Once upon a time, there was a poor Jewish baker named Yosef. Yosef lived in a small town; a three day trip to the big city of Prague. One night, after a long day at the bakery, Yosef came home and, exhausted, he collapsed into his bed and quickly fell asleep. He began to dream. He dreamt of a mysterious stranger who told him to look for a treasure in Prague, under the bridge which leads to the royal palace. And before Yosef could ask the mysterious stranger any questions about this treasure, he woke up. “What a strange dream,” Yosef thought; but there was bread to bake and Yosef soon forgot about the dream as we went about his day. The next night, once again tired from a long day, Yosef fell fast asleep and began to dream. And once more, the same mysterious stranger came to Yosef in his dream and told him to look for a treasure in Prague, under the bridge which leads to the royal palace. Once more, Yosef awoke and thought about his strange dream but gave it no further thought as he was very busy. As you might have guessed, once more, the next night, Yosef had the same dream, a third time. When he awoke the next morning, he knew this must have been a message from God and he decided to set out for Prague.
After three long days, Yosef arrived in Prague and went straight to the bridge that the stranger had shown him in the dream. But when he got there, he found that the bridge was guarded day and night and that it would be impossible to dig for treasure without being spotted by the guards. Nevertheless, Yosef continued to wait by the bridge, hoping for his moment.
Finally, the captain of the guard, who had been watching Yosef, kindly asked whether he was looking for something or perhaps waiting for somebody. Yosef told the captain all about his dream. The captain laughed, saying, “Silly man – I cannot believe you travelled three days to Prague all because of a dream. I once had a dream where a stranger told me to go to a small town and dig for treasure under the stove in the home of a Jew named Yosef. Can you imagine anything more ridiculous?! I’d never be so foolish to follow a dream like that!!” And he laughed again. Yosef then bowed and thanked the guard. He quickly gathered his belongings and traveled the three days home. When he arrived back home, he immediately began digging under the stove, and there he found buried treasure beyond his wildest dreams.
The treasure was right there all along.
We are searching for the same treasure. We are living in a stressful, uncertain, hybrid world. And with uncertainty comes a search for ‘answers.’ We look to articles shared by friends, ‘self-help’ books and blogs, and to the advice of Drs. Fauci and Walensky. Tonight, I want to propose that Judaism wisdom is a treasure that has been buried right under our stoves all along, that has a unique role in helping us deal with a time such as this.
But why Judaism? Plenty of secular philosophies offer belief systems that can provide meaning, joy, and connection in our lives. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l, answers this question with a metaphor – a library filled with books of different values and lifestyles. You can choose any. Then Sacks says, you come across a book with your family’s name on it. He writes:
“Intrigued, you open it and see many pages written by different hands in many languages. You start reading it, and gradually you begin to understand what it is. It is the story each generation of your spiritual ancestors has told for the sake of the next, so that everyone in this family can learn where they came from, what happened to them, what they lived for and why. As you turn the pages you reach the last, which carries no entry but a heading. It bears your name.”
Why Judaism? Because whether you were born into it or you converted or you are Jewish adjacent, you are a part of the story – this is our story to discover and write.
The traditional Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah morning tells the challenging account of Abraham casting out his concubine Hagar along with their son Ishmael. In the story, Ishmael and Hagar run out of water and fear that they are going to perish in the wilderness. Suddenly God hears the cries of Hagar and Ishmael and the text proclaims, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.” (Genesis 21:19) The well was there the whole time; Hagar just couldn’t see it. When God opened her eyes, she recognized what was there all along, her ability to be an active agent in her own salvation.
God opened her eyes, but it was Hagar who filled the skin with water. God sent him a dream, but it was Yosef who dug for the treasure. When we speak about prayer or ritual or Jewish learning, we call it a ‘spiritual practice’ because that is exactly what it requires, practice! In fact the Hebrew word for ‘prayer,’ avodah, is also translated as work. Engaging deeper with Judaism takes time and effort.
My family has been baking challah for the past 18 months every single Friday. What started as a necessity when we couldn’t buy challah during the first weeks of the pandemic, turned into a rewarding spiritual practice for our family. Some weeks, we have all the time in the world and baking is a relaxing family activity. Some weeks, we’re busy and rushing around, and frankly, it’s a pain in the tuches! Nevertheless, we do it each week.
We bake challah because it brings our family together around an ancient tradition that connects us not only with each other but also with our ancestors and the global Jewish community at a time when we have felt isolated.
The spiritual practice of ‘taking challah,” a commandment from the Torah to remove an olive sized piece of the dough to be burned up, is traditionally a time to offer prayers of healing for loved ones in need. Each week as we prepare the dough we take time to think of others, friends and family that are unwell and we pray for their healing.
Challah on Shabbat is special. It is a way of practicing hiddur mitzvah/beautifying the commandment. As we continue to spend time at home, Shabbat can be a break from the mundanity. When we say the kiddush on Friday night we mark Shabbat as a time set apart from the rest of the week. The root of the word kiddush, kadosh/holy means set apart and unique. Baking challah is one way we make Shabbat special.
At a time when many are experiencing loneliness, uncertainty, and fatigue, Shabbat offers the antidote of community, mindfulness, and rest. This is the essence of Shabbat. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in his book, “The Sabbath,” “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”
Whether joining online or in person, Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services offer a chance to reconnect with friends and a chance to center ourselves. The service traditionally begins with six psalms to represent the six days leading up to Shabbat. Six psalms to work through the stresses of the week, to decide what we want to take with us and what we want to leave behind. As we sing Psalm 95, maybe we are thinking about that fight we had with our friend last Sunday; we know we really need to apologize. And as we sing Psalm 96, we think of that comment a coworker made about our appearance on Monday; we decide to just let it go.
Shabbat is a treasure that has been here all along. It has been around since creation.
There is a midrash/a rabbinic story (Pirkei Avot 5:6), that says God created ten miraculous things at twilight on the sixth day of creation, right before Shabbat, including the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of Isaac during the Akedah.
Tomorrow morning, we will read the Akedah from the Torah scroll. We will hear about Abraham binding his son to the altar at God’s request, and almost sacrificing him before being stopped by an angel of God. After Abraham is told that this was just a test and he is not to sacrifice his son, the Torah continues, “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.”
The ram was there all along. It has been here since creation. Abraham needed help seeing it so he could sacrifice it in place of Isaac. The well of water was there all along, Hagar needed help seeing it so she could save herself and Ismael. The treasure was there all along, Yosef needed the help finding it so he could dig it up. Judaism has been here all along, we need to live it so we can find answers in this difficult world.
Tomorrow, we blow the shofar, the ram’s horn – the very horn from the very ram that God created at twilight on the sixth day. The shofar blast is a reminder that the treasure has been here all along, we just have to look for it.
The next ten days, the yamim noraim/days of awe are a time to reflect, to do heshbon hanefesh/an accounting of our souls. It is not just a time to apologize to those we hurt this year, it is also a time to make a commitment to ourselves to be different, to be more mindful, more authentic, more whole, this coming year. On Yom Kippur we will read the words of Parashat Nitzavim:
“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea… No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
The treasure has been here all along. Judaism has been here all along. During difficult times and beyond into better times, our tradition has been here and always will be here for us, so long as we choose to engage with it.
This New Year, for our sake and for the sake of our world, may we find the answers we seek in our sacred tradition, may we find our treasure that has been here all along.