Yesterday was the 9th yahrzeit for my mother, Ruth Karol. As I thought about her 85 years of life, the celebration of Shabbat and holidays in our home came to mind. My mom would light candles every Friday night by reading from a pamphlet that the Reform movement published around 1960. After reciting the blessing itself, my Mom read this phrase and I can recall as if it was yesterday: “May our Home be consecrated, O God, by Thy light. May it shine upon us all in blessing as the light of love and truth, the light of peace and good will. Amen.”
I also remember one of the places we frequented in Kansas City in my earlier years to buy Challah. It was called Shankman’s, and it was about 2 miles from our house. In addition to our usual challah request was the order for a loaf of “Chicago Rye” that we loved so much. The challah we usually bought was the squarish type of loaf. We had it sliced, probably for sandwiches during the coming week, including the cheese sandwich my dad took to work every day.
These are common memories for many of us if we grew up Jewish – watching the candles being lit, the wine blessing – usually over Mogen David concord grape wine in our house – and the motzi over challah. I learned about making braided challah much later, but even if our challah came from the bakery, it was still the hands of our family that put it on the table.
These are important memories to retain – for me, and for any of you who have similar stories to tell about Shabbat in your home, whether now or in the past. The Torah portion for this week, EMOR, describes the ancient rituals related to light and CHALLAH that created the foundation for what we do today. Leviticus chapter 24 records the commandment to kindle lamps each day from evening to morning. It used the words LHA-A-LOT NEIR TAMID for that practice. This passage directed Aaron the high priest to set up lamps on a pure lampstand – a MENORAH – for lights that would burn regularly. Finally, on every Shabbat, choice flour was to be baked into 12 loaves – CHALLOT – set in two rows of six to represent the 12 tribes of Israel. It noted that the loaves were to be accompanied by pure frankincense as an AZKARAH – a memorial offering for the bread.
The word for “memorial” – AZKARAH – is translated in our New Jewish Publication Society English text as a “token” offering, but that word in Hebrew leaped out at me after I did a search in my home computer files for the name of the Torah reading for this week – E-M-O-R. What came up in my search was not only the title of this week’s parashah. I was also directed to words like….
Commemoration - Memorial – Memorable - Memory
It was that search that was really my beginning point for considering the verses I am about to read, and the Hebrew word AZKARAH brings them together. Reciting blessings for Shabbat, including for light and for bread, enable us not only to perform a ritual in the here and now but also to commemorate our past with sights, sounds and tastes that serve as an important foundation of our Jewish experiences.
But there is more, because light and bread are powerful symbols for us as a congregation and community. Light often signifies for us hope, inspiration, wisdom, insight, and faith that we have inside ourselves. If we share our light with someone else, they benefit from what we gave them while our light still burns – just as the lighting candle on the candle table is still lit after the two Shabbat lights are kindled. Bread is a basic need of life, one that we bless before we eat by giving God all of the credit for making it. Does God really bring forth bread from the earth? No, and yes. God made the raw materials, and we make the bread – it is a perfect partnership – where WE are God’s hands, even if we buy challah from a local bakery. As the two rows of CHALLOT represented the entire Israelite people bound together, the challah that we share after our service each Shabbat also represents us. It is our hands that slice it, and when I carry the challah around on the tray for you to take a slice, it demonstrates not only how I can serve you, but how we can serve each other.
Reading from this section of the Torah tonight can give us a new perspective on familiar and time-honored Shabbat traditions. It is a call for us as well to be God’s hands and heart as we sustain our community. Based on the Shabbat pamphlet my mother used so long ago, we can now apply these words to us right here, right now: “May our homes and our congregation be consecrated, O God, by Your light. May it shine upon us all in blessing as the light of love and truth, the light of peace and good will, and may we share that light with each other and with all of humanity.” And let us say Amen.