Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Apple cake that's perfect for Yom Tov

With apples in season and holding a starring role for Rosh Hashana, why not pick up a few more to use in a cake? This is my adaption of a recipe I tried that originally called for more sugar and oil. It's perfect to make in advance of Yom Tov because it actually tastes better on the second day. Should you decide to make it for a regular Shabbos, bake it on Thursday rather than on Friday. The recipe  meets my standard criterion for recipes: it is delicious, fairly easy to prepare, and it requires no outlandish ingredients or equipment.
1 2/3 cups sugar
3/4 c. canola oil
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
4 cups peeled and thinly sliced apples
*optional 2/3 cup walnuts, chopped (would be omitted for Rosh Hashana when we traditionally abstain from nuts) 
Preparation: Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a 9x13-inch pan with Pam or equivalent or grease it to prevent the cake from sticking to the sides.
Combine all ingredients except apples. You can start with the whisk or flat beater attachment on the Kitchen Aid and then mix in the apples with a wooden spoon. Batter is on the thick side. Spread the batter evenly in the pan.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes. You can test for doneness by inserting a toothpick. It should emerge clean when the cake is completely baked. Resist temptation to eat the cake until the next day!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

DIY Eruv Tavshilin

Can you boil an egg? If so, you can prepare an eruv tavshilin, all by yourself. There's no need to spend clost to $4 on a kit that contians a hard boiled egg and a roll and a copy of the blessing you can find here. If you bake your own challos, then you can set aside your own roll for the eruv. If not, you can either put aside a roll from the ones you're buying to be consumed on Shabbos or just set aside a matzah along with the egg.
To cover both cooking and baking, we use a representative food for each. It's traditional to use a boiled egg for the cooked item because it's simple and inexpensive. We usually all have a spare egg around. But it's fine to also use a piece of boiled chicken, fish, or meat, as well, so long as you can put it aside where it won't be consumed until the Sabbath day. The same goes for the baked item, which can be a challah or matazh.
With upcoming holiday, we will have 3 opportunities to prepare an eruv tavshilin outside of Israel and one even in Israel, as Rosh Hashana is a 2 day holiday even there. This year, Rosh Hashana, as well as the first and last days (really Shemini Atzers) of Sukkos fall out on Thursday and Friday, the days of Yom Tov only end after the Sabbath begins. That means that in order to cook food or even to set it up to heat or to light candles for the Sabbath, we have to show that we've already begun the process and will merely be continuing. That is the purpose of the eruv tavshilin, which has to be prepared before Yom Tov begins, some time on Wednesday.

Note: The eruv tavshilin only allows cooking for the Sabbath on Yom Tov, it does not allolw cooking from one day of the holiday to the next (i.e. Thursday for Friday), though it is permissible to cook more on Thursday than will be finished that day, and then consume the leftovers on the next day

Transfigured by love: tshuva m'ahava

What’s love got to do with the power of tshuva? Reish Lakish makes two observations on the power of tshuva [repentance] in Yoma 86B. First he declares: “Great is tshuva, for through zdonos [intentional sins] are transformed into shgagos [accidental actions].” Then he declares: “Great is tshuva, for through it zdonos are transformed into zchuyos [merits].” The first instance refers to tshuva miyira [out of fear], which only subtracts the offense, while the second refers to tshuva m’ahava [out of love], which transforms the offense into a positive addition. The power of tshuva to erase what we regret having done is a great thing. Yet there is an even greater power to it, one that does not just leave a blank in place of the blot of the sin but that turns it into the mark of merit. The key difference is the motivation for tshuva.
If one’s tshuva is motivated by fear of the negative consequences for deliberate sins, they are effectively erased by reclassifying the zdonos as shgagos. That is akin to expressing regret for having committed an offense and, consequently, getting the punishment waived. Say, you cut in front of someone in line. Realizing that you behaved badly, you apologize and go to the back of the line. That is sufficient to have your offense erased and not be remembered as a selfish person. But when there is a deeper connection to the one offended, the regret is not only for the action itself but for harming the relationship. For example, lying to someone in your family entails the general offense of the lie plus a betrayal of the trust implicit in a close relationship. Tshuva m’ahavah means that your regret is not just out of concern for the consequences to yourself but for the rupture in the relationship to one you love caused by your action. The desire fortshuva in that case is a desire to re-establish your relationship. That resolution is powerful enough to transform the point of rupture into a new knot of connection.
In the course of married life, there are many opportunities for rupture between spouses. They can range from major life decisions, like where to live, to minor ones, like what to have for dinner. Ignoring them does not make them go away. Just as in the process of tshuva, offenses between spouses have to be brought to light so that they can be sorted out. For example, a new husband has an old cereal bowl that he has used as a child at home and in his dorm. As he feels attached to it, he brings it with him to his marital home. In his wife’s eyes, the bowl is a rather battered piece of plastic that is not fit to be seen alongside their beautiful, new set of dishes, so she tosses it. The next morning her husband takes out the cereal and looks for his usual breakfast bowl. When he can’t find it, he asks his wife where she put it. “That old thing? I threw it out! Use one of our nice new bowls.” What she doesn’t realize in being so casual about it is that her husband is upset that she took something that he was attached to and got rid of it without asking him first.
Though he can remain silent about it, avoiding the confrontation would not give his wife the opportunity to clear her transgression. If he explains his point of view, his wife should not say, “ It’s just a cheap plastic bowl!” Instead, she should feel sorry that her husband finds what she did inconsiderate. Her regret attests to the fact that if she had known what the effect would be, she would have acted differently. Consequently, she would be forgiven as a shogeg, one who acts without malicious intent. But she can take it a step beyond that. She can realize that this about more than just the bowl in question; it is about not taking it for granted that her husband would see things her way. Appreciating this and applying it to other situations would transform the zadon of throwing out the bowl into merit as a reminder to check with her husband on future. Likewise, if a husband schedules something for the day his wife expected they would celebrate an anniversary, he can turn the negative into a positive, not by being defensive, but by sincerely apologizing for something she felt diminished their connection and resolving to mark his calendar with the date in future.
The transformative power of tshuva is is a classical lesson for the Yamim Noraim [Days of Awe] when we focus on spiritual cleansing to achieve tshuva. In the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we regard ourselves asbeynonim – neither wholly wicked nor wholly righteous – and we seek to tip the balance to the side of righteousness through tshuva. While tshuva meyira removes the negative weight, tshuva meahava actually succeeds in transposing it to the positive side, as the zdonos become zchuyos. Love has the power the transfigure our actions in our relationship with Hashem and with each other, especially with our spouses.

Remembering on Rosh Hashana

The whole month of Elul, we anticipate the holiday that marks the Jewish new year.  The shofar is blown at the prayer services throughout the month.  Sephardim have the custom of reciting special prayers late at night or early in the morning for all of Elul, while Ashkenazim begin the week before.  For the whole month through the holiday of Shmini Atzeres, the psalmLeDavid Hashem Ori is added on to the end of both the morning and evening services. People also think about the significance of this time that is designated as preparation for the High Holy Days. 
One of the things we work on is earning forgiveness. That is not merely a matter of fasting and prayer. It is also a matter of earning the forgiveness of our friends, neighbors, and relatives because G-d does not offer forgiveness for offenses to other people. Each person has to consider what s/he may have done to hurt someone else and seek out the person to ask forgiveness.  While readily forgiving is the right thing to do, the burden is not on the victim.   Anyone who suggest that "forget and forgive" is what the month of Ellul is about completely distorts the way things work. 

 The spiritual work of attaining forgiveness calls for a person to remember and then to forgive. We have to remember what we've done, not call upon others to forget it to feel exonerated. This is clear from the prayer service.  There is a special prayer to be said on the eve of Yom Kippur in which a person declares s/he forgives everyone. However, those who think they can relax because the person harmed will make this blanket statement are specifically excluded, as are those who still owe the individual a debt.
One of the names of Rosh Hashan is Yom Hazicharon, the day of remembering.  The prayer services are divided into sections devoted to kingship, shofar, and remembering.  We try to focus on remembering the good things, but we know that we can't simply forget about the past that was not all it should have been.  This is not a morbid idea but one of facing the truth and resolving to improve for the future.  Included in that is the necessity for a spiritual accounting of how we've treated other people and how we may have hurt them.   Putting things out of our own minds does not necessarily put it out of the minds of those we have hurt.  What we are supposed to do is remember and take what steps we could to remedy the situation and attain forgiveness.  Each year is a new beginning, but it is built on the past.  Remembering allows us to fix the past to prepare for a better future.  We should have cleared any bitterness to truly appreciate the sweetness of the honey on Rosh Hashana.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The lesson of the beautiful woman

Have you ever heard anyone dismiss certain halachos as "that's for people on a really high level?" I have.  In fact, I read someone's expression of that sentiment quite a number of months back. That's when I thought of this parsha but waited until we came to its weekly reading to write about it.

This week's parsha touches on a unique halacha that seems quite inconsistent with the accounts we read about earlier in the war against Midyan. This halacha of eshes yifas toar permits a Jewish soldier who is smitten by the beauty of one of the women taken captive to marry her. There's a whole procedure that extends for a month to allow her to adjust and be seen as she is without adornment, and after that time, she either becomes his wife or is set free.

It seems so contrary to the Jewish ideal of union, which is supposed to not be a response to mere physical attraction. (See http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-persistent-prostitute.html )There is a mystical interpretation of what the beauty is really about according to the interpretation of the Or haChaim, as explained here:   http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/57211/jewish/The-Cry-of-the-Holy-Sparks.htm. However, I would like to look at this in the plain sense to appreciate another very profound lesson from the Torah.

Chazal explain that the permission granted in this unique case during a time of war when emotions tend to run high is to counter the yetzer hara. In such a situation, one may find himself unable to resist what he normally can. It's like passing Dunkin' Donuts when you haven't had time for breakfast and lunch. Though you may normally be able to tell yourself that the empty calories are not the best nutritional choice, your brain's rational arguments will be overshadowed by the desire to put hunger to rest delicious carbs. It's really not the best thing to do, but the temptation can be just too strong for some people to resist.

That's the way this is taught to children in school.  But there is something even deeper here. It demonstrates that the Torah is truly designed with human frailty in mind. It does not demand anything that is beyond the average person's capability.

The law of eshes yifas toar  proves that their assumption about certain mitzvos being beyond one's reach to be faulty. The fact that something that seems so far off the norm for relationships within Jewish circles is permitted just for the sake of some individual failing to resist temptation proves that the Torah laws were not made only for those on really high spiritual levels but for all of us.