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					Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann                        8 June 2008/5 Sivan 5768
University Public Worship                                  Memorial Church


                                Feeding Joy
                        (Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Ps. 126)



      We are in that trademark season of late spring, replete with goodbye

parties and celebrations of achievements. If you wander, you will see

students stealing some time away from studying for finals, lying on benches

and in the grass around our beautiful campus, chatting on cell phones, taking

in some rays. In the air is the scent of jasmine. As I join the students in

absorbing the embrace of the sun, and breathe deeply, I am transported to

another time, another place, whose memory was reawakened by the warmth

and the jasmine surrounding me.



      It is to Yerushalayim, the incomparable clear air of Jerusalem, where I

am taken on the wings of that scent. Jerusalem is a walking city, and every

day, as I walked home from rabbinical school, there was a corner where I

would stop to drink in the flowers in the late afternoon and early evening. I

can never experience the scent of jasmine without my soul longing for

Jerusalem.



      The yearning for Jerusalem is not just an individual experience, but

for Jews, a collective experience with equal measures of exile and hope. This



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yearning is described in the language of Psalm 126, one of several Psalms

which begins “Shir Hamaalot” which means “A song of ascents”, for to return

to Zion, to the land of Israel, is understood in Jewish tradition as to ascend

closer to the Eternal.



      When the Eternal restores the fortunes of Zion

      -we see it as in a dream-

      our mouths shall be filled with laughter,

      our tongues, with songs of joy.

      Then shall they say among the nations,

      “The Eternal has done great things for them!”

      The Eternal will do great things for us

      and we shall rejoice.



      Restore our fortunes, O Eternal,

      like watercourses in the Negev.

      They who sow in tears

      shall reap with songs of joy.

      Though he goes along weeping,

      carrying the seed-bag,

      he shall come back with songs of joy,

      carrying his sheaves.




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                           (translation by Herbert Levine, Sing Unto God a
                           New Song: A Contemporary Reading of the Psalms)


      The Psalmist yearns for the landscape of his homeland and the natural

cycle of agrarian life. The dry streambeds of the Negev may look barren, but

they will become watercourses again, after the rains. So it is for the farmer.

Before planting, he will be anxious, perhaps full of tears, but at harvest time,

the tears will turn into songs of joy. This is not just the experience of the

individual, but also the hopeful vision of a return to the land of Israel.



      This anticipation of bounty, of a harvest of return accompanied by

songs of joy is perhaps the reason that on the Sabbath and holy days, this

psalm begins the traditional Jewish prayer after meals, the birkat hamazon.

The food which we have eaten, the anticipation of fullness of the return to

Jerusalem, the full watercourses and the fruits of a healthy harvest all come

together to speak to us of hope and of gratitude. For both food and dreams

keep us alive. Both food and dreams become the occasion for blessing.



      When in the late 80s, I became the Jewish Chaplain at the Claremont

Colleges, I became, as well, the supervisor of Sova East, an emergency food

pantry created by students in Claremont nearly four years earlier. The

coordinator of the project, Rita Wodinsky, and the students who staffed the

pantry, brought a sense of warmth and acceptance that too few people in




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need experience. Sova had a human face. When one strong young man came

in who had been having difficulty finding work as a mechanic, Rita phoned

her garage to help him. A woman who cleans houses had had several clients

move away and came to Sova during the shortfall. Rita gave her number to

some friends who had mentioned they needed help with their house. In the

large, bureaucratic and impersonal world of social service agencies, Sova

managed to operate in its small corner like an enveloping community. People

were treated with dignity. Hunger was not regarded as a disgrace. Food and

hope were offered in equal measure.



         Sova, means “satisfied”, and it got its name from Deuteronomy 8:10

which is the central text of the birkat hamazon, the blessing following the

meal. “V’achalta, ve’savata u’verachta,” “You shall eat, and you shall be

satisfied, and you shall bless the Eternal your God for the goodly land which

God gave you.” There is a Hasidic comment, which says that thanking God

after a meal is part of having “eaten your fill”. The obligation is addressed

not merely to those who have satisfied their hunger, but especially to those

who are habitually well sated. And so Deuteronomy can be read, “If you

enable others to eat, you will be satisfied, and you will create blessings.”



         “If you enable others to eat.” For the hungry, God is in a piece of

bread.




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      A beggar came to a pious man to ask for bread. “First, we must pray,”

the pious man insisted. And so they prayed the afternoon prayer, and then

they prayed the evening prayer. Then the pious man had the beggar wash

his hands and recite the proper prayer. When the Rebbe heard how his

student, the pious man, behaved, he grew sad. “You meant well, but you

have not acted well. There are times when you must act as if there is no God

in the world.”



      “No God in the world?” repeated the pious man, astonished.



      “Yes, no God. When a person comes to you in need, you must act as if

there is no one in the world, neither God nor human beings, to help him

except you.”



      “And what of his soul?” asked the pious student.



      “Take care of your soul--and of his body”, his teacher answered.



      “If you enable others to eat, you will be satisfied and you will create

blessing.”



We who are often satisfied, we who often have the luxury and the habit of

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more food on our plates than we can eat, are bound up with those who are

hungry and yearning.



      Mordechai Specter tells a Yiddish story which illustrates this

interdependence. Reb Yitchok Berkover had provided a free meal for the poor

at the marriage of each of his children. Now it was time for his youngest

daughter to marry and he invited all the poor from the neighboring town to

celebrate at his wedding. The guests waited and waited, but the poor did not

come. Finally, a messenger arrived breathlessly from the next town. “They

don’t want to come. They say that unless each one is promised a ruble, they

won’t come to the wedding. It happens that there’s already been a wedding

today, so they are all full. They’re in rebellion. If they’re not given a ruble

each, they won’t budge.”



      First Reb Yitzchok raged against the beggars, but then he asked a few

guests to try to win them over. “Look, cried one of the beggars triumphantly

when he caught sight of the guests,” They’ve come to beg.” The guests

negotiated, “Why aren’t you at the wedding? There will be a good meal and

each of you will get some money to take home with you”.



      The beggars stated their case. “Unless we get a ruble each, we won’t

move from here. We’ve no fear that Reb Yitzchok will marry off his youngest




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daughter without us. Where can he get another gang of paupers on the spur

of the moment?” A ruble each or we don’t go.” “Rubles, rubles,” they chanted.



         All their lives they had been silent, forced to swallow every insult

thrown to them with a crust of bread or a gnawed bone. Now for the first

time, they were tasting the same pleasure as the well-to-do. The beggars felt

the well-fed people needed them, and they were determined to gain their

point. Word came from Reb Yitzchok to set out at once; each would receive a

ruble.



         After the bridal ceremony, the feast was served to all in attendance.

Reb Yitzchok served food and drink to the poor himself. “Your health, Reb

Yitzchok. We wish you long life, happiness from your children and even

greater wealth,” they toasted him. “And your health too, brothers. Drink

hearty. Long life to you,” he responded. They danced together and embraced.

This is how a wedding ought to be!



         “If you enable others to eat, you will be satisfied and you will create

blessing.”



         Food is, itself, an occasion for blessing. When I was a child, my family

spent most of our time together around a large black marbled kitchen table,




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which my father’s parents, who were themselves poor, had given to my

parents as a wedding gift. Just how significant this was to me became clear

when, as an adult, I went shopping for a kitchen table. I found one with a

design I liked, but I kept hesitating, unsure why, but not convinced I should

buy it. Finally, I understood the problem. I turned to my husband, George,

and said, “We can’t buy this table. It’s not big enough for a family to spread

out the Sunday New York Times and eat bagels on.” We bought a much

larger table--with two expansion leaves!



      At that table every week, we greet the Sabbath and sing Shir

Hamaalot, the psalm of hope and exile which introduces the grace after

meals. At that table tonight we will welcome in the Jewish holiday of

Shavuot, the time honoring the giving of the Torah. We will eat our fill of the

ritual foods associated with the holiday--blintzes and cheesecake. On Shavuot

dairy is eaten for a number of reasons, but one of them is that the Torah is

likened to milk, “like honey and milk the Torah lies under your tongue.” (Shir

haShirim 4:11) Just as milk has the ability to sustain a human being, so the

Torah provides the spiritual nourishment necessary for the human soul.

Ritual foods remind us of our stories. We eat something of who we are.



      And as we remember from our Deuteronomy reading, it is not only the

proverbial Jewish mother who offers food as blessing. God does too. Manna




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in the wilderness was God’s gift to a hungry and yearning people. As

theologian Sharon Parks notes, Esther saved the Jewish people in the Book

of Esther not by asking the king directly for safety, but by making two

banquets. “Only in the due course of conversation set in the context of

sharing food and wine is the truth revealed, power is reordered and the

people are saved through the faithfulness of Esther and her banquets.”



      For Esther as for us, food is an affirmation of life. Not only must we

eat, but we must do so again and again. If we contemplate fully the act of

eating, we affirm our desire to live and our utter dependence upon the

watercourses and the harvest of the earth, and the many ways our lives are

sustained. “You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless.”



      I understood this profoundly when I returned to the house of mourning

after the death of my mother. I needed to hold hands with two people I loved

in order to have the courage to say the blessing over bread and to eat an egg,

the ritual food served to mourners in the Jewish tradition to symbolize

continuity. I knew that the blessing was a commitment to continue to live in

the face of my mother’s death. To eat was to say yes to life. It was the

hardest blessing I have ever said.




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      To eat is to say yes to life, to faith, to hope. To believe that joy and

song are forthcoming if we only continue to dream, to yearn, to see.


      “You shall eat, and you shall be satisfied and you shall bless.”

      “Because you eat, you know satisfaction, and you can provide blessing.”

       “If you cause another to eat, you will be satisfied and you will create
blessing.”

      May we always say yes to life. May we eat, and be satisfied. May we

create blessing, as the full harvest and flowing watercourses provide occasion

to sing joyful praises of God. Enjoy this beautiful late Spring day, filled with

gratitude, filled with blessing. May you always be satisfied and blessed.




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