A sermon delivered at Beth Shalom Synagogue on March 16, 2018
When my unit underwent field-training in the IDF, there were some tough conditions to which we had to accustom ourselves. Carrying heavy weights, digging a hole in which to sleep, barely getting to use it, the intense discipline. But one of the hardest things to get used to was the food provisioning. The IDF supplied what they called manot krav, field rations, a cardboard box of various canned food products. They are endearingly or repulsively familiar to every combat soldier, whether on guard duty, training, or in operational situations.
With enough food in each box to feed four soldiers three meals a day, each manot krav contains items such as tuna, corn, beans, a little fruit cocktail, chocolate spread, and a delicious bit of halva / sesame candy, not nearly enough for all four of us.
Eating and sharing these rations has entered mythical territory in the collective Israeli memory; it is a veritable rite of passage for all army-going teens and beyond. Of all the food products in the field rations, nothing has reached the mythical proportions of a canned food product called loof and many wax nostalgic over it. Similar to a kosher type of Spam, phased out in 2008 right after I finished my Service, the expiration date printed on the package was often years before possible field consumption. And yet, most of us ate it out of necessity.
It was minced, corned beef, and it was my first exposure to corned beef outside of the Jewish delicatessens at which my grandparents would shop in Great Neck when I was growing up.
Corned Beef. Now why would a vegetarian rabbi bring this up at a synagogue on a Friday evening Shabbat Service. Well, it turns out someone asked me what’s so Jewish about our annual fundraiser here at Beth Shalom, the fundraiser of High Holiday-like proportions that brings all of us together. Why did we choose CBSS, the Corned Beef Sandwich Sale, of all things and how does it relate to our Judaism of the 21st Century?
Actually, I think I had the same question 2 years ago. I remember interviewing here as that big banner waved in the wind, announcing the corned beef sandwich sale and free deliveries. I remember thinking it was kind of cool, a little weird, and what on earth does this have to do with a synagogue?
It turns out there’s a mild debate as to the Irish vs Jewish origins of corned beef and how it came to America from the Old Country. Regardless of the precise origins, these two large and diverse 19th and 20th CE immigrant groups in New York City had a lot to do with corned beef’s development and popularity as an American staple.
Corned Beef connects us to our humble beginnings in this great country. We are the gritty, hard-working up-start shul just as our industrious ancestors ate corned beef to sustain themselves and anchor their Judaism in the New Country.
We are the small, but mighty hamishe shul. Indeed, could you even imagine any other type of fundraiser that would fit our personality? Yes, we feed people’s minds with learning and study. Yes, we feed people’s souls with prayer and seeking and spirituality. But, what is any of that if we do not feed people’s bodies with delicious kosher corned beef?! As we learn so famously in Pirkei Avot, ein kemach, ein torah / Without bread, there is no Torah. If we do not have sustenance, how can we even seek more spiritual pursuits?
We seek to feed the larger community because we’ve always viewed ourselves as an integral part of the larger community here. We seek to spread Judaism’s love and show how expansive it is. As Laurie Maas said, the Sale makes BSS visible to the community; nothing like corned beef to put a smile on someone’s face. Many look forward to it each year and others, thru it, learn that we exist. It raises money for community events, to allow us to always be open and accessible to the larger community.
It’s the faces that really make it so special. It’s Eric Gidan, a long time elder of the shul, who always had tickets in his pockets, ready to sell. His passion for this event only matched by his passion to mentor and guide. It’s a picture of Connie Finkelstein with a young Benjamin Hausmann getting their arms elbow deep in corned beef and pickles. As Benjamin’s mom, Rachel, pondered, When else would they ever have the chance to sit together for an hour visiting and working for a common cause, for the shared, sacred purpose of sustaining a synagogue?
Kids on roller-skates shuffling between the stations, filling bags, nearly gave Francine a heart-attack. As she admits, there is never a dull moment, and there is nothing that brings people closer together than filling bags or slapping together some delicious egg salad.
It was her and Dauna Emmisch who helped start it 34 years ago, tirelessly working to make it a success, to make it into the well-oiled machine it currently is. Our tradition says that all Jewish souls, present, past and future, congregated at Mount Sinai for that earth-shattering event so many years ago. It’s crucial, multi-generational events like this that make that statement a reality.
And though we have changed over the years, and this is the first year with pre-packaged pickles, eliminating the need for a pickle-packing and wrapping table, nonetheless, this “little shul that can,” does it together!
We are the little aleph that could. As many of you know, and as we’ll see tomorrow when we chant these words, the first word of this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, has something peculiar about it. Very few words or columns in our Scroll have distinguishing features, and yet this one does. The word Vayikra is written with a miniature aleph at the end.
Our sages tell us this is due to Moses’ amazing humility, that though God called him, Vayikra, he thought of himself as just one person, one link in this amazing chain of the People Israel. Thus, he reduced the size of that letter to show that he was just one person.
And you know what they say about the letter aleph. God created the world with that one letter. It’s three component parts, two yuds and a vav, add up to 26 in gematria, the number of God’s holy name. 3 parts of that letter, almost like the meat inside sandwiches by those two pieces of bread. Aleph is also the first letter of both of the Hebrew words for “I.” Ani and Anochi. Like Moses, we take our own ego, our own need for glory or respect, and put it in for the greater good for a sacred purpose.
We say we have three pilgrimage holidays in Judaism, where everyone comes together to a central location: Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. Let us truly experience, elevate, and enjoy this 4th pilgrimage of ours, specific only to this special shul. Whether in the field rations of Israel or the hallowed halls of Beth Shalom, let’s celebrate the power of… corned beef.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov. Have a great month of Nissan, and B’tey avon, Bon Appetit!