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Dear Friends,

There is an old story about a boy whose grandmother made the most delicious brisket each Rosh Hashanah. One year he asked his grandmother to teach him the recipe so that he might some day take over the annual job and ultimately pass the recipe to his children. Thrilled by her grandson’s request, the grandmother laid out all the ingredients and step by step showed the boy how to prepare the dish. The grandmother showed him how to prepare the rub and then apply it to the meat. When it was evenly seasoned she turned to the boy and said, “The final step before you place the brisket into the oven for at least five hours is to cut off and discard both ends of the meat.”

The boy looked at his grandmother inquisitively and asked, “Is that like the tradition of taking a bit of dough while making challah and burning it as a reminder of the offerings in the Temple in antiquity?”

The grandmother looked at the boy with pride. “I love that you listen to your religious school lessons and know the tradition of ‘taking challah,’ but honestly, I don’t know why we do this. I just know that my mother always cut off the ends before placing it into the pan, so that’s what I’ve always done. But let’s call my sister and see if she has a better answer.”

They called the grandmother’s sister, explained that they had just prepared the brisket and asked, “Do you know the religious reason mother always cut the ends of the meat before placing it into the oven?”

The sister laughed and said, “Oh, it is much more straightforward than that. Mother only had one small pan when we were younger. She cut off the ends of the meat because that was the only way to fit it into the pan.”

I thought this was little more than a cute story until, one day in rabbinic school, one of my teachers shared the following:

“When I got to my first student pulpit on Rosh Hashanah years ago I was told that, when the time came to blow the shofar, I needed to open the ark and blow the shofar while facing the Torah scrolls. I thought it was a bizarre ritual, but being a student, I didn’t argue. When the time came to blow the shofar I asked the congregation to rise, I turned to face the ark, and only then did I sound the ram’s horn.” He paused for a moment so we could picture him doing so. He continued, “Toward the end of the year I was having lunch with the oldest member of the congregation and I asked if he knew the religious or spiritual reason for this rather odd tradition. The man smiled widely and chuckled as he said, ’It’s far more simple and it’s all because of me. For years I was the Baal Tekiah—the shofar blower. I had terrible teeth and at a young age had to get dentures. I quickly discovered I couldn’t get as good a sound from the shofar when I was wearing them, but no one knew about the dentures. I was a bit vain, so instead of letting everyone see me remove the dentures during the shofar service, I began facing the open ark. That way I could remove the dentures, blow the shofar and reinsert them and no one would be the wiser.”

My teacher paused and then said, “Sometimes rituals are the result of a religious mandate. At other times, however, they arise from the practical needs of the moment.”

I was thinking about this as we were making plans to join friends for Chinese food Sunday night. I always assumed that Chinese food became “a thing” for much of our community on Christmas Eve because Chinese restaurants were the only restaurants that were open. But I wondered if, like the brisket and the shofar, there might be more to the story.  So I did a little bit of research and learned that, in both cases, gathering for Chinese food is directly tied to our minority status here in America. On Sundays, when families would gather together after church for a meal, members of our community began going out to Chinese food and would often meet other members of the Jewish community who were doing likewise. The same became true for Christmas Eve as well.

No country has been better to the Jewish community than America, but we often forget that our place in the larger society has never been easy and is constantly evolving. The relative security and acceptance we’ve enjoyed in recent decades is fairly new. Particularly now, at a time as emotionally fraught as this, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate all this country has given us. For as painful and disconcerting as the recent rise in antisemitism may be, this country is still a gift to our people. May we never take it for granted.

Enjoy your egg rolls!!!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen