Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Where's Isaac's List? Understanding Toldot - delivered Friday evening 11/29/2019 (Shabbat Toldot)

Parashat Toldot.
 וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם
“These are the descendants of Isaac, son of Abraham” our portion opens, but where are the descendants? Seriously. Where are they? The very next phrase is: “Isaac was born to Abraham,” which despite the Rabbinic idea that nothing in Torah is redundant is particularly redundant as Isaac was just identified as Abraham’s son. The text immediately proceeds to “When Isaac was 40 years old he married Rebecca,” and continues to focus on Rebecca and her pregnancy. So again, where are Isaac’s descendants?
Arguably after such a statement, “Eileh toldot Yitzchak - These are the descendants of Isaac son of Abraham,” we should expect a genealogical list of those who descend from Isaac especially as we have that elsewhere. Just moments before, literally at the end of the previous chapter of Torah, we have one for his brother, Ishmael. That paragraph opens similarly, “Eilet toldot Ishamael son of Abraham,” but it continues with the expected genealogical list.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibdam, Mishsma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by atheir encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. This is the length of the life Ishmael, on hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 24:13-17)

Where’s Isaac’s list? Especially in Torah a book whose primary purpose is to tell the story of the Israelite people, Isaac’s line not Ishmael’s.
One possibility is that through the process of textual editing, Isaac’s short genealogical list simply got cut out. Or, and in my opinion a far more satisfying explanation is that this word “Toldot,” that we translate as “descendants,” had a more nuanced meaning in its ancient rendering, and one that is actually suggested by the use of this phrase “Eileh tolodot” in the creation story.

Genesis chapter 2:4-5 reads:
אֵ֣לֶּה תֽוֹלְד֧וֹת הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ בְּהִבָּֽרְאָ֑ם ...
These are the “toldot” of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that Adonai God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up - for Adonai God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was was no one to till the ground.

While literally the word Toldot translates to “generations” or “descendants,” here we can see that understanding Toldot as “story” makes far more sense. This is the story of heaven and earth in their creation.
Eileh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, This is the story of Isaac son of Abraham. Translating Toldot here as “story” highlights that Isaac is more than a powerless placeholder in the chain of tradition. His story is important regardless of his progeny. He is the central character.
Isaac’s role in history easily gets overlooked. His voice is silenced in Torah. Even in the episode of the Akeidah, when his father is taking him up to Mount Moriah ostensibly to be sacrificed, Isaac is remarkably quiet. We are left to imagine what he is thinking. Even Rabbinic Midrash – the commentary that gives us stories such as Abraham smashing his father’s idols, or the one that imagines Jacob pushing against his mother’s womb whenever she passed a place of study– these post-biblical stories elaborate on Isaac’s father and children far more than on Isaac himself.
But, Isaac’s story is vital, not only to his immediate family, but to the line of the Israelite nation. Isaac is the patriarch who rebuilds and preserves, re-digging his father’s wells that had been filled by the Phillistines, and renaming them with the very names his father used. This effort is one of the most important insights we have into Isaac’s character. He isn’t an outspoken innovator, for sure, but he is a consolidator who ensures the continuity of legacy. He is the quiet but resilient link between Abraham, the first Jew and Jacob, the future namesake of the Israelite nation.
Isaac is so often painted as a weak unsuspecting victim. Not only in the Akeidah, but later in this week’s portion, too, when it appears that his sons (with Rebecca’s help) trick him out of his blessing for the first born. Perhaps, Isaac isn’t so unsuspecting. An insightful midrash, asks us to imagine Isaac as knowing exactly who his sons are by their choice of words during that famous incident of trickery. He doesn’t need to see or feel them. He knows his children. It doesn’t feel like Jacob, but ha-kol kol Ya’akov (Gen. 27:22). That voice? It’s the voice of Jacob. He recognizes him not only by his vocal timbre but also by his immediate reference to God.
Why, then, doesn’t he speak up and put a stop to the game?
Perhaps because Isaac understands his own story way more than we generally give him credit for. He understands that his role is that of preserving this covenant laid out by God, a God he knows Jacob recognizes and Esau ignores. Isn’t it better for Isaac to let Esau believe he was tricked out of blessing than for him to know it was never intended for him in the first place? That he wasn’t God’s chosen one? A difficult question for any parent to answer. What would any of us have done in that situation?
Eileh toldot Yitzchak. This is Isaac’s story; and, it’s one of strength. One that should inspire us to look past the surface, past immediate assumptions, as we work to consider and honor everyone’s story and their role in our ongoing history.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

When Loss Leaves a Gift (Remembering Jenni)

Among my most vivid childhood memories are two: the day my friend Jenni Harris died and the following Monday when while sitting in homeroom just one chair behind her empty one (Harrison always immediately followed Harris), her death was announced over the PA system to the entire school. The death of a loved one hurts. Losing a close friend at such a young age leaves a scar. If you’re lucky, the death of someone close can also leave an unexpected gift.
Like our names, my and Jenni’s birthdays were also back to back, in this case hers two days after mine. For her 15th birthday, I made a personalized box for her to keep trinkets and bought a silver butterfly necklace that I placed inside. On May 23, 1981, my mom drove me to Jenni’s house so I could leave the box and necklace for her as a belated birthday gift. It was one month to the day after her birthday. She had been at CHOP for an extended stay, and I was eager for her to know her birthday hadn’t been forgotten. Unfortunately, I was too late. That embroidered personalized box and necklace sit in a box of childhood keepsakes that has traveled with me throughout my life.
At first, I didn’t understand. When I arrived at the Harris home, Jenni’s mom came to the door and tried to explain to me that she was gone, yet I kept pressing with questions: what do you mean she’s gone? I know she’s at the hospital. I just want to leave this for her? Looking back, I realize this must have been just hours after Jenni passed. As an adult, as a mom, my heart breaks for Mrs. Harris who in those raw hours was faced with me trying to understand what she herself was just starting to process.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew Jenni had Cystic Fibrosis (CF). We all did. She talked about it openly. She told us she was lucky because she was only supposed to live to be 7 or 8 years old. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, today over 50% of those with CF are over 18. Many live into their 20’s and 30’s, but Jenni was born in 1966. I visited her during many of her hospital stays. I saw the bad moments. I watched her treatments where they beat her sides while she had to inhale that icky mist to loosen the phlegm. I saw her hooked up to the IV that sustained her. I witnessed her taking it in stride as she got poked and prodded by nurses. So, yeah, I knew she was sick. Really sick. I knew it was serious. What I didn’t fully comprehend was that my funny, vibrant friend would actually die – let alone without warning. I thought I’d at least see it coming.
Luckily, I have many memories of Jenni’s life to offset the ones surrounding her death.   Her beaming smile and her sense of humor are foremost. Cystic Fibrosis may have ravaged her body, but it didn’t consume her spirit.  Even when the illness would flare up and hospitalization was required, as it too often was, she made fun out of it. I’m surely not the only friend she’d engage in wheelchair races with up and down the halls of the peds unit at Holy Redeemer Hospital. That’s how Jenni approached life.  With zest, eagerness, and a desire to have fun no matter the circumstance.  
Of course, as any kid would, Jenni hated the CF. She couldn’t stand being sick. She couldn’t stand being so skinny and physically childlike when everyone around her was growing up. And, she certainly couldn’t understand one of her close friends doggedly refusing to eat, fighting against those normal processes of puberty that she herself was so eager to embrace. Jenni, like so many others, would implore me to eat. I didn’t, I couldn’t listen. Then Jenni died. Jenni’s death was my wake-up call. I recall the very moment later during that day her death was announced over the school’s PA system when I realized I could choose what she couldn’t. How dare I waste that opportunity when she wanted it so badly. I had a journey ahead of me for sure, but Jenni got me to the start. I wish I could thank her for that.
Memory is an interesting phenomenon. Two people can experience the same exact events while their memories of these shared events can be diametrically opposed.  I could continue sharing personal memories of Jenni, but anyone who knew her has their own unique and special memories of their time with her. Differing and varied memories for sure.  Some crystal clear and others faded with the passage of time. All of us who knew Jennifer Lynn Harris, though, can share in an incredibly important lesson from her life. Jenni had 15 years in this world.  That’s it.  She made the very best of those few years facing each day with courage and all the joy she could muster, but she only had 15.  So many of us choose to avoid talking about our age as if we should, or could for that matter, ignore the passage of time simply by refusing to count. Why? Jenni’s life and death taught me very early on to celebrate the very opportunity to have days and years to count. Had she lived, who knows if my and Jenni’s friendship would have endured the passage of time. Her death has made her memory indelible, eternally present in my life as a gift. A reminder to savor growing old.


Thursday, May 30, 2019

What Baking Can Do (Thank you, Sara Bareilles)

Sugar, butter, flour

I love theatre. Especially musical theatre. A good musical score can impress dialogue, deepen plot and expand character in remarkably thoughtful and provocative ways. The music – the lyric coupled with melody, harmony, and whatever orchestration the composer imagines - communicates the intangible, what might otherwise be left unknowable. It conveys not just art, but the essence of our humanity. Songs reach into the core of our being.

At least that’s what Sara Bareilles' song What Baking Can Do from the 2015 musical Waitress does to me. It smacks me in my soul. I know this song. I know Jenna, the character who sings this song, even though our lives our dramatically different. I can feel her disappointments, her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and the redemption that she finds in baking. This one song reminds me how pouring myself into a creative endeavor can connect us with what’s real and open new worlds to us even as old worlds close and the new ones seem so far beyond our reach.

Perhaps I’m drawn to this song because I get baking. Yeah, I get baking. It’s a lot like music: sugar, butter, flour – follow the instructions, add a bit of imagination…and poof, magic. Sure, the result might be garbage. It might be boring ("just" chocolate chip cookies). But, there is a pretty good chance you’ll hit the yum jackpot and bring a smile to someone’s face.

Make it work; make it easy. Make it clever, craft it into pieces…Even doubt can be delicious, and it washes off of all the dishes. When it’s done, I can smile; it’s on someone else’s plate for awhile.

Baking is an art form in which to get lost. Unlike Jenna, I didn’t learn to bake from my mom. That is not something she and I bonded over. But, my love of baking did come through her line. I learned to follow a recipe from my Grandmom Adele, and I learned the fun of veering off course from it (of braking the rules) from my mom’s BFF, known to me my entire life as Aunt Helene. It was in her kitchen where I learned to separate an egg by letting the egg white slide through my fingers as the yolk remains whole (and squishy) in my palm. It was in her kitchen where I learned brown grocery bags work perfectly fine for cooling cookies. It was in her kitchen where I learned to make hand cookies with left over roll-out "Christmas" cookie dough and how to change up a cheese pie on the fly. In both of their kitchens, I found a place to escape.

Sugar, butter, flour. Isn’t it amazing what baking can do.

Baking, like music, has never intimidated me. Oddly, other kinds of cooking does. I know. I’m a bit of an anomaly on this one. Most cooks fear baking.  Not me, I fear cooking a roast. Seriously, I don’t even know what cut of meat to buy let alone what kind of flavors to add; but a cake, muffin, or cookie project? I’m all in. Ready to make it my own. Maybe it’s the eager-to-please, make-folks-happy impulse embedded within me. I mean who doesn’t like dessert?

So, here’s a little dessert for reading my musings. It’s a recipe I adapted recently from one of my very first cookbooks, a Sunset Cookbook purchased at a local  Five & Dime type of store when I was in high school. I can't remember the store, but I can still visualize the rack of soft back books. Were they all cookbooks? I don't recall, but I remember choosing this book. The original recipe was for a super-rich Zucchini-Chocolate Cake with vanilla glaze. It is to this day the only recipe I have ever made from that cookbook. The cookbook still sits on my shelf with the pages of its main dishes entirely unexplored. Upon purchase, I went directly to the cakes, found this crowd pleaser and stuck with it. This year, I decided to bring the recipe into the 21st century and turn it into less rich dessert and more daily treat.

Thanks for reading and enjoy!

 Rho’s Gluten & Dairy-Free Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the following dry ingredients in a large bowl & then set aside:
1 ½ cup Almond flour
½ cup Coconut flour
½ cup Quinoa flour
½-3/4 tsp. Xanthan gum (fyi -this is not found in the gum section of the market, it is a needed ingredient when using non-gluten flours. Look for it in the natural foods section).
2 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cardamom
¾ cup cocoa

Cream the following on medium speed of a mixer:
¾ cup "butter" (I use Earth Balance Vegan Sticks)
1 cup Coconut sugar
1 cup cane sugar

Add to creamed butter and sugars & blend well:
3 eggs
2 tsp. grated orange peel
2 tsp. GOOD vanilla (seriously, get the good stuff!)
2 cups grated zucchini (I use unpeeled zucchini. I grate it and then let sit over a strainer for a bit so it's not too wet)

With mixer on low speed add dry ingredients and
½ cup coconut or almond milk - Alternately (1/3 dry ingredients, a bit of milk, etc.)
Stir in:
1 cup mini-dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

Scoop into muffin molds (an ice cream scoop works great and keeps muffins uniformly sized) and top with coarsely chopped walnuts. I use about 1 cup of walnuts chopped into halves and quarters.

Bake @ 350 degrees for ~ 25 mins
Makes 22-24 depending on how full you fill the muffin molds.