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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Kosher Bacon + Jewish Continuity

Living Jewish has changed a lot since I was a kid. 

I remember being in non-Jewish friends' homes on Sunday mornings, ‎and smelling the tantalizing waft of sizzling bacon. I can't say I totally ignored the frying porkers, but I never struggled with it. I knew it wasn't for me. I was a Jewish child, and I kept kosher. My friends understood my religious practices and my Halachic needs were never an issue between us. 

Fast forward to 2015. This morning my e-mail inbox boasted an article on 'Bacon Goes Kosher', depicting how there are hundreds of Kosher imitation-bacon products - and thousands of pounds of 'kosher-bacon' meat – being sold in this great country.

In fact, tonight we'll be having an evening of Kosher Chinese food at Chabad. For many, Chinese food is synonymous with pork. Not anymore.

Today, the observant Jew can do more than smell the bacon.

Bacon is just an example of how our society's advancement enables us to kosherize what used to be treif.  It's wonderful. I am very grateful that it's become so much easier to be an observant Jew in American society.

Let's just recognize that everything has a trade-off.

If we have whatever we want in Kosher form, will we have enough opportunities for self-discipline?

I had a great childhood, growing up as a Chassidic kid in a decidedly non-Chassidic, and often non-Jewish, environment. I wasn't scarred by being different than my friends. In retrospect, I may have built a stronger Jewish identity by exercising discipline at such a young age.

What if I had gone home those Sunday mornings and had my own sizzling 'bacon'? Would I have been better off?

When Jacob was on his deathbed, he called his children to come and receive a final blessing. But first, Jacob took the opportunity to bless his two grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. These proud Jewish boys were Joseph's sons and – unlike their cousins – had been born and bred in Egypt. Jacob seems to have given them precedence in his final blessings and, in fact, it is still common Jewish custom to bless our children that they be "like Ephraim and Menashe."


Ephraim and Menashe represent the survival of the Jewish people. They grew up as a very small minority, surrounded by an attractive culture in which they couldn't fully partake.

And they were stronger Jews, stronger human beings, for the effort.


You Are Joseph

One can only imagine how he felt.

Teenaged Joseph (of Bibilcal fame) had been abducted by his jealous brothers and sold into slavery. Persevering through a painful trail of difficulties, Joseph had managed to achieve huge success. This former slave had saved the Egyptian empire from economic catastrophe, ultiamtely catapulting to a position second to only Pharaoh himself.

Joseph's brothers came to Egypt looking for food. They didn't recognize him, since he had grown a beard and physically matured. He, on the other hand, knew their identities; but he still wanted to explore their humanity. He wanted to forgive, but he needed to know where they stood. Years ago, the brothers had had shown ugliness. But were those jealous brothers of yesteryear the same people now standing before him? Had they grown?

Joseph needed to know. He needed to know if they regretted what they'd done to him. He needed to know if they'd evolved and learned the lessons of their harmful behavior.

So he tested them. He maneuvered events so that he could probe their sense of regret for what had occurred, and their present sense of loyalty to the clan's youngest son, their half-brother.

Once he saw that his brothers indeed regretted their past actions, and had indeed refined their behavior, he revealed his identity to them: "I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt."

His next words are the part of this captivating narrative that always grabs me the most: "G-d has sent me here to be a provider for you and to insure your survival."

Joseph first points out the obvious truth that they had consciously made the horrifying decision to sell him into slavery in Egypt; then he proceeds to call it G-d's will.

Why the switch?

Once Joseph had achieved the closure that came with his victimizer's contrition, after he saw how they were emotionally tortured by the pain they had caused him, he was able to unshackle himself of their deeds and move on with his life's work.

Stepping forward into the next chapter of his life, Joseph's pressing focus wasn't on his past victimhood, it was on the question: How does G-d want me to use my present situation to better the world?

When the moment was right, Joseph turned himself from a victim into a victor.

There's surviving. Then there's thriving.

Joseph thrived, and we are Joseph.


The Flame of Survival

More than two millennia ago, the Syrian-Hellenist army came to Israel.

They told the indigenous Jews that they, as Hellenists, were peaceful people. The Jews had nothing to fear, they told us, as these invaders only sought enlightenment and beauty. The two peoples actually lived well together for a short time.  Then the Syrian-Hellenist bias came to the fore. They couldn’t stomach the Jews’ stubborn adherence to their traditional faith, practices and rituals. They abhorred our deep-seated Jewish faith in G-d and Holiness.

So the Syrian-Hellenists began a campaign to make us change our ways, asking us to shed our traditions and join their culture of ‘friendship and amity’. Some Jews went along with it, placing higher value on ‘getting along’ than on being themselves. Other Jews, while they welcomed the Syrians-Hellenists to the neighborhood, refused to abandon their own Judaic value system.

That brought out the worst in our Syrian-Hellenist conquerors. They decided to force their ‘peaceful philosophy’ on our people, butchering our men and raping our women. The Syrian-Hellenist army was huge, like a tidal wave engulfing the Jews, and we were no match for them. How could we cling to our faith in the face of such an overwhelming reality?

A small group of Jews recognized that we are never alone. They would fight back. Their war wouldn’t be a simple match of military prowess, it would be a righteous stand against intolerance and bigotry. They stood up in self-defense, in an epic struggle for the freedom to find G-d through our Torah.

And won.

For two thousand years, we’ve been celebrating their victory, our victory, as a triumph of faith over adversity. It’s the celebration of Chanukah. This coming Sunday evening, we’ll be kindling candles that represent the flame of connectedness which burns deep inside our souls. On Chanukah, we bring our Jewish conviction into the open through kindling the Menorah.

Sometimes our inner flare of faith feels suffocated by the Hellenism of the moment. Right now, it feels less safe to be a Jew walking the streets of Copenhagen, Los Angeles or Paris; but we can’t allow that to squelch our timeless flame of connectedness.

If Jewish history has taught us anything, it’s that our connection to Jewish tradition is an anchor that allows us to weather any storm.

So be engaged in the societal discourse and make your voice heard.

But make sure your faith shines.




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