AROUND THE FAMILY TABLE
Yom Kippur – 2011/ 5772
Temple B’nai Or,Morristown,NJ
We Jews live in two types of time, linear time and eternal time… L’dor vador is not only about generations following each other in chronological order, l’dor vador, to generation and generation, is about generations coming together, the oldest and the newest nitzavim, standing side by side in the presence of the other… The family table is a classroom of family values and identity… I want to guide you through a journey which you will come to your table and see who else has and will be sitting there with you.
I hope yours has been an easy fast so far. And I hope that I won’t be making it more difficult this morning, given that I want to share with you thoughts, not so much about food, but about where the food is eaten, the family table. Even if this does lead you to think about food, that might not be such a problem in light of a recent study from Carnegie Mellon that showed that thinking about food makes one less hungry. (Yeh, right.)
One of the most iconic family dinner scenes is the one in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. That’s the one with the split screen showing Annie Hall’s family around the Easter table on one side and the childhood family of Woody’s character, Alvy Singer, at their table on the other side of the screen.
It begins, single screen, with Annie, her parents, her brother, her anti-Semitic grandmother and her Jewish boyfriend, Alvy. They sit around a well-set table in their well-kept home inChippewa Falls,Wisconsin. The conversation is quiet, demur, and humorless. Banal talk about swim meets and boat basins and remarks about Grammy’s Easter ham, “Great sauce!” Whatever quirks the individuals had – and quirks there were – were tucked under the table, covered up by the well-pressed napkin of civility.
Alvy turns to the camera and remarks on how different this is from his family growing up. “Like oil and water,” he says.
The screen then splits. Side by side you see the scene at Annie’s house on one side and on the other side is Alvy’s childhood family in their house under the roller coaster atConey Island. Their family table is chaos – raucous, people interrupt and contradict – everyone talking at the same time – I think they even drown out the roller coaster. This one is making fun of someone’s diabetes, that one talking about someone else’s coronary. Finally, speaking across the split screen, Annie’s mother from the present addresses Alvy’s mother from the past and asks,
How do you intend to spend the holidays, Mrs. Singer?
We fast, she replies, with everyone else, of course, having to jump into the conversation.
No food, to atone for our sins.
What sins? I don’t understand.
To tell you the truth, neither do we.
While I think the scene was meant to portray the difference between the white Anglo-Saxon protestant family and the Jewish family, my sense is that it was more reflective of geographical differences rather than religious, the difference between family culture inNew Yorkand family culture in theMidwestand, well, essentially everywhere else. The table of my childhood in our Jewish home in Minnesota looked more like Annie’s – without the Easter ham – while I would imagine the scene around the table of an Italian family in Brooklyn would look more like Alvy’s Jewish family.
But my point is less religious as it is cultural and anthropological. This scene illustrates how the family table is the place where families show who they are, where family values and culture are on display and passed down to the next generation.
In most cultures, whether it is on a table in a well decorated dining room or on the floor of a hut or around a campfire, the place where people gather to eat is more than a place to pass out food, it is where the family meets, where family and individual identities are formed. Around this table stories are told, opinions are shared, the goings on of the day are reflected upon, often in light of the stories of those who are not there physically, but who are very much present in that moment. Even the sacrificial altar in the ancientTempleinJerusalemwas a kind of family table, where God andIsraelmet over food.
The family table is a classroom of family values and identity. It is a place where you learn what it means to be part of your particular family, what you define as normal. As Jews, we certainly know that and see it all the time, especially as we gather for Seders and on Friday evening, light candles, bless over wine, and eat challah. The table is where Jewish culture, tradition, and memories are passed down, or should we say passed up, l’dor vador, from generation to generation. In our home, we have tried very hard to have the family together on Friday nights – at least so we could welcome Shabbat together, bless candles, wine, children, and challah (in that order). Often when we do, I reflect on the candles my grandmother would light on Friday evenings. Growing up, I don’t remember having a challah and we only started doing Kiddush when I pushed it in high school, but every Friday evening Gram would take the brass Shabbat candlesticks out, light the white candles, and sing the blessing like we did in Temple. For me, that was what was normal. I remember as a kid eating at another Jewish family’s house on Friday night and being surprised that they were not lighting candles. To me, it was unthinkable, simply because for me what we did at our table defined normal. And while I found out that it was not normal for everyone, as it was for us so it became for me, even after leaving home for college and being on my own. And it is what we have continued to do in the home we have created. It’s a l’dor vador thing, from generation to generation to generation.
As Mark Bernsteintalked about so beautifully last night, this year at Templewe have initiated the L’dor vador Project, finding ways to make us aware of where we all came from, and how it is we perpetuate Judaism and family norms l’dor vador, from generation to generation. We want to heighten everyone’s awareness of their own roots, the people you came from and the people from whom they came. That is one of the purposes of the maps in the Linda Blatt Gallery where we have asked you to place a pin or pins in the place where your various immigrant ancestors came from. As you put a pin in this locale or that, you focus on your individual past, the people and places from which you came. If you do it mindfully, you can ask yourself, “Who were these people?” How did they live their lives and why did they make the choices they made? How were their lives and values different and how the same? What has been lost and what continues through me? In the process, you learn more about yourself and your families and reflect on the choices that you make. And as we get more and more pins up on the maps, we learn something important about us as a community. We see how many of us have common roots in Eastern Europe, which is not surprising, and we see how wonderfully diverse we are, with members, Jewish and not, having roots in just about every continent on the planet. Those maps are not just about geography, they illustrate the reality of l’dor vador.
You know, we Jews live in two types of time, linear time and eternal time. We live our lives in linear time, from generation to generation, marching through history, seeing that there ARE new things under the sun. What they did yesterday affects what we do today and what others will do tomorrow. Continuity through time, from generation to generation, has been the lifeline of our people and our faith. From parents to children and their children after them, generations overlapping in their going and in their coming.
We also live in eternal time. This is illustrated by the curious construct of that phrase l’dor vador as it is found in the Tanach and the prayer book. We translate it idiomatically as “from generation to generation,” but the letter vav in the middle means “and,” so literally l’dor vador means “to generation and generation.” L’dor vador is not only about generations following each other in chronological order, l’dor vador, to generation and generation, is about generations coming together, the oldest and the newest nitzavim, standing side by side in the presence of the other. L’dor vador is about time folding over on itself, collapsing past, present, and future into is a single, eternal moment.
I know it takes a leap of the imagination to fold over time, to collapse all moments into a single eternal one, but we Jews do that a lot, bringing generations removed in time one from the other in dialogue, one with the other. In the Talmud, the true foundation of the Jewish worldview, we study the ideas of rabbis who lived generations apart agreeing and disagreeing as if they were in the same room at the same time. The words and ideas of Rabbi Judah the Prince from the 3rd century might be in dialogue with those of Hillel of the first century, and Rav Ashi from the fifth. Likewise, when you see a traditional Torah with commentaries, you will see the Torah text in the middle, surrounded by commentaries by Rashi from 11th century France on one side, David Kimchi from the 13th century on the other, with Abravanel from 15th century Spain, over here on the page, with the Spanish Seforno from the 16th century, and the Malbim from the 19th century over there, with questions on one side of the page being answered by commentaries on the other side, kind of like that split screen in Annie Hall.
But the folding of time and the meeting of the generations goes back even further, back into Torah times. It is such a central theme that we read it this morning on our holiest of days. Atem nitzavhim kulchem – you are standing nitzavim, here this day, all of you, those who are here and those who are not here. From the chopper of the wood to the drawer of the water. Generations of Israelites and the generations of their descendants, the Jews, all stood at that one place in that one time which was transformed into an eternal moment, collapsing time and space, and linking each with all.
And so it is not so difficult to think about generations coming together at one time and one place, and that happens at your family table, your personal time machine, as stories and memories are shared and what happened long ago is made real in the present. The table is a touchstone of memories and of memory itself. The table is the vav – the “and” which brings generations together.
In that spirit and with your permission, I would like to bring you to the table, one you will create and see in your mind and in your heart. I want to guide you through a journey which you will come to your table and see who else has and will be sitting there with you.
If you wish, get yourself in a comfortable position. You can close your eyes if you would like, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, and relax.
Imagine yourself sitting at a round table. The other chairs are empty but they will not be for long.
In your mind, bring to your table those now closest to you. Parents, children, spouses, grandparents, whomever you choose, living or not. It is a magic table which will expand to fit everyone you invite.
Take a moment to look into the eyes of each of those there. As you look, name for each something they have given you, something you have learned from them, a blessing that they have brought to your life. Even if it is difficult to find a blessing that you have received from them, search for it, because it is there. Name that blessing for each one and thank them, for this is their legacy to you.
Think now of one thing that you do or have done or taught or exemplified which you hope has deepened their lives. Name that blessing for each and let them thank you.
Think now of the other people you come from, those still in this life and those no longer. Invite them to enter the room through the door on your left, the door from the past, and seat them around the table. Your table expands yet again to fit them all.
Introduce the generations past and present to each other, let them meet across your table. This will not be a quiet meeting, it may bring some tears.
As conversations fade and you get their attention, share your personal story with those from the past. Affirm that some of what was important to them is important to you. Tell them how their story and their values continue through you.
Thank those from the past for what they have given to you and ask them to extend that thanks to the people they came from, those whose names you will never know but whose blood and mannerisms and smiles and values live in you.
It is time to invite two special guests, our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, spiritual parents of us all. Abraham, the one who argued with God on the side of justice yet offered up his future as a sign of faith. Sarah, the protective mother whose welcoming tent was filed with light, beauty, and love.
Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, enter from your left, from the past. Greet them Shalom – they will understand you.
Seat them the table, with one seat empty opposite them.
Bring them food and drink as they would to you.
Share with them who you are. Tell them how their story and their values continue through you. Tell them why you are here in this Temple today.
You look now to the door to your right. That is the door leading to the future. The door opens now and your table expands even more to seat future generations yet to be. They may be of your stock or of someone else’s, but related or not, they are family.
Look at them and see in their faces reflections of those already in the room.
Introduce yourself – tell them who you are. Tell them about the others around the table, the people you come from, because they will come from them too. Tell them what is important to you. Tell them what part of you, you are hoping they will hang on to and bring into their lives. Tell them about the legacy you will bequeath to them.
Pull back now, be silent and listen as the generations which had not known each other before begin to speak across the table, across the generations. Introduce your parents and grandparents to your children and grandchildren.
There is still one empty seat around the table. Opposite Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, is a chair reserved for the person who tradition says will be the last Jew, the last before the generations culminate in final messianic fulfillment. The door to the future opens and in walks, you guessed it, Elijah the Prophet, messiah’s herald who take his place next to Abraham and Sarah. Before you are the beginning and the end and all the generations which link them. Here sit the chopper of the wood and the drawer of the water and between them, the entire span of history. Abraham is the wood chopper who prepared his son’s altar for his trial from God. Elijah is the water drawer, who had water drawn on Mt. Carmel as he confronted the prophets of Baal, and who will announce the coming of that glorious day of Adonai of which Isaiah sings: Ushavtem mayim b’sason, mimayonay hayeshuah – Joyfully shall you draw waters from the fountains of salvation. Isaiah 12:3.
All the generations lean towards them. Abraham and Sarah tell stories of the beginning of the generations. They speak of journeys and battles, of sacrifice, strife and loss, of leaving home and coming home. All turn to Elijah who tells of the history yet to be, that time when all of the dreams and values, all of your stories and theirs come to glorious fulfillment, passed up through all those at the table, through generation and generation and generation.
And as he speaks and they listen, you look with pride at what you have done. You are the link, it is you who binds generation to generation, you are the generation which carries the past and ensures your future and that of our people. Without you as the link, the generations never meet, the stories go untold, and the future is unaware. And as the table empties, you resolve never to leave the table, never to stop telling the stories and the stories of those who came before, never to stop until Elijah comes back again and takes a permanent seat at your table and everyone else’s as well.
The Rabbis taught: when the holy Templewas destroyed, the holy altar, the sacred table over which God and Israelmet, was no more. Having lost her place of meeting, Shekinah, God’s imminent presence among us, went in search for a new table. When she entered the Jewish home she saw there was holiness at the simplest of kitchen and dining room tables, and there she took abode. And so it was and is and ever will be, when families gather to share of God’s bounty, when generations meld in the telling of stories, when values and traditions are passed around the table from one generation to the next as naturally as the peas and potatoes, then that table, your table, is as sacred as the holy altar itself. Thankful for all the gifts in our lives, we sing ldor vador nagil godlecha, let us declare God’s greatness from generation to generation, for now and forever more!