The recipes that guide us

**This is the text from my sermon delivered last at last Friday’s Shabbat services, on Parashat N’tzavim/Vayelekh.**

I have a question for you: What is your favorite dish to have at a family event? Do you have a family recipe that when served tastes nothing short of salvation itself?

Now, second question: do you know how to make the recipe? If so, how did you learn to make that dish? Did you study your grandmother’s hands as they kneaded the dough? Did you watch carefully as eggs were cracked into the side of the bowl, then sliding down into the soft flower? Maybe your aunt stood over the hot saucepot taking short tastes to make sure the seasoning was perfect? Did your father have the ultimate secret of adding hickory chips to the fire to getting just the right amount of smoky flavor on the BBQ? Or, did you have your family member with the precious culinary knowledge sit down one evening and write the recipe out? Or, have we unfortunately lost the secrets to the making of our sacred family tables? How many of us feel pangs of regret as we open up cans of gefilta fish at our Pesach sedar?

Such is the nature of shifting from an oral tradition to a written tradition. We go from just knowing the recipe, having been taught by our previous generations, to needing a recipe. Please don’t let us lose this great secret, lest we will have to relegate ourselves to the store-bought version.

My favorite homemade recipe was my Bubby’s—of blessed memory—kugel. When we had a reason to celebrate, we could all plan on that warm casserole of noodles and sour cream and cream cheese and eggs and other heart-stopping ingredients to be placed right in the center of the table. She always made the recipe from memory. I do not know where the recipe came from. I would like to believe that she learned from her mother, her grandmother, or from fifteen other generations of old-world Jewish cooks back in Poland. More in reality, though, it was probably in the “noodles n’ such” chapter of the Congregation Beth Israel Sisterhood cookbook of 1967. I willingly choose my fantasy over reality in this case.

A handful of years ago, during a visit to my grandparents, I made my grandmother dictate her recipe to me as she made it. And so, we transformed her pinch of salt into a ¼ teaspoon. We changed her bag of Manichevitz noodles into 16 ounces. We transformed her ability to cook by artistry into the recreate-able science of recipe following. By taking down this recipe, I took my grandmother’s cooking and categorized, turning it from art to logic, taking it from her loving hands and placing it in a grandson’s, who wants to desperately recreate the flavors upon which he was sustained and fattened as a child.

Recipes take the artistry of preparing sustenance for one’s family and process it into a scientific method by which the recipients can recreate time after time that deliciousness.

As Jews we like recipes. Recipes are, in fact, nothing new. As we have morphed from a community sustained on oral traditions into the People of the Book, we found the need to organize, categorize, to logic through our traditions, so that anyone could index the wisdom that for so long had been kept only in our minds. We Jews are list-makers, and teach through our lists. And we like our lists. They help us live our lives. They give us a seder; they make us feel ordered. They are a checklist of how to live out our days.

In fact, this model of checklists, I would argue, is a distinct genre within our Jewish tradition’s texts. In fact, I am certain you find some familiar:

Eilu d’varim sh’ain la-hem shiur, These are the things that are limitless, we read in our morning services. And then the list: to honor one’s father and mother, engaging in deeds of compassion, arriving early for study, dealing graciously with guests, visiting the sick, and so on… These instructions out of the Jewish tradition are a recipe for living a life of menschlikeit.

Let’s try another: Al shlosha d’varim, On three things the world stands, and they are… al ha-Torah, the Torah, al ha-avodah, upon Worship or Service, v’al g’milut chasadim, upon acts of lovingkindness. With three main ingredients we have a guide as to how to live our covenantal relationship with God.

Yes, we Jews like to record our categorical imperatives as just that, into finite categories. They can be easily remembered, they are pithy, and they just plain make sense. They serve as benchmarks in our striving toward righteousness.

And so as I was studying texts around this week’s parasha, I was pleased to find a new list, something to add to the cookbook that teaches us how to be better people in the world: There are four things in which an individual may engage to bring out his or her own strengths. They are: Torah, T’filah (Prayer), Mitzvah, and Derekh Eretz (Civil Behavior).

What is it about these four things: Torah, Prayer, Mitzvot, and Civil Behavior that should strengthen each and every individual? They are in fact a way of being, each a process unto itself, that guides our actions, and thereby strengths our whole selves. The midrash in which this list is presented links each item to a battle cry that the Israelites proclaim, that Joshua proclaims, and that Moses urges onto them: Chazak Ve-Ematz, everyone shouts. Be strong and be resolute. We gain something when we live by Torah, when we develop our prayer lives, when we practice the mitzvot, and when we are civil. We strengthen ourselves. The battle cry Chazak Ve-Ematz, be strong and be resolute is a self-reflective prayer, proclaiming that we are made better by the guiding processes of our Jewish tradition.

I saw these values lived out once, I saw someone once cooking with these ingredients, and I witnessed the smile on his face that told of an inner strength he encountered having gone through these steps of Torah, T’filah, Mitzvah, and Derekh Eretz.

When I was 19, I worked for an outdoors company, leading bike tours and hiking trips. At one point in the summer, I found myself up in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Another staff person, whose name was Mike, and I were supposed to hike into the woods there, and meet up with a group of teenagers who were heading from Mt. Greylock in Western Massachusetts to New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington via the Appalachian Trail.

We went to the tent site in the morning, but couldn’t find the teenagers or their leaders. Some other hikers told us that we had just missed them, that they had already headed out on onto the trail for the day. Mike and I took chase; we spent the rest of the day trying to catch this group. Unfortunately, after hours of hiking, after having covered a couple of mountain tops, we just couldn’t go any farther. We hiked out, and decided that we’d try again in the morning, meeting the group at a point where we knew they would have to cross a road.

Mike and I got back to our car, and we then started looking for a place to sleep that night. We drove into a small town called Bethlehem—of all things. It was just about sunset. And as I was looking around at the quaint shops and inns, I noticed that there was something different about Bethlehem, NH. The display for the new diner, the signs for the different bed n’ breakfasts, even the banner for the upcoming town fair… they were all written in Yiddish! Not only that, everyone right at this time seemed to be out and about. There were men in long gabardine black coats, with long white beards heading somewhere. There was group of women gathered at the street corner, all dressed in traditional orthodox fashion. And then it hit me, it was Friday! Shabbat was about to come in. This town was some sort of orthodox vacation destination.

Mike and I found the synagogue. We went to services there, which is a story for another time. And then something remarkable happened. After services were over, a man came up to us and said, “Shabbat Shalom. Excuse me for asking, but do the two of you have a place to celebrate Shabbat? Do you have a place for a meal?”

This man was willing to take in two total strangers. Keep in mind we looked like gross guys who had just been hiking for days. This man owned one of the inns down the street from the synagogue. He sat us down at his family table. He fed us with warm kosher chicken, real gefilta fish, homemade challah, everything you could imagine. He then told us to go and put our tents out in his backyard; we could sleep there for the evening before we had to head on. When I thanked him for his kindness and generosity he said to me, “Hey this is what Jews do. We help one another. Kol Yisrael aravaim ze la’zeh,” he quoted from the Talmud, “all of Israel is responsible for one another.”

The innkeeper lived by Torah, he led a prayerful life, he was dedicated to the mitzvot, and he knew the correct way to welcome the stranger—with derekh eretz, and in this process, he got something out of it as well. He was strengthened by being a help to us.

We often say “May you go from strength to strength,” and our tradition outlines a recipe by which we can make that prayer a reality. Like the best kugel recipe it offers us sustenance. And this sort of recipe girds us without adding to our waistlines. The recipes that our tradition outline guide us toward more righteous paths, paths that helps us to be better people in our relationships with one another and with God.

May we be strengthened through the lessons of Torah. May we find resolve in the prayers that we utter. May we grow stronger from being disciplined as we live out the mitzvot. And may we be resolute that we must approach one another with derekh eretz, civility and humility, recognizing the spark of the divine that rests in each and every individual. Chazak ve-ematz, May we be continue in strength and resolve.

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