“Unlocking our Powers”

My niece Zoe just turned eight.

For her birthday, all she wanted was to come and visit “Aunt Sharon in Chicago.”

So, my brother, Ari, and sister-in-law, Christina, decided to surprise her and her four-year-old brother, Max and make her birthday wish come true.

The day of her birthday she woke up in Pittsburgh (where they live). She had a fabulous birthday breakfast with her family and one of my other nieces Sarah and Sarah’s mother, Marilyn, who were visiting from Tampa.

Christina secretly packed their suitcases and just as they were getting ready to go to the airport, they told Zoe and Max that they were heading to Chicago. They couldn’t have been more excited!

When I met them at the airport, after we hugged and kissed, Zoe informed me about what she was most looking forward to seeing on this trip: “I can’t wait to see your synagogue, Aunt Sharon!” “Me too!” Max replied.

Zoe and Max were so thrilled to be with me, we could have done anything. We had a lovely birthday dinner. We went to the Children’s Museum on Navy Pier. We went to the beach on Lake Michigan. We spent time at my synagogue, where they displayed “audacious hospitality” by welcoming everyone who came in the door: “Welcome! I’m Zoe, Rabbi Sharon’s niece.” “Welcome! I’m Max, Rabbi Sharon’s nephew.” (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone could be welcomed like that when they walked in the doors of our synagogues?)

Celebrating Zoe's 8th Birthday at Aunt Sharon's house in Highland Park, IL
Celebrating Zoe’s 8th Birthday at Aunt Sharon’s house in Highland Park, IL

They made me laugh and smile. And I was able to see first-hand how they are mature beyond their years.

When they returned home, Christina shared a conversation Max and Zoe had with each other:

Max: Hey, Zoe, everybody has powers, right? (Max does love his Superheroes).

Zoe: Yeah, they’ve just got to unlock them.

Little do Max and Zoe realize that they were discussing a very Jewish concept, this idea of “everybody has powers”. Everyone has special and unique gifts. Each of us must find a way to “unlock our powers” – or “unlock our potential”. Each of us must find a way to discover what makes us special and how we can share our gifts with others to make our world a better place.

Max and Zoe DO understand that each and everyone of us is unique. Throughout our time together, they found a way to tell people “you are beautiful,” “you are special.” Max would compliment waitresses in restaurants and make them feel good (who wouldn’t smile when a handsome, adorable four-year-old tells them they are beautiful?!)

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that each one of us is made in the image of God, b’tzelem Elohim. And, no two people are created the same.

As the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chasidic movement) said:

Every one should know that since creation each human being has been unique. We all are called on to perfect our unique qualities. And it is our failure to heed this call that delays the Messiah.

When I spend time with Zoe and Max, I know that their unique gifts will leave a positive imprint on our world. Each of us has the ability to do the same.



An Anchor in Troubled Times

When I lived in Toronto, I often took my out-of-town guests to Niagara Falls for the day. It was a beautiful drive. We’d wind our way through the wine district, eat a leisurely lunch at one of the lovely restaurants at a winery, spend time in Niagara-on-the-Lake and of course, visit the magnificent Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls - The Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Falls)
Niagara Falls – The Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Falls)

No matter how many times I’ve been to Niagara Falls, their grandeur and majesty still leaves me in awe. One of the most spectacular things to do, is to walk under the caves on the Canadian side of the Falls. You can actually walk right under the Falls themselves and touch them. It is breath-taking!

Then we would usually drive along the Niagara River, to see the Floral Clock. And we would observe the violent rapids just upstream of the Falls, where the Niagara River suddenly becomes turbulent.

Niagara River Rapids
Niagara River Rapids

As you travel farther north along the river, the river’s current flows more gently and boats are able to navigate more easily.

On one of my trips, as we crossed over a pedestrian walk-way that spans the river. I noticed a sign posted on this bridge that I had never noticed before – a warning sign for all boaters. “DO YOU HAVE AN ANCHOR?” the sign reads in big block letters, followed by: “DO YOU KNOW HOW TO USE IT?”

The gentle calm of the river at this point gives no indication of what lies up ahead. But if boaters are prepared, they can safely navigate the turbulent waters.

When I reflect on the events that took place in Overland Park, Kansas, or in the Ukraine, or in other parts of the world right now, it seems to me that the Jewish people have been thrust into turbulent waters. How do we respond to these difficult events? How do we show these communities that their safety and well-being are our concerns as well, while at the same time, taking care of our own Jewish communities here at home?

Where do we find our anchor that will keep us rooted safely and securely no matter what type of turbulence life sends our way?

We can find some of our answers in our Passover story. Our Passover story is all about finding our “anchor” in the midst of oppression and exile. It’s about finding a way to wholeness and freedom. However, it takes the work of many to accomplish this. It takes perseverance and steadfastness. It takes the community joining together to rally against the yoke of evil.

One metaphor which I like to use is the Elijah cup which we place on our Seder table. Elijah represents hope for the future, the Messianic age when the world shall live in peace and harmony. No more hatred, no more violence. Traditionally, we start with a full cup of wine, open the door for Elijah, and Elijah is supposed to visit every home on the first two nights of Pesach (Passover.)

Elijah's Cup for the Seder
Elijah’s Cup for the Seder

At my Seder, I begin with an empty Elijah cup. Prior to opening the door for Elijah, we pass the cup to every person. Everyone pours some of his or her wine into the cup, as they say one thing they hope to do over the coming year to make the world a better place. By the time the cup goes around the table, Elijah’s cup is full. We, then, are the ones who will actually be responsible for bringing about redemption to our world.

Symbolically, this shows that if we each do our part, we ARE ABLE to bring our world to a state of perfection and wholeness.

So who is our anchor in troubled times? WE are our anchors.

Or, to paraphrase Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810. He was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov – and was one of the most creative, influential and profound of the Chassidic masters and the founder of the Bratslover Chasidic sect.) – to be an anchor, to make this world a better place, you need to reach in three directions: inward, outward and up. You need to reach inward to find the best of yourself; you need to reach outward toward your community; and finally you need to reach up to God. If we reach in all three directions, we will be able to find wholeness and peace, and then truly, we will have found our anchor.

Shabbat Shalom.

“Let All Who Are Hungry, Come and Eat…”

When I was growing up, you could buy two kinds of matzah in the store: plain or egg.

Today, the grocery store shelves are overflowing with a plethora of varieties of matzah :

Plain, egg, onion, spelt, oat, gluten-free, tea matzah, whole wheat, whole wheat and bran, matzah “sticks”, English matzah, Israeli matzah, chocolate covered matzah, small size matzah crackers (and all of the varieties exist in the crackers as well).

Some of the different varieties of matzah available today
Some of the different varieties of matzah available today

It can seem overwhelming looking at all the different types of matzah lining the shelves at the grocery store.

And don’t forget about buying matzah meal, cake meal and matzah farfel. They also come in “original”, whole grain and now gluten free. Want some matzah Panko crumbs? Plain or flavoured? Regular or gluten-free? They are all readily available.

Matzah has come a long way from its biblical and historical origins.

Matzah was originally the “bread of affliction”. In Exodus 12:8, the ancient Israelites ate unleavened bread as they hastily departed Egypt on their way to freedom. They had no time to bake bread and let it rise, so they quickly mixed some flour and water and made flat bread. A type of bread which would bake quickly and not spoil as they travelled.

Ha lachma anya

Di achalu avatanya b’arah

d’Mitzrayim… (Passover Haggada)

“This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.”

With these ancient Aramaic words, we break one of the symbolic pieces of matzah on the Seder table and our Pesach (Passover) seder becomes an evening of community, story-telling and hospitality.

By breaking a piece of matzah in half and opening our front door, we invite all those who have no where to celebrate and join us at our Seder tables. We invite all those who are hungry, to celebrate Passover along side our own families.

Thus matzah comes to symbolize two things:

  • the affliction and suffering our ancestors suffered as slaves in Egypt;
  • freedom, hospitality and welcoming. Matzah was eaten by people on the cusp of becoming free. We now use it to welcome others to our homes during this special time.

The dual nature of matzah is not lost on us. Matzah is hard and crumbly. It can get stuck in our throats. Yet, we have the ability to transform it into something edible and delicious. (Ever had caramel matzah crunch, aka, matzah “crack?”, or a delicious blueberry matzah brei for breakfast, or just plain matzah with fresh butter and strawberry preserves?)

We find that when we gather together with friends, family and community and share food and celebration, the bonds we form can help lighten any burden we bear. When we gather together as community, we can find a way to alleviate the suffering of others. There is power, strength and healing in community. Matzah thus reminds us of the dual nature of life: slavery and freedom, hunger and hospitality.

Matzah is made from only two ingredients: flour and water. It mixes together and bakes up quickly. And it lasts a long time without going bad. It is a simple food. Not complicated.

It should be a simple thing for us to reach out to others in friendship and love, to open our doors, our homes and our hearts. It should be easy and not complicated – like matzah.

So as you do your Pesach shopping this year, and contemplate which type of matzah you will bring home, think about how to make the ancient words of “Ha lach ma anya” come alive by opening your home and your heart to others this Pesach.

Chag Pesach Sameach! A happy and healthy Passover to you and your family!

Click on the links below for some of my favourite Passover recipes:

Sharon’s Sweet and Spicy Mixed Nuts

Susie Fishbein’s Tri-Color Matzah Balls

Betsy Stone’s Carrot Kugel/Carrot Muffins

Sue Devor’s Decadent Flourless Chocolate Torte

Grain-Free/Gluten-Free Blondies