Vaera: Slavery Now

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Vaera: Maror Salad

In Vaera, we read that Pharoah digs in his heels, hardens his heart and refuses to liberate the Israelite slaves, thus launching plagues against the Egyptians. “Even from such hardened sinners as Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God did not withhold the opportunity of mending their ways. Before a plague visited them Moses was charged to warn them of its coming, to-morrow, if they remained obdurate.” (Exodus Rabba)

So, why does Pharoah continue to enslave the Israelites?

Commentary in Etz Hayyim notes that the Israelites “must be freed in such a way that they, the Egyptians, and all the nations of the world will understand that it was God’s doing, not Pharaoh’s goodwill” (p. 351). The Israelites understanding of God’s role in their liberation is important “to establish the principle that it is unacceptable for one human being to reduce another human being to slavery, that freedom is the will of God and not the choice of a despot” (p. 351). This story’s universal message is important today.

Maror Salad ingredients

Maror Salad ingredients

Despite religious teachings and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, slavery  exists in our world. Right now, 30 million people worldwide, from domestic workers to sex workers to food supply laborers are enslaved, the largest number of people in history.  Twenty percent of these people are children. This is not just a problem “elsewhere” but here in the United States. Los Angeles, where I live, “is a top point of entry into this country for victims of slavery and trafficking.” I see it in my life as an Uprising Yoga teacher at a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. Some of the incarcerated youth there are sex-trafficked.

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Vayechi: We are Family

Vayechi: 12 + 1 vegetables roast

Vayechi unified vegetables roast

Bereshit (Genesis) is fraught with familial fighting and divisions. Vayechi, the final parsha (Torah portion) in Bereshit, ends this strife as it is a story of unity and redemption of the 12 tribes of Israel before they begin their exile. Diane Bloomfield teaches that their patriarch Jacob, embodies the quality of emet (truth), even in Egypt, a world of constriction and exile. Jacob’s 17 years of living in Egypt prepared the Israelites for their exile: he passed the seeds of discernment to them to discover and reveal his world of emet and echad (oneness).

Underwood Family Farms, Culver City, CA Farmers Market

Underwood Family Farms, Culver City, CA Farmers Market

In Vayechi, Jacob gathers his 12 sons to his deathbed, and says “come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” Chana Kroll writes on Chabad.org that at this moment, “the twelve individuals became one unified soul. They said the Shema prayer before their father Jacob, thus reassuring him that the principles of serving G‑d and recognizing His absolute Oneness would be lived and taught by them as well. One family, with one heart and one soul.”

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Vayeshev: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Stew

Vayeshev: Technicolor Stew

Vayeshev: Technicolor Stew

In Vayeshev, Jacob returns to his home to “settle.” But, there is not any internal or external settling for him. Jacob’s sons are upset by the arrogance of his favorite son, Joseph. The brothers strip Joseph of the elaborate tunic Jacob had given him and throw him into a pit. Rather than letting him die, though, Reuben convinces the other brothers instead to sell him into slavery. But, the brothers lie to their father that his beloved Joseph was killed by presenting his bloody tunic.

Why is Jacob unable to have tranquility in his life after everything he’s been through? Yanki Tauber writes, “many are content to live this lie: to forget what happened yesterday, avoid thinking about what will happen tomorrow, ignore the sadness in a neighbor’s eye, the poverty on the other side of town and the bombs in the other time zone.

While one may look at a farm and see a tranquil, lush landscape, agriculture is anything but calm. Rather, it is the epicenter of global fights for human rights, land sovereignty and the survival of family farmers. This Wednesday, December 10, is Slow Food’s Terra Madre Day–a global celebration of local foods. The Terra Madre network in 160 countries supports food sovereignty–local communities control over the growing, production and eating of food. It is also about preserving indigenous food cultures and traditions in the face of threats from international agriculture and food homogenization that eliminates food diversity, hurts

Purple Yams. Pureland Farms. La Cienega Farmers Market, Los Angeles

Purple Yams. Pureland Farms. La Cienega Farmers Market, Los Angeles

small farmers and devastates communities. Part of Terra Madre’s commitment to preserving food diversity is through it’s Ark of Taste which has already 2,000 foods from around the globe that are at risk of disappearing.

It’s also Human Rights Day on December 10. While the family farmers of Terra Madre fight off threats from industrial agriculture, tens of thousands of industrial farmworkers are fighting for their human rights.  The Los Angeles Times has an incredible story about farmworkers in Mexico picking tomatoes at “mega-farms” for the US market. They live in “squalid conditions, trapped for months at a time  [and] camp bosses illegal withhold [of] wages.” 

One worker said, The real truth is that we’re work animals for the fields. Continue reading

Vayishlach: Wrestling to Righteousness

Vayishlach: Roasted potatoes, apples and leeks

Vayishlach: Roasted potatoes, apples and leeks

In Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with an unknown force in the night. At dawn, Jacob’s foe wants to leave. But, before letting him go, Jacob  demands a blessing from him. He replies by asking Jacob his name and responds, “your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”  Afterwards, Jacob realizes he had been wrestling with God. So, “Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.'”

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC

Black Rock Orchard. DuPont Circle Farmers Market. Washington, DC

Prior to this event, Jacob was dishonest and deceptive.  The wrestling is transforming, not just in name but spiritually.  Rabbi Brad Artson writes in The Bedside Torah, “through the process of introspection, remorse and a commitment to confront his own failings, Jacob is able to make himself into a better, more empathetic individual.” This is also about Jacob doing the “right thing.” The Sefat Emet taught, “this may be an account of Jacob’s wrestling with his conscience, torn between his human tendency to avoid an unpleasant encounter and the divine impulse in him that urges him to do the difficult but right thing.”

Jews wrestle with moral questions including those about food and agriculture issues. For example, what does or should kosher mean in the 21st century? Is junk food worthy of a hecksher (kosher certification)?  Should an animal raised under inhumane conditions but slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) be deemed kosher? Why aren’t all GMO crops considered treyf (not kosher)? Continue reading

Vayetzei: Sunset to Sunrise

Vayetzei dish

Vayetzei dish

In Vayetzei, we read that Jacob leaves Beer-sheva at sunset to travel to Laban’s house. Jacob is at Laban’s house for 20 years, during which time he faces many challenges and uncertainties that shroud his life in darkness. After the 20 years there, he leaves Laban’s house at sunrise.

The Etz Hayim commentary describes “the 20 years at Laban’s house as a ‘dark night for the soul,’ years spent struggling with the dark forces represented by Laban’s treachery and Jacob’s confronting his own attracting to deceit” (p. 166).

However, despite the challenges and darkness that Jacob deals with in the 20 years, he also connects with God.  Etz Hayim continues, “when the Sages attribute to Jacob the institution of the evening prayer (Ma’ariv), they may be crediting him as the first person able to find God in the midst of darkness” (p. 166)

La Cienega farmers market. Pomegranate

La Cienega farmers market. Pomegranate

Jacob’s time of darkness was an opportunity for him to find God. And, as  Yael Shy comments, “Jacob leaves us with the challenge of recognizing our encounters with God in all God’s forms.” There are many dark and challenging parts of our lives and society. Our food system is one. How is it possible that the wealthiest nation in the world has 45.3 million citizens living in poverty and 49.1 million hungry people?  In addition, for 29 million Americans who live in low-income areas, the nearest supermarket is more than a mile away. When someone is poor, without transportation and/or living in a low-income area without a supermarket, it significantly hampers one’s ability to eat nutritious food. Despite, this dark aspect of our society, there are countless individuals who recognize this challenge and are re-imagining our food system.

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Toldot: Negotiating for Lentil Stew and More

Liar's Lentil Stew

Liar’s Lentil Stew

Toldot shows us the darker dynamics that can occur between loved ones, especially when one negotiates in less-than-transparent ways. Rebecca and Jacob’s prayers for a child are answered with the birth of her non-identical twin boys, Esau and Jacob.

A famished Esau encounters his brother Jacob enjoying lentil stew. Esau pleads with him to give him some stew in exchange for his birthright, to which Jacob agrees.

We are living in an era now where a different type of deceit happens for people’s birthright–farm land–through land grabs. There’s a lot at stake. The global food economy is a $6 trillion/year system. “The world produces more than 1 1/2 times enough food to feed everyone on the planet.” 

Star anise and red lentils.

Star anise and red lentils.

Seventy percent of our world’s food is grown by family farmers on 25% of the world’s farmland. Despite this being the UN declared, Year of the Family Farmer, land grabs continue to  happen around the world, including here in the United States.  When small farmers enter into negotiations with large corporations they are doubly disadvantaged. They don’t always understand what they are transacting, and they are sometimes made to believe that selling their birthright is the only option open to them. Similarly, Esau didn’t understand the value of his birthright and Jacob had leverage over his brother. When farmers today realize they lost their birthrights, they are upset like Esau. Continue reading

Chayei Sarah: Life and Death

Chayei Sarah: roasted beets, mushrooms, beet greens

Chayei Sarah: roasted Golden beets, mushrooms, beet greens

The title of this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah (the life of Sarah), is a bit misleading at it is book-ended by the deaths of Sarah and Avraham. But, it is also filled with a celebration of life. Avraham dies in old age, but only after ensuring his progeny through the marriage of his son, Isaac, to Rebecca. It is a story of the spiraling cycles of our lives and the continuation of our legacies through the generations of our families.

We continue our lives even when are family and friends pass. And, upon death, we each return to the soil that initially gave us life.  The simplest matter that we become upon death–dirt and dust–also brings us forth to the beauty, complexities and interconnectedness of life on Earth.  Deep in the ground is the source of our nourishment and life for all: water, and soil.

LA Funghi mushrooms, Culver City farmers market

Mushrooms. LA Funghi, Culver City farmers market

In the parsha we learn that at Avraham’s request, his servant journeyed to find a wife for Isaac, bringing ten camels with him. The camels were brought to a well where the women of the town collected water each evening. As Rabbi Shai Held notes, Rebecca offered the camels water without the servants prompting. “She is so kind that she does more than she is asked, and beyond her concern for people, she cares also for the needs of animals.”  Continue reading

Vayera: The “Other”

Vayera roasted peppers dips

Vayera roasted peppers dips

This week’s parsha, Vayera, is filled with ethical challenges:  Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of Issac, and the departure of Hagar and Ishmael. But, at the beginning of the parsha, Sarah and Abraham welcome three unexpected strangers to their tent. They wash their guests feet, bake bread and slaughter a calf for them for dinner.

Shortly after Abraham and Sarah’s generosity to the strangers, we are brought to the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah lived in a land of material abundance but followed the ethic, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” (Pirkei Avot). No one took care of sick, vulnerable people. As Aviva Goldbert of the Pardes Institute writes, “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are utterly destroyed because, according to many commentators, they wouldn’t help the “other”: the poor, the hungry, the weak, the needy.”

We Americans live in a land today of great wealth. But, how do we share it? As I’ve written previously, there are 46.5 million hungry people in the US, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors. I live in Los Angeles–a city with hundreds of farms within hours of our city limit, countless urban gardens and some of the nation’s best restaurants–but there are 1.7 million hungry residents.  These are the “others” in our cities and country: food insecure Americans who go to bed hungry, not necessarily knowing when they will next eat. Continue reading

Lech Lecha: From Dark to Light

Scallions. La Cienega farmers market

Scallions. La Cienega farmers market

Lech Lecha tells the story of the birth of the Jewish people through Avraham’s prophecy.  God tells Avram, “I will bless you and make you a great nation.”  As Diane Bloomfield taught this week about Lech Lecha, “God is bringing in a radical new creation with different qualities of what it means to be a human being and the potential becoming of a Jewish nation that brings blessings into the world.”

In the parsha, Avraham is sent on a challenging journey to unknown land, despite God’s promise to protect him and Sarah. It is fraught with dangers, famine, and personal challenges. As Yael Shy wrote, the unknowingness of journeys can create unease and fear in oneself, as is true for Avraham. But, as she continued, “God is telling Abraham to stop trying to predict or figure out or gain control of what that which he is not in control.”

His journey is not about where he has been or his previous actions but where he is going and the potential for the future.  He’s a baal teshvua: someone who lives in the process of what he can become, not what he did, according to Diane Bloomfield.

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Simchat Torah: 7 Rounds

Simchat Torah eggplant rounds

Simchat Torah rounds

We end and we begin. With the ending of the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, we begin Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah) which celebrates the completion of the year-long reading of the Torah. And, then we begin anew with a celebration of life in the story of creation in Bereshit (Genesis). The holiday is an extraordinary community celebration of dancing and singing with Torah scrolls for seven Hakafot (circles).

Simchat Torah symbolizes the cycles of our lives. As the Earth rotates, our lives rotate throughout the year; Torahs scroll cycle along their wooden spines each week; our food grows in cycles; on Simchat Torah while holding the Torah, we circle as a community; and we cycle together throughout the Jewish calendar.

 

Fuyu persimmons. Plummer Park farmers market

Fuyu persimmons. Plummer Park farmers market

In the spirit of the seven Hakafot, I created a Simchat Torah recipe reflecting the cyclical nature and joy of the holiday. It’s common to eat foods that are rolled like scrolls and I would suggest that there is this option for this dish, too.  Continue reading