The Egg, the Matzah Ball, and Water

Change in the Face of Adversity: The egg, the matzah ball, and water

Rabbi’s Message – April 23, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

Last year, 30 people gathered on Zoom for the Passover Seder.  In our household, Matt, the kids, and I attempted to navigate Zoom with Matt’s siblings and their children.  It was not the finest Seder of my life.  In fact, I was disappointed to be holed up at home, so accustomed to large holiday gatherings.  And now, here we are a year later, and my Seder is going to look just about the same – just Matt, the kids, and I, probably with some family on Zoom.  

Except, this year, it’s different because we knew it was coming.  This year, there are a vast number of digital resources, and using video conferencing software is an old trick for many at this point.  In culling through those digital resources, I found this one from The Blue Dove Foundation, which provides a mental health framework for Passover classics.  In this article, one thing that stands out is the description of the egg on the seder plate: “It’s traditional to roast or char the egg, leading to a fun interpretation – an egg, just like us, is resilient!  The hotter the flame, the tougher we get.  We aren’t weakened by struggle; we overcome it and become stronger.”  This interpretation reminded me of the lesson about what happens to a potato, an egg, and coffee beans when exposed to boiling water.  The potato – the biggest and strongest of them, becomes the weakest.  The egg, hardens, becoming perhaps stronger, as Blue Dove Foundation suggests, and the coffee beans, they change the water.  

We all respond to adversity in our ways, whether it be slavery in Egypt, a pandemic, or some other challenge. This Passover, the egg on the plate can remind us of how we can be strengthened by challenges – even if we get a little charred on the outside.  But maybe we don’t always become stronger, and that’s okay.  I also think of the matzah ball, that when cooked, becomes soft (and delicious), – unlike its unboiled original version.  Exposure to the hot water has changed not only the matzah ball, but the water around it has also become different.  What was once just plain water has become infused with the flavors of chicken and vegetables through the process of cooking and becoming soup.  The matzah ball and its environment have been forever changed.  And maybe we too, in facing adversity, changed the situation around us instead of ourselves – turning water into soup.  

We may be like the egg, the matzah ball, or the soup – stronger in the face of adversity, slightly softer because of it, or completely changed.  Each of these reactions are a part of who we are as individuals and who we are as a people.  And so, we will sit down this year and tell the story of Passover like we have for thousands of years.  Maybe we will reminisce over the seders that have been and fantasize the seders that might be next year, all the while experiencing the seder that is.  It’ll be different, but after all, isn’t Passover all about being different than other nights? 

Women Leading Change

Women Leading Change

Rabbi’s Message – March 9, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

Yesterday marked International Women’s Day, a global day set aside to celebrate the achievements of women. In this spirit, I’d like to share the names of two remarkable Jewish women who are changing our world for the better. They are Lead Attorney Roberta Kaplan and Amy Spitalnick, Executive Director of Integrity First for America (IFA). These women represent a group of individuals who suffered directly as a result of the Unite the Right demonstration in Charlottesville, VA in August of 2017. The organization that supports these efforts, the IFA, is a nonpartisan non-profit dedicated to defending democratic norms and the civil rights of every American.

Kaplan and Spitalnick have been successful thus far in their groundbreaking federal lawsuit, Sines v. Kessler, that seeks to hold accountable the neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other far-right extremists who conspired to orchestrate that weekend of violence.  By taking on both individuals and groups in this civil lawsuit, they hope to bankrupt the movements, undermine their ability to operate, de-platform them, and show others that people who conspire to perpetrate violent hate acts will be held accountable.  This lawsuit and the work they are doing is both urgent and critical. The research they are conducting reveals the growing use of online platforms to facilitate extremist violence. They have even been able to trace communications between the orchestrators of the Charlottesville attack to those in Pittsburgh and in the recent insurrection in Washington, D.C.

In these times of increased incidents of hate, antisemitism, and racism, I find that the work of these women gives us hope and offers us tangible ways to take action.  On March 23, at 8:00 p.m. you, too, will have the opportunity to be inspired by these women as part of a conversation being offered through the Men of Reform Judaism and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. I hope you will tune in and recognize their efforts to lead by example, take action, and stop the cycle of hate.  Register now for the event

The Feeling of Insecurity

Insecurity, Vulnerability, & Empathy

Rabbi’s Message – February 16, 2021

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

Last year I read a powerful book by Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  This historical study of the the movement of almost six million African Americans out of the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast, and West from approximately 1915 to 1970 forever changed the way I understand Black History.  In it, Wilkerson delves into the lives of three extraordinary people, sharing the painful truth of what it meant to flee the Jim Crow South and seek refuge in the rest of the country.      

One of the most painful parts of reading Wilkerson’s book was seeing all of the obstacles that prevented people from escaping the Jim Crow South.  It was never as simple as making a geographical move, even for those who were well integrated in their hometownsI am thinking of Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, in particular.  He was a talented Army surgeon who returned to the south after serving abroad during the Korean War.  When he returned home, he sought to build his medical practice in California.  Leaving his wife and daughters at home while he found a place to live, he drove from Louisiana to California.  But the trip itself nearly cost him his life when it became a long, harrowing nonstop drive.   Foster was not allowed to stop along the way due to segregated hotels and open hostility.  No matter his status, even after becoming Ray Charles’ personal physician, he never was able to escape his vulnerability. 

As I shared over the High Holidays, the inconvenience of our current pandemic has exposed all of us, regardless of race or status, to a new sense of vulnerabilityThose of us who are white experienced, many of us for the first time, what it is like face restrictions in our daily lives.  With Covid-19 we have had to consider risks before engaging in normal activities, such as going to the grocery, a restaurant, the doctor, hair salon, or department store.  We have been limited in when and where we are allowed to go, such as hospitals, nursing homes, banks and bars. And even if we choose to enter those places, we must carefully watch the behavior of those around us to determine if we are in a space in which we feel safe 

There is no comparison between the racism faced by black Americans in the 20th and 21st century and the inconvenience felt by white Americans in a pandemic.  Unless we have lived it, we can never understand the ways in which black and brown Americans here in Montgomery County are disproportionately limited and vulnerable in their everyday lives.  To name only a few, our black community is at a greater chance of dying from Covid, facing limitations in professional success, and giving birth to children who may never reach a first birthday.  However, our experiences will help to heighten our empathy, which I hope will encourage us to deepen our involvement in issues of social justice.   

It healthy for our souls to take this time to recognize what insecurity in everyday living feels like – not so that we live in fear, but to help us better relate to those whose barriers will not disappear once this pandemic subsides. 

Choosing Our Destiny

The Choices We Make

Rabbi’s Message – January 19, 2021

Rabbi Tina Sobo

This week we read from Parashat Bo, where we complete the narrative of the plagues in Egypt and receive the commandment to celebrate Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the future.  (The Red Sea crossing happens in next week’s portion.)  In this generally well-known story, there are two verses that stand out, and are not usually part of the retelling.  Just before the final plague, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to “borrow” from their neighbors’ objects of silver and gold and that God would dispose the Egyptians favorably to them (Exo 11:2-3).  While seemingly out of place, Rabbi Reuven Greenvald in Reform Judaism’s commentary gives us some additional insight.  He points out that in early liberated life, the Israelites would need a little money to get started.  Some commentators attribute these verses as laying the groundwork to explain where the Israelites got precious metals from to erect the tabernacle and the Golden Calf.  Continuing his commentary, Rabbi Greenvald focuses on the relationship between these actions and the plague that follows.  But, if we look at the Israelites instead, here they stand on the precipice of a new life of freedom, with these precious metals in their hands, and a choice about what to do with them.  We know, as Rabbi Greenvald reminds us, that some of those materials will be used to make the Golden Calf – for purposes that are not ultimately to the benefit of the community.  We also learn that some of them will be used for the most sacred of uses – the service of God.  And I’m sure some were used for more mundane purposes as well.  

Life is full of transitions.  (We have talked about them a lot lately.)  The turning of the year, the upcoming transition of leadership in our country, personal changes and adaptations to our current pandemic life, and the evolving outlook towards hope on stopping this virus – to name a few.  Fortunately, we all have different tools to help us navigate these transitions.  What precious items will we carry with us – material or intangible – to lead us successfully forward?  Will we be like the Israelites who used their precious metals to construct the Tabernacle?  Or is there a Golden Calf in our future?  I will close with words adapted from last week’s blessing of the New Month, which seem particularly apt right now:

Our God and God of our ancestors, may the days ahead bring us goodness and blessing: long life, peace, prosperity, Torah and reverence for the divine, and may the longings of our hearts be fulfilled for good.

Planning for Warmer and Sunnier Days Ahead

Planning for Warmer and Sunnier Days Ahead

Rabbi’s Message – December 8, 2020

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

This past Sunday our Religious School was joined by URJ camp directors from GUCI and Six Points specialty camps.  Our URJ camping experts have been hard at work creating safe ways to bring our children back to our Jewish camps.  From my personal experiences as well as from those of families I have guided toward camp over the last 20 years, I know that our URJ camps offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for our children to live and love Judaism. 

Because it is hard for us to know what things will look like six months from now, GUCI is offering a bright opportunity for us during this time of Chanukkah.  During these 8 days, parents can save a space for their child at summer camp for only $8.  It is a low-risk deposit that will open up the door to years of growth and lifelong friendships. 

I know that camp is expensive and that the price of the deposit does not cover the fees for the actual program.  Please do not let this deter you from exploring the possibilities.  Both camp and Temple offer camperships and we will do all that we can to try to make camp possible.  Especially this year.   I believe it is all the more important that children who have been isolated over the last several months be given the opportunity to thrive in a safe environment with other children.  I have spent time talking with Jeremy Klotz, the GUCI camp director, who has a background in law (especially risk management!) and I am confident that he will provide a unique and positive camp program with as safe and virus-free an environment as is possible.

If you have any interest in sending your child to camp in 2021, take advantage of this $8 deposit and fill out your application immediately, as spaces are limited.  Wishing us all a bright and blessing-filled Chanukkah.

 

We Remember and Give Honor

We Remember and Give Honor

Rabbi’s Message – November 10, 2020

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

One of the most moving speakers I’ve heard at Temple Israel was Pastor Chris Edmonds, who has twice shared the incredible story of his father, Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, and his organization “Roddie’s Code.”  The message never gets old, only more important.  In this matrix of time, today we stand between remembering the events that signify the beginning of the Holocaust and honoring veterans who served our country, it is only appropriate for us to recall this inspirational story.  His father’s courage to say “we are all Jews here” has been featured in GI Jews and in Pastor Edmond’s 2019 book “No Surrender: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier’s Extraordinary Courage in the Face of Evil,” in which he shares the story of his father’s brave choice to risk his life to save those of the Jewish U.S. infantrymen in the final days of WWII.  

As we give honor to all those who have served our country in war or in peace, we appreciate all who sacrificed and put their own lives on the line to uphold our freedom and dignity.   We especially give thanks for their role in liberating prisoners from the death camps at the end of WWII.  I invite us all to take some time to ourselves to reflect on Master Sergeant Edmond’s heroic story.  Thank you to all our veterans who have served to ensure freedom and democracy.  

If you are interested in watching GI Jews, you may do so through Amazon (or other platforms) and if you would like to learn more about Roddie’s Code and Pastor Edmond’s No Surrender, be sure to look at his website. 

Seeking Peace Amidst the Disagreements

Learning from the Past & Hopeful for Our Future

Rabbi’s Message – November 3, 2020

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

Twenty-five years ago I was living in Jerusalem when a hate-fueled political atmosphere became deadly.  On November 4, 1995 Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated not by one of Israel’s enemies, but by another Israeli.  Though I was young, I realized that hate from within the country would be as devastating to the Jewish people as hate from others. 

I wish I could say there has been great healing in the years that have passed, but the level of animosity between factions still runs high.  Most recently, concerns over the Coronavirus pandemic have led to especially inflammatory arguments. 

I caught a glimpse of hope a few weeks ago, however, when Israeli MKs agreed that the atmosphere was not in keeping with the Jewish value of respectful dialogue.  They brought forward a “Mutual Respect Charter” and signed this pact hoping that Israeli elected officials could begin to disagree from a position of mutual respect.  The Charter will encourage them to find ways to work together despite significant differences of opinion.  

I am cautiously optimistic that peaceful discourse may be possible.  Not just in Israel, but here at home where we see unbelievable levels of political aggression.  Normally the end of a challenging election brings relief and hope for our country to reunite. But we are so  fractured that it feels “agreeing to disagree” is a thing of the past.    There is real fear that election day will divide us even more.  In the days to come, I hope that our elected officials recognize, as they did in Israel, that it will be most important to find mutual respect.   We will be looking to them to ensure a peaceful transition of power.  And when political rivals lead the way, it inspires us to show respect for everyone, even those with whom we disagree.

On this election night and eve of the 25th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, I pray that we will renew our commitment to seek peace in our communities, our country, and our world.  

Moving Forward on a Narrow Bridge

Moving Forward on a Narrow Bridge

Rabbi’s Message – October 27, 2020

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

As with other tragic moments in our communal history, we will all remember where we were when we heard about the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre.  It was a haunting reminder that we remain a target of hatred in a world where hate crimes gain traction.  This was too close.  Too personal.  Too real.

I am sure we all remember hearing about or experiencing antisemitism in past generations.  I grew up feeling grateful that I did not have to live in such a world.  As I grew up, Jews were no longer barred from certain fraternities, hospitals, neighborhoods, country clubs and the like.  Nobody ever threw pennies at my feet or called me hateful names on the way to or from school.  Blatent antisemitism was much less tolerated. Until now.  I may not have grown up in a world with Father Charles Couglin, but we are all living through a time with Stormfront and other expressions of white supremacy.   

I saw my first swastika when I travelled to Poland on the March of the Living in 1992 and even more that summer when I travelled to Germany with my high school symphonic band. Today, we don’t have to leave our country to find swastikas. In New York City in 2018, 150 out of 189 hate crimes featured swastikas.[58] 

But rising numbers of antisemitic and violent hate crimes did not prepare me for the emotional toll of the Tree of Life massacre.  Antisemitism may have become less in vogue over the years, but it continues to foment in the dark recesses of the online world and behind closed doors.  And now this hateful rhetoric has emerged with growing violence, as we have seen in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, Monsey, Poway, and beyond. 

To deny the real threat of antisemitism today would be foolish.  But to live in constant fear of violence is equally irresponsible.  True living is about holding these two extremes in constant balance while working to make the fractured world more whole and at peace.

To do so takes strength of character.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav very famously wrote a piece often translated as:  

“The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.” It is hard to imagine not fearing at all.  Which is why I prefer his writing from Likutei Moharan (II:48), in which he expressed this idea differently.  It is translated: “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the general principle and the essential thing is not to frighten yourself at all.”

At this time when we are reminded of the many narrow bridges we must walk upon toward a life of meaning, I hope that we can look within ourselves, to one another, and to God for the strength to move forward, in spite of all we know of the world’s dangers.

Choosing Gratitude in the Storm

Rabbi’s Message – October 20, 2020

 

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

We are all familiar with the story of the flood.  In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Noach, we learn about God’s anger at humankind and God’s decision to start over.  God chose Noah and his family to build an ark for themselves and all the animals that would repopulate the world.  The idea of being stuck on an ark in the midst of a flood with only family and animals, used to sound harrowing to me.  Yet now, I imagine for those who have been cooped up at home throughout this pandemic, it doesn’t sound half bad.  

 
In this week’s portion we are taught that Noah was chosen because he was righteous in his generation.  This is to say that among those who were living, he was the best they could find.  Unfortunately, that was not such a compliment and we see in this section that Noah was really only looking out for himself.  He was more concerned with his own family’s protection than he was with trying to protect the lives of other human beings.  I’ve thought about this before, but there is one aspect of this that I am looking at differently this week. After reading a midrash by Elie Wiesel (in Sages and Dreamers), I am thinking of the guilt Noah must be feeling when he emerges from the ark and sees that he did nothing to prevent this loss of life.   He takes on a new identity – that of the survivor.  
 
Wiesel wrote about Noah: 
 
“Imagine what he must have felt as he walked ashore and discovered the empty, devastated land.  He must have looked for familiar ground, vantage points, cities of light and life, dwelling places and their sounds.  He knew that they had vanished, still he went on looking for them.
 
Then he was confronted by a choice: anger or gratitude.  He chose gratitude.  He offered thanks to heaven…As a survivor, the first, he chose gratitude rather than bitterness: the special gratitude of the survivor….”
 
There is a lot going on in our lives right now. Most of us are still on board our “ships” with our families, riding out the storm. Going through this pandemic has been disruptive.  It has tossed all of our plans overboard and the waves of sadness and confusion continually ebb and flow.  Our choices and decisions continue to be difficult, many times affecting not only ourselves, but those around us.  And there are still several months ahead of us before we even begin to see what normalcy looks like.  Yet, it is not too early to think about how we might choose to respond.  I invite you to look around and identify something you are grateful for right now. It’s easy to see the bitterness and destruction like Noah initially did, but choose to find the good.  Whether it is celebrating the joy of your family, your friends, your pets, or something else, if we change our mindset in the midst of the chaos, the calm will be that much sweeter when it comes. We will rebuild this world together and find familiar ground once again.
 
Looking for a way to calm your mind?  Check out Grant Halasz’s Meditative Song Session for soothing melodies and harmonies from our tradition.

Marking the Time: A Personal Reflection

Marking the Time: A Personal Reflection

Rabbi’s Message – October 6, 2020

Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz

So many core memories become associated with time markers, but marking the passage of time in 2020 has been challenging.  Key moments have changed: family seders, graduation parties, end of school picnics, summers by the pool or at summer camp, school supplies shopping, birthday parties, and break-the-fast gatherings.  It has even been hard to know what month it is, because so little has changed in how we have been living since March.  Indeed, we all need “days of the week” t-shirts just to keep us on schedule.  

But, this week, I found myself unusually conscious of the days and times of the year.  You see, tomorrow Jonah turns 11.  While it will not resemble most of our birthday celebrations with family and friends in the past, it feels more like his birthday to me than any of the others that have come before. 

Jonah’s birthday has always been tied to Sukkot. In 2009, on a Friday, five days after we read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, we entered into Sukkot. By Saturday night our Sukkah was decorated and ready to enjoy, and on Sunday, following religious school, our congregation kindly hosted a baby shower in my honor.  But the next morning, Monday, October 5, I entered the hospital with pregnancy complications and Jonah was born on the evening of Wednesday, October 7, or the 20th of Tishri.  We remained in the hospital until after Simchat Torah.  

Since then, Jonah’s birthday hasn’t fallen over Sukkot, except in 2017.  And it has felt very strange each year to mark Jonah’s entrance into the world without it.  During Sukkot, we, as a family, remind each other about the year Scott worked so hard to put up our sukkah but nobody was able to dwell in it.   But for the first time in 2020, time is being marked in a way that feels normal and natural to me.  Everything completely aligns and the calendars are in synch. And it brings me true joy in this “zman simchateinu” (time of our rejoicing) to be able to sit as a family and celebrate Jonah’s birthday under the stars of our sukkah.  There is comfort in finding something eternal within such an ephemeral year.

Perhaps this is the meaning of Sukkot for me this year. When we read from Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, we are reminded that everything we are concerned about is temporal.  This year, we have seen how many of the things we believed were steadfast in our world have become as tenuous as the walls of our sukkahs.  But what ultimately remains eternal is our relationship with God and our appreciation of the many gifts we enjoy every day, especially at a time when we have been focusing on what has been taken away. Hold your family close, focus on the beauty that is all around you, and keep making memories, whatever day of the week it happens to be.  (And let me know if you need a t-shirt to remind you.)