet pan.
Pour the rest of the sauce into a small saucepan, add the 1/2 cup water and bring to a boil. Combine the cornstarch with a small amount of cold water and add to the sauce. Let the sauce thicken, then remove from the heat. Place the chicken thighs on the vegetables, pour the marinade from the bag over the chicken. 
Put in the pre-heated oven for 20 minutes. Then take the pan from the oven and add the bok choy, drizzle a little of the sauce on the vegetables and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Be careful here! I lost half the dinner putting it back in the oven!
Remove from oven, drizzle with more of the sauce and, if using, sprinkle with sesame seeds. If you like, you can serve this with steamed rice or cauliflower rice. 

There you have it! Great Asian flavors, lots of good-for-you vegetables and juicy chicken with minimal effort and clean up. Who could ask for more? If you decide you want to marinate the chicken overnight, you could cut up the vegetables ahead of time and make the sauce ahead of time. Put both in air-tight containers and refrigerate. Happy Cooking! 
See you next week!
Debby Rubin

IMPRESSED BY PRESS SECRETARIES

Politics aside, I have a special place for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the first mom to ever hold the job of White House Press Secretary. It was, therefore, more than with a modicum of interest that I read about “Speaking for Myself” a memoir of hers that came out this week. More than a desire to learn more about what goes on in the White House (I have read books by other Press Secretaries, as well) the title stirred a nerve. With the High Holy days soon upon us, “speaking for myself” is a totally inappropriate description of what will soon be taking place as HaShem scrutinizes us to determine whether we merit being inscribed in the heavenly Book of Life. As Jews, we do not speak for ourselves; our deeds speak for us. Moreover, when it comes to learning the latest about us, there is no such thing as Press Secretaries. Unlike public figures, everything about us is a private matter between us and our Supreme being.

There are, however, “Impress Secretaries”. Occasionally, it happens that we surprise ourselves. Occasionally, it happens that we are able to accomplish a feat, that we were certain was above and beyond our capabilities. While we perform a reality check by pinching ourselves to ascertain did this really happen, while we remain dazed, wondering how in the world did we ever accomplish that, HaShem sits up in heaven with a celestial smile on His face. For HaShem, it is a moment of vindication, in that HaShem knew our potentials all along, even if we did not, or were plagued by doubt or insecurity. In addition, HaShem is grateful to us for having provided Him with yet another reason to “shep naches”. At the risk of taking issue with our venerated sages of old, it may very well be that such feats and accomplishments rather than our everyday deeds capture HaShem’s attention for “recording purposes”.

Judaism teaches us that each of us has a good inclination and an evil inclination. I cannot help but feel that each of us, has not only an “Impress Secretary” but a “Depress Secretary” as well. Just as our “Impress Secretary” is there to inform HaShem that we “hit it out of the Ball Park”, our “Depress Secretary” is there to inform HaShem that we “struck out”, because of improper and uncalled for behavior on our part. To cause HaShem consternation due to carelessness or thoughtlessness on our part is very much human. HaShem takes such foibles in stride. After all, HaShem never intended for humans to be perfect. To cause HaShem consternation because of intended and willful cruelty on our part is very much inhuman. Such behavior is intolerable as far as HaShem is concerned. No different than the “Impress Secretary” delivering “naches” news to HaShem, it is the “Depress Secretary” who is responsible for delivering “shandeh” (shame or embarrassment) news to HaShem. Again, meaning no disrespect to our venerated sages of old, it may very well be that such detestable and disgraceful behavior rather than our everyday missteps capture HaShem’s attention for “recording purposes”.

Atonement may very well be one of the most misunderstood words when it comes to what is expected of us during the High Holy days. However meaningful words of contrition and regret might be, they are largely ineffectual. For all the breast-beating that takes place during Yom Kippur services, it would be prudent to bear in mind that deeds carry the day in Judaism, not words. Mitzvot and aveirot – commandments that have been carried out and sins that have been executed are weighed against each other on the heavenly scales during the first ten days of Tishrei each year, not promises and vows. Put differently, what is expected of us with the arrival of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur each year, is how we express ourselves through deeds. It is for this reason, that in addition to an “Impress Secretary” and a “Depress Secretary” each of us also has been entrusted with an “Express Secretary” who is given the task of informing HaShem whether we have expressed that which we have committed to do, through deed.

I wish Sarah Huckabee Sanders much success with her new book. I wish that our “Impress Secretary” has far more to say than our “Depress Secretary”. Last but not least, I wish that “Our Express Secretary” has the easiest job in heaven, because good and noble deeds of ours have already begun to attract notice up in heaven.

OF LABOR AND WORK

How would you define the difference between “labor” and “work”? A cursory search on my part convinced me that the majority who attempt to explain why “labor” is not “work” and why “work” was not “labor” were in the words of the late Professor Edward Gershfield, a mentor of mine, “upgemixed“. With Labor Day next Monday, I share with you, three differences – based on everyday usage in our society – in the hope that it will add greater meaning to the first Monday in September.
Long before the advent of the internet, back in the day, when Americans literally pounded the pavement with the heels of their shoes. As they knocked on door after door and walked into store after store, they would ask either “do you have any work for me” or “are you looking to hire”? I am not aware of anyone ever asking: “do you have any labor for me”? Work is generated by others; labor comes from within. Unions protecting the proletariat from abuses of industry, opt for the term “worker”. ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) and UAW (United Auto Workers) are aptly named. While admittedly looking out for the wellbeing of the worker, their efforts focused on behemoth employers and the concessions they could extract from them. The term “day laborer” is admittedly very much part of our vocabulary, but I can’t help but believe that such a term came into being based on passages from the Talmud looking out for the well-being of the individual who deserved financial reward and/or benefits commensurate with an honest day’s work.
It has been 120 years since the first time clock was invented. I have no idea how factories of today operate, but in the America I was raised, it was totally inconceivable for factories and other places of employment to operate without workers “punching in” as they arrived at their jobs and “punching out” as they left. That way, the employer could be sure that the worker was putting in a full 40 hours before any paycheck was made out. Alternately, when overtime came into play, it was the worker who made sure that he/she was properly compensated for the extra time put in at the job. Not so, the laborer. A laborer – a true laborer is interested in creating and bringing to fruition. Unlike the worker, the laborer counts neither the minutes nor the hours. Unlike the worker, the laborer is his/her own critic and needs no boss or overseer examining the finished product to see if it meets certain standards. The worker puts in hours; the laborer puts in heart and soul. That is why it is perfectly acceptable to ask the former “do you do good work”? That is why it is a derogatory insult to ask a laborer (a term I use interchangeably with artisan) “do you do good labor”?
Interestingly enough, the phrase “Labor of Love” first appears a little over four centuries in the King James Version of the (Christian) Bible. The statement is entirely pareve, assuring us that
G-d is not about to overlook or ignore our “labor of love”. A labor of love is an altruistic act with no expectation of reward – financial or otherwise. A labor of love provides the giver satisfaction and even happiness knowing that time and effort is being given in the hope (but not expectation) that it will impact (even in the smallest way) on the life of the recipient. An ideal labor of love would be delivering a hand-crafted object or a home-baked pie to the door of the recipient replete with a lovely, unsigned note. Part of what makes a labor of love authentic is that while the recipient will know why the gift was sent, the recipient may never know by whom the gift was sent. Perhaps why we speak about a labor of love, but never a work of love.
To me, the term “workers” smacks of Lenin and Trotsky. To me “workers” produced a most pitiful economy and most pathetic society. What has made our country so special, is that in addition to earning a livelihood, so many Americans have made a life for themselves, by giving of themselves, by taking enormous pride in what they produce, and by realizing that there are times to roll up one’s sleeves and put one’s shoulder to the grindstone…just because.

A Meaningful Labor Day to One and All

Salmon with Harissa, Yellow Squash, Zucchini, Grape Tomatoes and Red Onion

4 Salmon Filet – thawed in the refrigerator overnight or in cold water 1/2 hour (Never at room temperature)
5 Yellow Squash – sliced into circles
6 Zucchini – sliced into circles
1/2 Red onion – cut into 1/2” wedges
4 whole garlic cloves – peeled and smashed with the side of your knife 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes – left whole
1/2 cup kalamata olives (optional)
1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup Mina Harissa* (Comes in mild or spicy, but the spicy isn’t particularly spicy to me. Available at Tom Thumb, Preston Forest in the kosher section, Whole Foods, Amazon and probably Tom Thumb at Coit and Campbell.) This harissa is more Americanized than I would prefer, but it is tasty. 
Salt and pepper – to taste
Feta (optional)—Costco has a wonderful Israeli feta by Tnuva  

*Harissa is a North African condiment that comes in many forms. It comes as a spice blend or a paste. Or you can make it from scratch. Every brand is completely different. Milk and Honey and Kosher Palate probably have Israeli brands that are probably more spicy. Mina is more Americanized, but it is tasty and it gets the job done.

Preheat oven to 425°   Wrap your sheet pan in heavy-duty aluminum foil. Spray with olive oil or avocado oil spray. Put your prepped vegetables and garlic (except olives) on the pan. 

Mix the olive oil and harissa paste together. After lightly salting and peppering the vegetables dab about half of the olive oil/harissa mixture on the vegetables, and toss them to distribute the olive oil/harissa mixture.   In this case, we are not going to put the salmon in with the vegetables the whole time because it would overcook the fish. So, put the vegetables in the oven for 20 minutes. Lightly season the salmon filet. After 20 minutes, take the vegetables out of the oven, place salmon filet on top of the vegetables, brush with remaining olive oil/harissa mixture and return to the oven for 8 to 10 minutes until the salmon is done to your preference.   

Remove from the oven, sprinkle with kalamata olives and feta (both optional) and maybe some cilantro or flat-leaf parsley and enjoy! This is also delicious made with different colored bell pepper strips, or you could add a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas. 

This recipe is easily expanded to serve from 2 to as many as you need to feed. Serve and enjoy!

A LEG UP

Although it has been 20 years since the younger of my two children entered college as a freshman, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I read about Lori Loughlin (an actress that I had never heard of) being sentenced to two months in prison for her recent role in a College Admission Scandal. Ms. Loughlin, at the recommendation of William Singer, a college admissions consultant, knowingly falsified applications of her daughter, to give her a “leg up” in being accepted as a student, at the University of Southern California.
With the High Holy Days less than a month away, hopefully, many of us, if not all of us, ought to realize, that concepts such as “admissions” and “leg up” are very much in play, when it comes to being “admitted” into the Book of Life. Unlike students of today applying the colleges of their choice, all who seek entry into the age-old Book of Life are openly provided with a “leg up” in being accepted. This “leg up” is known as Teshuvah. Contrary to what we have been taught, Teshuvah has more than one meaning.

Outside the realm of religion, Teshuvah means an answer or a response. Just as first-graders in our culture are conditioned to hear: “who knows the answer to…”, so too first-graders in Israel are conditioned to hear the word Teshuvah. Yet, Teshuvah is anything but kid’s stuff. Teshuvah is part and parcel of being an adult in the eyes of our tradition. Children are exempt from answering for their behavior. Adults (provided they are of sound body and mind) are required to. Yet, how many of us live our lives, aware of the fact, that our religion holds us responsible for what we do, just as our religion holds us responsible for what we do not do? In either case, we will be required to provide a Teshuvah; in either case, we required to provide an answer. Unlike other religions, our day of reckoning is not an end of life experience, where we hope to gain entry into heaven at the conclusion of our lives; our day of reckoning is an annual phenomenon, where we hope to gain entry into the Book of Life.

Among the many songs that bring me to tears is The Circle Game. Composed and sung by Joni Mitchell, the artist concludes each of its four stanzas, by hauntingly reminding us: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came”. Nonsense! argues our tradition. The entire time period beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, is predicated upon our returning, retracing our steps, examining our missteps and trying to figure out how to properly step up to the plate, the next time. What disappoints HaShem, is not our mistakes; what disappoints HaShem is a failure – or even worse, our refusal to return and revisit where we went wrong so that we can learn from our mistakes and to profit from that experience. Throughout the year, three times each and every weekday, towards the beginning of what is known as the Shemoneh Esreh, we request of HaShem, to bring us back and to His Torah and His service. We conclude that request, with the words: Blessed are You HaShem who desires Teshuvah. Without exception, Teshuvah is translated in the siddur, as “repentance”. Yet, no mention whatsoever is made of our having sinned or transgressed (that’s the subject of the following prayer). Having begun with a request to bring us back, would it not seem more logical to conclude that request with words translated to mean: Blessed are You HaShem who desires that we return or come back?

When all is said and done, Teshuvah is most often translated to mean “repentance.” Although typically seen as a synonym for “contrition”, “repentance” is anything but.” Contrition indicates that the sinner’s soul is a collection of shattered pieces because of the misdeed. “Repentance”  indicates that the sinner has thought over the misdeed that he committed. But thinking over a misdeed does not in any way indicate remorse. What “repentance” ought to suggest at the very least, is that the sinner realized that he has fallen out of HaShem’s favor and hopefully is prepared to do whatever necessary to regain that favor.

Knowing that Judaism is based on personal responsibility and that we will have to have to answer for what we did (wrong) or neglected to do (right), realizing that Judaism insists that we can return and redo, and understanding the importance in rethinking how to gain HaShem’s favor are much more than three different examples of Teshuvah… Each one provides us with a “leg up” in preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, so that hopefully we are a “shoo in” when it comes to being admitted in the Book of Life.

LIP SERVICE

As the horn of a ram or similar animal is taken to human lips this Friday, it would do us well to momentarily mute the Tekiah, Shevarim and Teruah that will be sounded throughout the month of Elul, and to focus on how a defense mechanism of a four legged creature ( horn) abuts a defense mechanism of a two legged human (mouth) and realize, that with but three exceptions (eating, voiding, and propagating) as  pointed out by the Talmud, the similarity ends there.

Unlike an animal, a human being is born with a conscience. Human beings are capable of being able to distinguish right from wrong. It may have taken eating from the Tree of Knowledge for Adam and Eve to develop a conscience, but that conscience was quite evident soon after their regrettable repast. As soon as the first couple heard the sound of HaShem manifesting itself in the garden, Adam and Eve went and hid among the trees. Adam and Eve were aware that they had done something wrong and they attempted (in vain) to evade the consequences. Their son Cain had a conscience as well. In response to HaShem’s question, “Where is Abel your brother”? Cain, out of a sense of guilt, went on the defensive and retorted “am I my brother’s keeper”? Animals, in contradistinction to humans, were not designed to have consciences. If they did, then canines would be nowhere as loyal to humans, even when those humans are undeserving, and humans would not make a “tsimmes”  when an animal shows care, concern and consideration for a human. How else would we explain humans resorting to the aphorism “bull in a china shop” in that the bovine creature is in no way aware of the havoc it creates. The very fact that we humans out of desperation (wrongly) refer to other humans lacking a conscience as “animals”, illustrates that we are very much aware that four legged creatures are devoid of a conscience.

It was the award winning Hebrew and Yiddish poet of Israel, Abba Kovner, who encouraged a new generation of Israelis to “remember the past, live the present and trust the future”.  Humans become aware of the future at a tender age. That’s why it is not uncommon for a three-year old in our culture to  express the following sentiment: “when I grow up…” Humans have the ability and are given the incentive to plan for the future. That’s why there are any number of investment firms touting their expertise in making your money grow, as they vie for your business; that’s why many jobs come with retirement plans where the employer matches the contribution or withholding on the part of the employee.  Preparing for the future among animals is purely instinct. Squirrels forage for nuts to sustain them through the winter, independent of reading the Farmer’s Almanac. While I know nothing about how squirrels communicate with one another, I find it totally incredulous that squirrels would discuss the challenge of collecting nuts in any given year and then compare what it was like to collect nuts the previous year.

Our Talmudic sages were quick to point out (that unlike an animal) that ignorance of the law is no excuse. Stated differently, they maintained that humans should always consider themselves forewarned or responsible when it comes to injuries of others, as well as to damages to their property and estate. How much more so then is an individual’s responsibility to oneself! To be sure, our culture has a track record of destroying animals that have incurred harm. But such animals were destroyed because they were deemed dangerous. The only time responsibility serves as a factor is when that animal is owned by a human, or when that animal has a master. In either case, responsibility falls squarely upon the human, but never upon the animal.

Let the Tekiahs ring along with the Shevarim and Teruah. As they pierce the highest heavens, so too let them pierce the innermost depths of out heart and souls. Let us marvel at tough animal cartilage pressing up against the sensitive human lip. Let us appreciate the contrast between four- legged animal and the two-legged human. With the human, HaShem has every right to expect a conscience that distinguish between right and wrong, an ability to anticipate  planning for the future and a keen sense of responsibility toward HaShem, one’s fellow man and oneself. Failure to do so will result in mere lip service.

NO AX TO GRIND

The Jewish National Fund should have gone out on a limb. Last week would have afforded the JNF yet another excellent opportunity to promote trees. For it was last Tuesday, the Talmud tells us, that a special name was conferred upon the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av. Although still very much in the midst of summer, our rabbinic sages calculated that the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av was the specific date when the heat from the unforgiving sun over Israel, finally begins to dissipate. On that date, our sages declared that no ax may be swung at a tree for the purpose of providing kindling wood for the sacrifices of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Our sages referred to that day as Yom Tavar Magal or the day of the breaking of the scythe or ax.

Although two thousand years have passed since any trees have been felled for the purpose of providing wood for the altar, Yom Tavar Magal ought to live on.

A much overlooked sight for tourists visiting Israel is a monument located in the city of Ramat Gan commemorating ten young Jewish soldiers (the original list, other names were added later) who met their deaths at the end of a British noose. While the English language settles on the word “hanged”, the Hebrew language depicts those who lost their lives as Olei HaGardom or those who went up against the ax. The purpose of employing such phraseology, is that in the eyes of Zionism, the mode of execution employed by the British mattered little, if any. From the Zionist point of view, there was but one difference between the “civilized” British executioners of the twentieth century and the savage Roman executioners who murdered Jews in ancient times. We have no record as to the ages of the Jewish victims murdered by the ancient Romans. We do know however that without exception, that those who went up against the ax of the British were all in their prime of life. Put differently, the ax of the British denied its Jewish victims to benefit from the Tree of Life.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was not the first to caution Jews against despair when he reminded us that the entire world is a narrow bridge and that we must never give in to fear. Two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan expressed a similar sentiment when they handed down the following adage for posterity: Even if a sharpened sword is resting on the neck of person’s neck, it should never prevent the victim from asking for mercy. The two rabbis then cite the following verse from Job 13:15: “Behold, he is about to kill me, shall I not turn to Him in hope”?

As creative as the Roman were when it came to introducing ancient Israel to architecture and engineering, there was a destructive side to the Romans as well. The ancient Romans had no regard whatsoever for forestation or for human life. Accordingly, they did a hatchet job on both. With no regard for either the flora or the fauna, the ancient Romans indiscriminately set about  clearing swaths of land, so that the enemy could no longer seek safety and find refuge deep in the forests; the Ancient Romans used the lumber for military purposes such as onagers (prototype of a wrecking ball used to knock down walls of fortified cities)  and battering rams,  allowing them to break through doors and gates. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan undoubtedly heard and perhaps even witnessed Romans – with no qualms whatsoever – swinging their axes into the necks of Jews. And yet, they adjured our people not to give up hope. Neither Rabbi would ever have claimed to speak words of prophecy. Yet, during any given year, the number of Israelis visiting Italy is amazing; the number of Italians visiting Israel and planting trees is awesome.

Our rabbinic sages were quick to notice the similarity between  shalosh (three) and shalish (military commander). Because of this, they ascribed great strength to trees, a product of the third day of creation. Yet, when iron was created, these great towers of strength began to tremble. They foresaw impending doom, should it ever happen that iron be sharpened into an ax. “Let not your heart be troubled”, said iron to the trees reassuringly. “As long as none of your wood provides us with a handle, no harm will come your way.”

Yom Tavar Magal continues to convey important teachings. It serves to remind us of young Jews who were denied eating from the Tree of Life as they went up against the British sword.  It recalls the optimism of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan who were able to see not only the forest and the trees, but the continuation of vibrant Jewish living as well. It cautions us against placing ourselves in harm’s way. Most of all, it reminds us that there are specific times for an ax to meet a tree. May those times contribute to a better world.

THE KEYS WE HOLD

Although there are better known stories depicting last week’s stain on Jewish history, there is one that holds greater meaning for me than all the rest. It depicts young Kohanim or priests in training, ascending the roof of the Beit HaMikdash with keys to various chambers of the holy edifice in their hands. Turning their faces heavenward, these young Kohanim admitted that they failed in their responsibilities of keepers of the keys. It was therefore only proper and befitting, that they return the keys that they had been entrusted  with by HaShem. No sooner did these young Kohanim toss these keys up in the air, when a heavenly hand emerged, removing the keys from human possession.

While admittedly resorting to idiomatic expressions in the English language, there were three keys that were never offered to be returned by the young Kohanim and could therefore never be accepted by HaShem. Perhaps of even greater importance, these three keys that the young Kohanim refused to surrender served as the very antithesis to those keys returned to HaShem. Whereas those keys returned to HaShem by the young Kohanim symbolized keys of destruction and ruin, the three keys that the young Kohanim adamantly refused to surrender represented keys of perseverance and perpetuity.

The first key that the young Kohanim refused to surrender to HaShem, was the “key of recrimination.” Even if they wanted to, the young Kohanim could not have surrendered the “key of recrimination” because they could not claim exclusive ownership. The “key of recrimination” was a key that was first used by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It was then passed on from  generation to generation. It was Abraham however, who refused to have any part of the “key of recrimination” just as Abraham refused to have any part in the worship of idols. Abraham understood that recrimination and idolatry absolve the individual of responsibility. Idolatry placed everything that went on in this world in the hands of deities: the “key of recrimination” placed everything that went on in one’s own world in the hands of others. In both situations, the individual remained devoid of responsibility. If the “key of recrimination” was in the sole possession of the young Kohanim, and if the young Kohanim had chosen to surrender it to HaShem, then the message of Tisha B’Av would have been: “Just as it was beyond our scope to have played any role whatsoever in the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, so too is it beyond our scope to play any role whatsoever in the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.”

Although never intended as such, it was HaShem who defined our very essence as a people. In a state of anger and exasperation, it was HaShem who told Moshe that our ancestors were a group of “stiff-necked” people. The personality trait of being “stiff-necked” was one that would remain with us as a people from that moment on; that personality trait would prove define our very essence and explain our being able to defy overwhelming odds time and time again. As a people, we are determined and resolute. As a nation, we are contrarians. While I am neither a sociologist nor a historian, it nevertheless appears, that as a people, we Jews seem to thrive in the face of adversity. Stated differently, time and time again, it has been shown that our shining moment as a people often occurs when the chips are down. Despite quotas in Law Schools and Medical Schools in this country a century ago, Jews gained admission as well a grudging acceptance into fields reserved for Christian America. Yet, once admitted and accepted, Jews continued to aspire to the top tier, so that instead of being looked down upon, Jews were suddenly being looked up to. The characterization of being “stiff-necked” turned out to be one of our greatest strengths and attributes as a people. The key of being “stiff-necked” was the second key that the young Kohanim refused to surrender to HaShem.

The human head is more than just home to four of the five senses. The human head possesses  the ability to refine and distinguish those senses. Not only can the human ear hear words, but it can also discern how those words are spoken. Not only can the human nose inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, but it can also distinguish between pleasant scents and unpleasant odors. So too the human eye. Depth perception aside, our tradition maintains that we were gifted by HaShem with two eyes, so that we could use one eye to see how others affect our lives and the other eye to see how we affect our lives. If Jewish sources – religious as well as secular – have taught us anything, it is that we Jews have a tendency to favor the eye that allows us to see how we affect our lives. Whether tragedy or triumph, our focus as a people has primarily been on ourselves, rather than the enemy. Regardless of the hand dealt us, we focus on introspection.  As a result, little, if any energy is expended on grudges or revenge or seeking justice. Instead, most, if not all energy, is directed to picking up shattered pieces, left in the aftermath and building a brighter future. The key to introspection was the third key that the young Kohanim refused to surrender to HaShem.

The time period between last week’s commemoration of Tisha B’Av and next month’s celebration of Rosh Hashanah is designated as seven weeks of consolation. True and meaningful consolation comes about when we realize that that the key to recrimination, the key to being stiff-necked and the key to introspection were never surrendered to HaShem but remain in the firm grip of our people. May we find meaningful consolation knowing that we possess all three keys.

JERUSALEM RECONSIDERED

A certain irony exists when we pray for the rebuilding Jerusalem. As part of our established daily  prayers, we ask HaShem to rebuild Jerusalem without qualification. During Birkat HaMazon or Grace After Meals, we ask HaShem to rebuild Jerusalem in His mercy. Come Tisha B’Av during the Mincha service, we ask  HaShem to rebuild Jerusalem out of reconsideration.  Why the shift in our requests? Why do we qualify our request with either  mercy or reconsideration?

Mercy or rachamim as it is known in Hebrew, is visceral. Mercy is a feeling. Mercy emanates from the heart. Mercy is an attempt to soothe the hurt and pain that one is experiencing. Oddly enough, the first usage of rachamim in the Torah, deals with a wishful or hopeful expression of concern. “And may Almighty G-d grant you mercy before the man… (Genesis 43:14)” says Jacob to his sons, after they returned from Egypt, only to discover that the money they had paid for the provisions they had purchased, turned up in their sacks of grain. Reconsidering, often  used interchangeably with consoling or tanchumim as it is known in Hebrew, is cerebral. Reconsidering is a thought process. Reconsidering emanates from the mind. Reconsidering is an attempt to assure the one who is hurting and in pain, that all is not lost. Oddly enough, the first usage of tanchumim in the Torah, deals with HaShem. Seeing the evil and wickedness of mankind, “HaShem reconsidered having made man on earth (Genesis 6:6). Rather than throw in the towel and give up, HaShem reconsidered whether He did the right thing when He created mankind.

Mercy implies victimhood. Mercy conveys that you feel for the individual who is hurting. Mercy is an attempt  to bandage the emotional wound visited upon the one who is grieving. Whether it is through sympathy, where one feels for the victim or through empathy, where one feels with the victim, the one experiencing hurt and pain is told that he or she does not have to weather the crises alone. The one experiencing hurt and pain is assured there are others who will be at his or her side, either in the literal sense or in the figurative sense. Reconsidering implies being in control. Reconsidering conveys a silver lining for the individual who is hurting. Reconsidering is an attempt to redirect the focus from the emotional wound and to redirect it to the many healthy areas outside that wound. Rather than assure the victim that you are very much aware that he or she is grieving, reconsidering reassures the individual, how important it is to realize that grief is a passing experience and that you are there to assist in planning for once the pain has passed. An example of this is seen each morning toward the beginning of the Shacharit service, where we are asked to reconsider  that even though “In the evening, one lies down weeping, in the morning there are shouts of joy (Psalms 30:6)”.

Mercy implies a past. Mercy assures  the one suffering, that you are not oblivious to the upheaval that has occurred in his or her life. Mercy is a reminder that while you cannot change what has happened, the crises need not be confronted alone. Among the many misnomers in our society, is the term self-help groups. Self-help groups are organized by individuals who have gone through similar experiences to meet with those who are hurting to help them deal with their  past. Reconsidering on the other hand, implies a future. Reconsidering focuses on what will take place. Reconsidering assures the one suffering, that there is a promising future. Perhaps the greatest healing available  to individuals at a time when they are all too quick to dismiss their future, is that you have confidence in them. Reconsidering assures those grieving, that their future must neither be disregarded nor overlooked. We live in a society where there is no shortage of investment clubs. The objective of such clubs is to secure a safe and strong financial future for its members. Reconsidering does much the same in helping to secure a safe and strong emotional future for those who are hurting.

And so it is with Tisha B’Av. Three times a day, we pray for the unqualified rebuilding of Jerusalem. Finding ourselves satiated at the conclusion of a meal, we find it difficult to identify with a city that continues to hunger for spiritual and religious completion. We therefore pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem in mercy. Finding ourselves toward the close of Tisha B’Av, we can empathize with a city that has been deprived of (spiritual) nourishment. We therefore pray for HaShem to reconsider and to bring an end to the two-thousand-year-old plight of the holy city . Whether out of mercy or out of reconsideration or neither, we beseech HaShem to rebuild a city that means so much to so many.