Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat - Shemot 5761

The Spice of Life

I'm not sure what any of what follows really has to do with parashat Shemot, but these are the thoughts that randomly mused through my head as I was considering Shemot. A truly random musing this time.

I have these strong childhood memories of a small restaurant somewhere out on Long Island called the "Spice of Life." I'm not sure why the memory has stuck so in my mind. I don't recall what I might have eaten there, but I do recall it was good, and was unique. Perhaps it's the name that stuck. Spice is such a great word. And it kept cropping up. There were Frank Herbert's "Dune" books in which a substance known as the spice played a pivotal role. There was the numerous cooking shows I used to enjoy, particularly Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. I learned to cook by watching him, and of course by watching my dear Mother. Neither of them were every shy with the spices. Nor am I in my own cooking.

And then of course there is my weekly encounter with cloves, as I bid the Shabbat bride a farewell. So spices remain always in my mind. As they do even, if not especially, when I read Torah. The Torah is certainly full of spice. But there's something about Shemot that always gets me thinking about cooking, and recipes, and spices. These are thoughts that occurred to me as I read Shemot yet again...

It takes a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Life's recipe, that is. We can't really be sure what it is we're cooking up here, but we do know that it will contain a wide variety of ingredients.

Like any good cook, we use what we can find on hand. And if we really want something we don't have on hand, we have to go looking for it and bring it back. [Got a bush on hand-make it burn without consuming itself. Got a sea on hand-split it asunder? Julia Childs and Graham Kerr have nothing on Gd when it comes to using what you've got.]

Sometimes we need to use a low flame and sometimes we need to turn the burner up to high. [A burning bush on the one hand, a pillar of fire on the other?] (An aside-boy do I miss cooking on a gas stove!)

Once in a while, we think we can save time so we'll use a Cuisinart or a Microwave oven. Every now and then, we're real purists and crush our own garlic instead of using a powder.

Sometimes we cook with dill and at other times with chili peppers. We can cook in expensive cook ware, everyday cook ware, old iron skillets, even in tin foil shoved under the hood our of cars as we drive home. (I remember a story on NPR about that years back.)

I know from my own experience that sometimes I'm unsure of myself and need a little help in the kitchen. [For Moshe, Gd provided Aharon, for me, Gd provided cookbooks.]

I happen to like to cook, but not everyone does. But even if we aren't the cook, sometimes we have to be.

"Why me?" asks Moshe. The man goes out of his way to show his humility, and instead Gd tells him he needs him to try a little of the opposite tack to accomplish the task he has been given. Gd, and life, have need for the full range of human emotions and personalities. Each of us needs to be capable of drawing upon our humility, our pride; our ability to follow and our skill to lead; to be the cook and the one who eats. (And don't forget the kibitzer, too-an essential ingredient in any kitchen.) And good cooking requires some spice.

Gd sure knows how to cook. Look at the recipe in Shemot. Slavery, genocide, deception, murder (by Moshe himself!), a theophany complete with burning bush and a mysterious name, a roadside circumcision-a "bridegroom of blood," and more. Stir that all up and your sure to have an recipe that will excite the palette.

So, in Gd's recipe, it seems that sometimes we have to be free, and sometimes we have to be oppressed. Sometimes we sing for joy, at other times we groan from our misery. Sometimes we eat bland food, and at other times we're dousing our flaming palettes with water.

I believe one of the serious weaknesses we have developed as a society is that we crave easy choices. Black or white, yes or no. Extreme to extreme. We should strive to find a balance, a middle ground, between the extremes. equal weakness we have as a society is a backlash against extremes that strives for a middle ground that is bland, non-risky, completely inoffensive, and completely impotent. By rejecting the extremes completely (and/or silencing and ignoring them,) we remove most of the spice from life. To think we can go through life without experiencing extremes is so foolish. If we learn nothing at all from our history, it is that we must experience the extremes.

In my twenties, living in New Orleans, I accidentally ordered my first Popeye's fried chicken without bothering to order the unspicy version-and in New Orleans, even the unspicy version is pretty spicy-the pepper seems to stay in the oils. My mouth (and sinuses) never forgot that chicken, and my aversion to hot, spicy/peppery foods was reinforced. Years later, I went on a job interview. As part of the process I was taken out for a meal. And I was taken to a Mexican-style food restaurant. Now, I had never eaten at a Mexican-style food restaurant before, because of that aversion to really spicy hot and peppery foods. But wanting to make the best possible impression, I didn't admit to my foolish Mexican food virginity. I think I ordered something I assumed was relatively safe-probably grilled chicken breasts with some Mexican style rice. Well, the food was still a bit spicy. And guess what? I liked it. And from then on, I no longer feared going to a Mexican-style restaurant. Oh, I still get the less spicy foods - no jalapeno for me, no Szechwan Chinese, or Cajun hot-sauce either) but since then I can enjoy Mexican flavor stylings as much as the more European style of spicing I savor and use in my own cooking.

Consider, however, that if I had never tasted that fiery cayenne fried chicken from Popeye's, I might never have grown to appreciate the subtle peppery spices of many of the Mexican-style foods I now like to eat. So experiencing that occasional extreme is necessary. There is so much out there for us to experience, and if Torah teaches us anything, it is that we must experience it.

Don't wait for havdallah to smell the spices of life, to see its light, and taste its sweetness. Fill each Shabbat with the ingredients you have on hand - and don't be afraid to try something new. Have a Shabbat with quiet, reflective moments, and other moments of pure, brash, loud joy. Be humble if you need to be humble, and be strong if you are called upon to be strong. Just remember your strength when you are humble and your humility when you are strong. There's a sure-fire recipe.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester

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