Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hanukkah, Thanksgiving and Dual Devotions

This evening begins the holiday of Hanukkah. Tomorrow is of course when we will gather for Thanksgiving. Although these holidays appear worlds (and lands) apart, they are in fact connected by history and theme.

First a reminder about Hanukkah. Forgive the abbreviated summary. During the second century B.C.E. Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian-Greek ruler over the land of Israel, made it increasingly difficult for Jews to observe Judaism. The Maccabees battled against his mighty army and eventually defeated the Syrian-Greeks. They found the Temple in Jerusalem desecrated and so declared an eight-day dedication ceremony. Hanukkah means dedication. According to later rabbinic writings they found there in the Temple only enough oil to last for one day but it miraculously lasted for all eight days.

Their initial reason for eight days had nothing to do with the miracle of oil. So why did they declare an eight-day festival? It was because the first and second Temples were dedicated during the eight-day fall festival of Sukkot. In order to rededicate the Temple they looked back to their history and the holiday when they first dedicated these Temples. Now the Maccabees were not only given an opportunity to celebrate this all-important holiday that they missed observing during the war but to rededicate the Temple to Jewish worship.

While the Puritans did not observe Sukkot (they did not believe in fixed holidays except for the Sabbath; I wonder as well if this temperament continues to influence American Jews), they certainly drew on its themes when celebrating their first Thanksgiving. On that day in 1621 when this first Thanksgiving was observed, they wished to thank God for a bountiful harvest. Their keen understanding of the Hebrew Bible offered them the example of Sukkot. This holiday is our quintessential harvest festival. The booths hearken back to our people’s agricultural roots when we lived near our fields in order to make the harvest easier. It was on this day when we thanked God for the blessings of the land.

The essence of both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving is gratitude. And there is much for which to be thankful. Could not the words of our tradition’s Al Hanism prayer recited to mark Hanukkah also apply to Thanksgiving?
We thank You, O God… In Your abundant mercy, You stood by Your people in their time of distress. You championed their cause, vindicated their rights, and avenged their suffering. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the just…
Or perhaps we might look to the words of Emma Lazarus, the American Jewish poet, who saw in her adopted land a confluence of devotions. In her voice the love of Judaism and America are one.
O deem not dead that martial fire,
     Say not the mystic flame is spent!
With Moses’ law and David’s lyre,
     Your ancient strength remains unbent.
Let but an Ezra rise anew,
To lift the banner of the Jew!
And so our hearts are joined in devotions. We give thanks as Americans and as Jews.

A suggestion: If your custom is to give presents for Hanukkah and especially for all eight days add GivingTuesday to your observance. Rather than exchanging presents on Tuesday, December 3, decide as a family where you wish to give tzedakah. Make one night about what others really need rather than what we want. Helping others should never diminish our gratitude.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vayeshev and Settling Down

The recently released “Portrait of Jewish Americans” by the Pew Research Center offered many insights into the American Jewish community and in particular Jewish identity and affiliation. Most Jewish leaders and organizations have spent the past weeks decrying its results. Intermarriage rates have increased. Affiliation with synagogues has decreased. Religious sentiments have diminished.

Most see in these statistics cause for alarm. We would be better served focusing on the bright notes found in the study. “More than nine in ten Jews (94%) agree they are proud to be Jewish. Three quarters (75%) say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Jewish leaders however appear only able to speak about the negatives rather than these positives.

I wonder if the problem lies not in American Jews but in the institutions we have constructed. Yesterday’s synagogues were built around the premise that this is where Jews can best assert their Jewish identity. The fact is that American Jews no longer require the synagogue to reinforce their Jewish identity. I am not an expert at reading sociological studies, but the last time I checked a 94% translates into an A. Thus Jews proudly proclaim their Jewish identities.

And yet we only appear to know how to speak as if there is a crisis. Our institutions and their leaders have imbibed this crisis narrative. “Join a synagogue to stem the tide of assimilation. Only the synagogue can guarantee a solid Jewish identity.” These are the refrains we still hear. But yesterday’s refrains no longer hold sway over today’s Jews. Today’s Jews have aced Jewish identity. And they no longer require synagogues to keep earning high grades.

My teacher Tal Becker suggests that Judaism has a problem of arrival. We only know how to speak in aspirational notes about the future. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we say at our seders. But now we are there. We have a sovereign Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem. And yet we still speak as if we are living in a shtetl. “The world is out to get us!” we declare over and over again. And thus in medieval times we added to our seders. “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know you.” Now we have an army. Do we still only speak the words born out of ancient sufferings and oppressions?

In America as well Jews have arrived. Most American Jews (94%) do not feel their Jewish identities are in crisis. And yet Jewish leaders only know how to speak of crisis. We require a new language; we need words not of impending doom. The future can no longer be written as if we are always standing at the precipice, nearing disaster.

Jews no longer feel they need the synagogue to be Jewish. And so synagogues must change and learn to provide something different. Instead we must speak about the meaning to be found in the Torah and tradition and the beauty and joy to be discovered in community. People will always be searching. Perhaps the synagogue can become the new destination where young and old can add meaning to their lives.

The reality of this week’s Torah portion still resonates with import. “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned…” (Genesis 37:1) Our parents, and grandparents, wandered to these shores in order to discover a place where they could proudly declare their Jewish identities. They built synagogues, and institutions and organizations, to provide venues where we could more easily declare our identities and there gain the courage to venture out to the world with our identities safely, and sometimes secretly, held in our hearts.

Now we are settled. We are no longer sojourners. Our Jewish identities stand firm. When will our language change? When will we lift our voices in joy and song and celebration and proclaim together, “We have arrived?”

For more of my thoughts on American Jewish life and synagogues read a prior post: Lobsters and Synagogues.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Vayishlach and Conquering Fears

The Hasidic rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, used to say: “The whole world is a narrow bridge. The essence is to be unafraid.”

And yet we read of our patriarch: “And Jacob was greatly frightened.” (Genesis 32:8)

Fear is reasonable. It is to be expected. There is plenty about which to be frightened. There are our fears of terrorism and war, of sickness and disease, of the weather and its calamities. (Our hearts are joined in sorrow for those in the Philippines suffering from Typhoon Haiyan.) For most these fears give us pause. They offer us hesitation. Before setting out, we ask, “Is it worth the risk?” Most of the time we are able to forge ahead, mustering the necessary courage to overcome our fears. For others these fears become incapacitating. These people never venture far outside of their comfort zone. They stay close to home for fear of dangers, both real and imagined.

We learn that even Jacob was afraid.

When facing challenges, when staring at crisis, when looking at struggle fear is a natural feeling. When we know there might be disappointment, when we expect there might be heartache, when we foresee there might even be pain, fear is reasonable. Still we should not allow these fears to lead us to inaction.

In order to succeed we must often overcome fear. In order to fashion something new for ourselves, for our family, for our community we must take risks.

Why was Jacob afraid? For years he had lived on the run. After stealing the birthright from his brother Esau, he fled to his uncle’s home. There he was married (twice) and built a family. We understand why he ran. His brother Esau threatened to kill him! Now, after many years, he is about to see his brother again. Will his brother forgive him? Will they make amends? Jacob is greatly frightened.

The evening before their meeting he wrestles with a mysterious being. He emerges from the encounter limping, but with a new name. He is now called, “Yisrael—Israel.” He becomes the “God wrestler.” He crosses the Jabbok, a river cut through a meandering wadi in the Judean desert. Crossing the river in the middle of the night is perilous. Perhaps this is preparation for the upcoming challenge. “If I can cross the river, then I can face my brother. If I can wrestle with God, then I can face anything.” He is ready to face his past. He is prepared to meet his brother.

Jacob sees his brother approaching in the distance. “And Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 32:4) Had Jacob not crossed the river he never would have made amends with his brother. The embrace would have remained a dream and not a reality.

These days the weather is indeed frightening. It is not in our hands. It is beyond our control. And so we should pause before setting out to face a challenge. But we should not turn away. We must plunge head first into the struggle.

It would be irresponsible to head out to sea in a hurricane. Then again we cannot wait for calm seas.

The essence is to be unafraid. Struggle is how we are named.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day

In honor of our veterans, a poem by Alden Solovy.

To the Soldier, To the Veteran
These things I do not know:

The sound of a bullet.
The power of a blast.
The blood of a comrade.
The depth of your wound.
The terror at midnight.
The dread at dawn.
Your fear or your pain.

These things I know:

The sound of your honor.
The power of your courage.
The blood of your wound.
The depth of your strength.
The terror that binds you.
The dread that remains.
Your dignity and your valor.

For these things we pray:

The sound of your laughter.
The power of your voice.
The blood of your yearning.
The depth of your healing.
The joy that frees you.
The hope that remains.
Your wholeness and your love.
© 2013 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

This poem is a beautiful testament to our soldiers' sacrifice and an important reflection of what should be our enduring debt.  Take today's additional moments to pause and remember those who have fought in the US armed forced and served our country with great distinction. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Vayetzei and Climbing to Heaven

“Jacob had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the heavens, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will give to you and to your offspring…’” (Genesis 28:12-13)

Our forefather Jacob is on the run. He comes to a certain place and rests there for the night. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven. He awakens and exclaims, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) He then names the place Beth El, the house of God, the gateway to heaven.

Beth El is the most often repeated place in the Bible, second only to Jerusalem. How many synagogues today are also called by this name? Here we learn of how it came to be called this. Beth El gains its name because of Jacob’s experience. First comes Jacob’s experience of God and then follows the name. Yet more often than not we come to synagogue expecting an experience. We enter “Beth El” waiting to be inspired. For us the name precedes rather than follows the experience. Perhaps we should heed the Torah and reverse the order.

We must ask, where can we find the gateway to heaven? When do we sense God’s presence by our side? Perhaps the clue can be discovered in the ladder.

The Rabbis point out that sulam, ladder, and Sinai both share the numerical value of 130. Like Roman numerals every Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent. The theory of what is called Gematria is that we can gain insights when two words share the same value. Here then is my insight. At Sinai God not only spoke with Moses but the entire people experienced God and there received the Torah.

Most fail to note that Moses had to ascend the mountain in order to meet God. There is hard work in climbing. So too with a ladder. We have to climb a ladder in order to reach the heavens. I imagine as well that this ladder is uneven, the rungs are not equally spread apart. Sometimes the steps are easy to take and feel within reach. Other times they require much effort to grasp. There are times as well when we have to jump and extend our hands in order to find the next rung. And still other times when we require others to lift us to the next step.

The path to reaching heaven and experiencing God is an uneven journey. There is no perfectly apportioned ladder set before us. But we must climb. We must reach.

Years ago archaeologists excavated the steps that ascended to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. I was struck in particular by the fact that the steps were of uneven lengths. There were short steps that required me to take a half step and others that were wide that forced me to extend my legs. It was impossible to run up the steps or even to walk up in an even cadence.

Perhaps the lesson of these steps is the same. Reaching up towards heaven, and our sanctuaries, is an uneven path. The ladder stands before us. There are times when we find ourselves afraid of climbing. The steps appear uneven. The ladder appears ancient. But we can only experience God by beginning the climb.

For each of us there is a gateway to heaven. The ladder we must construct ourselves.