Revelation: Love. As is.
Not far from the first synagogue where I am working as a rabbi, on Ventura Boulevard, about a mile to the west of Lindsey Avenue, and just east of Balboa, I have a revelation.
It happens as Jane and I are eating a sushi dinner.
I am a pretentious New Yorker, reprimanding my new bride, who grew up eating wings and beef on weck in Buffalo, NY, because “in Japan, no one would pass food to another person with chopsticks. It’s considered rude.”
I get the server’s attention and say, “O gari, dekudasei dozo.” He laughs politely—apparently I am very funny in Japanese—and goes to fetch the ginger I had requested.
As I mix my wasabi and soy sauce with the end of my chopstick, I see her green mustard is still in clumps within her sauce.
I am about to open my mouth—about to explain why the mixture needs to be homogenous, and it hits me.
A revelation, for lack of a better word.
Who am I? What am I doing? And why?
What messages does Jane get from my teaching her? That she need to improve to my specifications to receive my love? Ugh.
Hebrew Union College on West 4th in New York City. Three and a half years of rabbinical school behind me, one and a half to go. I’m with 12 future rabbis in Professor Hoffman’s fourth floor classroom. Dr. Hoffman doesn’t educate by filling pails—asking us to memorize and regurgitate—but he lights fires.
His muppet-infused body pantomimes the corresponding actions as he asks, “Tell me: why do people close their eyes and wave their hands before their closed eyes when they light shabbat candles?”
Bruce, who will become the big-shot rabbinic director of a major Jewish institution, answers with the traditional: “To keep from seeing the lights that couldn’t be lit after the prayer was said.”
We students, understanding this rabbinic logic, make affirmative sounds, letting it be known we think the answer seems reasonable.
If you do not understand it, that’s fair. Let me explain:
In Judaism, after saying the prayer that requires an action, one is to perform that action immediately, no delay. Say the prayer about eating matzah, then immediately eat the matzah. Say the prayer about drinking wine, then immediately drink the wine. However, as soon as the candle prayer is said, it is officially shabbat and no work is to be done. Accordingly, the match could not be lit after the prayer is said—that would be a “desecration” of the sabbath.
Therefore, the logic goes, we close our eyes after lighting the candles but before saying the prayer so that as soon as the candle prayer is said, we can open our eyes and have lit candles.
Magic legal loophole!
To let us know this isn’t what he was looking Professor Hoffman says nothing except to repeat the question: “Why do people close their eyes and wave their hands before their closed eyes when they light shabbat candles?”
Naomi, who will become the only rabbi of a small congregation in Bangor, Maine, offers, “Because closing one’s eyes and making those motions helps to establish the right kavanah.” Kavanah is the Hebrew “in-speak” word for intent.
Dr. Hoffman, who at this time is looking out of the window onto west Fourth—I assume to count the ratio of yellow taxis to passenger cars, like I do—again says nothing.
“Doc,” I say, bringing some levity and hopefully some closure, “We give up. We fold. Why? Why do people close their eyes and wave their hands before their closed eyes when they light shabbat candles?”
He responds, still looking out the window, “They do it that way because they like doing it that way.”
Jane’s unhomogenized bland of wasabi and soy sauce is the way she likes it.
Mightn’t she enjoy her sushi better my way?
I don’t know.
I never told her.
I’d rather she feels loved as is.
Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box oldrotb.wpengine.com, an internet-based, global group of 3.2K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.